Saturday, November 10, 2012

Grandma Zelda

I started yesterday with an open schedule which is always a luxury, a runway of time to take on the bigger projects.  That quickly ended with an email telling me that Zelda, one of my interview subjects, had passed away at age 94.

When I interviewed Zelda in 2011 she told a lovely story about how she came to be known as Grandma Zelda within her Beth Jacob synagogue.  I did a painting of her titled Grandma Zelda which is in a current show and oddly enough I had just connected with her family members who had seen and expressed their appreciation of the painting.  Now, just a few days later, they were alerting me to her death.  Sometimes the synchronicity of events causes me to feel that there is a message to which I should pay attention.

Off I headed to the funeral which was truly moving.  Many of her classic stories were recounted and I realized I had many of them in her video.  Her interview had touched me because there was an edge of sadness in it about her early life.  So often I find that when someone recounts an emotional time many years ago, it still can conjure tears, betraying the deeply felt hurt that still lurks beneath.    Zelda's mother died when Zelda was seven and her father remarried. Zelda’s voice had choked as she recounted that she didn’t really get to know her mother and my heart went out to the motherless child within her.  The second marriage was not a successful one and Zelda spoke of how her stepmother would tell her she was worthless. 

"When the child is told, “You’re no good”, which I was told, and you’ll never amount to anything, but I proved her wrong.  I proved her wrong.  I don’t claim to be better than anybody else, but as good.  I will always say I am as good."

I was struck by the self-talk that helped her to reaffirm her own worth and move forward in her life.  Zelda talked about her work as a nursing assistant at a children’s hospital where her sensitivity to children was deeply felt.  I have to believe that her own experience as a child deepened her awareness of how a child experiences the world.

"I was glad when they went home, the little darlings and I would tell them, “Don’t come back, we don’t have no Disneyland here”.   It’s sad to see a sick child.  It’s very sad.  I went home many nights crying believe me, until one of the nurses said, “Zelda, you have to harden up." I said, “How can I harden up when I see a sick child.  I can’t harden up."

Zelda spoke warmly of her father who she viewed as her best friend.  When he was ill she left school and took care of him until his death.  Zelda never married, but didn’t feel that as a loss.  She found her satisfaction in her relationships with others.  At the funeral the rabbi spoke of Zelda as instinctively sharing an understanding expressed by Martin Buber, that God is found in relationship with others. 

One of the most pivotal relationships in Zelda’s life was with the community of Beth Jacob.  Here her natural connection with children was felt and she acquired the honorific of “Grandma Zelda”.  When I asked her how that relationship developed she responded,

"Through the children.  Because I always love children and they know it.  The kids at Beth Jacob know it.  I’m only known as Grandma Zelda, Grandma Zelda.  

Two little boys came up to me and one said, “Hi Grandma Zelda, how are you?" 

And the other one looked at him and said, "She your grandma?"  

And the first one said “Yes she’s my grandma and she’s everybody’s grandma." And he goes like this (pointing) "And listen, she could be your grandma too if you want her to". 

So the second one says, “Do you think she would be?” 

And the first one said, “All you have to do is ask her”, 

So he comes up to me and he says, “Can I ask you something?” 

 And I jokingly said, “Is it going to cost me money?”

And he said , “No, would you be my Grandma Zelda?”   

I almost…I had tears in my eyes.  I said, “I would be happy to be your Grandma Zelda, but when you see me what are you going to say to me? "  

“No problem, if it’s on Shabbos I’ll say Good Shabbos Grandma Zelda.  If it's on any other time I’ll say, Hi Grandma Zelda, how are you?”

Kids to me are beautiful, I love children. I’ll take all the time in the world to talk to them and if they have anything to say that they want me to help them, I’ll be there for them because I love kids."

And you didn’t have children?

I was never married, but I have a lot of grandchildren.  I have a lot of grandchildren. They call me Grandma Zelda and I love it.

(Hear Zelda tell her story)

While I can’t tell this as effectively as Zelda who acted out the different parts in the retelling, I hope it conveys the flavor.  My painting of Zelda is one of a few portraits in the series. I had decided I would only do portraits if they were important to the story I was trying to retell and in this case Grandma Zelda was absolutely central.  I of course had to surround her with children and include a feature from the Beth Jacob building to represent the community which she embraced and which in turn embraced her.

So what happened to that previously open day?  I spent the balance of my day doing video editing on the interview with Zelda as I felt it needed to go to her family.  At the funeral I ran into a friend who attends Beth Jacob who also asked if I could share a copy with the synagogue.  So that open day was devoted to the memory of a warm and giving woman who I had the good fortune to encounter through my interview project.  And synchronicity of events introduced me to her family so I could share the result of that interview with them.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

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