Jewels in the Crown

I originally published this post on October 29, 2007 and shared it again on this date last year. In honor of loved ones and ancestors, it felt right to do the same today.


Nancy Topf Gibson

Pearl Primus

October 29 marks two anniversaries for me and my family. Today would have been my Aunt Nancy’s 67th birthday. My mother’s next-oldest sister, she died on September 2, 1998 when SwissAir flight #111 crashed in Peggy’s Cove, Halifax on its way to Geneva. She was one of 229 passengers. During and after my college years in NYC, I spent some good chunks of time with Nancy at the Tribeca loft where she lived and taught. For that, I’m grateful. She understood the body – and taught me something about how to listen to mine.

October 29 also marks the anniversary of the death of Pearl Primus. To Pearl, I was “Daughter #3.” The first time we met has become somewhat legendary in our family; I was five or so, nonchalantly reading a book upside-down on our living room couch on Crescent Street in Buffalo, trying to act casual in the presence of this entrancing guest.

When I was in fifth grade at Pelham Elementary School, Pearl came as a guest to my class. Our teacher, Judy Brooks, was African-American, but on the whole, the majority of my classmates and other teachers at this small, rural school were white. Pearl walked in the room, dressed in layers of bright patterns, gold and silver and wooden bracelets jostling halfway to each elbow, necklaces and earrings heavy with meaning. She was regal. Her slightly hushed voice commanded total attention and respect. And she laughed readily when the kids looked around the room, puzzled by her introduction: “Someone in this room is my family, and it’s not Mrs. Brooks.” I beamed.

For many years after that, Pearl would periodically give me masks as gifts – from the Caribbean, from Liberia, Senegal. But she would never tell me their origins. Ever the teacher and anthropologist, she wanted me to do the research, to find out for myself the source of these treasures, which graced the walls of my room throughout high school. My mother loves to recall that Pearl predicted I would someday become “President of the PTA.” Whether she would feel I’ve lived up to that potential, I can’t say, though I am raising her namesake.

This week holds two other yahrzeits (Hebrew for “anniversary of death”). Greg’s father, Doug Strong, died by suicide here in Burlington on October 30, 1972. He was 34. Greg was six. Over the last decade, I have twice been the unwitting channel for “visits” from Doug that have been profoundly healing for Greg, containing nothing but big love.

In the earliest hours of November 1, 2002, my maternal grandmother, Celia Renner Topf Straus died at the age of 92. I think of the Grammy-ism we most love to love: “You are jewels in the crown of my rejoicing.” “Love, Grammy,” she would say at the end of a message on the answering machine. “Love, love, love.” “God is Love.” A Yiddish-speaking Christian Scientist. One of five sisters, mother of four daughters. I think of her in her last months when I was pregnant for the first time. “It’s not wisdom to choose such ethnic names!” she would insist, anytime I shared an idea that was, in other words, “too Jewish.”

Each day is a life. Each life is a jewel in the crown. For years and years, I would see the abbreviation Z”L after the name of someone who had died and have no idea what it meant. Finally, I must have asked, or looked it up: Zichrono Livrocho. Of blessed memory.

May their memories be blessings. May we all dance – as Nancy and Pearl did – to the Aztec saying: “Every day is a dance with death.” This week, may you celebrate life and honor the dead. Share a favorite memory of someone you’ve lost, eat something they loved to eat, listen to music that moved them, read their favorite passage out loud or walk some sacred spot. Turn your face toward the sun for an extra beat. Breathe. You are alive.

6 thoughts on “Jewels in the Crown

  1. Jaime Ortega says:

    I studied with your aunt Nancy for many years. I’ve dedicated my life to carry her legacy, continuing my practice of her work, and teaching it to others. You are right, Nancy understood the body, and she gave me the tools to understand mine. For that, I will be forever grateful.



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