Remembering My Grandma Magda

Photo by Scott Edwards / efgimage

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

How does your heart feel?

That’s the question we often pose to my 5-year-old daughter, Annabelle, and it feels fitting that I ask myself the same thing.

My heart feels sad. My heart feels angry. My heart feels grateful.

My heart feels sad because we have lost my Grandma Magda. My personal hero. The strongest, most resilient, most inspiring person I know. My icon. My positive role model. My caretaker. My biggest fan. My inspiration. My heart.

My heart feels sad because losing her means losing one of the biggest influences in my life. I know I will carry on her legacy, her lessons, and her story of surviving the Holocaust. I know that much of her is ingrained in who I am and that my daughters will carry on her legacy, her lessons, and her story, too. But I still can’t imagine her not being there to see it.

Grandma Magda with two-month-old Annabelle

My heart feels sad because I am seven months pregnant, and she will never meet this new baby girl.

My heart feels angry because this has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis exacerbated by so much selfishness and a dearth of leadership, and it has felt like such a cruel and unfair end. My heart feels angry because she should have been able to spend her final weeks with those who love her — not alone, in pain, in a hospital.

My heart feels angry because we weren’t able to do the things that normally help her recover — a stream of loving visitors who keep her focused on getting better. My heart feels angry because her 93rd birthday was celebrated with a window visit, rather than the big party it should have been.

My heart feels angry because, thanks to the pandemic, I’m not able to travel home and be with my family right now. My heart feels angry because we won’t be able to celebrate her life in the way that she deserves and mourn with so many of the people who loved and were loved by my grandmother — at least not in the immediate future. My heart feels angry because I am sick of Zoom birthday parties, Zoom happy hours, and now, Zoom funerals.

My heart feels grateful that my mom was able to work with the hospital to bring her home on Monday, what would turn out to be her last day. My heart feels grateful that my grandmother was with my mom, dad, and sister when she passed away — that she wasn’t alone in the hospital like so many who have tragically died during the pandemic.

My heart feels grateful for my grandmother’s courage, dedication, and drive to share her story and for all the lives she touched. She and my mom (her “press agent”) embraced every opportunity to reach people — at churches, synagogues, mosques, at elementary schools, universities, big events, small events, Skype sessions, Facebook Lives, with student newspapers, local radio stations and major media outlets, with mayors, governors, Congressional leadership, German leadership, Catholic leadership. She loved connecting with people, experiencing new places and things, and creating new stories and memories to share with others.

My heart feels grateful for the lessons my Grandma Magda imparted on the millions of people who have heard, read, or watched her story: Think before you hate. Protect your freedom. Stand up to the deniers. It is up to all of us to live out these lessons and carry on her story.

My heart feels grateful for the lessons my Grandma Magda imparted on the millions of people who have heard, read, or watched her story: Think before you hate. Protect your freedom. Stand up to the deniers. It is up to all of us to live out these lessons and carry on her story.

My heart feels grateful for all that she survived in her life and for the amazing attitude and perspective she somehow maintained in spite of, or maybe because of, it. My heart feels grateful that she survived Auschwitz and Allendorf and that she took the brave step of immigrating to Chicago at the age of 19 to build a new life after losing everything. That she met a Jewish-American boy named Bobby who would become her husband of 52 years and had my mom, Rochelle, and my uncle, Bruce. My heart feels grateful that she was able to reunite with her brother, Miklos, nearly two decades after the war, and for all the time our family had with Uncle Mike before he passed. My heart feels grateful that she would get to know her nine grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren, along with so many nieces, nephews and cousins. My heart feels grateful for every phone call over the last few months and all her questions about whether I was experiencing morning sickness (“I had it for all nine months! Both times!”) and our plans when the baby comes.

My heart feels grateful that she and Grandpa Bobby miraculously survived a carbon monoxide leak when I was 5, then shared their story for the show Rescue 911, helping save the lives of countless others. My heart feels grateful that she was determined to get better when she fell down the basement steps and broke her left leg and arm when I was 7 — and that she was so determined to recover from every other fall and break that could come after it. My heart feels grateful for her “show must go on” attitude, whether it was Skyping into a speech from a hospital bed in Storm Lake, Iowa, or doing Facebook Lives from my parents’ living room during the pandemic.

My heart feels grateful for the successful heart surgery that gave her an additional 12 years with us and all of the amazing things that happened in that time — being at my wedding, watching my sister and I become mothers, getting to be a part of Annabelle’s life, becoming a great-great grandmother, guiding our family through my mom’s miraculous recovery from a brain aneurysm, traveling around the country and the world with my mom sharing her story, inspiring thousands by speaking in Pittsburgh the day after the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.

My heart feels grateful for her relentless positivity and optimism. My heart feels grateful for everything she taught me about leadership and dedicating your life to helping others, about planning and attention to detail. “No one gives a damn how hard you worked — they only care about the final product,” she would say. My heart feels grateful for everything she taught me about being open to new friendships and new opportunities. “I never sit next to someone I already know,” she would say. My heart feels grateful she taught me to speak my mind, to stand up for what I believe in, and to be tolerant and accepting of others. “I’m a modern grandma — all my best friends are gay,” she would say.

My heart feels grateful that I had the opportunity to travel with her and my mom to Berlin just two years ago — a reminder to always go, to always seize the opportunity when you can. My heart feels grateful that I got to walk through Berlin’s Holocaust memorial with her, watching as she touched each stone and remembered someone who had perished, to be there as she gave her testimony in Germany for the first time, and to watch her have an intense conversation with another survivor about finding forgiveness and letting go of their anger — not for the benefit of the Nazis, but for themselves and their ability to move forward. My heart feels grateful for the time we got to spend with our dear Gregor — Grandma’s “German boyfriend” who became an incredible addition to our family — and so many other inspiring people dedicated to making the world a better place.

When I was younger, I was jealous of all these other “grandchildren” she seemed to have around the world — jealous of all the photos that covered her fridge (along with plenty of photos of me and my siblings, of course). Now my heart feels grateful for all of the beautiful friends she made and all of the amazing relationships she brought into our family and our lives. My heart feels grateful because she taught me that love is not finite — that there is always more to give.

My heart feels grateful for every minute of the nearly 36 years we’ve had together — that I had the immense privilege of loving her and being loved by her for more than a third of her incredible life. My heart feels grateful for all the times I played at her house as a kid, for all of the times my sister and I pretended to be asleep so we could finagle a sleepover at Grandma’s, for every sip of her chicken soup (guaranteed to cure any cold or ailment!), for every bite of hot dog goulash, for every Passover Seder, for every walk to synagogue with her, for every time she sang me her lullaby of “ah ah baby” and for every time I got to see her sing it to Annabelle, for her inexplicable love of the song “Achy Breaky Heart” in the 90s, for every time I got to see her take the stage, for every visit home where we’d chat at her kitchen table, for every time Adam and I stayed at her house and for the way she would fuss over us, for every meal and snack she made sure I ate, for every time she’d say “OK, no sale?!” when we’d say we were too stuffed to eat more, for every time she visited me in Seattle and her genuine curiosity about my life, my career, my marriage, for every time she said “I LOVE YOU THIS MUCH” with her arms out wide, for Grandma Hugs, for noisy kisses, for every time she held me and said, “MY Amy Rainey.”

As we all begin to mourn, my heart feels grateful for another lesson my Grandma would often share with her audience: “You have to have faith, fantasy, hope, drive, determination and the belief that tomorrow will be better.”

Here’s to a better tomorrow. We love you THIS MUCH, Grandma Magda.

Digital strategist. Proud granddaughter of Holocaust survivor and speaker Magda Brown (http://magdabrown.com). [she/her]

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