My Didibhai, Purnima (Lekha) Banerji (May 2, 1927 to June 28, 2021)

I have a vivid memory, from when I was around five years old, of playing Monopoly with my didibhai (grandmother) on the floor of my family’s living room. About midway through the game, Didibhai got up to go to the bathroom. While she was gone, I placed hotels on a couple of my properties. The look she gave me and the way she asked whether I had changed anything on the board that I shouldn’t have when she came back was all it took for me to recognize that what I did was wrong and resolve never to cheat in a board game again.

Didibhai had that effect on many young people, which is why she had such a successful career as a teacher. She combined kindness and patience with unwaveringly high standards for both academic performance and behavior. Her students loved her and didn’t want to disappoint her, both because of how much they respected her and because to risk doing so was just a little bit terrifying; she inspired them to be the best versions of themselves. I got to see a glimpse of that firsthand when she subbed for a few of my classes in middle school; in my entire experience attending and working in schools, including as a teacher myself, I have never known a substitute to manage a class as well or get as much work out of their students as she did.

Fondly nicknamed “Shorty” by some of her computer science students, Didibhai packed the presence and personality of a person three times her size into her diminutive 4’ 10” frame. It wasn’t just her students who were obsessed with her; growing up, I rarely went anywhere without someone telling me they loved her. She was a raging extrovert and befriended just about everyone she met at the library, in grocery stores, at restaurants – you name it. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at one point, every waiter in Haddon Township, New Jersey knew her by name. She was extremely generous and went out of her way to thank people for the smallest kindnesses they showed her or for simply doing their jobs, baking brownies or chocolate chip cookies and hand-delivering them to local retail workers, firefighters, and neighbors. If you visited Didibhai in her apartment, the odds of leaving with a chocolate bar were very much in your favor.

Food was, in general, a Didibhai specialty. Beyond baking the best chocolate chip cookies one could find – as my older sister Lela often raved, they somehow always contained fully intact, unmelted chocolate chips – she excelled at cooking American comfort foods, European delicacies, and a variety of Bengali dishes. Her macaroni and cheese, shingara (a type of samosa), luchi (a type of bread), french toast, crepes, and fried eggplant were my personal favorites.

Word games were another Didibhai specialty. We played Boggle, Scrabble, Perquackey, and Quiddler all the time while growing up. Didibhai was competitive but took great pride in her grandchildren beating her. Much to the amusement of my wife Kate, Didibhai threatened to quit a Scrabble game she was winning against us once because, due to the fact that I wasn’t in the lead, the luck of the letters we were drawing couldn’t possibly be fair. Even during the last few weeks of her life when she was dealing with dementia and bedridden in her apartment, Didibhai maintained her sense of humor. When Kate and I visited her a few weeks before she died, she determined that I was offering her water too frequently and jokingly accused me of working for the Water Department.

I was incredibly lucky to live five minutes away from Didibhai and my dadabhai (grandfather) for most of my childhood. Their fun-loving spirits, warmth, and wisdom have helped me to grow into the thinker and person I am today. Their love for each other and enthusiasm for extended family has also been a model for me in my relationships. Didibhai and Dadabhai became family not just to my dad, but also to his parents, his siblings and their spouses, and my cousins to whom Didibhai and Dadabhai weren’t actually related. I am particularly grateful for the very close relationship Didibhai and Dadabhai developed with Kate, who they loved like another granddaughter. Kate loved Didibhai and Dadabhai as if they were her own grandparents as well.

Didibhai believed in reincarnation and would tell me occasionally that she planned to be reincarnated as Kate and my daughter. Both Kate and I hope to one day have a strong, brilliant, loving, generous, and funny child who reminds us of Didibhai.

3 Comments

Filed under Tributes

3 responses to “My Didibhai, Purnima (Lekha) Banerji (May 2, 1927 to June 28, 2021)

  1. Shelley Friedman

    Dear Ben, I am very sorry to hear that your grandmother has left us. My dad and your grandfather were colleagues and friends, and long before I once babysat Lela, your grandparents (and also your mom and your aunt) looked after my sister and me many times. Our own grandparents lived far away and yours adopted us, and vice versa. I adored and admired them, and the world is a poorer place without them.
    When my mother and I stopped to see Lekha a while back, she insisted on ordering a pizza for our visit: though she was no longer cooking, welcoming us without feeding us was unthinkable to her. I am sorry we did not have another chance to see her.
    Wishing you comfort and peace.

    Shelley Friedman
    Arlington, VA

  2. Fern Love

    What a beautiful tribute honoring a life well lived. May her memory be a comfort to you and your family.

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