In the months following my grandma’s death, my family waded through all of the business that comes with loss. Halfway across the country, I ran from reminders and stopped calling home. I am not always brave.
When he asked me what I wanted from Tayta’s belongings, I told my dad about the family heirlooms, the knick-knacks I knew she loved most, and her address book. The book is coffee-stained, sometimes illegible, and overflowing with love. The thought of losing my grandmother’s community along with her was unbearable. She loved her friends fiercely. They were among the loves of her life.
With Tayta’s passing, I lost not only a grandmother but also one of my closest friends. After her death, I found a circle of other grandmothers who have carried me through grief, growth, and into adulthood.
There has never been anyone quite like Louise, my Tayta. She formed friendships like I eat carbs: all day, every day, everywhere. Even in her nineties, she loved a good party and brought laughter with her wherever she went. She didn’t allow herself to feel embarrassed and because of her, neither do I. In Tayta’s world, her friends were your friends and yours were hers.
Having met my grandmother’s friends throughout my childhood, I often asked for updates when Tayta and I spoke on the phone. As they watched me grow through the photos my grandma plastered around her house, I learned about their lives through Tayta’s updates, her photo albums, and her stories. Although I hadn't spoken to many of them in years, I called and sent cards to many of these women after Tayta's passing. Despite the time apart, I felt that each woman who was reaching into the mailbox or picking up the landline was someone I knew well.
I live across the country from where I grew up, the place my grandma eventually called home after her departures from Cairo, Haifa, New York, San Francisco, Honolulu, and rural Alaska. It’s a city she loved, in part because of the community of women she built over the course of 50 years and in part because of the Sound and the mountains.
“The girls,” as my grandma called them, were friends she made while working as a nurse, which she continued to do well into her seventies. “The women” were friends from church, with whom she shared faith, a passion for service, and a love of luncheons. “The Arab women” were friends with whom she spoke of Palestine, of food, of family, and of memory. In between, were the friends she met at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, on the number 5 bus, in taxis, through friends, or after someone knocked on her front door.
Tayta was everyone’s favorite host. There were parties and Bible study sessions and coffee dates every week, well into her old age. She’d often have the women from church over to roll grape leaves, which would turn into days of cooking, reminiscing, and eating. Like much of Seattle’s elderly population, many of Tayta’s church friends were Scandinavian, and learned to cook grape leaves and other dishes from the Arab world alongside my grandma over the course of their friendship. In the later years of her life, when she was no longer able to cook elaborate meals, Tayta discovered frozen pizza and loved to heat it up for friends when they visited. When I was in town, she and I would go shopping at the drugstore, a place with aisles to suit her 4’ 10” stature, for DiGiorno’s or more likely, whatever was on sale. She told me that pepperoni was everyone’s favorite.
In my family, we used to joke that Tayta’s basement freezer “went to Narnia” because there was always food to feed one or one thousand. When I went to college far from home, Tayta would call to tell me that she was freezing a slice of whichever friend’s birthday cake for me to have when I came home at Christmas. No one left her home hungry.
Throughout my life, I always asked Tayta about Astrid first. Astrid is an exceedingly practical and down-to-earth person who was, in many ways, my grandma’s opposite. In other ways, they were similar to a tee; kindness is at the root of Astrid’s being. One year, she sent me a short note with a 20% off coupon for J.C. Penney because she wasn’t going to use it. It was sensible and considerate.
Last week, I received a new letter from Astrid. In it, she updated me on the goings on at church, asked how I was faring with the winter weather, and told me that to keep warm, she was eating my grandmother’s lentil soup. Even two years after Tayta’s passing, Astrid was warmed by Tayta’s cooking and by memories of the time they spent together.
My grandmother’s friends carry me through not only because of their kind words, but also because they hold me accountable to give back in friendship too. My grandma’s neighbor of 40 years calls and asks me why she hasn’t heard from me when it’s been too long between our phone calls. This friend often tells me her love story, updates me on her children and grandchildren, and tells me about the physical pain she is enduring in old age. Despite the many years and miles that separate us, we always find ways to laugh. I call her Auntie. She calls me bubbala.
As I struggle through these first few years of adulthood, I have been all the more amazed by Tayta’s ability to make and keep friends throughout her life. As my college friends scatter, I am beginning to understand Tayta not only as a woman who was vibrant, funny, smart, loving, and generous, but also as a leader. Her way of loving, connecting, and building communities brought warmth and companionship to so many over her lifetime. This leadership, which I see embodied by so many women in my life, is often sidelined or ignored, precisely because it is women who so often develop these relationships. Although women are encouraged to embrace the role of empath and caregiver, it is rare that this ability to provide support and build reciprocal relationships is even recognized as a skill or as an essential ingredient for building a healthy community. By connecting with anyone and everyone, Tayta cemented trust and ensured that others felt seen and appreciated in their daily lives, no matter the time or place.
Although I enjoy spending time with people more than almost anything else, there are weeks when I feel “too busy” to meet with friends, old or new. As people with busy schedules, prioritizing time to relax and enjoy each other’s company can be difficult for my friends and me, as it is for many people. When I start to feel overwhelmed, I think of my grandma’s simple dedication to listening, reaching out, and sharing herself, one person at a time. Even on my busiest days, small moments of connection, like those that made up so much of Tayta’s life, are possible and important. Being the best friend I can be requires strength, energy, and courage. I hope to embody these qualities, at least on my best days.
Although weeks and even months sometimes go by between cards, letters, or phone calls with Tayta’s friends, I always feel the presence of these women in my life. They keep me grounded and remind me of the care awaiting me, whenever I need it. I know which friends prefer phone calls, which can’t read my handwriting, and the various holidays each celebrates and doesn’t. For Lois, I know that cards are better because they don’t interfere with her strict soap opera regimen. Tayta’s friends became her large, caring, chosen family, just as they became mine.
In the absence of my friend and grandmother, I gained a circle of women who care for me unconditionally and who remember the same woman that I do. Even in her death, Tayta brings people together and makes us feel valued, respected, and loved. In my new friendships and my old relationships alike, Tayta is with me everyday, reminding me to give and grow in equal measure.