During my first pregnancy, strangers on the street stopped me to tell me, with unequivocal certainty, that I was having a boy. When Aviva came, Greg caught her and said, “It’s Aviva!”
It was 1:04pm on October 10, 2002, our third wedding anniversary. Greg was wearing a “V” hat (that used to stand for “Vermont”). We had a daughter. We called my grandmother the next day from the hospital. “Grammy,” I hollered, “We had a baby girl. Her name is Aviva. She weighed 8 pounds, 4.5 ounces, and she has a full head of dark hair, and she’s perfect.” “Big baby!” was what Grammy kept repeating, though you could hear the thrill in her voice.
At this time, she was living at The Arbors in Amherst, near my parents. Her general condition was deteriorating pretty rapidly, and it soon became apparent that she was in her last days. She was 91. On Day 3, we brought Aviva home from the hospital and called Grammy again. “What was your Hebrew name,” I asked her. “What?” “Your Hebrew name,” I repeated. “What was it?” Now I was yelling into the phone. “I didn’t have one,” she stated, rather emphatically. I handed the cordless phone to my mother, who was in the kitchen with me. “Mom, did you have a Jewish name?” Again, Grammy said no. Then it happened. It came to her. “Simma,” she said. “My Papa used to say, ‘Simma, Come!'” Simma, I thought. Amazing. This from a woman who had practiced Christian Science as a convert since the 1930s. This from a woman who had rejected Judaism wholesale, leaving two generations in her wake to piece together, make sense of, reclaim and define our identities. I wondered if it was a real name.
I called Peggy Davis down in Western Mass, the calligrapher who was preparing Aviva’s naming certificate and waiting on me to let her know whether Aviva would have an additional Hebrew name. She looked up “Simma” and sure enough, it was real. Not only was it ancient Aramaic. It meant “treasure.” Aviva Simma: Joyful Springtime Treasure. On the tenth day after her birth, we held a naming ceremony for Aviva in our living room. My dear friend Deb led us through blessings of welcome candlelighting. My parents and Greg’s mother, whose deceased mother, Lou, gave Aviva her middle name, all said some words. We formally welcomed Aviva Lou Simma Strong into the Jewish community, the Burlington community, the human family. Then we ate challah and cake and I collapsed in a heap of post-partum hormones in my bedroom while friends and family visited downstairs.
Two weeks later, just before Halloween, my mother called. “Grammy’s fading fast,” she said. “If you want to see her, you need to come down here right away.” We debated. Still reeling from the existential whammy of giving birth, I was in no shape yet to travel with this newborn child. And it’s not as if the baby would remember a meeting. But we knew what we must do. We packed up our three-week old and headed to Amherst. We dressed Aviva in our favorite outfit to-date, a tiny pair of corduroy overalls from my friend Leticia, though she had an explosive poop on the drive south and we had to change her clothes. When we got to Amherst, we drove straight to The Arbors and made our way to Grammy’s room. She was there with my mother and the woman named Chris who had been totally devoted to my grandmother’s care.
Grammy looked drastically different than the last time I’d seen her, maybe two months earlier. She looked hollow, almost corpse-like. She was lying on her bed, moaning, drifting in and out of consciousness, calling for her Papa and Mama, the sisters who had gone before her. She was clearly someplace between this world and the next. I approached her bed, tearing up, taking her hand. “Grammy, it’s me. It’s Jena.” A decade before, I had legally changed my middle name to Renner, her maiden name, to honor her legacy, her lineage. Celia Renner. Jena Renner. Now we were here to say goodbye.
“And this is Aviva. Aviva Simma.” We laid the baby down on the bed next to her. Aviva was wide awake, wide-eyed, and completely alert and clear. This was her nature from the start; she had a presence that could almost feel alarmingly self-possessed. Grammy rolled onto her side, her eyes closed, feeling with a bony arm for the baby. It was difficult to understand her speech, and at first I wasn’t sure if she really knew we were there. But then she tucked her hand in under Aviva’s little body and pulled her in close. The two of them spooned like this for nearly 30 minutes. Then it came time to say goodbye.
By the next morning, Grammy was gone. Greg and I imagined that she and Aviva had passed through the same set of revolving doors. I pictured Grammy’s arrival wherever it was she was now, being greeted by so many loved ones, all of them asking her, “Say, did you meet Aviva?” What a blessing, to have learned her Hebrew name, to have reclaimed the name of the child from born in Brooklyn on April 29, 1911, this little Simma, this joyful springtime treasure.