Hi, readers. We’re steering our blog in a different direction today. We’ve been wanting to tell you something for a while now. On January 20th, I lost my grandmother very suddenly and unexpectedly. So surreal, in fact, that I’m not sure I’ve fully processed it. My grandmother, Leyla DeToledo Morrell, was a renowned neuroscientist and a pioneer in Alzheimer’s research. Please, google her. She leaves behind an incredible scientific legacy. But she was more than a scientist. She was a friend, a mentor, and most importantly-she was my grandmother. I just wanted to tell you a little bit about her.
Leyla was many things in her life, but I think it is safe to say that her favorite role was that of being our grandmother. At the visitation, the Sunday after she passed, everybody who came through her door knew who I was. “And you must be the red headed, theater major who is getting married in May,” I heard over and over. It was evident that she talked about her grandchildren all of the time and was so very proud of each and every one of us. I was always very close to Leyla, but the past five years or so I really got to know her as an adult and our bond grew even deeper. I experienced her as a grandmother, travel companion, and as my opera buddy.
Leyla gave me many things, and I want to tell you about them.
The first is adventure. My brother, Danny, and I were lucky enough to be her travel companions to Hawaii and Moorea, a Tahitian island. And she loved to reminisce about these trips. Her favorite story to tell about our trip to Hawaii was how everyone at the hotel was so taken with our adventurous eating habits. It was a point of pride for her that she could take us (especially my then ten year old brother) to any fancy restaurant and I would order the seared ahi over wasabi rice and Danny would order the pumpkin seed crusted halibut. The waiters would look at her as if to say, “is he serious?!” and she would tell them, “Bring it. He will eat it.”
Leyla was no stranger to adventure. In her 73 years, she travelled all over the world, soaking up all of the food, clothes, languages, and cultures she encountered on her journeys. In the past two years alone, she travelled to Curacao and took a cruise along the Elbe River in Germany. She was thoroughly enjoying her retirement and had so many trips planned for the upcoming months. She was going to see it all.
But I think the greatest adventure was our trip to Turkey in 2010. There was a family wedding in Istanbul and Leyla took me along as her date. We spent ten amazing days in the country, and split our time between Istanbul and Ephesus. As an art history buff and Romanophile, I was in awe of the history and wonder of these ancient cities. She took me to her old school and showed me secret spots she and her friends would go to when she was a young girl. She introduced me to new foods, put up with me as I insisted on feeding every stray animal I saw, stood next to me in the amphitheater in Ephesus for twenty minutes as I was too overwhelmed and awe-struck to move. We zig-zagged across the Bosporous (and saw Dolphins), dined in a restaurant over looking the Hagia Sofia, saw the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus, and toured a harem. What a gift it was to learn this part of her that the rest of my family hadn’t. She was totally at home, at ease, and carefree. When Christopher and I were at LAX security, getting ready to come to Chicago for the memorial service, a grandmother and her two grandchildren were in front of us in line. They were on their way to Disney World and I just wanted to tell the kids to cherish every moment of their trip because your grandmother is going to take you on the greatest adventures. You will always remember those times. Always.
So, she gave me adventure and a glimpse of herself that few else have seen and for that I am ever grateful. She gave me opera. Since graduating high school the majority of our time together was spent in an opera box. It was in box 9 that many laughs were shared. Tears too; these were operas after all and I challenge any of you to not weep for Madama Butterfly.
It’s hard for me to explain just how much our time at the opera meant to me. Often, we’d meet for dinner and drinks before curtain and we would talk about everything. From family drama, to her troubles at work, to my troubles at work, travel plans, retirement plans, goals, hopes, fears, my wedding. I could tell her anything- and I did- and she would support me, and lift me up. And once we took our seats we would bask in the grandeur of the Lyric Opera.
I moved to California at the end of August, and really missed our opera dates this season. Now, and even before she passed away, my car radio has been stuck on either the classical station or the Met Opera station. Sometimes I’ll even take the long way home to get in a few extra minutes of Puccini and to pretend that I’m back in box 9 with my grandmother.
Leyla gave me Woods Hole. I can’t talk about Leyla, without talking about Cape Cod and 16 Brooks Road. It was her favorite place in the world, and is mine. Arguably, it is the source of all that is good and holy and scientific and whimsical. There are too many memories here. This place is so engrained in me and I carry it in my very bones. How can a place that I only spend a few weeks every summer be so important? It was important to Leyla, too. She loved the peace and quiet, the lobster bashes, and walking down to Gansett beach. She taught me and my cousin about dipping tomatoes into the ocean for a salty, yet refreshing snack. Leyla cherished the Sunday picnics with her friends at the beach. She loved her garden, and if you are her grandchild you have lost count of the many hours you’ve spent watching the Baltimore orioles with her. She loved to sit in the living room and read during a rainstorm, and she was comforted by my grandfather’s ashes in the garden. I have grown to love Woods Hole independently of Leyla, but she is still so wrapped up in this place that I can’t imagine her not being there in May for my wedding. What will we do?
Leyla was so full of life and love for life. She was fun, classy, intelligent, and inspiring. Because of her, we’ve been given opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise have. It is so disappointing to know that she won’t be here for the big moments to come.
So moving forward, let us take a page out of her book.May we go forward fully embracing our hobbies and passions. Let us live our lives full of adventure, kindness, inspiration, generosity, and love.