On 'Hava Nagila'
Nick M. Do

The power of music can last a lifetime

I don't think music was a major part of most of her life, but in her later years, it revealed its power to connect her to those she loved, and, in turn, us to her.

And, throughout, music still weaved its way into meaningful moments.

Not that life was always a song for my grandmother Bertha (on my mother's side). I can't even begin to imagine (or have the right ever to complain about anything) when I think about the challenges she faced. In 1939, at age 25, she moved from Russia with her parents and two sisters (my aunts Dena and Ray) across the Atlantic to the U.S., leaving behind all familiar surroundings, buoyed by the hope that life in America would be more prosperous.

In 1942, just weeks after marrying my grandfather Irving (their love began in an English night school class) in Boston, he was deployed for Army duty in locations ranging from the Philippines to the Galapagos Islands. Incredibly, they were separated for more than three years. At their wedding, however, my Aunt Ray, then 16, provided musical entertainment (and surely hilarity) by donning a hat packed high with fruit and belting out the kooky "Yes! We Have No Bananas." One of the era's popular show tunes, it was a big hit in the early '20s.

While apart, my grandparents communicated by letters, all while knowing that each would be read by government officials before reaching their destinations, screened for any possible signs of confidential intelligence. She once visited him during a stay in Virginia, which is saying something, since my grandmother hated making even small trips. "What do you need to travel for?" she'd scoff. "Trees look the same everywhere."

When you've packed your belongings onto a ship and crossed shores to an uncertain future, you probably look at travel a little differently.

It's no wonder why, then, when my mother, brother and I would visit her at the two nursing homes in which she lived beginning in 2001, "God Bless America" was clearly a favorite song of hers. I can play the piano only by ear, but when I clumsily worked out its melody on the piano in the sitting room in her first nursing home, I noticed early on the joy it would bring her. Even without any words in my (attempt at) playing the song, I always felt like we shared an unspoken conversation about the appreciation she had for the country that, for more than five decades, had fulfilled its promise for a richer future for her and her family.

"With willpower, you can do anything," she'd say, a motto she lived for almost a century.