My older brother Jeff is who I call the “real” writer in the family. He is eloquent, articulate, poetic, and always writes the more formal, and insightful family history eulogies… for that I am forever grateful. When he read this at Mom’s funeral, and every time I re-read, it brings a smile to my face, and tears to my eyes.
Last week, when my mother was dying, she said, “I’ve had a good life.” On hospice care, she also asked, in between very moving and rich conversations, “Why aren’t I dead yet?” My mother liked to plan ahead . . .
On her deathbed, my mother was lucid, focused, emotionally grounded, and hilarious. She connected with each one of us and with all of us together, in long conversations throughout last week and then when we held a seder just outside her bedroom door Friday night, gathering around her for her favorite Passover songs. It was especially moving to hear her join us in “Dai-enu.” It was indeed a very full moment, and it was enough, in the best sense.
When I asked my mother what part of her life was the best, she said, “I liked all the parts of my life.” When I asked her which was the most fun, she said, “when you were all children, and I was always doing so many things with you”. Over the last year, she has, more than anything, missed my father – even as she exulted in doing exactly what she wanted, without asking permission. Their marriage of 63 years, filled with discussion and argument, companionship and history, was the cornerstone of her life.
Looking back, I see that my mother’s life had three distinct periods of about equal length: first, from her childhood until she had children; second, her life as a mother, wife, and teacher in Oceanside; and third, her retirement in Florida and her years as a grandmother.
I want to remember a bit about each of those times.
My mother always told us stories about her childhood: her love for her mother Dora, her closeness with her Aunt Lilly and cousin Irwin, who lived across Ocean Parkway, her high school friend Gloria Bring, with whom she remained close her whole life, and her equally long relationship with her cousin Gloria Blank. My mom had an extraordinary tie with her father, albeit one conditioned by harsh experiences: those of being a young girl, standing in the doorway, on the outside looking in, while the religious men met to study or pray. From that position of constraint, and the love surrounding it, my mother went on to excel in school, attend Brooklyn College for her BA and MA, spend a memorable year as a social worker, and become a teacher. From my mom’s early work experiences and commitment to teaching, we all gained her love of learning, her belief in social justice, and her fierce conviction that women could enter the world as equals. She never ceased cheering on her daughter-in-law and granddaughters as they do this.
In Oceanside, with three children, my mother made another life-long friend in Sylvia Bogin, her next-door neighbor, along with her husband Marvin and their daughters Joan and Michelle. Together with the Safirsteins across the street, we lived life in the NY suburbs with gusto, playing kick-the-can in the evenings and going to the beach every summer day. We visited relatives and friends regularly, from our cousins in Larchmont, to the Cytryns in Woodmere, to the family of Edie Ginsberg, another high-school friend, in Farmingdale. I remember my mother as an indefatigable organizer, car-pooler, lunch preparer, and guide to the wonders of New York City. I remember a house always open to friends and relatives, at a moment’s notice. Most of all, I remember my grandparents, Ira and Esther, living with us each summer, with long afternoons and evenings of conversation, dinner, and visitors. My parents and grandparents provided the model for connection-across-generations that was evidenced again last week at my mother’s bedside.
Then there was my mother’s teaching, to which I couldn’t begin to do justice in the moments I have here. Suffice it to say that I spent the lunch periods of junior high school in her elementary school classroom, as did my brothers, learning from her to generate excitement in learning. In her classroom, generations of students became the learners and citizens they are today.
In Bonaventure, when she retired, my mother applied her teaching skills and store of warmth and drive to organize a program for retirees to tutor in the elementary schools. She also developed an I’m Thumbody program, in which she and her peers met with individual children, weekly, to listen. I would say that my mom’s ability to listen, and to offer thoughtful counsel, characterized my own relationship with her throughout my childhood.
Some years into her tutoring and I’m Thumbody work, my mother joined Mujeres Latinas. She taught English classes to Latina women in Weston and surrounding towns, developing a beloved group of classroom regulars. She was not only a language teacher, but a cultural guide as well: to theater, museums, and citizenship, as she led political discussions before elections and prepared study guides for citizenship exams.
If my mother was a natural at teaching, she was a grandmother extraordinaire. Emma, Hannah, and Esther will speak for themselves, but as a parent, I can say what a delight it was to watch my mom and dad guide my daughters through outings, art projects, books, games, and endless summer evenings. My mother entertained all of our friends’ children when they visited in summers or for birthday parties; she was, in my friend Jackie’s words, “the pied piper of grandmothers.”
She was also a remarkable daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. To recap for those who don’t remember – as I have come to put it succinctly – “My mother’s mother died and my father’s father died and my mother’s father married my father’s mother.” My mother navigated what might have been a complex relationship with her mother-in-law Esther with ease –they loved each other, and they ran a household together effortlessly every summer. And as that relationship deepened, my mother became a loving mother-in-law to Shoshana, welcoming her into our family of boys and supporting and valuing her as the balance in our family shifted from boys to girls.
My mother’s life spanned growing up in an orthodox community in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s, nurturing the hustle and bustle and emotional needs of an upwardly-mobile family in the New York suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, and running language and citizenship classes for Latina women in South Florida in the 2000s. I think she would be gratified to have this characterized as a 20th century life and an American life, and to know how much all of us love her.