Eulogy for my grandmother

This eulogy was given in San Francisco on November 2nd, 2012.


I don’t think I ever thought she would die.

She was just the right size for life: filled the room with her garnet hair, elegant fingers with the Pepto Bismol-pink polish, her laugh a surprising few octaves above her voice. And her smile: her lips pulling apart like velvet curtains parting for a stage until her whole face glowed, luminescent. And the way she’d say my name: “Darling.” “Caitlyn.” “Kay Kay.” “My poetess.”

I spent so much of my life sitting and watching my grandmother in awe. Sinking in to the ottoman at the foot of her bed, I’d watch her open the mirrored double doors of the walk-in closet, hoping silently that she’d offer me a pair of glitzy heels in which to trot around the house—and she always did. Curled up on the couch or slouching in a kitchen chair, I’d watch her: slicing open envelopes with her metal letter opener; taking silverware out of the drawer; throwing newspapers into the fireplace; sliding a golden shoehorn between her stockinged foot and shoe. Always something important; always a task I practiced over in my head so one day I too would master it.

When you’re a child, you sense the world differently; you don’t simply observe; you participate. The wall is not a wall; it’s a feeling and a smell and maybe a sound.  I was every age in my Grandma’s house—every height. When I close my eyes, I don’t just picture the house, but rather: the sticky coating on the kitchen table you could peel off with your nail; the scratch of the shag carpet on your face; the perfect hiding place behind the laquered wooden screens; the secret stash of soda in the mini fridge upstairs; the spooky darkness between the hallway and the garage door; the puddle of oil beneath the Cadillac; the frantic tinkle of windchimes at night. And her: Grandma, to find you in your hiding spot, to turn the light on in the spooky place, to remind you to put on your slippers.

For me, she was safety. Security. Unconditional love. Home. I know she saved hundreds of peoples’ lives and put her own on the line; that she flew in a plane in 1936 when her mother told her not to; that she chained herself to buildings to protest injustice. But I was just a little girl then. And she is the only person in my entire life to whom I could do no wrong—do no injustice. And she could never wrong me. In my whole life she never angered me, and she never doubted me. We were devoted to each other; we were in total symbiosis. People always remark on how similar we look—I suppose, even as a zygote, I couldn’t resist Grandma’s charms. But it goes deeper than that—she is the music inside of me, I take pieces of her everywhere I go. I told her once, “If I could, I would put you in my pocket and take you everywhere with me.” She looked at me intently and, with her hands on my shoulders, she replied, “I see so much of myself in you.” That was the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. Every single day I strive to emulate her ethics, her immense courage, her fire, her wit, her capacity for immeasurable love. She is my inspiration; she showed me what a woman could be: not just beautiful and not just an expert at making kasha—but strong, vibrant, with a martini in one hand, her other a raised fist. She was my first venture into feminism because she embodied it. She was the perfect balance, the philosophy put into practice. Her devotion to my grandfather wasn’t a weakness; it was strength, love, loyalty.

To quote Wallace Stevens—There never was a world for her, except the one she sang, and, singing, made. When being a Brodsky wouldn’t get her a job, she became a Brodsly. She was fearless, and she always walked with her head held high. In the photographs taken of her in Chicago on her morning commute to work, she is grinning, her neck straight, her arms swinging. She was everything a woman—a person—a human being—should be. I’ve never known someone so good at being alive.

This week, I’ve had a hard time sleeping. I’ve been remembering all of the times that my grandma and I shared a bed. Whenever she would come visit my childhood home in LA, she slept on the foldout couch in the living room—but only if she came alone. If she came with Grandpa, they would get a hotel. So I always secretly hoped Grandpa would stay home. (Sorry, Grandpa.) I would get up before the sun came out, and tiptoe through the house, and get in bed with my grandma. She’s really the only reason I’ve ever willingly gotten up early. At her house in San Francisco, I’d thrill at waking up before my mom or Grandpa, and contentedly sit in the kitchen and—again—watch her… but this time with the chocolate chip muffin she had bought especially for me. Whenever I stayed with her, we had a nighttime ritual as well: I would get into bed and wait for the house to quiet down, then creep down the hallway to my grandparents’ room. The door slightly ajar, I would tiptoe across the lime green carpet that looked an awful lot like a putting green and gently shake awake Grandma, who, smiling, would put her finger to her lips, pull on her robe and slippers, and take my waiting hand. Once back in my room, she would crawl in bed with me and make a big fuss over warming me up. And then the stories would come: the land of little people just the size of your thumb, and the heroine whose name was Caitlyn. I don’t remember any of the stories, but I remember the feeling of the two of us in that wobbly twin bed gripping onto each other like we were on a dinghy at sea.

The last few years felt more and more like we were all in that dinghy together. When I graduated from college in New York in 2007, all of my friends stayed back east—but I chose to move to San Francisco to be closer to Grandma. I’d make her experimental dinners and we’d have sleepovers and watch musicals and look through old photos. There was a restlessness about her that came from a lack of obligation: she didn’t have to fix dinner for anyone and the USSR had long dissolved. What do you do when you’ve spent your entire life being at the forefront of everything? She had such a hard time accepting inertia. I tried so hard to keep her active. A few years ago I took her to the 1939 International Expo exhibit to celebrate the reason she fell in love with San Francisco—the reason, we say, that I’m here. We went to the wine country with my cousins; we took her to eat—she loved food so much. The last few months of her life were so difficult for all of us, but for her, the most. I couldn’t bear to see her in pain. On Sunday, the last day I spent with her, as I said goodbye, I kissed her over and over on the cheek. (She hadn’t opened her eyes the whole day.) And I saw her lips part and she bared her teeth in that same, room-filling smile.

I want to end with a sonnet written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of my grandma’s favorite poets.

And you as well must die, belovèd dust,
And all your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell, this wonder fled,
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost.
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how belovèd above all else that dies.

Lillian with camera

Grandma always blew me kisses, even over the phone—so Grandma, here is to you. I love you. I will carry you with me always.

*   *   *

Lillian Brodsky Foreman of San Francisco passed away in San Rafael on October 30th, 2012 at 95. Preceded by beloved husband Hyman of 67 years. Devoted mother of Robin (Russell) Brasso, Jill (John) O’Connell, and Ronald Foreman; adoring grandmother of Bret (Dina) Brasso, Rachel (Diana) Brasso, Caitlyn and Jesse O’Connell, Daniel and Kelly Foreman; great grandmother of Arianna, Sofia, and Mia Brasso; cherished aunt to many. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents; spent childhood in Dayton, Ohio, and Chicago. Co-owned Paramount Music Company with Hy for forty years; devoted volunteer at John Adams Adult School teaching literacy to adult non-readers. Co-president of Bay Area Council of Soviet Jewry, rescuing dissidents and Refuseniks from oppression. World traveler; lover of the performing arts and languages; original A.C.T. subscriber. Could eat a box of See’s Candies in one sitting. Above all, a magnanimous, passionate humanitarian who stood up for what she believed was right. We will deeply miss her. Funeral services were held Friday, November 2nd, at 11:00 a.m. at Hills of Eternity Memorial Park Chapel, 1301 El Camino Real, Colma. Following the service family and friends were invited to the Lake Merced Golf and Country Club, 2300 Junipera Serra Blvd., Daly City. In lieu of flowers, vote for Obama.



3 thoughts on “Eulogy for my grandmother”

  1. Caitlyn,

    A beautifully rhapsodic piece. Makes me think of my own grandmother. You really sense how your grandmother was larger than the words, paragraphs, pages, screen….yet you’ve offered such a compelling portrait of her. It made me tear up.


  2. Quite lovely, kid. Not at all sad, but very sweet. And the resemblence you bear to your grandma in the photo is striking, almost eerie. Your loss is your great gain, and your gentle feelings are most comforting. Love, tonton le gourmand de fromage

  3. “I’ve never known someone so good at being alive.”

    We haven’t met, Caitlyn… or maybe we did once when you were very young. I found your tribute quite touching and the line quoted above memorable in a way that makes me envious of your relationship, and envious of your grandmother for having earned such a heartfelt sentiment.
    r. muir
    (Your dad used to address me as ‘Ricardo.”)

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