"I really loved your story," Tante Mina said to me in a nearly inaudible gasp.
She looked at me and it gave me hope, for her eyes still held that sparkle, that fight, that desire to live. As I walked out of the critical care unit of the hospital to let the next family member into the room, I had no way of knowing that those would be the last words I would hear her speak.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
When I called Tante Mina on a Thursday to let her know that the article about her sister who'd died in a concentration camp had come out in The Jewish Journal ("The Leah Doll," March 17), I didn't expect to find her so confused and disoriented. I handed the phone to my mother, expecting that I'd talk to Tante Mina the next day, after she'd had some rest and felt better.
It all could wait a day; on Friday she would go and gather up an armful of The Jewish Journal. On Friday she would sit in the shade and read the amazing story of her doll. It could wait a day for her to walk around to the other residents at the Jewish Home for the Aging, sharing the article with them.
"Look, look at what one of my kinkerlach wrote. It's a true story. Here, read. See that, I'm the Tante Mina. It's me! Imagine," she would say to her friends as she moved from table to table, sharing her delight and mine as well.
Yes, our house was supposed to be inundated with phone calls, but happy phone calls. Phone calls about how much they loved the story, how it touched their hearts. Especially a call or two from Tante Mina, asking when I was coming to visit so that she could bring me around to her friends and introduce me as "the writer." The calls weren't supposed to be updating us on Tante Mina's condition, a condition that came along so quickly we hardly knew how to process the news.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
The article was supposed to open up our hearts and encourage those in my family who have suffered to speak -- to tell the stories that are so hard for them to tell. These conversations were supposed to happen in the comfort of one of our homes, or around one of our Shabbat tables. They weren't supposed to happen in the confines of a small hospital waiting area, with extra chairs lining every inch of space that the fire code would allow. They weren't supposed to happen at her funeral, just days after she was admitted to the hospital -- but they did.
We sat -- tissue box circulating -- with quivering lips and sad hearts and talked. I heard of how Tante Mina survived the Holocaust, how she would sneak out of the camps and present herself as a peasant girl to work for food and then sneak that food back in. I learned that it was because of Tante Mina that we all ended up living in Los Angeles.
According to her, "If you're going to start all over again, you might as well have good weather!"
I heard family histories that I had always wanted to hear. We sat, talked, listened and really learned.
It wasn't supposed to happen that way. Yet it did.
In mourning our family matriarch, we are also honoring and celebrating her life. She was the one who made our family so strong, close-knit and most of all -- magical. Yes, many hearts are saddened by her loss, but they will surely rise again. Laughter can push through tears just as surely as the happiness that Tante Mina brought to all of our lives will push through this time of sorrow.
Though Tante Mina has rejoined her sister Leah and the rest of her family lost in the Holocaust, and perhaps even more members of the family whom we will never know about, she will not become a silent memory. She will live on through pictures, stories, tears and laughter. Remembrances that may be painful now, but with each repetition will slowly lose the acidity of sorrow and regain, little by little, the joy of her life.
This article is dedicated in loving memory beyond even what words can say to our Tante Mina. May her soul be at rest and may her spirit continue to live among her friends and family.
Caroline Cobrin is a writer living in Van Nuys.