From our home right off Eureka, there are only two ways to turn; east up toward the hill or west down toward the water. This week I noted that interestingly, in either direction at the end of the road were two places that always give me perspective.
When I turn left, driving along Franciscan Way I pass the Sunset Cemetery. My view is of the rolling green hill and all the graves of the people buried on it. More often than not, there are people there as well. Sometimes a large crowd is gathered for a funeral, but more often an individual or small group can be seen standing near a grave or slowly returning to their cars. I always wonder who they have come to visit? Who have they lost? What is their story?
In the other direction we had the fortune of meeting a Jewish woman named Liesel. We had met her four years ago, and then became neighbors three years ago. My first introduction to Liesel was her book which she had given to my husband who brought it home for me to read as I am the reader in our marriage. I got to know Liesel first through her remarkable life story which she had written and published. Eventually I came to know her in person as well. We became especially close over the last year. After giving birth to our daughter Chana, I would visit her every few weeks. We all enjoyed the time spent together. We also came to know Liesel's beautiful family; her daughter Nanci, granddaughter Katri who came to be her caregiver and then Susan, Marc, Rebecca and the others.
Liesel doted on Chana, music was always part of our visits she sang German nursery tunes and played piano for her. At 102 years old Liesel had lived a very full life. When I stepped into her home it always felt like taking a step back and seeing the larger picture. As a mother of three young children this doesn't happen very often in my day to day life. Being so caught up in the minute details of managing our household, children and work I was usually too overwhelmed to see beyond the next hour, day or week. Spending time with Liesel was always a good reminder to zoom out and see how this chapter was part of the larger story of my life and to focus on what was really important.
I learned another important thing from Leisel. Although she was in great health, able to walk around independently, feed herself and in amazing shape for a 102 year old, her eyesight was very poor and she sometimes felt that this took away from her ability to contribute in life and make it worth living. I on the other hand experienced the joy of just being with her and spending time together. It taught me that the high value we place on always contributing or producing can skew the way we look at ourselves. It is hard to become comfortable with just being and knowing that that is enough.
Through Liesel I saw the power and strength of the Jewish Soul. Although Judaism had not played a major role in her life through the years, I would see her soul come to life through her tears while listening to the Shofar being blown, the delight she took in eating my Challah (a daily request in the last weeks of her life!) and her emotion while singing the Shema. Like embers of a fire patiently waiting to be lit, a Jewish Soul which has lain dormant for many years leaps to life with the touch of a spark.
Although we only knew each other for a year I came to consider Liesel a friend and always looked forward to seeing her. Just after Thanksgiving, Nanci called to tell me that she had been placed in hospice care and was approaching the end. When I went to see her after hearing this news I felt a tremendous amount of grief that her time here on Earth was coming to its close. We were fortunate to spend several more visits with her over the next four weeks. We were blessed to celebrate Chana's first birthday with her and to light the Chanukah candles together. She passed on Thursday, the fifth of Tevet, December 29. Before her passing I heard as she said over and over again "I have lived such a good life". Witnessing the degree of peace with which she approached the end of such a full life made a very big impact on me. She will be missed.
May her memory be for a blessing and may her family be comforted on her loss.
Here are some photos, videos and a copy of Liesel's book.