by Jen Chau
We are all pieces of other people, things, experiences. Less like a puzzle, but more like a delicious recipe -- a dish that gets more and more rich as you drop additional ingredients in. In cooking, it's very hard to separate out the ingredients once you put them in (believe me, I learned the hard way - "oops -- I added 3 too many cups of sugar into my cake batter! Do I scrap it or try to take some out??" I'm a better baker now... ;)), and I have found the same to be true in thinking about how I got to be the person I am today. It's hard to think about where I got my stubbornness, or my sense of service, or my tendency to talk to strangers. :) But when I sit down to consider all of my influences, it is very clear to me that there are pieces of me that look very much like people who have been so meaningful to me and my life. I am going to write about these people -- not only to recognize the great things that they have given to me, but also because I think it's an important exercise. Very rarely do we feel that we have the power to impact others. I am here to say, we sure do! And sometimes, even unknowingly, we do.
One such person who has greatly influenced me is my grandmother -- Rita Booth Sherer... or as my family fondly referred to her, Burby. :) My weirdo mom named my grandmother this around the time she went off to college (she also created my grandfather's nickname, Fuzzy -- though this makes more sense because he has quite the hairy chest :)).
Burby passed away this June -- and though it was no doubt, a heart-breaking event for me and my family, we took the opportunity to really celebrate her life. The last several years were difficult. Burby had Alzheimer's, so we saw her slip away from us slowly but surely. Though many of us felt that we said goodbye to her years ago when she stopped recognizing us and lost her verbal abilities, we were still comforted by the fact that we could still see her and have her in our presence. She always loved music, so at each of my visits, I would make sure to plug her into my iPod and watch her face light up as she listened. She used to love old school music and Sinatra was her favorite, so it was funny that she displayed the most interest in my soca, latin, and reggae tunes in recent years.
Burby and Fuzzy were extremely close to me and my two younger brothers. They helped to really raise us. They made the trip out from Clifton, NJ to Forest Hills, Queens to visit a couple of times each week to spend time with us. This started when I was an infant and continued all the way through my high school years.
Flashes of Burby --
- Sitting on the white living room couch with her -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple balls of yarn sprinkled around us, learning how to crochet -- I was about 10, sunlight coming through the big window behind us, warming our backs and lighting our work. Burby would spend hours looping bright cotton colors together to form warm blankets that would wrap everyone she loved. Everyone in the family has at least one of Burby's creations. I learned how to make them just as she had. We would sit there, our hands moving in time, synchronized, my little squares trying to catch up to Burby's more experienced and impressive squares. Burby passed onto me the joy of making things with my hands, and the greater joy of making things and giving them to loved ones.
- Getting home after school and immediately smelling the beginnings of dinner. Burby's cooking was no match for the thick front wood door -- it seemed that the perfume of shmaltz and potatoes, and noodle kugel and brisket would easily slip through any barrier. I would immediately walk back into the kitchen to find Burby. Her back was to the door, and I could see that she had her apron tied on over her swaying hips. She was down to business. The radio was playing, she was singing along to Sinatra, and she was elbow-deep in ground meat (ok, so we all have different ideas of what constitutes a pleasant memory ;)), making her infamous meat balls. She had some signature dishes and we loved them -- killer meatloaf, meatballs and spaghetti, pot roast with carrots and potatoes...this was Burby's comfort food. If you were lucky enough to arrive during the initial phases of Burby's dinner prep, she would let you make certain requests - "extra carrots," "more tomato sauce!" Burby would give you a wink and say, "you got it, kid!" I remember how she loved to cook for the family. It wasn't a chore for her, but a fun exercise that she engaged in each night. She flitted through the kitchen slowly and gracefully, singing and stirring.
- Balancing a pad of math problems on the weathered baby blue wooden nightstand next to the bed in the spare room (where Burby and Fuzzy would sleep on their nights over). Burby and I would spend the entire afternoon practicing during the summer after my Kindergarten year. She would sit on the edge of the bed as I stood at the nightstand that came up to my chin. Burby introduced me to cool stuff and would teach me things way before I was doing any of it in school. I felt challenged, and loved learning. Burby was one of my most patient teachers and I loved working with her. I remember buzzing with excitement and trying to control myself from jumping up and down on the creaky wooden floor as she methodically wrote out 8 columns across and 8 rows down of addition and subtraction problems. She wrote slowly as she wanted to make sure I was able to read what she had written (she had a slight shake in her hands). As soon as she completed the last problem, and had begun to hand it over to me, I ripped it out of her grip and immediately got started. I worked quickly, as if I was in a race. Burby wasn't timing me, but I wanted to make her proud. I knew she was a smart lady and I wanted to prove that I was well on my way to being just like her (at the age of 5). :) I finished in record time and she was impressed. She would check my answers and made sure to go over anything I had gotten wrong. I rarely did because she taught me to be precise in my work. When she saw that I was able to work so quickly, she would up the difficulty. And it would go on like that, with me doing more and more complicated work, and eventually multiplication and division. She would ask me what I learned in school, but wouldn't hesitate to help me dive into things that were not even yet familiar to me. Burby gave me a jumpstart and helped to get me excited about learning.
- Going shopping for groceries with my mom, brothers, and Burby. We would trek out to Long Island to go to the Price Club -- where bigger is always better (and slightly overwhelming, if you ask me). :) I was in high school, and Burby was not as mobile. She agreed to wait for us in the front area, where there were some red metal chairs -- grouped in fours and anchored around a cafeteria style table -- for those who would rather wait than get lost in the endless 30 foot high aisles seemingly topping over with groceries, office supplies, and other things you don't want but seem to need once they catch your eye when shopping there. At the end of our time there, we would check out and then head out to pick Burby up, only to find her laughing and chatting with a complete stranger. She had somehow always managed to befriend someone as she sat waiting for us. It didn't take much time (sometimes only 10-15 minutes), but she sure had a way of making people -- anyone -- feel comfortable in conversation with her. At the time, I remember being embarassed by her and probably rolling my eyes. Geez! Why did she have to talk to everyone?! I appreciate this now. Her ability to connect with absolutely anyone is so admirable. She had a pleasant outlook on people -- thought that everyone was worth her time (at least until they proved that they were not). Burby was open and friendly with all, and had the ability to get others to open up to her.
- One of my favorite memories is from before I came into existence (favorite because if it had not been for Burby, I may not be here...). This is the story that is told again and again -- of how my mother and father made it known to Burby and Fuzzy that they would marry. The story goes that Fuzzy wasn't really into the idea of my mom and dad being together. He demanded that my mother stop seeing my father when they were dating. He worried about the idea of mixed grandkids. It was the mid-70s and there just wasn't a lot of proven success that he could look to. It was an unknown that made him feel uncomfortable. My mother said she would stop seeing my father, but hadn't. She continued to see my father secretly. I found out years later that Burby always knew and even visited my father along with my mother. She was supportive even though her husband hadn't been. She wanted my mother to be happy and if this made her happy, then Burby was all for it. Fast forward to the point that they decide to marry. My mom was afraid of what Fuzzy would say -- Fuzzy can be quite intimidating if he doesn't like something. Apparently, my father went out to Jersey alone to deliver the information. Since my grandfather assumed he was out of the picture, you can imagine his surprise at opening the front door to find my father standing there. A showdown ensues, and my father spends hours in the living room trying to convince Fuzzy that he will love and care for my mother in the way she deserves. I imagine that there were multiple cigarettes smoked, and glasses of scotch on the rocks consumed (my grandfather's signature drink). My grandfather doesn't budge and continues to challenge my father. Their exchanges are heated, and each man gets more frustrated as they continue. Neither is able to convince the other to see things his way. Finally fed up, Fuzzy calls Burby in from wherever she was (probably listening to everything transpire). Fuzzy asks Burby to talk sense into my father. And to my grandfather's dismay, she pauses, considers all for a moment, and then says, "Well, it would be nice to have cute little China-doll grandchildren!" Now, I have told this story before and have joked that my grandmother's slight tendency toward objectification is responsible for me and everything that came after me -- haha -- that without her approval, my parents may not have gotten together. Now, i don't know that their lack of approval would have actually stopped my mom and dad. I just think that Burby's curiosity and interest in a different kind of family helped to speed things along. :) Also, I am using this story to really illustrate a wonderful thing about my grandmother. She was pretty traditional -- would go along with my grandfather and really appeared to be pretty subservient on the surface (would jump up from the table to get him red pepper if he asked for it). Upon closer inspection though, my grandmother had a lot of ideas and thoughts of her own. Even though she wasn't always loud/proactive in sharing them, she was impactful when she needed to be.
Burby and Fuzzy met when they worked together in the same lab in 1944. Burby was ahead of her time. She worked as a biologist and lived on her own in New York City. She was a small-town girl from Pennsylvania but was determined to make it in the big city. Once she and my grandfather married, she would become a housewife. When I was younger and more extreme in my thinking around women ;), I thought that she had wasted her talents when she stopped working. I of course realize that she definitely left her mark on me, and all the people whose lives she touched.
I am lucky to have been able to have pieces of her in me -- a love of life and the simple things in life; an ability to connect with all sorts of people, her calm and quiet, yet powerful voice (I am still striving to develop this); her sometimes subversive nature; and her passion for learning and teaching.
Here's to an amazing woman! Burby, I miss you, but feel comforted by the fact that you will always be with me and a part of me.