Jewels in the Crown

Reposting for the ninth consecutive year, since I originally wrote this in 2007.

**

Nancy Topf Gibson

Pearl Primus

October 29 marks two anniversaries for me and my family. Today would have been my Aunt Nancy’s 73rd 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. Happy birthday, Nancy. We miss and love you.

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 and 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 Barbados, Trinidad, from Liberia and 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.

Pearl died in 1994. I was a senior at Barnard. My parents came to the City and were with her in her New Rochelle home when she passed. Just before the phone rang in my dorm room, my mother calling to say she was gone, a butterfly–Pearl’s spirit animal–fluttered in my open window from the air shaft with a narrow view of the Hudson. It landed on the sill and stayed there, beautiful, patterned wings opening and closing slowly, for what seemed like a long while. And then it flew away, towards the river.

This week holds another yahrzeit. 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. And, God is Love. A Yiddish-speaking Christian Scientist. One of five sisters, mother of four daughters. Whose Hebrew name we finally learned just a few weeks before her death, then gave to newborn Aviva: Simma, treasure.

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.

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