Friday, December 06, 2013

Madiba and Ms. Robinson

Ms. Robinson on our wedding day
Just as the world and South Africa will be forever grateful for Nelson Mandela - or Madiba, as he was affectionately called - I will be forever grateful for Ms. Gruine Robinson. She also passed away this week at 95 years of age.

Ms. Robinson was another who lived for ideals greater than herself. She gave voice to those who had none and amplified their words for all to hear. She did so without regard for acclaim, and for this she earned her place in the hearts of friends who came to accept her more like family.

This was how she became an honorary grandmother to my wife, teaching her English upon arriving in the US from China. Patiently and dutifully, Ms. Robinson was there weekly after school, with exercises and games to bring life to the rules and grammar of an often befuddling English language. Sometimes, those sessions included Disney movies like Aladdin, which explains why the regular trips we take to the Magic Kingdom are a kind of pilgrimage to honor these memories.

I had the pleasure to first meet Ms. Robinson as part of an outing to see her good friend Irene Awret, who became like family to Ms. Robinson as well. Irene was a Holocaust survivor who had a story living inside her that Ms. Robinson helped to bring out, a woman whose artistic talent was the only thing that kept her from Auschwitz during her captivity. It also brought Irene love of all things, through the unlikely connection with her husband Azriel, a sculptor also under captivity who escaped the same fate due to his own artistic skills. Their story became a poignant book titled, "They'll Have to Catch Me First: An Artist's Coming of Age in the Third Reich." (you can also view some of Irene's wonderful art online at this site)

Ms. Robinson would later recount to me her own story growing up in West Virginia around the coal mines, finding her voice in words which catapulted her into a career in media and news reporting. She loved New York City, studied at Columbia University, made an impact in communications around health policy in the 1970's which led her to Washington DC, and gave back in retirement by passing on her gifted knowledge of the English language to people like my wife. She was kind and curious and gentle. She lived a full life, and her gifts echoed much beyond herself - like Nelson Mandela.

Perhaps it is fitting that Ms. Robinson's time came in the same days as Nelson Mandela because I cannot help but think of Madiba and Ms. Robinson in the same thought. They are similar to me as the kind of people who inspire us to become better than we think we can be, beyond the tumult and seemingly insurmountable obstacles of life that are nothing more than tests to our courage and imagination. They also remind us that the greatest gift we can give is nothing more than humanity, to see everyone the same no matter our skin color or ethnicity and to treat everyone as if they were family.

In the memory of Madiba and Ms. Robinson, always and forever.
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