I. Giraffes never hang their heads
"My favorite animal is a giraffe--it walks around with its head held high, proudly rising above the rest, never hanging its head in sadness or shame, always showing the world its smile."
That’s what my mother told a camper at the summer camp in the Adirondacks she ran with my Dad in the 1960s and 1970s. And that’s the way my Mom lived her life every single day until the day she died at 94, on January 27 of last year. This diary is in honor of her first Yahrzeit.*
She was a 1915 baby, a Depression teen; a 1940 bride; a dance teacher; a camp counselor and owner; a mother to a war baby and a boomer; a jewelry maker; a proudly Jewish Ethical Culturist; and dozens of other varied and fascinating pursuits. She brought light and inspiration to everyone she met, most of all to my Dad, to whom she was married for 67 years until he died at 91 in 2007.
Part II: Je t'aime, je t'adore, que veux-tu encore.
Part III: Would you want to be a King . . .?
II. Je t’aime, je t’adore, que veux-tu encore?
My mom’s mother, Rebecca, was one of eight children – seven girls and one boy, who were born in Turkey in the last part of the 19th century. Rebecca spoke eight languages, though her chosen one was French, which all of her family learned at the schools of the Rothschild-sponsored Alliance Israelite schools in Constantinople. Rebecca and all of her sisters ended up in the United States, and my mother grew up in Brooklyn. The one boy, my Great Uncle Israel, went to medical school in Eastern France, and became a doctor there.
Rebecca settled in Brooklyn and married a dentist with an office on East Broadway on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. On December 19, 1915, she gave birth to my mother. My mother became fluent as a child because her parents spoke French at home,. One of her few great regrets (and mine) was that she didn’t do the same for my brother and me -- at that time, speaking another language as a first language was considered detrimental to learning proper English. Now we know that in most cases, it’s one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child.
As a result, I was compelled to learn French the traditional, unpleasant way – beginning with conjugating verbs in junior high school. Throughout my school French studies, my Mom engaged in a vain attempt to have me correctly pronounce the eu sound in words like "tu." Then, in high school I had the misfortune of suffering with one Mr. Schoenfeld for three consecutive terms. In his class, the inevitable conjugation was preceded by a daily French Proverb drill:
Comment dit-on en Francais, "Better Late than Never."
En francais, on dit, "Mieux vaut tard que jamais."
Que veut dire, "Mieux vaut tard que jamais?"
Mieux vaut tard que jamais veut dire, "Better Late than Never."
The drill’s symmetry was impressive, yet suffocating. I may not have become fluent, but I could wow people at cocktail parties by commenting sagely, "Qui m’aime, aime mon chien." (Love me, love my dog).
Over the years, my mother’s French faded with lack of use, but in the 1990’s, she began to revive it by joining a neighborhood French conversation group. At about the same time, I became intensely interested in the life of my great Uncle Israel, the French doctor. He was a hero physician in the First World War, winning the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre (France’s highest military honors). Then, during the Second War, he had to flee across France, narrowly escaping deportation through the courage of farmers in a small village who hid him for most of 1944. I took a couple of weekend French "immersion" courses and traveled to France, where I met the family of his rescuers and others who knew and remembered him.
As the ‘90s ended, then, both Mom and me were renewing our French skills, and especially after my trip we would exchange a few words in French every so often.
Beginning in about 2008 though, we began having extended French conversations by phone almost daily. Sometimes it would be during the day, as I walked through Central Park to work. More often it was from home, where I attempted to describe to her in French the events of my day, and any bon mots that my twin girls may have come up with lately. Sometimes we even exchanged proverbs. She especially liked L’habit ne fait pas le moine. ("The habit does not make the monk," a variation on "clothes don’t make the man.") So thanks for something, anyway, Mr. Schoenfeld.
The conversations continued even when illness sent her to the hospital and then nursing home for her final two months. Once, just before ending a conversation, she said:
"Je t’aime, je t’adore, que veux-tu encore?"
which means, "I love you, I adore you, what more do you want?" It was an expression she’d learned from her mother, and it seemed to perfectly capture the spirit of being Jewish and a Francophile. From that time on, we ended our conversations with that phrase. Her hearing declined in her last days, and the last time I saw her she could barely hear. I leaned over, whispered into her ear, "Je t’aime, je t’adore, que vuex-tu encore", and saw her smile one last time.
III. Would you want to be a King . . .?
In October 2007, Shortly after my father died, my mother was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a degenerative and inevitably fatal lung disease. "Idiopathic" means that there is no known cause or cure. For two years, her breathing became increasingly difficult, slowing down her body, but of course, not her spirit. In November 2009, she began her final decline, and spent her last two months in the nursing home attached to Westchester Meadows, the independent living facility where she had an apartment for seven years.
Those two months were like nothing I’ve seen or experienced before, as scores of people who loved my Mom came to honor and say goodbye to her. On her 94th birthday, the entire dining room staff of Westchester Meadows came to her room to sing "Happy Birthday." One of the bus drivers brought her flowers, and many maintenance workers and security people came to visit. She also received a steady stream of her former neighbors, who were able to walk just a few steps to come visit.
The visits from people outside of her immediate community were truly extraordinary. Many of the girls who went to their summer camp kept in touch with them since it closed in 1980 -- some returning to visit the camp location, where they kept a summer home; others visiting them in Westchester. When the word got out that she was seriously ill, many of them made pilgrimages to the nursing home to say goodbye. Three sisters and former campers came from places as distant as Ithaca, New York just to visit and perform for her. One former camper located the Camp’s drama counselor from the ‘70s, whom my mother adored and had not seen in 30 years. He came twice and visited her for hours.
There were daily visits by friends from the Ethical Culture Society of Northern Westchester, where she had organized performances for many years. I kept my guitar in her room, and the place often echoed with an eclectic mix, ranging from Jerome Kern (her favorite song was Can’t help Lovin’ that Man of Mine) to the Beatles, and even Hannah Montana, performed by my nine-year old twin daughters with the assistance of an IPhone.
My brother and I danced and sang ludicrous versions of If I Were a Rich Man, hands flailing over our heads. Others danced and sang more gracefully, all while my Mom elegantly directed the action from her bed, conducting the music, choreographing the dancers and urging on the singers.
One night, after learning of still more fans who had journeyed to visit her, I told her she was like a Queen, receiving her subjects. Her response:
"Would you want to be a King under these circumstances?"
The answer was obvious. My mother had had enough. Though most of the time she was relatively comfortable, there were days when she had gastrointestinal cramps so severe that she removed her breathing tube in an effort to just end the pain, only to put it back in when that discomfort became too great. But she was ready to die.
In a room filled with people who loved her and all wanted her to live, she was a minority of one. Her favorite saying was
"I keep trying to die, but they won’t let me."
just one example of the surprising gallows humor she developed in her last two months. The leader of her Ethical Culture Society said she had the greatest equanimity in the face of death of any dying person he had visited (and there have been many.) She realized that she had received the gift of a beautiful life, having achieved and enjoyed everything she wished for – a loving husband and family, a career creating wonderful experiences for children, and joy, compassion and love that she shared with everyone she met.* Anniversary of the date of a death.