I attended a Zoom funeral service this week. It was as beautiful as is possible for a service on Zoom to be.
My aunt Ruth (Paperny) Luttbeg died at the age of 96. She was my Bubbe’s (grandma’s) older sister, which would technically make her my great aunt, but she never felt so removed as to have the qualifier. I called all three of Bubbe’s sisters my aunts. The four Paperny sisters were so close that they essentially raised their children together. My uncle Bob said it best by calling it a kibbutz-like atmosphere. He also describes the environment as having been like a first-generation immigrant family, although it was his grandparents (Louis and Ida Paperny) who emigrated from Minsk, in what is today Belarus, and who came to Omaha where they built a home, started a family, and created a business in their adopted city (the Nebraska-famous Louis Market). The children of the Paperny girls grew up together and came to be known as the Cousins Club, although they saw themselves as more like brothers and sisters.
When I was growing up, my generation became the new Cousins Club. There were a lot more of us, and there was now a healthy California contingent, in L.A and San Diego, but we all still kept in touch and always attended family simchas (celebrations) together. What’s more, my San Diego cousins, Ruth’s grandkids, would fly in and spend several weeks hanging out with her in Omaha every summer. Ruth lived in the same apartment complex as my Bubbe and Zayde, a five-minute drive away from my house, so I joined in often.
Ruth was an incredibly gracious person who spiritually elevated whatever space she was in. In the words of her granddaughter Lisa, Ruth “created an ease” about her that imbued us all with presence and calm. I can’t think of a better way to describe Ruth. You wanted to be around her, and she always made you feel like you mattered to her, because you did.
One day, not long after Ashley and I had first starting dating, Ruth’s grandson Scott came to visit, and Ruth treated the three of us to dinner at Gorat’s Steakhouse. This is an Omaha institution, and it also happens to be Warren Buffett’s favorite restaurant. The historical significance of this 1940s time capsule was a bit lost on us Millennials. Being there with Ruth, though, you could feel what the place meant to her; she had a way of channeling all the memories and meaning that she had built there over the years into a powerful laser beam of love, and of transmitting that beam right into our hearts.
The other thing she gave Ashley and me that day was a welcoming, as a couple. Even though it was still early in our relationship, I think Aunt Ruth could sense that our futures were bound together. It isn’t easy integrating into a large, tight-knit family. It can be difficult enough sometimes to find your place even if you’re born into it, into this magical, daunting super-organism. Ruth immediately helped Ashley feel more like part of the family. What brought Ruth joy was not the ease that she carried; it was making things easier for us that delighted her.
At the service, her son Steve said that one of Ruth’s greatest lessons was, “It’s truly better to give than to get.” I’ve been thinking about that since. I wanted to write about what Ruth means to me, to try get across even a semblance of it. As I do when I’m not careful, I turned some of this into pressure for myself. Pressure to get it right. It’s been a long couple weeks for me, though. I haven’t felt anywhere near the top of my game creatively. As this past week wound down, I realized that what I wasn’t doing was holding enough time aside for myself, time during which my purpose was not to produce anything or to accomplish anything, but to just be.
A common theme uniting our remembrances was that Ruth thought we were all perfect. Not perfect in a material sense, but perfect in the sense of an absence of any pressure to adhere to a standard. What we did was perfect simply because it was us doing it. Her joy was in seeing us become who we are.
I’ve been wondering: how does self-care square with what Ruth believed about the joys of giving? Does giving to yourself count as giving, or getting? Is it both? What would Ruth say about that? I wish I could ask her.
Here’s what I think she would have me do: my best, without fear. Don’t worry about disappointing anyone. Giving is its own reward; it is distinct, as an act, from whatever happens on the other end. The best thing you can give yourself is permission—permission to give freely to yourself and others, without reservations, governed by your personal sense of ease. Take life as it comes, yes, but also, give life as it comes.
I have a feeling that I’ll still be learning Aunt Ruth’s lessons for a long time to come.
Please take care, write back if you can—let me know a great lesson you’ve learned from an elder—and I’ll see you next week.