As I gazed at the beautiful beige sweater and pale brown and blue mittens my husband laid out on our bed, I kept thinking "How am I going to write her a thank you note?" They were Hanukkah presents, even though the weather was still warm outside, not a single leaf had fallen off the trees, and Hanukkah was three months away.

I always struggled to write her the perfect thank-you note immediately following the arrival of her birthday and Hanukkah gifts. Her packages always arrived from her home of Colorado Springs precisely one week before the calendar appointed event.

But this time was different. She was dead. And unlike our four-year-old son, Gavriel, who included Grandma Rosemary in his salutations for the Rosh Hashanah card he made and dictated to his teacher, I did not know how to send a card to a dead person. Gavriel simply showed me the card and said, "Grandma Rosemary died so we're going to have to mail this letter to Hashem (one of the Hebrew names for God) so that Hashem can give it to her." I, however, was far less certain of Hashem's mailing address and whether Hashem made deliveries.

So I continued to stare at the sweater and mittens that my husband Walter just brought back from Colorado where he and his eldest son, Ian, went on a trip that had been planned while my beloved mother-in-law, Rosemary, was still alive. During their visit my brother-in-law had found the gifts in a designated Hanukkah pile in her bedroom.

It made me wonder when my observant Catholic mother-in-law began to put aside items for our annual Hanukkah packages. And I suddenly understood that preparing these boxes, filled with assorted useful and bizarre items, each labeled with the name of the intended recipient--such as the finger scrubber to remove the smell of garlic that arrived in Hanukkah Package 2003 or the battery operated "Quack Quack Duck" toddler toy that arrived in Hanukkah Package 2002--was an event for which she planned throughout the year.

We all looked forward to the arrival of "The Boxes," as Ian and I simply called them. Opening the boxes, looking for our names marked in blue pen on wrapping paper, and furiously tearing off the paper had all become part of a family ritual. A lamp shade and sportswear for Ian. Socks and kitchen gadgets for Malka. Toys and clothes, always a size larger to grow into, for Gavriel. Hawaiian shirts for her son, Walter, that hung in the closet year after year unworn because they made my overweight husband look like a giant piece of fruit. Since her passing the Hawaiian shirts have of course become sacred objects which I now wear as nightshirts.

Even finding Hanukkah cards must have been somewhat of an undertaking for her. Colorado Springs, not known as a cultural hub of Jewish life, did not carry many. She sometimes drove sixty miles to Denver to find us cards for various Jewish holidays-Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah. She never forgot.

I never had the heart to tell her that growing up we never gave family members Hanukkah presents, a distinctly American Jewish custom because of the proximity of the holiday to Christmas, and the uneasiness of Jewish parents who worried their children would be envious of Christian children receiving gifts at this time of year. In fact, the only person who ever received Hanukkah presents in our family was my father, a rabbi, who was born 82 years ago on the first night of Hanukkah in the magical city of Jerusalem. On the secular calendar the date was December 25, 1921.

The significance of that date was not lost on Rosemary and her husband, Walter Sr., whom I first met many years ago at Christmastime. They were delighted to have Walter and me in their home but somewhat perplexed about how to handle having two kosher, vegetarian Jews with them for Christmas. "What would they eat? What couldn't they eat?" they wondered 48-hours before all the siblings and their wives were to gather around their dining room table for the festive holiday meal.

The answer was simple. Walter and I would do the cooking. As a rabbi's daughter, my Christmas cooking experience was limited, but we were not deterred. Walter and I raced off to the closest bookstore, sprinted to the cookbook section, found copies of some of the cookbooks we owned, copied down our favorite recipes, and proceeded to the grocery store. Armed with grains, vegetables, fruits, eggs and spices, we returned to Walter's parents' home and set to work cooking stuffed red and green peppers, cauliflower quiches assorted salads and other dishes I no longer recall.

And after eating our completely kosher, vegetarian Christmas dinner, Rosemary and Walter Sr. proclaimed that they would be happy to eat this way all the time.

It was at Christmastime a few years later when Rosemary and I had a conversation I have replayed in my head countless times. Walter and I called her from our newlywed Manhattan apartment to wish her a Merry Christmas. Walter's three brothers and their spouses were spending the holiday with Rosemary, now a widow. She remarked how only one of her sons was religious. I politely noted that actually two of her sons were religious but that one was simply a different religion from the one in which she had raised him. She laughed. So, I took the opportunity to ask her something I had often wondered yet never discussed with her. How did she react when her son Walter, at the age of 24, decided to leave Catholicism and convert to Judaism?

In her thick Boston accent which she never lost despite living all over the world she said, "I always thought Walter was searching spiritually. I'm just happy he found a home."

Humbled into silence I wished her a Merry Christmas, told her I love her, and hung up.

Since her death, my head is filled with images and stories about this woman, Rosemary, who only wore the color purple, who preferred to sleep outside under the stars rather than in a bed, and who enjoyed climbing the maple tree in her front yard to sit on one of the branches and read a book. But most of all, I remember what she said that Christmas day on the phone.

Shortly before she died, Walter, Gavriel and I flew to Colorado to visit her. When Gavriel saw me packing our suitcases he dashed into his room, retrieved his Cookie Monster suitcase on wheels and proceeded to make the motions of packing. When I asked him what he was doing he replied, "I'm packing hugs and kisses to take to Grandma Rosemary to make her feel better."

A few days after she died Gavriel said, "Mommy, do you remember all the hugs and kisses I gave to Grandma Rosemary? I bet she's giving them all to Hashem now."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad