It’s traditional not to offer a eulogy at a graveside funeral, but my mother was anything but traditional.
We all – including my mother – knew this day was coming, but that knowledge doesn’t make the reality any easier.
All of us will miss her greatly, especially my father. They began to date when my mother was 15, and her mother first allowed her to date. When a boy asked her out before she was 15, and my grandmother refused to allow her to go, my mother threatened to jump out the window. According to my mother, her mother said, “Go ahead; we live on the first floor.” My mother’s version of her first date with my father is that she had also been asked out by another boy, but my father was going to take her to a Chinese restaurant. Coming from an Orthodox family, this would be my mother’s first taste of tref. She accepted my father’s offer.
They knew each other well before, however, as they lived diagonally across the street from each other on Devon Street in Roxbury. My father’s family lived in a large two-family, plus attic apartment, Queen Ann Victorian. His aunt and uncle and their son Barry lived on the first floor. He and his parents and sister and grandparents lived on the second floor. My mother used to babysit for Barry.
They married almost 69 years ago, still in their teens, as soon as my father was discharged from the Navy after World War II. They moved into the attic apartment over his parents, across from her parents. My mother learned to cook from her mother-in-law; my mother’s mother was not known as a good cook. Almost everything I know about cooking, I learned from my mother, although she did tend to rely on cake mixes and, until I taught her better, would boil frozen vegetables. And it was from both my parents that I learned how to get along with in-laws.
Not that her relationship with her mother-in-law was without its conflicts. The other day, my father said my mother always said she wanted to be buried next to Grandma Gertrude so she could continue to argue with her.
My parents were able to stay together so long for two reasons: they shared the same moral values; and they complemented each other. My father is a pack rat. “You never know when you might need something or can adapt it for another use, so don’t throw it away.” My mother’s approach was, “We aren’t using it; get rid of it, preferably, by donating it. The compromise was to keep it, but store it in a logical place, usually the basement or garage where my mother wouldn’t have to see it.
That mentality fit in with her mania for cleanliness and neatness. She complained to her doctor once that her back hurt when she got on her knees to scrub the kitchen floor. I think she was in her 70s at the time. The doctor told her there was a wonderful invention called a mop and she should consider buying one. She was the type who would clean before the cleaning woman came, check afterwards, and clean again.
But my mother was not the typical stay-at-home mom who had milk and cookies waiting for me after school. As soon as I was old enough to start Hebrew school and walk there and home alone after public school, she went to work outside the home full time.
My mother was an extremely intelligent woman. When she was in high school in the 1940s, it wasn’t considered important for women to attend college, so she switched from the academic to the commercial track, and her first job after graduation was with the Grove Hall Savings Bank. She stayed there, with only a hiatus when I was young, following the bank first to Morton Street; later she worked at Newton Savings Bank in Newton Centre. For years, wherever we would go, someone would come up to her and ask, “Aren’t you Esther-from-the-bank?”
I always encouraged her to go to college, especially after she retired from the bank, but for some reason she was reluctant. She never stopped learning, however, through books, lectures, and travel.
She had a phenomenal memory for names, faces, and events. She could look at a picture of her kindergarten class and name almost everyone. She was the go-to person for family history and anecdotes, from all branches of all sides of the families, hers and my father’s.
She and my father loved to travel. But in addition to the usual cruise and resort vacations, they did things like live for several months in both India and Sri Lanka, where they searched out and befriended members of the Jewish communities in both countries. They also volunteered on a military base in Israel, where my father had fun fixing tanks while my mother used her extraordinary organizational skills in the office.
My mother never learned to drive. Her excuse was that she was traumatized when her father was severely injured when a teen driver leaped a curb and pinned him against a building. I suspect, though, that she was a Luddite. She resisted switching from a manual to an electric typewriter, and later never wanted to learn how to use a personal computer. She hated when the bank switched to computers, as she was convinced there were more errors than when everything was done by hand.
Yet, without the use of databases and spreadsheets and word processing, she managed to keep all the household records, handle their investments, and even leave me a hand-written list of what to do after her death about life insurance, pension plans, etc. Everything was planned in detail in advance.
Even after she became weakened by years of chemo and radiation treatments for lymphoma – both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s – she fortunately retained her mental acuity, and continued with her interest in the news (and outrage at non-liberal – and some liberal – politicians), love of books and classic movies, and deep commitment to Judaism.
My parents were not very observant when I was younger, although they belonged to an Orthodox synagogue in Mattapan and were active in its social activities. It was only after they moved to Newton and joined a Conservative synagogue that they became more observant, keeping Kashrut, for example, and my mother became a bat mitzvah. They were active in many areas of the Massachusetts Jewish community, from Soviet Jewry to the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts to their affiliation with and involvement with Temple Reyim in Newton and Congregation Aschei Chesed on the Cape, which they helped found. And their Jewish commitments didn’t wane in Florida, with their activities on behalf of Temple Torah.
Both my parents have been long-time liberals. Their response to the Bush win over Gore was to become active in the Florida Democratic Committee. My mother loved to engage people in political debates. My father told me one of their neighbors, a right-wing Republican, lamented he’d have no one to argue with now.
Many people didn’t realize it, but my mother had a very subtle sense of humor. My favorite story happened when I was a baby. My cousin Peter, Barry’s brother, who lived in the same house, was born five weeks before me. He also had red hair. My mother would take both of us out on walks, and people would stop and say, “Oh, how cute. Are they twins?” To which my mother would reply, “No, they’re five weeks apart,” and then walk on without looking back.
And, of course, there’s family. As I said before, she never considered her in-laws to be anything but parents, and my husband Gary as her son. One of her biggest regrets was that she was unable to travel to Boston for her brother Barney’s funeral.
And there was her adoration of her grandsons, Natan and Ari. When we called my parents to tell them that they were grandparents after Natan’s arrival, they were preparing to go the Cape for the weekend. They switched directions, drove to NJ, and only afterwards realized they hadn’t packed things they kept at the Cape, like nightwear and toothbrushes. Ari’s bar mitzvah was the last time they traveled. There was no way my mother was going to miss the occasion. No phone call – and there were a lot of them – was complete without my giving a full rundown on all the boys’ activities.
I had planned to speak briefly, but once I began writing, I realized I couldn’t say everything important about her 87 years in just a few words. And I’m still not sure I’ve done her justice. Her passing has left a big hole in the lives of all who knew and loved her.