CHICAGO (JTA) — When I was 28 years old, I had just gotten out of a serious relationship, and to avoid the onslaught of “When are you getting married?,” I left Chicago with two bags, my bike and my laptop and headed for Israel.
Within a few months I found a job and met a guy, whom I later married. A few years later, trouble hit when I started trying to have children. With all the right drugs, my body could get pregnant, but I had three miscarriages — two at my job. It was devastating.
On the High Holidays one year, I traveled home to Chicago. Although I had fallen in love with Jerusalem, it was so hard being separated from family, especially my five siblings. I had been their big mama sister taking care of them, particularly during the traumatic divorce of our parents. But for the first time in my life, going through the pain of childlessness, I needed my sibs to take care of me.
I especially needed to see my Grandma Rachel, the one person on whom I totally depended. In her simplistic, unconditional loving way, she always helped me through tough times.
One morning, my grandma and I took a long walk around her neighborhood park.
“What about children, Lisa?” she asked. “What are you waiting for?”
“Grandma,” I cried. “I’m trying. I keep losing my babies. I want a baby more than anything in the world.”
She gathered me in her arms, and when I gazed into her eyes, I could see she was formulating a plan — her way. Even God couldn’t say no to Grandma Rachel.
Not even 5 feet tall with wild brown eyes, my father’s mother had always been a rebel. She loved to tell the story of how she ran away from her shtetl in Pultusk, Poland, and hid in a neighboring village because she couldn’t stand her shidduch; the match was the richest man in her neighborhood.
“Feh!” She wanted the handsomest guy in the village: my poor albeit brilliant grandfather. And in the end she got him (still alive, still studies, still handsome at 102). Translation: Don’t ever settle, Lisa.
Without Grandma Rachel’s street smarts, her family never would have survived the Holocaust. No one knows exactly how she managed to put bread on the table.
“It’s not important how it got there,” she’d say with a dismissive flick of her spatula, an appendage that was attached to her hand, “but your father did not starve.” Translation: Family first, no matter what.
Grandma Rachel worked the Maxwell Street market in Chicago like a CEO, selling shirts and rolled-up men’s socks to put her kids through university and later medical school. With no formal education herself, she had two doctors out of three children, and lots of Harvard legacy from her grandchildren. Translation: If you work hard enough, your dream will happen. Don’t give up.
Barely able to write in English, this woman instinctively knew how to balance it all. She was always my best bud and confidante. I took internal notes for the day I would (hopefully, please God) have my own family.
Wearing her bright, Kandinsky-esque muumuus – inspiring me to fall in love with modern art –her ginormous pockets were always stuffed with money and cookies and rock candy for her 13 grandchildren. She would give all of us anything — her last matzah ball — even her soul.
I returned to Israel, confident that Grandma Rachel had my back, and the seemingly endless disappointments of trying to conceive.
The night before I would take a pregnancy test (they work better in the morning), the phone rang at 3 a.m. Since Israel is eight hours ahead of Chicago, middle-of-the-night calls are never good news.
It was my father, crying, barely getting the words out: “Grandma died.”
My beloved Grandma Rachel had passed at 85. It was her heart.
I dropped the phone and lay there on the floor, curled up in a ball, crying. When I could finally raise myself, I ran to the bathroom and took the pregnancy test. Even before I saw the two pink lines, I knew the result.
Grandma Rachel had cut a deal: God, you can take me — but in exchange, give mein granddaughter a baby. And God did: the first of my two beautiful daughters.
This month is Grandma Rachel’s 17th yahrtzeit commemoration, but I’ve thought about her every day, often beseeching her spirit to guide me. She’s helped me through a lot over my 40-something years: a contentious divorce, raising my two kids alone, barely making ends meet. During these difficult times, I’ve thought about how she handled her own scary nights in Poland, then later during the war in Siberia, when she had to find food for her kids.
You don’t think twice. You do what you have to do, Lisa. And this, too, shall pass.You’re not alone, I could hear her say, helping me survive the toughest of days.
I also thought of Grandma Rachel during happy times, like that turning point in 2005 when I stood under the huppah with my two daughters, looking up in love and wonder at my new husband, David, standing with his daughter (my third beauty). So tall, Lisa. So handsome. Such a good father. And a good eater, too, I heard Grandma Rachel say.
And a few years later, when David adopted my girls as his own — my ex having permanently abandoned them — I heard her again: “A good man, David. A very good man, Lisa. Now that’s a husband.”
Lisa Barr is the author of “Fugitive Colors” (Arcade), a novel that debuts in October, and creator of the popular blog GIRLilla Warfare.