Jewels in the Crown

Originally published in 2007 and shared today for the 12th consecutive year. 

**

Nancy Topf Gibson

Pearl Primus

October 29 marks two anniversaries for me and my family. Today would have been my Aunt Nancy’s 76th 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 z”l, 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–with which Pearl identified deeply–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.

Happy 100th Birthday, Grammy

Grammy and me, 1974

My maternal grandmother would have turned 100 today. She was born on April 29, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York. It’s unknown to me whether the wake of the Russian Revolution the year before touched her young life indirectly; her parents had come to this country sometime in the decade or two before her birth, presumably to escape antisemitism and in hopes of a better life for their kids. She experienced a great deal of early loss: Her identical twin sister died when they were babies, and her mom passed away when she was a young girl. 

When I was 20 or so, I became obsessed with understanding her choice to convert to Christan Science. When she told me that she had not been allowed to enter the synagogue to say Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, my heart broke. I pictured her, sitting alone outside on the steps, while the all-male minyan prayed on the other side of the heavy doors.

There was no place in the Jewish tradition of that time for her grief, her voice. As a motherless young woman who was determined to put herself through school — she and her four sisters had moved out after their father remarried and had a new child with his second wife — I imagine she was restless to find a spiritual home that embraced and acknowledged the depth of her yearning for and connection to God.

A close friend, Gus, used to zip off in a hurry after their classes at Hunter College on Thursdays. One day, Celia asked to join her. The way she described that first introduction to the Christian Science church, you’d have thought she’d found nirvana — not to mention how many Yiddish accents dotted the space. In other words, she was not only not alone, she was very much with her people.

There is so much more to Grammy than this, of course, and so much more to this story than I will get into here. Suffice it to say, she was a force of a nature. We — my siblings and cousins — were all “jewels in the crown of [her] rejoicing.” She carried scripture everywhere and believed that God is Love and Love is God. In this way, we are not so different, Grammy and I.

She died when she was 92, I was 28, and my firstborn, Aviva was three-weeks old. She didn’t get to meet Pearl. She didn’t live to see me come out, and I sometimes wonder how she would have responded to that. Part of me thinks she would have fought me tooth and nail on it, and another part of me likes to believe she would have said she’d known all along. (I think this latter part is pure fantasy, but it’s interesting to consider.) Either she and Mani would’ve loved each other or butted heads, both of them so headstrong, with a deep religious fervor informing their worldviews.

In any case, I miss her. And I’m glad I had the opportunity to know her beyond my childhood, to have had some years with her of real, wrangling conversations, before dementia began to erode her capacity to recall what she already knew. She knew us all to the end, even if we repeated the same conversations over and over. She called out for her mama and her papa the night she died, and reached her arm across my daughter’s infant body as if spanning the generations in the transference of life. I will never forget that.

Happy birthday, Grammy. If you were here, we would eat mint chip ice cream and sing to you, then clap as you blew out the candles. In fact, I think I’ll eat a scoop in your honor.

Jewels in the Crown

Originally published in 2007 and shared today for the 11th consecutive year. 

**

Nancy Topf Gibson

Pearl Primus

October 29 marks two anniversaries for me and my family. Today would have been my Aunt Nancy’s 75rd 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–with which Pearl identified deeply–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.

Jewels in the Crown

Originally posted in 2007 and shared today for the 10th consecutive year. 

**

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.