My Grandmother’s Bones

My Grandmother’s Bones


A colleague showed me a blog post, written as if by my grandmother Laura Fermi. It appeared to be real but I said the post was nonsense: claiming Laura was with Enrico in the night leading up to the first atomic bomb test. The truth is the scientists had left their wives and children safely sleeping 150 miles away from the test. She wasn’t at the test – and it wasn’t her voice in the blog. The army kept her, and the other wives, unknowing and far way.

Laura Fermi thought for herself and came to have her own viewpoint.

After World War II, my grandmother used her voice and her life force in radical and humanitarian ways. I believe it is this in particular – my grandmother’s wise perspective and her ability to act on it with lasting impact in society, which led my mother, an early feminist, to counsel me in the years before her own death: “You should always put Laura first, before Enrico.”

I would like to add that somehow it feels right to me to do this – to list my grandmother first. She is the one I knew – Enrico died of stomach cancer before I was born. She is the one who was there when I was growing up. She is the one who took the next step – after my grandfather died, after the bombs were dropped on civilian targets to think about and model her leadership around what should we in the public do now!

When my grandmother died, I was 20. My mother brought home from the hospital news of her passing peacefully. My relationship with my grandmother had been harmonious. I went to my room – sobbing intensely, yet briefly. Later, on the same night I dreamt of a small pile of perfectly dried bones. Each was a distinct color, yet all in shades of radiant rainbow pastels. Her gift to me.

What are those bones?

They represent all the qualities and beliefs my grandmother Laura instilled in me from the time I was very young. Some I can describe. The rest are the indescribable essences passed on from one generation to the next, from her to me, in their purest form. There is the care, the dignity, the discipline, the belief in my talents, the importance of writing, the seeds for me to become a humanitarian systems thinker and an environmentalist and, from one assimilated Jewess to another: the gifts and the responsibilities of mitzvah, without ever being taught the word.