Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My Dad on His Mom

Yesterday, my Dad gave a beautiful and moving eulogy for his mom. He was kind enough to let me archive it here. To appreciate it, you have to understand that my dad's a biology professor. It took everything he had no, doubt, to not make use of PowerPoint slides and present a pop-quiz at the end of the talk.

I am a biologist and in many ways a religious man, and I find the two sides very compatible.

I tell my students we are prisoners – of our senses and of our perception of time and space. Both science and religion work to expand our limitations as we try to make sense about ourselves – our place in the world and the purpose we each have. Science uses a specific set of methods and has a set of principles – it is a process to build models about the world around us. No one has seen an atom – but we have good drawings and mathematical models. Religion, using a different methods tries to do the same – explore the structure in which we find ourselves.

Both Science and Judaism in particular agree on one thing – that in the vast context of the world we are poor insignificant creatures. For science we will be born, live and die – all within a short time. Compared with the 4.6 billion year span of life of this planet and the myriad of creatures that inhabit and have inhabited it – we are insignificant. And the psalmist knows this as well:

    “A mans origin is from the dust and his destiny is back to the dust, at the risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”

If this is true than where is the meaning – “is that all there is”

Both science and Judaism have the same answer – a profound NO. Our individual existence is given meaning because we are the product of those that came before us and we influence those who will come after us. For Biology we receive genes and pass them to the next generation, and we influence, educate, and encourage those who will follow us – even if they at not blood relatives. For the Talmud what is important is that we leave something after we go – have children, plant a tree, write a book.

Our importance is that we are a link in a chain. Even a chain of thousands of links fails if one of them breaks.

Therefore if you wanted to understand the importance of my mothers life, you would need to know a little something about where she came from, and a lot how she influenced those who remain here. And it is on this latter that I wish to dwell.

I like to think of what she left us in the next generation as “gifts” – things that we could learn from and bring to our children and those around us.

1. She was the poster-mother for marriage. She was a model supportive wife – 65 years of marriage. She was the daughter of a less than ideal marriage – but showed us the what marriage could be – a life-long loving relationship. A journey through easy and hard times, with joy and sorrow – but something to be treasured.

2. She taught us never to be judgmental and how to allow children to grow – She supported those she loved – her children in whatever they did and whoever they turned out to be. And she loved her grandchildren in the same way. The object of parenting is to help children become independent, functional adults, with their own lives. And this means they have to grow up and grow away. And she let us do this. And I cannot remember her trying to influence my choices, even when I later found out she had reservations.

3. She taught us what is was to be a close friend - I need to tell you a little about Madge and Miki. These were friends she met as a young girl, Madge in boarding school; and then Miki in grade school. These were the “hide in the basement, and smoke cigarette friends” that she was close to her whole life. All the many cruises she took with my Father, all their social activities were with these friends and their spouses. She was there for them in their good times and bad. Their lives were entwined, and the love they had for each other reminds us that to fully live life we have to make strong connections to other people. We have to take chances and open our hearts.

4. She taught us how to adapt and learn – even when we were old – while you might that imagine people of that age never did well with new tricks, you would be wrong. She was not a religious woman – hers was a different generation. Holidays were important family time, but her coming to Rochester thrust her into new “Jewish” waters. In the first few years I had a hard time explaining to her that the blessings after the meal – the Bircat – were not really services at my house. And yet with the years she not only came to expect them, but follow in the book, and I could occasionally get glimpses of her singing.

5. She gave us the gift of how to be a Mother-in-Law- (from my wife) “My mother in law was fantastic. She epitomized the saying “a mother–in-law is to be quiet, wear beige, and keep her purse open”. She never criticized me, she looked beautiful and she was generous. More important, she was fun to be with. I met mom when I was 16 years old. To me, she was my mother. Moving here 9 years ago, was a gift to me and my family. We finally had family in Rochester with whom to celebrate holidays and I had someone to shop with and do things with. Of course, I was finished shopping in 2 hours and she was finished in 10 minutes. But she just waited. When she got sick and I took care of her, it was never a hardship only a privilege. I loved her and will miss her every day. “

And there were many other gifts:

She showed us what it meant to volunteer – and help others – whether it was for an organization in Chicago distributing lox-boxes or whether she made calls for the Woman’s Center at Highland Hospital.

She imbued us with a remarkable sense of humor and in her own way, she could be very funny – There are many stories – but I will save them for you if you visit while we are sitting Shiva.

She gave her family the gift of Music – I mean Opera of course. We listened to opera growing up – Texaco Radio Theatre – only the schmaltzy stuff by the way. And thanks to my son David, her last days were filled with the nightly playing of the best of Verdi and Puccini.

She showed us there is to be Joy in Simple Things - I really shouldn’t talk about the gambling, but it is a big part of who she was. Aside from being a tough Mahjongg player – I mean she could leave a table with most of the winnings – perhaps a much as a dollar and a half, she loved slot machines. Sheri and I took my parents on their last trip to Las Vegas – and after we spent the day seeing Boulder Dam, we knew exactly where they would be – not resting in the room or at a show – but in front of the same .10/.25 cent machines. She loved going with my son David or Daughter in-law Shira to the local casinos. And it wasn’t the money in all this, but the sharing of time with others that brought happiness. Her playing partners, her husband at the adjacent machine, her grandchildren as they drove. Simple activities, simple pleasures, great joy.

The only other person who I am sure who would be as surprised as I am about this little speech would be my mother. This is certainly not how she, or anyone else, imagined life’s script would be played out.

In the last three months, she often asked “How did this happen?” As a good Biologist I tried to explain, “there was a drug reaction and this lead to something, which lead to something else” and she never understood. On returning to Rochester, her Primary Physician Dr. Mary Labonoski was asked the same question, and she gave a far better answer. She said “Harriette, Stuff Happens”. And Mom, I guess it does, we are in no position to understand God’s plans.

Mom, I am sorry it turned out this way – we all would have loved to spend more time with you. But you need to know that you were a great and important link in the chain that holds us all together. You have left a loving husband, 2 children, 6 grand children, 3 great grand children (and counting), and you have influenced hundreds of people in your time here on Earth. You have given us a big box with many useful and important gifts, and the world is a better place because you were here.

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