Last YK, a congregant shared the story of her parents, whom she had lost within a short period of time. I was awed by their philanthropy and thought they were an inspirational couple whose lives and generosity made an enormous impact on many people. It made me think of those who, due to life circumstances, were philanthropic in their unique way.
In a period of 16 months, I lost my father-in-law, sister-in-law and in March of 2018 my mother-in-law. This could be my husband Howard’s story to tell since it was his entire original family, but loss has a domino effect.
In July of 2015 Howard’s only sibling, Judy, lost her husband. They had no children. In her grief, she moved next door to her parents in Florida. Everyone felt it would be a good place to land, collect herself and in the process, be able to oversee my in-laws, who were in their mid 90’s. We make plans and G-d laughs. Just a few months after losing her husband, Judy was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare cancer that for her became untreatable. Eight months later, my 95 year old father-in-law, Elmer, passed away quite suddenly. He had been President of the Democratic Party in their senior community for nearly 20 years. He went into the hospital two days after the 2016 election and passed away the next day. Co-incidence? Doubtful.
Once Elmer was gone, we were faced with the reality that there was “trouble in Florida”. Judy, going through this horrific disease, was in no position to take charge of the two small homes or its precious inhabitants. We had no time to grieve and had to put systems in place. Elmer had handled paying bills, the doctors’ appointments, grocery shopping and meal prep. Most critical was taking care of my mother in law, Nettie. So we hired caregivers, set up online banking, and held our breath. And held it and held it. In the next year, between my husband and me, we traveled to Florida, MD Anderson in Houston and Sloan Kettering in New York more than 3 dozen times. One year after Elmer’s death, while in Houston undergoing treatment, Judy passed away. We never told Nettie her daughter had died.
Who were these very proud, humble people and what was their impact on the world?
They were both born in Pittsburgh and lived there their entire lives until moving to Florida to retire in the early 90’s. My father in law was a haberdasher, working in men’s clothing. Although he liked his work, he never loved it. Elmer came into his own upon retirement, learning to play golf, becoming head of the men’s club and shuffleboard committee, patrolling the neighborhood twice a week in a patrol car and of course his beloved Democratic Party. He was the unofficial mayor of Cypress Lakes and everyone knew him. At age 89 he set up a Face Book page and at 90, got his first Iphone.
After he passed, I was given the task of taking over the bill paying and paper management. To my surprise, I discovered he was a paper hoarder! Empty calendars from decades past, address labels in the thousands, flyers from events long forgotten. But tucked among these insignificant items, I uncovered treasures — the invitation to his own Bar Mitzvah from 1934, a traffic ticket my husband got at age 17 and invitations to our sons’ graduations from nursery through graduate school. Most amazing, in his checkbook, every month for as many years as I could find, entries in the register showed $10 checks made out to multiple non profits — the Lakota Indians, Boys Town, The Jewish War Veterans and on and on. A sentimentalist and a philanthropist.
Nettie was also a gem, but of a different sort. Her father moved to this country from Galitzia in the early 1900s and worked until he had the funds to send for his wife and daughter (who was my MIL’s older sister). When they arrived in the U.S. neither mother nor daughter spoke a word of English. When Nettie was in grade school, she took on the management of the family, as her mother never learned English. Her father, (a “Hasidic scholar” in the old country, a laborer in the United States) was diagnosed with a heart problem at a young age so there was no space for frivolity in the home.
Nettie graduated from high school at age 16 and was offered a scholarship to Vassar. But her family needed her and so her formal education had to end. However, she didn’t let her brain atrophy. Howard remembers the hours he spent with her around the dining room table conjugating Latin verbs throughout high school. When my husband was a young boy she owned and operated a small delicatessen in Pittsburgh while Elmer continued to clothe the gentlemen of Squirrel Hill. When Howard was older, she went door to door in strange cities with a map on her lap as a pollster to get the pulse of voters and consumers. She was a very active and devoted volunteer for ADL and a superb “cooker”, as our son used to say.
One of my favorite stories of her took place before I met my husband. He was going through the “terrible teens” and accused her of not being the best mother in the world. Her response: “Are you the best son? What makes you think you deserve the best mother in the world?” In retrospect, I believe my husband learned more about being an attorney from his mother than he did from law school.
In later years Nettie’s health declined substantially. She and Elmer never wanted a caregiver in the home so by choice, they proudly struggled together. We tried to intervene with kosher meals on wheels but they rejected them after the first week. We visited Continuing Care Communities but Elmer only went on tours for the complimentary lunch. I can’t say their meals at home were gourmet but from my work with seniors I know that this was the norm. Tuna fish, scrambled eggs, frozen dinners and canned soup. (Sounds pretty good about now, doesn’t it?) But in addition to the meals, he drove her to the doctor, tied her shoes and how many times a day do you think he searched for her hearing aids?
In the final two years of Howard’s family’s lives, I saw more of my in-laws than I had seen of my own parents in their final years. I paused my work to take care of my husband. I packed up the memories in Florida that were too fresh for him to face and shipped them to Philadelphia; I disposed of the furniture, linen and china that were going to a home of someone we didn’t know. I waited for the 1-800 Got Junk guys to clear out 95 years of suitcases and the truck to shred decades of paper.
Because of the close proximity of the deaths of Howard’s family, we never had the space to grieve for any of them at what would have been the proper time. I believe that last year, the first year without any of them receiving a Misheberach, still felt raw for all of us. But now that more time has passed, I have been able to reflect on what they meant to me. I can appreciate their wisdom, generosity and struggles. When my husband makes a joke, I know it would have been my FIL’s joke too. When my son stands a certain way, it’s his grandfather’s stance of which I’m reminded. Nettie passed her sharp wit on to my husband but she and I taught each other much. I had great respect for her and she responded in kind.
When I pulled the door closed to the Florida homes for the last time, I know these two wonderful people who raised my husband came with us. I know their values and affection are appreciated and will be honored. When we close our eyes at the end of our day or at the end of our days, we have each made an impact. It may be because we funded a major research project, helped install a water system in a far away country, taught our children how to make the best chicken soup ever, or simply or maybe not so simply loved someone unconditionally. Although the world moves on without us, many lives move on with our dreams, our quirks, and our passions. Every one of us is important to someone in this world. We may have never realized it; we may not have treasured it; perhaps we couldn’t acknowledge it. I hope this Yom Kippur you can take a moment to not only reflect on those who are gone, but those who are in your lives today. Cherish, and if possible, share with them their impact on you and yours on them.