My great grandmother, Hazel, was visiting a relative’s family home many years ago. The son in the family had recently taken up body building and was excited to show his Aunt Hazel how strong he was getting.
“Aunt Hazel, look at my muscles,” he said, rolling up his sleeve.
“Look at my muscles!” she responded, surprising him with the strength her own aged arms still contained.
Some would say her strength came from her quart-a-day milk drinking habit. Others, from her stocky Russian heritage. Others still from her incredible faith.
For those who gathered in San Francisco this weekend to celebrate her life, the answer was almost certainly a combination of all the above.
My siblings and I flew out west on Friday to join my grandparents, aunt and uncle, and many cousins in honoring our Baba (short for babushka, which is Russian for “grandmother”). She passed away in the first week of February, only four weeks shy of her 100th birthday.
We grew up visiting her whenever we traveled to San Francisco to stay with my grandparents (which was at least once a year, sometimes twice), but I found out this weekend that we knew only the very tip of all this remarkable woman did in her life.
The stories we heard about her ranged from her victory at the shoe-kicking competition – two years running; her similar victory at the rolling-pin throwing contest – in other words, don’t make Baba mad because she’s got a good arm; her love for all things that involved sugar – so that’s pretty much where the rest of us got it; her family’s long involvement with the development of their community in San Francisco – they built the church that we held her memorial services in; her talent in fishing (see above photos: the top left one is an old newspaper clipping that shows her with a rare catch, the bottom line reads, “The five-pounder gave her quite a tussle.” I just love that); her awesome harmonica-playing skills; her never-failing compassion for everyone, including those who were quite ill – as she said, “I’m not afraid of germs!”
These are but a few of the memories everyone shared this weekend, but I think they highlight the kind of woman our Baba was. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself, take care of her loved ones and community, have fun, laugh, play, share her faith, share her strength.
We all owe so much of who we are to her, and she will be so missed.
Rest in peace, Baba.