I never met either of my grandmothers, although I heard a lot about both of them when I was growing up. My maternal grandmother (Dora) died in 1939, and my paternal grandmother (Anna) died in 1940. In both cases, they died from diseases that today are quite treatable, but which, back then, meant you died young. Dora was only 44; Anna was 55.
In the Jewish religious calendar, the month before the New Year (which usually comes in September) is called Elul, and it is customary for Jews to visit the graves of their departed relatives at some time during that month, to remember them and symbolically thank them for their contribution to our lives. And so, I drove out to the cemeteries where each of them is buried, to pay my respects to them, and to also visit the graves of my parents and several other relatives. I said a prayer for them all, and I left a stone on each grave-- another custom, to let other visitors know someone had been there, and to show that the departed person has been remembered. Flowers might fade, but stones endure. I noticed when I went to my parents' graves, that many other people had been there too. That made me feel good: my parents were loved, and although three decades have passed, they are still remembered.
Since I never met either Dora or Anna, I have no first-hand recollection of them, but they lived on in my father and my mother, both of whom told me stories about them. I got the impression that despite living in poverty (both women were raising their families during the Great Depression), both of my grandmothers were generous and compassionate. And even when they were in failing health, they tried their best to reassure and mentor their children. I'm not trying to present them as if they were saints-- I'm sure they had their bad days, like anyone else; and at times, they probably got discouraged or overwhelmed with all the challenges they endured. But based on how my mother and father turned out, my grandmothers set a commendable example, and I've always wished I could have thanked them.
As a media historian, my life's work is about making sure the people we listened to on radio and watched on TV and read in the newspaper, the folks who entertained us and informed us, are remembered even after they are gone. I especially enjoy finding out about people who were important in their day, and telling their stories to today's audiences. That's why I write entries for the African-American National Biography, and that's why during Women's History Month, I tweet out some brief profiles of unique and groundbreaking women in many walks of life, because I believe these stories deserve to be told. There are so many men and women from the past who should be remembered, people we can learn from. I try my best to speak on their behalf.
For most of us, myself included, cemeteries can evoke feelings of sorrow and loneliness, especially if the loss of a loved one is recent. But when I stand in these sacred places, where generations of my relatives are buried, I find that cemeteries can also evoke emotions like reverence and gratitude. So, in this month of Elul, I am grateful for my Grandma Dora and my Grandma Anna, and I'd like to think that if they had known me, they'd be pleased that I want to tell their story. And whether you are Jewish or not, I think it's a worthwhile custom to say thank you to the people from our past, to remember who they were and how they lived. After all, they helped to get us here. The least we can do is make sure they aren't forgotten.