Until today, I was the oldest person I knew (at least, without thinking long and hard) with two living parents. And now I'm not. More below.
In many ways, my mother's life was typical for the child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Brooklyn. Not much money, a father who was a laborer, but also a scholar and treasurer of his Landsmanschaft. My grandmother, atypically educated, spoke and read Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, and Polish. There turned out not to be so much room left for English. The Nazis obliterated their hometowns and their families.
P.S. 187(?), Hunter College high school and, I think, some college classes. Her much-older sister Alice (née Elka, in Belarus) took her to the movies, introduced her to make-up, to smoking, to how to be an American girl. Her real love was the stage, summer stock with Walter Matthau, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, and the Manx-descended actor Robert Brown. But the most notable theatre story I remember was her having to walk back from the beach when she wouldn't accede to Matthau’s improper advances. Forty years later Matthau played DC. She got a backstage pass, and took my dad with her in case Matthau got fresh again.
Met my dad at a resort. He proposed on the second date. She said yes, not at once, and their 58th anniversary will come January. Quit her career; it was the Fifties. Left the Big Apple for Washington, where Dad worked, at that time a dreary Southern town whose one serious theatre went dark for years rather than desegregate.
The children came: me, my brother, years later my sister. Full-time mom. After marrying into the middle class, moving into something higher. Volunteering at our schools. Empty nest. Volunteering at art museums. Still going to the theatre. Reinstated her Actors’ Equity card, although she never auditioned. I’ll cancel it Monday. Then the grandkids came, seven. Two children and five grandchildren live nearby. Never quite accepted my living in California, but many visits, and Sunday phone calls every week. For thirty years.
There were losses, too. Alice, née Elka, died of penicillin shock about 1950. They named me after her. Miriam, the middle sister to whom she was so close, cancer, 1972. There was a younger brother she never mentioned until I found him in the census posted online. He wasn’t in the next census. Mom wouldn’t tell me anything about that. Type 2 diabetes, although she was already underweight, 1977. Thirty-six years of insulin injections.
She took a walk daily and looked so fit the final illness snuck up on us. She stopped eating even before other symptoms of a rather mysterious virus began. Steroids knocked out a pneumonia, but she couldn't rally, and she didn’t want to. Collapsed on the hospital bed. She was yelling to her sisters, calling them by name: “Miriam! Hurry up!” Dad, a lifelong non-believer, took her hand and told her “All things happen in due time. You will be seeing Miriam very soon.” The Brooklyn accent she had worked so hard to lose, back so strong she sounded more like Miriam than like herself.
Hospice. Sedative. Very quiet, calm, the slow regular breathing of the dying. My dad and sister find some lotion to ease her rings off, and as they do, one small breath and then no more. We don’t find a pulse. I fetch the nurse. She takes one look, and turns off the saline drip. We have been at the hospice less than 24 hours.
Her hands go cold quickly, and as you lift them, you learn what “deadweight” really is. I would have liked the adult goodbye my sister got in a moment of lucidity while my redeye was still in the air, but it’s OK. She did recognize me when I arrived yesterday morning, eyes opening very wide one last time, and she called me “Andy, darling.”
When the hospice workers, who were splendid in the short time we knew them, hint that there is no reason to stay, my sister and I cry, we say “Bye, mom”. My brother kisses her forehead. My dad says to rest in peace, but I remember also what he said as he left the night before, when perhaps she could still hear, “See ya, doll”.
My mother always thought the world of her children, and she noodged me all the time to try writing. So,
Gertrude “Gigi” Chiger Lazarus z"l, this one’s for you!