Many aspects of my childhood were challenging, but I made out like a bandit in the grandmother department. Both of mine are phenomenal. My grandmother Sylvia (aleha hashalom) was the best person I have ever known. Selfless, hilarious, and wise, her advice was unmatched. Sylvia pulled no punches: she was steadfast in her beliefs and had a pickaxe where her tongue ought to be. Although she wasn’t formally educated, she was the sharpest person I have ever known, capable of running circles around the rest of us with her quick wit and candid advice.
I learned more from her than I can say, but her advice on romantic relationships was particularly compelling. If you’re in need of counsel, you can go to a therapist or a psychic or a shadchan (matchmaker), or you can save yourself the time and money and listen to Sylvia.
It is in the service of humanity that I share this, her distilled wisdom, with you here.
1. Men To Avoid
When a granddaughter dragged in a new boyfriend, Sylvia had questions. She was wonderfully warm, and often held court at her dining room table, conversing with friends and strangers for hours. But as kind as she was, she was always watching, evaluating, assessing. And her assessments were always spot-on.
When I was a teenager with a penchant for bad boys, I found myself in an angst-fueled love triangle involving two of my classmates: boys in the same band. One was deeply troubled and ambivalent about me. The other was brilliant and kind followed me around like a lost puppy. You can guess, as a reasonable person, which one my adolescent self chose as my boyfriend. You can also guess, as a reasonable person, whom I should have chosen.
The boy who should have been at my boyfriend would sit at my grandmother’s dining room table with me for hours; Sylvia adored him.
One day, while leaving Nana’s house, he kissed me in the rain, and when I returned home to my grandmother later that evening, I cried.
“Well, he makes beautiful music, Adina,” she mused, “and he really cares about you. But in the end, everyone knows there are two kinds of men every woman should avoid.”
“Abusers and cheaters?” I asked.
“Men who can’t keep their hands clean, and musicians,” she replied flatly.
Neither musician was it, in the end. But Sylvia’s advice stayed with me.
2. All That Glitters Is Not Gold
Be suspicious of good-looking men who appear out of nowhere with promises. Almost anything will sparkle and glow in the right light, but this does not indicate a true jewel. If you are going to invest time in someone, really know them and trust their character. Don’t be duped by bells and whistles.
3. What You Put On Your Back Burner Stinks Up Your Whole Kitchen
As a teenager with a moron for a boyfriend and another sweet boy chasing me, I asked my grandmother what to do.
“You know which one I think you should go out with,” she said. “But more importantly, Adi, what you put on your back burner stinks up your whole kitchen.”
When it comes to emotional entanglements or physical relationships, keep things clean. Don’t make anyone wait for you, and don’t make anyone wait. It’s foolish and wrong. Don’t waste your time on anyone if there isn’t actual potential. Profound—I think about this every time I use my stove.
4. The Seven Worst Things
“Everyone knows what attracts you to a person,” Sylvia once mused, “They’re handsome, they’re kind, they’re rich, they have moves. I’m not really interested in any of that.”
“Are you thinking of leaving Papa?” I asked.
“Don’t get cute,” she said, “I’m trying to tell you something here.”
“You can love 100 things about someone,” she said. “But can you accept the seven worst things about them? That’s the test.”
Deceptively simple, but incredibly wise, this gem spared me years of stupidity.
5. If Your Son Turned Out Like That
A young family friend came to my grandmother seeking relationship advice. I’ll spare you the details, but her boyfriend was captivating, charming, a fast talker and, you’ll forgive the term: a real shmuck.
“Well,” Sylvia said, pausing between sips of coffee, “I’d just ask yourself one question: ‘If you had a son who turned out exactly like that, would you be proud of him, or would you ask yourself each and every day where you had gone wrong?’”
There were four or five young women at the table that day, of varying ages and backgrounds. It forced us all to regroup.
6. Love Is Just Another Word In the Dictionary
Sylvia frequently told us that love was just another word in the dictionary. I didn’t adore the expression when it was directed at me, as I declared my misbegotten love for my latest foolish boyfriend.
As a young adult, I often said this to friends, in cases where they were making ill-conceived romantic choices, staying with people who abused them or cheated on them or used drugs or were otherwise bad news.
“Bitter!” my friend Naomi shrieked, and I shrugged.
“Straight from Nan,” I told her, and we both knew: If Sylvia said it, it was true.
These were not the words of a bitter woman; Sylvia knew love, she lived it, and it was the force that carried her through a life fraught with challenges. When she told a wayward granddaughter “love is just another word in the dictionary,” she meant: you don’t know that shmendrick at all. You might not love him, and even if you do, so what? Love doesn’t mean you have to be with someone who is acting the fool. Love doesn’t mean playing the fool. So wait. Choose wisely and choose well.
7. Stages of Love
Sylvia Giannelli was sharp with her words, not because she didn’t believe in love, what it meant and what it carried, but because she did.
“There are stages of love,” she often said. “It will change, but you will know it when you find it. And if you are lucky and if you work very hard, it will last forever.”
I miss Sylvia every day, and I will love her forever. I would give anything to have another hour at her dining room table, with a cup of coffee and her straight-shooting advice. Sometimes I imagine I’ll build the sort of love she believed in. If that happens, I’ll wish dearly that she might have been there to witness it.