Friday, March 24, 2017

New Year, Sweet Memories

In late summer of 2013, I noticed a familiar woman at my local market, but couldn’t remember who she was. Just then, a grocer approached her, pushing cartons on a dolly.

“Mrs. Goldstein, here’s your honey.”

Ah, yes, I had met her years ago when we first moved to town. I said hello, wished her Shanah Tovah…and then asked, “Why the honey?”

She explained that her congregation had a tradition at Rosh Hashanah of delivering honey to every member family who had suffered a death during the previous year. I love to give friends and family this gift at the holidays; I thought this effort was a very touching thing to do.

A few months into that New Year, I became a member of my synagogue’s Religious Life Committee. One of our charges was to report back those ideas and customs we might witness at other synagogues that our membership might appreciate. I remembered the “Honey Project.” The committee loved the idea and so, this past September, each family who lost a loved one in the past year (and still lives in the area) received this special gift. The attached note read, “From our Family to Yours, Shanah Tovah. May the memory of your loved one always be sweet.” Each of the 70+ packages was hand-delivered by a volunteer and, if someone was home, a visit was a dividend.

The response was powerful. We heard from numerous recipients and couriers, and it is clear that the initiative touched the hearts of both. Those whose family members died a year ago, and those whose loss was recent, were equally moved by the outreach. To be remembered in this way made a difference. I had the honor of delivering the honey to the wife of our late Rabbi Emeritus, and noted to the committee that I hoped every loved one might be remembered in the same “honey-hue” her eyes reflected when I arrived.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, my husband and I arrived at our seats in the early service to find a woman I didn’t know sitting in our seats. Hers were for the later service but she wanted to be there that morning. She began to move over but I said, no worries, we have three seats. A short conversation and I discovered she was on the “honey” list.

Paraphrasing from my favorite movie, Casablanca: “…Of all the rows, in all the services, she chose to sit in mine….” What was most moving was, for the past ten years, we had shared this side row with a dear friend and her family. This year, she had died unexpectedly, and their part of the row was empty…but I believe the guest sat there with her blessing. Some things are besheirt (meant to be)…and some are coincidence, i.e., G-d wishing to remain anonymous. My friend’s family had also received our gift.

There are many more such stories. It was my pleasure to bring the Honey Project to my community, and I feel gratified that they embraced it. One never knows how a program will be perceived or accepted, but this was truly lev-b’lev – from heart to heart.

I want to thank the Committee’s chairman and the members, for their encouragement and support. To our clergy and office staff, and lay leadership, I am grateful for their help in creating this initiative. A special thank you to our Brotherhood members who, without being asked, stepped up to make each delivery. A labor of love for all.

We all know that, each year, there will members who suffer the loss of a loved one. I am proud that this project will continue in the future to lift the spirits of our fellow congregants, and perhaps engage some of those who received the honey in 5775 in preparing the packages for next year’s recipients. It is a way to help share in the very mitzvah that moves us.

Friday, March 10, 2017

How My Mother's Illness Made Me More of a Mensch

This is my first post in almost three years. Life happens - and having a parent with Alzheimer's changes everything.

My mother, Verna Caryl Brodsky Moidel, died on December 23, 2016. It was a sad end to the saddest of all times in her life - almost two decades with Alzheimer's disease. I've written about my mother before, but this is so final.
There is a positive that came from this sadness: we created a fund in her memory at Camp Laurelwood, which she attended on a scholarship in 1940. She never forgot that magical time there, as I discuss below. We thought it would have the most meaning for her. I wish she could know that other children will be at camp this summer because someone cared for them, too.
Here's the link:
Thank you for helping us help others.

This was my eulogy:

My mother was right about everything. 

And probably so was yours. We have become our mothers, and the older I get, the more her wise words haunt me. Worse, that Verna voice emanates from my lips towards my daughter Erica, now an independent young adult. And she reacts just as I did when I was her age: OK, Ma, sure, whatever you want…said with a roll of the eyes.

How to distill a life into a few minutes? By reviewing what mattered most to mom. The thing is: she  didn’t have a mother around to tell her these things, so she learned them the hard way: she lived her life…a life bookmarked by sorrow and pain: the first two decades, by hard times and the loss of her mother to the stigma of mental illness; the last two decades, by the scourge of Alzheimer’s.

But in between, she made plans and lived her life in a meaningful way. She loved and was loved. And for that, we are grateful. I’d like gratitude to be the word of the day, because our mother was a good mother, and we are who we are because of her.

When you have a family member with a serious illness, life becomes smaller. You decline invitations, reserving energy for just the essentials. At times, our family cared for multiple parents at once so, over the years, I spent so much time managing their needs while trying to pursue my own goals, I forgot that indeed, time marches on.

I realized this when the notice of my mom’s 60th college reunion came in the spring of 2012. I was jolted by how much time had passed since I first became her advocate in 1997. I remember when she went to her 50th in 2002. She was young then; ten years later, she was old. It was painful to think that she would not be going that year. I wanted her to be represented, and so I wrote an essay that told her story:

Mom was born in New Haven in 1930, four years after her sister Norma, who she adored. Her father David owned the local hardware store. They were very poor – it was the Depression. These were difficult times, and she was deeply affected by her home life, especially when her mother, Isabel Nusbaum Brodsky, was institutionalized, as they said then, when mom was in grade school. She said it was schizophrenia, but I’ve often wondered if it was undiagnosed post-partum depression, not something known then, and a reaction to having two small children during dire financial straits. Except for occasional visits, some at home, my grandmother, who I never met, was now essentially gone forever. This affected her deeply. The loss of her mother and the lack of resources was the force that pushed her to work and make a life for herself.

Mom adored her father, who was old by the time she was born. He was born on the boat, as they said, of poor Russian immigrants, in 1888. He was self-taught, read constantly and could fix anything. He had a happy disposition – amazing considering what his life had been. She learned that from him: she was positive and determined. In the summer of 1940, she had the time of her life when the New Haven Federation sent her to Camp Laurelwood on a scholarship.

She always worked, first in the hardware store, and then in a factory sewing shower curtains. Even then she had drive, and expressed a desire to go to college. With the help of an uncle who helped her navigate the admissions process, Mom proudly joined the freshman class of the Teachers College in 1948. She lived at home and worked each afternoon. In the summers, she waited tables in the Catskill Mountains. Her annual tuition was $100, a lot of money, she would tell us, and she made it on her own. She loved college and though challenged by circumstance, she made the grades to succeed, as well as life-long friends whom she kept in touch with for years.

When she was a senior, her dream of living in Hartford came true when she was offered a job as a second grade teacher at the Mark Twain Public School. I have the kind but formal letter, dated January, 1952, which states that her annual salary would be $2495! She was so proud!

The summer after graduation she and three girlfriends piled into a car and drove to California and Mexico on an adventure. She loved it – she had freedom for the first time in her life. (1952, no air conditioning…no highway system…think about it…she never complained.)

My parents met in 1955 at what was the jDate of its time, the Hartford Emanuel synagogue dance. Dad was swept away by how pretty she was, but she wasn’t so sure. She told me she dated a bit, including a cousin of Einstein’s and one of the Lender Bagel brothers. (Oh, imagine the possibilities!) But Dad’s European yiddishkeit and intelligence won out, and they married on Washington’s Birthday (you got it – she had a day off from school). That summer, they moved to Miami – the Goldena Medina at the time – where yours truly was born. They started a clothing store, and when the first Cuban families began to arrive in 1959, they went to night school to learn Spanish so they could help these new customers. When Mom went back to teaching in 1961, the Cuban parents loved that she spoke Spanish and was a very serious and strict teacher. Her students loved her because she was fun, especially when she cooked and played games with them. Every Christmas and June, in gratitude for her kindness, the parents brought her gifts of powder, perfume, and those big boxes of little chocolates.

Mom continued to teach, on and off, in 3 states, for more than 25 years, in spite of the fact she didn’t learn to drive till 1968.  She was a most devoted, responsible teacher, and I have vivid childhood memories of her in a dress, or a blazer with a bowed blouse (skirt in the early years; slacks later on), going off to work in the early morning by bus, coming home to make dinner, and then every night sitting at the kitchen table, and mind you, this was the stone age, hand writing report cards and grading papers. On weekends, she would write next week’s teaching plans that were given to the principal on Monday mornings. She loved the kids, and had wonderful stories of the things they said and did. I calculate there are 1,000 adults today who can read because of mom.

One small coincidence: In 1985, right after we became engaged, I was perusing Steve’s Conard West Hartford High School year book when I came upon the picture of one Jan Jacobs. I asked him if he knew her, to which he replied that he had lived next door to her. Jan Jacobs had been a student in my mother’s class in Hartford, and when it came time to name me a year later (my parents had married by then and moved to Miami), she decided that Jan was the name she wanted for her “smart, sweet, Jewish girl.” Fast forward, I was able to meet my namesake at Steve’s 25th high school reunion in 1990, a few months after Erica was born. Jan had no idea of the impression she had made on my mother, her teacher Miss Brodsky…but we discovered we both had daughters named Erica. The tradition continues!

During my childhood, Mom always said her mother had died – until one day towards the end of my senior year in high school, we learned about mental illness in “health” class. For some reason, I went home with the mission to ask my mom what happened to her mother. Mom answered the door in black clothes – those were not fashionable then – and said she had to tell me something. Her mother had died the day before and the funeral was the next day. In answer to my shock, she explained her mother had been in a “home” all these years, and she had visited her. I never knew – and she wouldn’t let me go to the funeral – she said I couldn’t miss a day of school. I was young – 16 – and as with so much I don’t know, I wish I had just asked more questions.

Mom was very proper and somewhat naïve. But she had seen a lot in her life, so you couldn’t fool her much. She also was very personable. If she met you, she would ask questions, and suddenly, you were into a good conversation which she love. Dad always wondered how she could talk for so many hours with a friend. She didn’t entertain, but was always up to go out. She read constantly – books, newspapers, which I think made her a great speller. But Gd forbid she’d tell me how to spell anything! And yes, Steven, she was a goodie two shoes – and I’ve followed right in her footsteps. 

Like most girls, my mother drove me crazy. She could be rigid and relentless, and as I got older, she would constantly nag me, ask questions, and offer sure fire advice, gathered from a lifetime of hard knocks. Some of it was nuts, like when I was going to a dance, she said, “Wear something red and stand near the door. “ We had our battles, some serious and some silly: about school work, about boys, about cleaning my room…and about my clothes, which she bought at thrift stores. I was mortified. Like Second Hand Rose, I never got a single thing that’s new. Yes, she was right – there are gems in those stores. It was tough to be her child – she had very high standards, and wanted us to have what she hadn’t – but I know she was driven because she cared so much about her students, and about David and me. I know she would be proud that my daughter Erica, a Brandeis graduate, works with children.

In 1969, when we moved to Jamaica Estates, she taught on Long Island in Valley Stream, and had to learn to drive. These were some of her happiest times. My parents started to go out more - to theater and to comedy shows.

By now, you can imagine she was very brave. The bravest act of all was having a baby at age 44. It was 1973 and she was one of the first women to have an amniocentesis. My brother was a complete surprise to me. I was already at college (that’s a story for another time) and totally shocked. I’d wanted a sibling…but now? My friends all thought it was great; I wasn’t so sure. But Mom knew, and today, David (named for her beloved father) is a mensch, with two sons, a wonderful career, and my friend for life. She would be so proud of him.
My mother did a lot for me: She wanted life to be better for us than it had been for her. She taught me to sew and cook; encouraged me to try new things; She gave me my Jewish neshamah, a caring soul, and insisted I have a Jewish education even though she hadn’t had one herself (both Yiddish and Hebrew School, bat mitzvah, Hebrew High School, Israel, and as I was an only child at the time, she gave me Camp Laurelwood). She shared her love of books. She loved her summer in Boston in 54 and decided I should come for college; 4 decades later, I love it still. She was my first editor, “Read it out loud,” I heard in my head as I wrote this yesterday. And this is really special: She taught me to love Barbara Streisand.

Mom moved back to her beloved Hartford area in the late 80s, after our parents’ divorced, and began to teach again. When she retired at 67, she took cooking classes, thinking she’d open a takeout café.  Sadly, this was just the time she was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, the precursor to Alzheimer’s. We watched as the woman who could do anything began to slip away, so we quickly moved her to the Summerwood community near her home. She had five wonderful years there – going on trips, playing games, and schmoozing to her heart’s content. It was camp once more.

I never heard my mother swear until her 70th year – that was when I was convinced that Alzheimer’s had now taken hold, after a few years of weird episodes and cognitive testing. When we started this journey, I could never imagine it would be twenty years. She was so self-reliant. The thought my mom wasn’t in charge never occurred to me. It turned out, as I took over her finances, she had saved for years, thinking she would have a long retirement…yet it all went now to care for her through these many years. I don’t know how we did it all – but I knew she couldn’t be out there on her own. There were some heartbreaking moments along the way, and I came to know my mother needed us as we had needed her.

Always resourceful, she never threw anything away. You know the type – maybe you are the type! It took nine months to clean out her house. Every corner had a bag with some precious chatzkah. She was a squirrel – jewelry hiding in the sewing machine console, silver in the attic, the statue of Mozart under the sink. It wasn’t rational and it got worse over time. These things were her future. Inherent in this hording were the seeds of her illness, and indeed, in retrospect the signs were there in the volume and randomness of all she saved. I remember looking around and not knowing where to start. To make order out of chaos, but knowing she had thought she was safe.

Mom often said, she had no mazel, luck. It was terrible luck to be stricken with Alzheimer’s so early in her life. Alzheimer’s is known as the “long goodbye.” She has missed out on so much, especially getting to spend time with her grandchildren Erica, and David’s sons, Jesse and Bailey.  And indeed, it’s been almost 20 years – of managing her life in her home as long as we could; at Summerwood; and then a short time at Newbridge Memory support, which ended when she fell and broke her hip six years ago. A surgery, rehab…and a 10 week stint at McLean, trying to manage her pain and her confusion. After just two weeks, we knew she was now nursing home bound for Newton Wellesley Alzheimer’s Center. We deeply thank all of these organizations for their devoted care and kindness towards her.

One story from this time: She was a romantic and loved the old songs, which she sang in a nice voice . Eight years ago, the last time I took her out in W. Hartford before moving her to Newbridge, we went out for lunch and stopped into Barnes and Noble. I saw a book with the 100 top songs of the last 100 years. Mom, I said, you’ll love this. She found a chair to sit in, and began to belt out song after song. She knew the melodies, and sang with abandon, without regard to who was around. People stood and listened and, instead of being mortified, I smiled. Twenty minutes later, she stopped and closed the book – and was so surprised when people clapped and cheered. Some of you know I haven’t visited my mother much this past year because it was too painful to see her in the end stage of her disease. I would rather remember the smile she had on her face that day.

I have often thought that all the years I have cared for her has wiped out all the years I struggled with her. I think it’s Gd’s plan - to see in our parents what we now have become.

When my father died 10 years ago, I recognized what he had taught me as what our Rabbi Gardenswartz calls a person’s “Torah,” a legacy.  So here is my mother’s Torah:
·          Be persistent and resilient;

·         Appreciate the value of work;

·         Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun. Despite her difficult life, she loved to laugh and found humor and humanity everywhere. She never felt sorry for herself, or complained; she was a realist, an especially good way to live.

·         Education is the key to everything. (Yes, Ma, I should have gone to grad school.)

·         Always have a job (I’ve done that for the most part) and never leave a job until you have another one (sorry, Ma, that’s not always possible).

·         That blue was her and my best color because of our eyes (she was right about that, too)

·         Finally, save money and always have a dollar in your pocket. It’s easy to spend it, but hard to make.

·         My penance for not always listening to her on this last one? It’s being married to an accountant for 30 years! Verna’s voice has ricocheted with every sage finance word Steve has said. OK, OK, I get it!

Over these many years, it did indeed take a village. When in this situation, your best bet is to share the news. This can be a lonely journey, this taking care of parents – but it can be eased by community. We were lucky to receive good advice and support, medical care and maintenance for my mom. My family will always be grateful for the kindness of strangers, and all of you, and the many friends and family members who cared. Alzheimers is a terrible disease, and one we must find a cure for.

I want to thank my dear Steven for his constant support and wise advice, as we traveled this long road in the care of Mom. At times, we had both mothers and my dad, in different states, and in different states of wellness, and he was there for them, and for me.

Thank you, David, for your support and confidence in me as I took on this task. It wasn’t always easy for you – to be so young and in NYC, having two parents in Boston, who aged early, but you were there for me…like when we moved Mom from Hartford to Boston, you took the train to meet us, helped Steve schlepp the furniture into a truck… then got back on the train to NY. It was a stressful and sad time for you, so many yet to be, but you showed up. I am so grateful to my mother for giving me a brother.

Since second grade, Erica has been a witness to the care of our parents. She has been kind to them, independent when we needed her to be, and helpful over many years when their welfare took precedence over hers. It has not been easy, but her menschlekeit makes me proud every day that I am her mother.

Our heartfelt love and thanks to our cousins Merrie and Mark, and Nancy, who did so much for Mom – visiting her, taking her to lunch, on trips, and mostly, for never forgetting her. She loved you all, like she loved your mother, her sister Norma, and your kindnesses will never be forgotten.

Boston has been good to me these past four decades, and then it was good for mom. I was humbled to have the advice of “older” members of Temple Emanuel when I was one of the first in my generation to be dealing with aging parents. They shared their wisdom and experience, navigating elder care for their parents, a generation earlier.

I feel blessed to live in Boston with our richly woven social service fabric. I received countless hours of help and advice from professionals at these agencies, which will always be remembered.

Thanks to those in West Hartford who helped me navigate the first years of this obligation with courage and patience: dear friends and family, and Steve’s longtime friends and their children, all who gave us valuable legal, real estate and tactical advice, and sometimes, just a bed for the night. While both Steven and David grew up there, I did not, but came to feel at ease because of their kindness. And there were wise strangers, too: those in line at Starbucks and the lovely lady at the Crown kosher bakery, who always asked how Mom was doing; I ate a lot of Black and White cookies driving back to Boston.  

My deepest appreciation To the caregivers, activity directors, rabbis, social workers, doctors, nurses, and maintenance professionals, who helped us keep Mom at home as long as possible, at the four places she lived and was cared for during these almost 20 years of holding on…thank you for your compassion and capacity to see yourself in another person’s shoes. You honored my mother and I have been blessed to know you. David and I share the sadness that comes from the loss of such a vibrant life to this dreaded disease, but I believe we have no regrets – we did all we could to make her last years vibrant, comfortable and meaningful. And when you care for your parent, they are revealed and you understand. She was a good mother, the mother she never had.

In closing, I want to acknowledge all of you today, and with gratitude for Rabbi Robinson, and Cantor Sheni Dan Nesson, from Temple Emanuel,  for being here for us today, and every day.

This old song says it all:  I know that I owe what I am today / to that dear little lady so old and gray / to that wonderful Yiddishe momma of mine.

Mom, you did well. Rest in peace. Grandpa David is on the other side waiting for you.  Shalom.