For the last year or so, I kept telling myself that I should sit down and write a eulogy for my mother. I never did. It wasn’t that I didn’t have “time” or had nothing to say, it was that a eulogy wasn’t a speech or a study or some crafting of words. It wasn’t something I wanted to edit and hone and tweak as I do with “copy” that I write every week for various forums. And, I suppose, it was that I simply didn’t want to, although I did want to make certain that when the time came, I wasn’t overwhelmed to the point where I would regret not saying all the things I wanted to say.
As it turned out, when the time came on Friday morning, April 17th, 2009 at 11:20 a.m. and the call from my husband came, “She’s gone, sweetheart” (he arrived at her apartment as the paramedics tried to resuscitate her after a cardiac arrest), I was, indeed, overwhelmed. The notion that her heart stopped wasn’t even fathomable. And then, with that resilience my mother ingrained in me, the practical matters of planning a funeral fell on my shoulders since my sister and brother were both out of town. I had to choose what she would wear (a beautiful coral suit that had hung in her closet for the last four years as she was relegated to velour slacks with elasticized waist bands), choose her casket and flowers (she loved violets, but alas, I had to settle for arrangements in purple and white ), plan the service (her first cousin and dear friend Judy is ordained, presided, and amazingly held back tears until the end), contact friends and family, and purchase her grave (there were two “available” next to her parents). And so, I went step by step, and made notes of memories of her during those sleepless nights before the funeral that still haven’t ended. When it came time to deliver my eulogy, I had nothing written…just notes…and so I stood in the chapel and simply spoke. Here, I have taken the notes, remembering (I think) how I put them into cogent sentences.
I post this here to memorialize my mother. It is not to demonstrate that I am a writer. This is simply for my mother. And believe me, as I look back, there was plenty more to say, but there wasn’t enough time to say it all, and each day I remember more and more. Here, however, is the truth of what I said that day of her funeral on Monday, April 20th 2009 when suddenly the spring weather became wintry and the rain poured down. At the grave side, about twenty of us threw white roses upon her casket before getting back into our cars.
The sun shines today and it is early morning on Tuesday and already 70 degrees as I write this. Although I told people that I would not “crash” as they warned and predicted, now after 10 days of stoicism and tending to practical matters, I was wrong. Yes, she was sick for all too long, and yes, she lived a “good life,” but there is never a time to lose one’s mother. And with that resilience and stoicism she ingrained in me, I try not to cry although my eyes keep spilling over.
It is not the image of her in the casket that I see. It is an almost silly image: her bouffant hair-do that added an extra few inches to her 5’2″ frame when we only occasionally met on weekends at Nordstrom: I would come down the escalator with an overview of the bustling floor of cosmetic counters, and I could pick her out of the crowd right away because of that hair! And I keep picturing her below the earth instead of buying a new shade of lipstick at Lancome, and it’s maddening. I remember the day she bought that coral suit…it never occurred to me that she would be buried in it.
To those of you who were there, and those of you who called and wrote and left messages and sent emails to which I have yet to respond, I thank you all for your comfort. I have decided from this moment on to simply write These Days without the juxtaposed Those Days: this done in the spirit of moving on. Our memories don’t have to be on paper to sustain us. Our memories keep those who are gone and days past still very much alive in our hearts.
I want to thank you all for being here to celebrate my mother’s life.
For the last four plus years, my mother really didn’t have much of a voice. Her words were halting and then ultimately absent. She was confined to a wheelchair. For a woman who loved to walk even in her high heels and who certainly had much to say, this was the ultimate injustice. For a woman who depending upon with whom she was interacting, liked to either be called Anna or Mrs. Gertler, except by me who always called her Mommy.
I wish she could tell you her life in her own voice. All I can tell you is my perspective on her life. And I will not tell you what I think she wants you to hear or know because I am not certain. So, you’ll have to take my word for something that was hers and as I see her through my eyes.
When I was a little girl, I sang at the piano with my mother as she played tunes from My Fair Lady and South Pacific and Cole Porter. Once, she built me a Barbie house with all the hinges on the outside, but it was perfect anyway. Once when my husband and I stayed at the house in Connecticut before we were married, a nosy neighbor who saw that we shared a room asked my mother how she could allow that under her roof. My mother turned to her and asked, ” What’s wrong with my roof?”
That was my mother. She had a way of disarming people with an elegance and humor that carried greater impact than an invective or angry defense. She would get this imperious look on her face and her voice would raise an octave, and although tiny, she could pack a wallop.
I could never imagine life without my mother. I can’t believe this day is here. It hasn’t quite hit me yet.
My mother always said that it would be a “frosty Friday” before she would do something she didn’t want to do — that was her expression. Well, Friday, April 17 at around 11:20 a.m. when she died, it was hardly a frosty Friday. It was a perfect Friday – the first true Springlike day this year. My husband, who always made her face light up when he walked in the door, said that after all his years of watching people – watching strangers — die, there is something about dying when the sun is shining and the air is balmy that is a good thing if you have to go.
And so my mother died as gracefully and beautifully as she lived with just a touch of drama which was also how she lived and who she was. She didn’t linger, she went peacefully, and yet there were the ambulance and the paramedics and the detectives who had to come and make sure that her dying at home was acceptable. To that, and you will all forgive me as I echo my mother, she would have said. “Oh, for goodness sake. This is all such bullshit” and then she would have smiled that magnificent smile that made the “bad” language melt into the realm of elegance. In much the same way that my mother flipped cab drivers the “bird” as she tooled around Manhattan in her dinged-up Volvo and before that her wood-paneled station wagon, daring them to cross her path. She was quite the driver – a little speedy. We called her Anna Andretti. She loved to tell the story of her wedding day, how she was rushing about Montreal and the cop pulled her over. In a French Canadian accent he asked, “Where’s the fire?” and in her coquettish and inimitable way she said, “In your big brown eyes, officer” – and got herself out of the ticket.
As much as she loved Chopin and opera (not Wagner, though), and dressing for the evening in her trademark heels and narrow skirts, and loved a fine restaurant and haute cuisine, she loved a good hot dog from Papaya King on 86th Street and a slice of pizza from Mimi’s on 84th Street, and tricked Mark into ordering beer when we had Chinese food on Sunday nights in Armonk because she secretly loved Heineken over champagne.
She could carry on with diplomats and then she could be “positively 4th street” even though she didn’t know the likes of Dylan. She was many women in one, comfortable in any kind of crowd…and threatened only by those who were disingenuous (“phonies” she called them) or those with an agenda that was transparent to her.
And she wasn’t easy. But then again – are any of us easy? Our relationship was both joined at the hip and often trying to escape one another’s grasp. We were best friends in so many ways, and mother and daughter, and just undefined. All I know is that when she left me four years ago, I was pretty angry at the Universe and she was, too, as she often shook her head as she looked at me from her wheelchair.
She was, I think, absolutely beautiful, and yet she never thought she was. She was self-conscious. That’s one little thing I know about her, although I wish I’d asked her more and knew why. Give her a compliment and she’d poo- poo you and make a funny face.
Her favorite book was The Stone Diaries, and her favorite poet was Byron. She once had a crush on Max Baer the prizefighter. She didn’t do “girlie” stuff with me like go clothes shopping and buy make-up. She cautioned me about trusting too much – especially when it came to men! She was up on current events and especially when my kids were little, she gave me my morning synopsis of the news. She was studying Italian just before she got sick, adding to her French and Russian. Russian was her first language. She didn’t speak English until she was 14. She sang silly songs to me when I was little like “Sally After the Ball” and “Around The Corner and Under a Tree, A Sergeant Major Made Love to Me.” She loved to swim, but didn’t want to get her hair wet as she got older. She looked like a swan.
She painted, but wasn’t a painter. She wrote, but she wasn’t a writer. She played piano, but she wasn’t a pianist. And she wanted to BE something — always feeling that she had no time, that her devotion to her husband was often consuming as she was caught in between the generations of women who tightened their corsets and burned their bras. But she gave me the greatest gift of all: Not to put anything on hold, to chase my dreams. She never tried to stop me. “Be like me,” she cried to me. “Don’t be like me.” And so I like to think I am and I am not. I like to think I have taken away everything about her that she wanted me to have and accomplished things that she wished she could have done. Once, I gave her a button that said, “I Coulda Been a Contessa,” and it made her laugh. Oh, and we did laugh. To the point when she would have an asthma attack and then I’d feel guilty.
My mother was what people called restrained…and as I look back, I think I wish I knew then what I know now so she could have just let go with that bravado that she had.
When she first became ill, and I went to visit her at the hospital, she said, “You need your roots done” – and this from a woman who was beginning to speak with difficulty, but she managed to get that out. Those were probably the sweetest words I ever heard. That couched criticism that makes me smile now.
I have this feeling she is lying there and staring at my outfit. And she wants to say “What is THAT you’re wearing?” And in turn, I would like to say, “What are you DOING in there?”
And now, and maybe only some will truly get the meaning of this part, I want to say “Bye, Joe. I love you.”