My grandmother, Hilda Weissberg, was an extraordinary person. She was a loving woman, who spent most of her golden years raising two boys, my brother and me. She was a fifth grade teacher and later a principal while serving on several boards and committees. Still, she always had time for us. We always had a hot breakfast and a balanced dinner. She was a help to anyone in need. To me, she truly seemed to be all things to all people. Above all, I like to remember her as an educator.
To her, everything was an educational experience. At a young age, I was exposed to all manner of culture. We went to concerts, plays, museums, and anywhere else where there was an opportunity to learn. We not only watched the news, but discussed the important issues of the day over dinner. Our house was filled with any type of art supply or scientific equipment that you could imagine. And, of course, there were the books. Encyclopedias, atlases, dictionaries, reference books, you name it.
My grandparents also subscribed to several newspapers and magazines. Like many families, we received Life and National Geographic, but we also got to read Ebony and Mother Jones. It was quite common to walk into a room and find her doing some sort of bizarre experiment. One time, she was trying to use heated air to suck a hard-boiled egg into a milk bottle. Another time, it was baking pine cones in the oven to make them open for some project.
Boredom was never an option. On long car trips, we would make up songs. On rainy weekends, she would make up card games or show us a new art technique. I still know how to make giant flower stalks out newspaper as well as hats and papier-mâché. Every question we had was met with a thorough and logical explanation. We watched Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts together.
My favorite memories are the times when she used education to solve a problem, usually without us even knowing it. If we asked for French toast for breakfast, she would often substitute a different type of bread from a different country. Pumpernickel was German toast, English muffins were English toast, and hot dog rolls, if you can believe it, were Belgian toast. She would serve our breakfast and tell us all about the country that the delicacies came from. We learned quite a bit of geography and history this way. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that she only did this to cover up the fact that we were out of white bread. Even when we were deprived, she made us feel privileged.
The absolute best example of my grandmother’s commitment to education was when she came home from the hospital after having a hysterectomy. She entered the house holding a medium sized jar. Inside the jar, was her uterus floating in formaldehyde. We were all at first shocked, disturbed, and disgusted, but she explained that she asked the doctor for it. She figured that she might be able to use it for educational purposes.
The uterus stayed under our bathroom sink for a few decades, only coming out when my cousin Alison and I would bring it out for family gatherings. After my grandmother’s passing, I was helping my grandfather clean out the house. Not only did I find the uterus, but also her tonsils in a small brown jar in the basement. It seems that even as a teenager, she was committed to the educational ideals. I asked my wife if she minded if I kept the uterus under our bathroom sink and an homage to my grandmother, and a bit of comedy for our kids.
Believe it or not, my kids showed it to Meghan, one of their baby sitters who was in high school at the time. It turns out that Meghan was working on a project relating to reproduction. We let her borrow the uterus to bring in to school as part of her project. It was a big hit with her classmates and teacher, but more important to me, it allowed my grandmother to provide one more educational experience.
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