She stopped eating last week, explaining in a fit of pique, "I don't like turkey anymore." The pain from the cancer was just too much; and without food or drink for one week's time, with morphine to ease her respiration, and an abundance of love from family and the amazing staff at the Milwaukee Jewish Home--Mom, intrepid reader, began a new chapter. Like the thousands of books that passed through her hands in her lifetime, she put down this one called Life and turned to a new one, an other-worldly novella about Memory and Eternity.
Minna fell asleep tonight reviewing all the Wisconsin sports songs she knows, closing as we often do with the alma mater of UW-Madison, "Varsity," which includes the words, "Praise to thee we sing; praise to thee our alma mater." Minna asked, "What does alma mater mean?" And when I told her it meant, "nourishing mother" in Latin, Minna drifted off to sleep and the phone rang in the kitchen. It was Jackie explaining that we were losing Mom.
Nourishing Mother: Takes her children apple picking in the Fall; serves warm grilled cheese and tomato soup in the Winter; roasts a rosemary chicken in the Spring; slices watermelon, roasts corn, grills burgers and dogs in the Summer.
Nourishing Mother: Says to a son eager to learn, "Follow your instinct with your reading--it's the most fun." Loves to quote David Letterman's latest pranks. Wants to hear, ad nauseam/ad infinitum, my adventures from high school and college when skirting trouble was sport. My friends were like other sons to her. One visited her last week and made her smile by teasing her about her hair.
Nourishing Mother: Who taught me to pray in childhood's bedtime mystery and darkness, instinctively offering the promise of a loving world beyond fear. Whose own struggles with Faith left her at the end of her life with more questions than answers, a comforting idea in today's world of dangerous certainties. A woman of valor who "looks for wool and flax and sets her hand to them with a will...she gives generously to the poor, her hands are stretched out to the needy."
Mom's father, Norman Mueller, was murdered in the workplace in 1939, by a depressed and troubled man who wanted to return to work but wasn't yet ready. This grandfather whom I never met was taken from life; and the hole it left in my mother's life--from age six until she died--was a darkness that hovered nearby much of her life. News of shootings, like the recent killings in Colorado, traumatized her anew; they brought her low. And as clouds lifted, year in and year out, one certainty would emerge: guns are evil and the policies that allow for their abundant availability need to be defeated by courageous politicians listening to the demands of dogged civic activism.
Mom would shake her head in silence reading that last paragraph. Talking about it didn't make much sense to her. Instead, she decided to vote her agendas and be as kind as she could be to everyone she met or simply quiet in the presence with those who annoyed her (mostly pretentious people and blabber-mouths.)
But the bullet that ripped through her childhood also gave her a steely resolve: from high school to college she entered the workforce, got married, built a family, got a divorce, supported her family, and made it through to the end. The ability to pay for her last month in palliative care and hospice was a modest investment she knocked away. After taking care of us as kids, she set aside just enough to take care of herself.
I loved her resourcefulness, her modesty, her decency. Her loyalty as a daughter and sister were equally inspiring. In the mid-eighties, when my grandmother's hearing all but disappeared, my mom would call her by dialing the number and putting the phone down. It could sit that way for several minutes. When I questioned her methodology she said, "Well, I told my mother about it and we made a deal: I wait for her and she waits for me." Her love was practical.
Mom visited me twice in Israel. In 1986, on her first trip, she kept a diary. Several entries remark on the rosemary bushes and eucalyptus trees. In 1990, during my first year of rabbinic school, I took her around with my friend Rob Ullian, who writes the Frommer's guide and knows a lot of good places to eat. When I told her last month that I saw Rob recently, she said, "Remember that mushroom soup we ate with him? That was delicious!" In 2010, though exhausted from treatment, she flew to Brooklyn and stood with Audrey as she read Torah for her Bat Mitzvah. What did you think? I asked her. She simply shook her head and smiled with pride. Like I said, her love was practical, even humble.
The Brewers' season has hit the skids, drought is killing off corn in Wisconsin. The cherries in Door County are not really happening this year, either. Mom has had enough. A rest awaits her that is more than well-deserved. A darkness that has chased her since 1939 has given way to light.
Mom fearlessly crossed two bridges in her lifetime, preparation one might say, for the Journey ahead.
First, she left the insular world of her Wauwatosa upbringing in the mid-1950s, moved in an East Side social circle with her childhood best-friend Donna, and like her friend, married a Jew before eventually becoming one herself. Second, she divorced my dad in the 1970s, a painful transition into total independence--a streak of quirky uniqueness and stubbornness that was both admirable and frustrating. It meant as children that to a degree, we grew up together with Mom and as we all have matured in our adulthood, we came to accept that reality as a necessary set of steps and transformations along life's path. Bridges, we all know, lead toward and away from destinations. And now that third bridge, her physicality fading into the horizon but her essence, perhaps, drawing near.
Going into Shabbat last night, anticipating it as her last, I played some of Mom's scratchy old records: Ella Fitzgerald singing the Cole Porter Songbook; Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours;" Roberta Flack "Killing Me Softly;" Neil Diamond's "Hot August Night." You gotta believe, sometimes.
When we took the girls out to Wisconsin in December for a visit with their grandma and a Packers game, we exercised the sentimental/cliche clause of the Jewish Family Contract and took Mom out for Chinese Food on Christmas Eve. Milwaukee Magazine claimed that Emperor of China was the city's best, an assessment confirmed by the 90 minute wait we encountered upon arrival. So we went next door to the Roman Coin, an old tavern on Brady Street. A Harley parked out front had Christmas lights and a Blatz sign hung over the entry.
Inside nursing beers were two guys just off their shifts, kibbitzing with the bartender, who intuited our dilemma, produced a deck of cards and invited us to wait there til our table was ready at the restaurant next door. We had such a good time that we decided to have the food delivered to the bar. "How very New York of us," Mom joked. And so it was that her cold December night became an extravaganza with food, drinks, and summer camp card games with her granddaughters: after six long years of breast, lung, brain and spine cancer, Mom had her own night of redemption. "I haven't had this much fun in years," she said, and then, without missing a beat, stared down one of the girls and their amateurish bluff at cards to steal a victory with one word, "Bullshit."
Lois does a good imitation of that moment--so good that Mom, from a very comfortable chair somewhere, with a good book under a warm lamp, needles and yarn, the Journal in her lap and David Letterman on the television, will be having a big laugh about it for many lives to come. Sometimes, you gotta believe.
Congregation Beth Elohim Sefer Torah Project. My mom believed in the transformative power of reading. And she was enormously proud that CBE had commissioned the writing of the first Torah Scroll in the history of New York City written by a female Scribe.