My beloved aunt died on November 25th, and two days later I delivered my first eulogy at her funeral. Two months later, on January 25th, my grandmother died, a few weeks after a bad fall, at age 86. Here I was writing the second eulogy in two months. Only this time, I focused more on celebrating her life more than lamenting her death.
Here is the eulogy I wrote:
My Baba Maya knew where she wanted to go and she figured out a way to get there. She got things done. She was our matriarch, our fearless leader, with a ferocious dedication to her friends and family. She was a trailblazer, a first generation feminist, a card shark, an infamous cake baker, a loan shark, a mama, a wife, a tyawtya, a sister, a friend, a Baba, and a 5-time great-grandmother. People knew Maya Nudelman and when I told them I was her granddaughter # 1, I beamed with pride. For me, like for so many others, she was a significant lifeline whose absence will be deeply felt.
When I think of Baba, I remember the cakes. The constant hum of twirling mixers and tasting buttercream directly out of the star-tipped piping bag. Baba’s cakes were at the forefront of confectionary design in 1984 amongst Brighton Beach and Forest Hills where Bat Mitzvah and wedding cake orders piled in and where she sold her treats to the Russian stores, gaining local notoriety for her “Kievsky torte” and “Mister Eex.”
For 4 decades, through my eyes, one of her main reasons for living was to feed people, especially grandchildren. She asked you if you wanted an orange three times in a row after three insistent “No’s”, a peeled orange would appear in front of you, which you’d obviously eat and so she’d obviously say, “See, I knew you wanted an orange.”
When it came to her granddaughters, she was ferociously devoted to getting to see us. She made her way, by whichever means necessary, even with a police escort, to visit Michelle in Binghamton, with blueberry bleenee – enough for her and her college friends. Or the time I lived on Wall Street, around the corner from the Stock Exchange with crisscrossing traffic patterns she somehow ended up in the high-security rotary in front of the Exchange. In broken English, she convinced the NYPD to rotate the rotunda, for the first time since 9/11 I think, because “her granddaughter lives right upstairs.” When my sister had her first art exhibition at Rutgers University, my grandmother showed up, greeting my sister who was sporting royal blue dreadlocks and proudly posed for pictures with the photos of Reena’s mutilated dolls in the background.
My grandmother perpetually preached the importance of speaking Russian and was my first teacher. I would sit on the gray and white folded table while she assembled layers of cakes and crushed nuts with rolling pins, and I would stare at the “Novoye Ruskaya Slova” in front of me and ask her letters, one by one. “This backwards ‘R’ is ‘ya?’” I would ask? Yes, “ya,” which means “I” is last in the alphabet, she would remind me. That’s how I was taught to remember it – always put yourself last.
Baba was the original “say yes” woman. When invited to a party, she always went. I remember flipping through old photos, stumbling upon strangers or distant relatives and thinking, “who are those people?” She never doubted her need to be there, to share in the celebration; if she was invited, she went, and always brought a generous cash gift.
She never forgot a gift. She felt obligated and called it such, “Ya tyebye dolzhjana.” If it was my birthday or my kid’s birthday, even a month later, she would emerge from the back, cash folded in her hand, our little not-so-secret, secret.
She wouldn’t throw anything out if it wasn’t ripped apart or completely annihilated. Why do you need more towels if the ones you have still function to dry you after the shower? This theory also applies to sheets, couches, pans, plates, clothes. This is a way of life which you cannot beat out of a person. She had cash in the back which she gave readily to her granddaughters as gifts, but she lived in the same apartment for nearly her entire life in America.
On my last visit, I asked her, “How are you, Ba?” and she answered me in the same way she always had, “loochye vsyeah,” better than everyone else. “Vsyaw bootee horosho” she always said. Everything will be good.
Beyond the profound loss of our leader, we grieve an end of an era, a shutting down of an apartment which was a portal to our childhood, to those early days of America, brimming over with innocence and ignorance, possibility and promise was enough to be blissful and hopeful. A youthful joie de vivre, a rose bud yet unopened. We were a family at the brink of opportunities, challenges, American dreams – and she spearheaded it all.
She left this world in peace, nothing left unfinished, unafraid, no debts unpaid, no journey incomplete. She leaves behind a legacy of anecdotes, a lifetime of memories. She has penetrated into every one of us – buried herself deep in our hearts where she will forever smell like sweet cream and be wearing her soft, weathered house dress, and the glasses she often no longer needed but wore for decoration, and her bold red lipstick. I’ll never picture her without her red lipstick.
She’s coming to you now, Deda, no GPS needed. After all, she was our Ultimate Navigator.