Susanna Goldstein, my paternal grandmother, was born in Kalocsa, Hungary, on Oct. 6, 1919. She passed away Nov. 15 at the age of 98, and in the days since, as family and friends paid their respects at her Bathurst Street condo, where my father and his brother were sitting shivah, many people marvelled at her longevity. During nearly a century on this earth, she experienced the best and the worst the world had to offer. Born in the shadows of the First World War, she survived the Holocaust, started a family with my grandfather, escaped communist Hungary and spent a year in a DP camp in Vienna before finally making it to Canada.
Bubbie was an inveterate note-taker. She kept lists of books she’d read and movies she’d seen. During one of the quieter moments of the shivah week, I found one of her notebooks stacked among old novels and a collection of chewed-up pencils. It begins with a study of the human anatomy – the bones, for example, located between the knee and ankle and the subdivisions of the brain. And that’s just on page 1.
A subsequent section titled “Animals” features an inventory of types of deer, horses and extinct birds of Australia, while another chapter provides a helpful roster of building and hardware tools. Later entries tackle language and literature, geography, mythology and nature. Toward the back of the book, the sections appear more random: a catalogue of CNN talking heads, a partial register of characters portrayed on classic TV soap All My Children and lawyer drama Boston Legal, plus a comprehensive index of acronyms.
Growing up, we would often chuckle about Bubbie’s lists – her obsessive notes seemed especially anachronistic in an age when all of the information she so meticulously recorded could be easily accessed with the click of a button. But for her, writing things down served two related purposes: the notebooks documented her ever-expanding lexicon, which she needed to solve the crossword puzzles she tackled every day, and helped keep her brain strong.
Her body may have ultimately failed her, but her mind never did. She was curious about everything right up until the end. And because she knew so much, and had lived through a time of such rapid and vast change, it won’t surprise you to learn that she was also highly opinionated.
Bubbie wielded strongly held viewpoints on all subjects – from, say, world politics to track and field, even the editorial direction of The CJN – that she never had to shoot from the hip. It was all stored up there in her brain and written down in her notebooks. It’s that sharp intellect and quick wit that I’m missing the most in these early days without her.
When my daughter asked where Bubbie went after she died, I explained that her body was resting in the cemetery but her soul was up above, helping to guide us through life. As the sun set on one of the shivah days, the glorious adumbrations in full view of Bubbie’s bedroom window, it was easy enough to believe that was the truth.