Shinewald: My grandmother’s 106 years worth of wisdom

Sophie Shinewald

My grandmother, Sophie Shinewald, died last month at 106. Her seemingly ordinary life was, in fact, extraordinary, and it stands as a model for us all.

My granny spent nearly her entire life within a few miles of her birthplace on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg. Her earliest memories were of walking home from the hospital with her mother, who carried her newborn sister in her arms. They were on foot because the 1919 General Strike halted streetcar service.

Sophie adored her father, an opera-loving tailor, whose legacy she carried on. She herself became a stupendous seamstress, sewing for wealthy women to make extra money. Decades later, at the age of 97, she made her only trip to New York, where she lived her dream of seeing the Metropolitan Opera perform Carmen.

Sophie married Hy, the boy next door, 85 years ago. They had two kids and two boarders, cramming the six of them into three small bedrooms. Both boarders became family (though one was already a cousin) and both attended her funeral.

My granny’s home was our extended family’s headquarters, the place where there was always soup on the stove and prakes (cabbage rolls) in the oven. You are what you eat, and Sophie Shinewald cooked and ate modestly and wholesomely.

Sophie and Hy worked hard, so hard that Hy’s health failed, but they owned their own home and, in 1958, visited their daughter, Jackie, in California, travelling there and back by bus. “It was a great holiday!” she wrote years later in her self-published autobiography.

My granny had a boundless energy, an insatiable curiosity and a small sense of adventure.

In the 1960s, they managed to visit family in England. Once there, they took a side trip to France, where they ascended the Eiffel Tower and had lunch. In the single greatest extravagance of his life, Hy ordered a bottle of wine, while Sophie looked out at the city. This was more than the little girl from the North End ever imagined, and she choked up every time she told the story.

A lifelong volunteer, my granny was still taking shifts at the Gwen Secter Centre at 103. For her efforts, she became the oldest person ever to win the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, but never once pinned it to her chest.

Sophie loved her two kids, six grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. She even completed a bar/bat mitzvah hat trick when she travelled to Calgary at the age of 100. Each time she saw her great-grandchildren, there was always a little gift or a bit of spending money for them. When we last saw her in August, a book of word puzzles was waiting.

My granny had a boundless energy, an insatiable curiosity and a small sense of adventure. After retiring from teaching, she took seniors courses at university, surfed the Internet ferociously and explored her city, first in her 1966 Plymouth Valiant, and then by bus. She played Brokeback Mountain for her geriatric movie group, beat a burglar out of her home with her handbag and walked herself to the ER while having a heart attack – because taxis were for rich people.

My granny was proudly Jewish, but not religious. However, once she moved across from Congregation Etz Chayim, the shul found a reliable volunteer whenever it was short for a minyan. And then there was Israel, where she travelled twice in her late 70s, to tour and volunteer. I was there then and have never seen my granny so happy, so proud or so fulfilled. For her, both Israel itself and her ability to visit it, were wonders.

Sophie Shinewald’s life was paradoxical. She never had much, but she had everything. Our culture is obsessed with money, status and image. My granny had none of those things. She didn’t understand them, and didn’t care. But she had what mattered – what ultimately matters to us all – and so she was happy – deeply, deeply happy, for 106 fantastic years. That is her dying lesson to us all.