Carrying Her Name: Rediscovering the Stories of Great-Grandmother Anne

Great Grandma Ann

A reflection read aloud by Rev. Samantha on All Saints Day.

I carry her name, but not her stories.

The Jewish tradition speaks about this concept of two deaths.

The first time you die is when your body physically passes away.

The second death is when the last person on earth mutters your name.

It is for this reason, among others, that some people have a first or second name, or even a Hebrew or Saints name, to honor someone who is no longer living. When we carry these names, we help keep their memories and all they taught us alive.

My parents gave me the second name “Ann” to honor my great-grandmother Anne, who passed away before I was born. I know hardly anything about her.  I’ve only met her 
through photographs on walls and anecdotes shared at dining room tables. I have always found it interesting that I carry her name, and yet I don’t carry any of her stories.  

My great-grandparents Anne Adler Levy and Fred Levy

Sometimes I find myself wondering: 
What was she like? 
Did she have a deep laugh? 
Did she drink way too much coffee? 
Did she ever take her shoes off and dance in the living room?

Just the other night, my great-uncle Fred, her youngest son, came to visit from Italy, where he now lives. Since this is a rare opportunity, I didn’t want to waste it. “Can you tell me anything about your mother, Anne?” I asked.

He didn’t hesitate, “Well, she immigrated from Russia to Chicago as a young girl with her family to escape the increasing oppression Jews faced. The shtetl village she once called home didn’t even exist after the war.”  

“She was the oldest of five children. She had four younger brothers – and she was the smartest. They knew it and she knew it. That said, since she was a poor girl living in a different time, her parents took her out of school to help raise her brothers. 

He went on, “When she grew up and got married, she reminded her husband that she was also smarter than him – which she was. She raised three children and when they left home, she took a job at Saks Fifth Avenue in the ladies department. Even though she had never gone to high school, she had an artistic mind and hand, and began designing dresses.” 

He leaned in, “Did you know Saks wanted to hire her to be a head buyer? But she gave up that dream to help her husband run his small business.” 

“Was she ever funny?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” He said. “You know when she got older, she would often say, ‘Whoever called this time the golden years must have been joking.’”

Talking with my uncle in the living room was the first time I ever felt connected to this name that I have been carrying with me for decades. Anne was a living breathing soul with humor and talent, hopes and dreams, disappointments and sacrifices. 

(From left to right) My grandfather, Arthur Block, my great-grandmother, Anne Adler Levy, my great-grandfather Fred Levy, and their children: my grandmother, Eloise Levy Block, my great-uncle, Don Levy, and the little boy is my great-gncle Fred Levy Jr.)

Yes, I share her name and her blood – and hopefully some of her smarts. But it was thanks to this brief conversation, that I finally felt like I was also carrying a bit of her story – her light – some sparkles of her extraordinary life for which I am indebted.

All Saints Day is a moment to pause and give thanks for the souls that have come before us – these human lights that have brightened this earth, that sought to make it better, that paved the way for our birth. 

These literal and figurative saints walked the earth and tended to their neighbors, practiced their faith, and passed down their traditions, taught us what it takes to love and be loved. 

These human beings made mistakes, sought forgiveness, tried and tried again, and inspired us to become who we are today.

Ancestors enslaved.
Ancestors crossing a parted sea. 
Ancestors traveling in search of a safe place to call home.

Saint Paul from a prison cell calling us to “make every effort to live in a bond of unity and peace.” And centuries later, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr writing from behind bars: 
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Great-grandparents who lived through wars, and still managed to say that this broken world can and will be mended. 

Grandparents who gave us their secret family recipes for making the perfect Christmas ham or Passover brisket.

Parents who taught us how to wear a scarf and watch our language, but also showed us how to put our palms together to pray and assured us that tomorrow was going to be a better day.

Sweethearts and friends who loved us – even in the morning without caffeine or deodorant.

Teachers, mentors, and clergy who challenged us and cheered us on.

Peers and siblings who held our hands, so we could be brave enough to step through the door.

The world has been touched by these names, and we have been enriched by their complex, glorious, real-life stories. 

Friends, All Saints Day is a sacred opportunity to lift high the ones we miss and to remember our shared human, divine calling to keep trying to repair the world in our lifetimes. 

(From left to right) My great-grandfather Fred Levy, great-uncle (their youngest son) Fred Levy Jr., and great-grandmother Anne Adler Levy

Today may we ask each other countless questions: 

Who is the saint or loved one you are remembering today? 
What should I know about them? What can they teach me?

And then may we together carry all of these stories high, giving thanks for the light they brought into this world – a light that continues to shine bright through each and every one of us.



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