TOADTalk: Lessons from Gramz

Shared meals, kindness, and dignity. Tyler Popa shared valued memories of his grandmother and the lessons they conveyed.
Each week, an All-School Assembly launches with the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) sharing something of interest—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, the community gets to know one of our own a little better. Last week, our TOAD was Tyler Popa. Mr. Popa fills multiple roles at the School: he is the assistant athletic director, teaches economics, advises the senior prefects, and serves on the dorm faculty in Los Padres. When interscholastic sports return, he will be coaching boys’ cross country and basketball. Mr. Popa’s TOADTalk is below.

Exactly two weeks ago, On November 2, All Souls Day, I sat outside St. Thomas Aquinas Church on a chilly evening. All Souls Day follows All Saints Day, November 1, which is truly the namesake for a tradition we celebrate on the eve of “all hallows” or as we call it Halloween. The reason I sat bundled up, with hundreds of others was to pray for the souls of the faithfully departed, especially those who had died in the past year. As dozens of names were read aloud, I waited in eager anticipation, until finally, her name was called Jacqueline Virginia Markus. Now, no one in this audience, besides Ms. Popa knew my grandma, but I hope by sharing a bit of her story I have the chance to share with you how special she was to me and what I learned in her passing this past January.
Now just a bit of context, before we get started, my grandmother, or as we called her, Gramz (with a Z), was… let’s say... unique. For example, my dad used to say, “They threw out the mold when they made her.” Many people would say the song that represented her best was the famous Frank Sinatra song titled “My Way.” And when asked what she thought her obituary should say about her she responded with a boisterous laugh: “She surprised the hell out of us.” My grandma lived with spunk, charisma, and a whole lot of unabashed love. She was an actress at heart and had an unmistakable voice. To quote my dad again (who by the way had a loving relationship with his mother-in-law), he’d joke with us on Sunday morning, “Bring your earplugs to church, grandma is singing today.” In reflecting on this tremendous life, here are some lessons I learned from experiencing her passing and some fun memories I shared with her.

Shared meals are sacred. 
I cannot think of my grandmother without associations of cooking, meals, and shared time together around the table. You all may have similar experiences of shared birthdays, holidays, or just any old meals with your family. Specifically for me, it was Greek food: spanakopita (spinach and phyllo dough casseroles), dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), and avgolemono (lemon, rice, and egg soup). My grandma was famous for spoiling her grandkids. We loved going to grandma’s because it meant no limits on soda or dessert and something cooked up special for us every time we came over. My grandma showed a lot of love through cooking and serving our favorite things.

I’m positive that you can relate to me when I say, as a busy member of the Thacher community I often struggle with meals becoming a means to an end. I rush from one thing to the next, often taking my meal to-go, shoveling in delicious and nutritious food made by loving hands, thus missing an opportunity to share in communion with others. When I think of my grandma I can’t help but remember the most important moments as those centered around eating. In the grieving process, I was reminded to consciously slow down, savor, laugh, and enjoy each other’s company. One more tip, not related to food and this is because my grandma was formerly a communications professor: She’d always ask us, “what is the most important part of communication?... Body language and eye contact!” Let’s just say, I should probably leave my phone away from the table then.

We all suffer, but human kindness, love, and affection are more powerful. 
As I said before, Jacqueline was a cheerful, energetic, and optimistic person, but it was not because her life was easy. My grandma was born in 1933, the height of the Great Depression, in one of the most depressed cities in the country: Detroit, Michigan. My grandma suffered beyond her humble means and upbringing. Her parents divorced at an early age and the worst of tragedies soon happened to her as she and her husband had relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, a city where they had no connections, family, nor built-in support. Less than a year into their adventure, my grandfather, Dino Markus, passed unexpectedly from a heart attack. She was left with two young children, one who had suffered from severe mental health issues, at the time being undiagnosed and relatively untreatable. She soon remarried, partly for stability and support, but was sadly divorced not long after. Her new husband was found to be unfaithful, not to mention he had also squandered what little money they had. Although these facts of my grandmother’s life seem overwhelmingly depressing, she continued to live a life full of grace, love, and joy. How–might you ask? I wish I could go back to before I was even born and ask her myself, but I can only guess that the continued support, love, and generosity of others had to be the antidote to the chaos, sadness, and despair she must have often felt. That is certainly what I experienced from friends and family in the wake of my grandmother’s passing. I am reminded that I am called to be the antidote to other people’s afflictions. I need to be more thoughtful, aware of other’s struggles, and willing to sacrifice and witness love. Human kindness, love, and affection are always more powerful than suffering.

All life has dignity. 
My grandmother had a big personality. She loved to act, even when she wasn’t on stage. Half of the pictures I have of her are of her with a big jovial smile. The other half are with some goofy or ridiculous face. Sadly, my grandma never passed down any of her vocal talents to me, but I remember her singing her way through life. Whether it was lyrics from a classic hit of her era or a made-up song about the breakfast she was cooking, she brought joy and life to every occasion. In the last few years of her life, my grandmother’s wit, physical strength, and memory slowly faded. She couldn’t do many of the things she normally could—although surprisingly she could still belt out a long note. As I’d go visit my grandma, I’d sit with her over a cup of coffee, maybe watching a TV show, or read together from a magazine. She’d often ask me the same questions repeatedly or think that I was a lot younger than I was… “What!” she’d say with passion, “you’re not married. You’re way too young.” On the surface, she didn’t have much to live for. She was confined to the four walls of her home. She couldn’t perform in a play, sing with choir, or teach college classes in the way she used to love. But there was something about being with her that reminded me of her dignity and the respect she deserved. Right until the day she died. Maybe it was because of the dignity my mother and family showed her all throughout her last years? She received love, affection, and yes a lot of patient service from members of my family. It makes me question why I sometimes wait until someone is fragile, frail, or old to recognize they always had inherent dignity. Through this experience, I was reminded that people don’t earn our respect because of what they give society or even what they give us. I need to be better about acknowledging people’s dignity and showing that I believe it.
Why did I choose this topic today? It’s partly because as of this morning, The New York Times has reported 246,079 people have died of the coronavirus in this country alone. Although my grandmother doesn’t necessarily count in that number, I hope that we can take a moment to realize what a staggering number that is ... Each of those 246,079 people have stories like the ones I shared today. That is a lot of laughs over a shared meal, love shared through suffering, and dignity shown in times of need. The question now is what are we waiting for? When my grandma jokingly said, “She surprised the hell out of us.” I think there was truth to that. As humans, we have to make decisions every day. No one would be surprised if you took your food to your room, to get ahead on work, if you prioritized all of your own goals instead of sacrificing for a friend, or treated others how they treated you or even in a way that they seemingly deserved. However, that is not how I want to be remembered at the end of my life and that is not certainly how I remember my grandmother. I love you grandma and can’t wait until I see you again. Thank you all for listening.

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