Because I love and adore my family-in-law, I have attended Christmas Eve Mass at the Bellows Falls, Vt., Catholic church for the past three years. While I don’t get anything spiritual from the ceremony (except, perhaps, a bit of revelry from the ornate decor), I do quite enjoy the time to relax with my thoughts.
Rather ironically, this year I found myself spending the hour thinking about my maternal grandmother.
This is ironic for so many reasons: She was Jewish by birth, atheist in life and, because my grandmother, as she was dying, told me she expected some sort of religious awakening, but that she hadn’t felt anything magical at all.
But also because, for her time, she was an ardent feminist. It helped, I’m sure, that she was raised by a single mother who owned her own business in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century — something that was unheard of at the time.
So the fact that I was sitting in a Catholic Mass listening to a male priest read the names of Abraham’s male heirs leading to Joseph (which seemed strange since it was Mary, not Joseph, who was technically related to Jesus) and thinking about my grandmother was surprising.
Her name was Rhoda Swadel and there were many things about her that were surprising.
She could read a 500-page novel in two days and frequently did.
She learned how to use a computer and e-mail when she was in her late 70s.
She loved watching professional golf on television even though she’d never played a game in her life.
After her husband died, she began traveling around the world, mostly on her own.
I could go on and on. But one of the most surprising things about my grandmother was how close she and I became when she moved to my hometown when I was in middle school.
I was charged with mowing her lawn, painting her garage and other tasks many grandchildren are assigned. While at first I was annoyed at having to spend my free time doing these things, I quickly came to realize that Nana would pay me $20 an hour and feed me grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Soon, I began volunteering for assignments.
As a result, I spent more and more time at her house, more and more time chatting with her over the lunch table. She would listen to me, we’d talk about family, my friends. She took all my petty concerns as seriously as I did and would work through them with me.
She taught me how to dance when I was in high school. My boyfriend, Tyler, and I went to her house every Wednesday after school and she gave us Foxtrot and Jitterbug lessons. She was, after all, a professional dancer on Broadway and the Atlantic City Boardwalk when she was a young woman.
But most of all, she taught me that a strong woman was a good woman. That no one can hold you back except yourself. That overcoming hardship was just what had to be done. What seemed to many (including most of my family) as emotional coldness, to me seemed to be stalwart strength. Even in the face of ovarian cancer, she seemed unfazed.
She lived alone until the final two months, when she lived in my mother’s living room. She endured chemotherapy and harsh medications, living much longer than doctors thought she would.
But her mind was sharp right up until the end. I saw her the weekend before she died. She couldn’t speak at that point and was in an enormous amount of pain. But her eyes were alive. She didn’t cry, didn’t whine or whimper. She was there, despite it all. It seemed, almost, in spite of it all.
She died two weeks after I met the man who would become my husband. She never met him, although he’s familiar with her through the photos from her dancing days that line the walls of our apartment.
And, as I sat in that church listening to the priest talk about concepts I didn’t believe in, guilt those who hadn’t been to confession lately and recite passages from a book I read only as literature, I know my grandmother would have found humor in it all — particularly the long list of Jewish men that’s read every Christmas.
So this year, I smiled all the way through Christmas Mass. Not just at the impatient children asking questions in the pew behind us. Not just at the unbelievable number of red-heads in the congregation (more than 50 percent, I’d say). Not just at the poor intonation between the flute player and the organ.
But the memory of a woman I adored who still inspires me more than any other person ever has, three years after her death. I was grateful for the hour I was able to think about her.