I woke up this morning, sat down at my desk, and took a piece of paper out of my printer. I folded it four times and ripped off one of the quarters. In blue ink, I wrote five letters and a question mark:
On Monday night, my grandmother, Rhoda Singer, passed away. She was 89 years old, a pretty good run for anyone, but not nearly enough for one of the greatest people I have ever met. Grandma Rhoda’s mother lived to the age of 104; ask anyone in my family and they’ll tell you they expected Rhoda to join her in the triple digits before she was through. Sadly, just before Christmas, Rhoda fell and broke her hip. While she was in rehab, she caught a terrible infection. A few weeks later, she was gone.
I realize my words sound like platitudes. This is what everyone says when they lose a loved one. But you have to believe me when I tell you that Rhoda Singer really and truly was a remarkable woman. At her funeral yesterday, dozens of residents from her retirement community showed up to pay tribute to her. Over and over, they repeated the same phrases: “She was a leader of our community.” “She was an icon.” “She was an incredible woman.” “We’ll miss her.” “It will never be the same without her.”
It certainly won’t. To me, she was more than a grandmother: she was a mentor, a therapist, and a friend. When I succeeded, she cheered me on. When I failed, she comforted me. When I had problems, she counseled me. She was never too busy to help a family member or an acquaintance — or hell, even a stranger; she was selfless and wise beyond all reason. Her advice was always right and her generosity was unmatched. When I saw her for one of the very last times, she was in a rehab facility and confined to a wheelchair — and she still had a present waiting for me when I arrived. It was a good gift, too; Spider-Man socks. I’m wearing them now.
Rhoda never had the opportunity to go to college, but I recently learned that if she had, she would have liked to become a teacher. That makes sense; even without any sort of degree, she was still one of the greatest teachers I ever had, leading by example as the sort of person we all want to be: kind and giving and one hell of a card player. She was a textbook “people person” — everyone liked her, and she liked everyone (except Tony Randall — she hated Tony Randall. No one knows why). At times, she faced obstacles, but she refused to let them defeat her or darken her outlook on life. She was more than courageous. She was indomitable.
Growing up a Jewish kid in New Jersey, I never saw “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I only watched it for the first time about five years ago; when I did, I instantly fell in love. I’ve watched it several times now, and it’s become one of my favorite films. George Bailey (James Stewart) spends the entire movie — and his entire life — sacrificing his dreams and desires for the good of his beloved hometown, Bedford Falls. Eventually, a looming bankruptcy that threatens to destroy his family’s name and business drives George to contemplate suicide — and to wish he’d never been born. Thankfully, the fortuitous intervention of a guardian angel helps him see what Bedford Falls would have become without his help; namely, a miserable, sad mess. In the brilliant finale, all of Bedford Falls unites to help George stave off bankruptcy, just as he’s helped them countless times. George’s brother Harry returns from overseas in time to give a beautiful toast. “A toast to my big brother George,” he says. “The richest man in town.”
For some reason, this movie which I carry absolutely zero nostalgia for, about a holiday I never celebrated, touches me deeply. When my grandmother passed away, I finally understood why: it’s because the values espoused by Frank Capra in that magnificent film are the same ones my grandmother taught me; that real wealth isn’t measured in money or property or possessions, but in friendship, loyalty, and charity, and that the good we do in this life is eventually repaid to us in kind. Grandma Rhoda was a real-life George Bailey — only we were the ones who didn’t always realize how good we had it for having her in our lives.
When she was in rehab after her hip surgery, a social worker came and spoke to Rhoda. “Are you religious?” the social worker asked. “Not really,” Rhoda replied. “I try to find the good in people. And when I find it, I focus on it. That’s my religion.”
That’s my religion now, too. That’s what the “WWGRD?” on the piece of paper I just put in my wallet means: What would Grandma Rhoda do? If I can figure that out and do it, I should be in pretty good shape.
A toast to my grandmother, Rhoda Singer. The richest woman in town.