Last February 6th, my mother celebrated her 100th birthday, as we clapped our hands and sang. On July 29th, she passed away quietly as I held her hand in the silence of the early morning.
How can you describe and honor a life that lasted a century? My mother was born six months before the start of the Great War. She lived to see two World Wars -- and too many others. She saw the birth and death of the Soviet Union. She experienced the Great Depression and the Great Recession. She grew up with biplanes, reached maturity with jet planes, and grew old with space shuttles. She saw the change from the telephone to the iPhone, from radio to TV to the computer. In her lifetime, we went from lynching black Americans to electing one president. We went from seeing women consigned to the home to having them leave it for Congress and campaign for the presidency.
Her response to seeing the world turned upside down over the course of her life, was twofold. Where she had to, she changed. But she also refused to change. In both ways, she was a source of frustration, amusement and amazement to us.
Mom was a bright young girl, skipping grades in school. Yet, at an age when today's young women have Sweet 16 parties and dream of college, she went to work to help her family through the Great Depression. She always regretted the inability to continue her education, but life took that choice away and so she adapted.
In post-war America, when women stayed home to raise the next generation, she raised my brother and me, but she also went to work. As accountant, buyer, and saleswoman for Dad's small business, she was a feminist a decade before they had a name for women with dual careers. If she could not major in business in college, she had a career in business in life. She may not have chosen that path, but life pressed it on her -- and she excelled.
Our mother liked her independence, and she lived on her own until 92. Yet, when she had to, she went from an apartment to senior living and then to the Jewish Home and, finally, to the dementia ward. She didn't like those changes. Each meant giving up the some independence, but she adjusted.
When Dad died a quarter-century ago, she had to change again. Living alone at 75 cannot have been easy. She had to learn to drive all over again, since Dad had assumed that task for years. Then, at 87, she had to learn to get along without driving when we took her car keys away. She never forgave us (until last year when she forgot we did it). But her arthritis made it impossible to turn her head to see traffic. Her rejoinder against our dastardly act: "I don't need to look to the side. I only drive straight ahead." But she adjusted. You don't get to be 100 without changing -- and stubbornness sometimes.
What was her secret? I don't know. I suspect Wild Turkey had something to do with it. She didn't use bourbon to get through hard times, but she could kick back. At 85, at our daughter's wedding, she took a shine to the 20-something bartender, who was amazed that she could still down shots ("no ice, straight up!"). In a whisper, she told me: "Don't tell him how old I am. I think he likes me."
Maybe it was just sheer will power. She was determined to reach 100 -- and she did. When she felt her time had come, she was determined to stop eating. In her last few days, when they tried to give her pain relief by mouth, she clamped her jaws shut at each attempt. It's not surprising that someone once called her "formidable."
Adaptable in many ways, she could also refuse to budge. Like Lord Robert Crawley in Downton Abbey, she rarely met a change she liked. "Take your time." "Think about it." "Don't rush into anything." "Don't go over 50 and don't pass any cars." Even on the highway, there was just no need to move fast.
Despite our pleas, she would never leave her hometown. If Syracuse ever needed a tourism czar, she was it. She loved the city of her birth, even when it was buried in snow. One year, when the snow reached the 170-inch mark, she would still hear no ill about her city. Her reply after each storm: "well, yes, we had a little snow -- but the roads are clear."
Her roots were there, and there she grew. Her parents, siblings, fondest memories, and their gravestones were there. While we struggled to understand her refusal to live near us (her position was that we should move near her), we came to accept that she was so intimately connected to her home town that deserting it would leave her adrift.
She also clutched her core beliefs about what was right and wrong - and who had done her wrong. "Go with the flow" was never a term that described her. Yet, she took joy in possibilities - spring flowers, a family gathering, and new life. Even near the end, she lit up when she saw children. At 95, she told her16-year-old great-granddaughter, to the horror of her father, "don't do anything nasty with your boyfriend unless you love him."
Like all of us, she also had little habits that adorned her personality. They never changed either. She hung wishbones on the door of her cedar closet - and taught us to pull them at Thanksgiving dinners. She had her hair done every week. She always tucked a Kleenex under her sleeve. She stayed up late to watch Syracuse University basketball. She kept her mother's pillow with her always so she could rest her head on it when we laid her to rest.
The other thing that never changed was her love for family. It was the one area of her life where, when new people joined, she actually celebrated change.. She grew up in a time when the key question to ask about a fiancé was "Is he or she Jewish?" Yet, surveying her family that now has people from various faiths as well as recent roots in China, Korea, and France, her comment at our last family reunion, said with pride and joy, was "it's like being at the UN!"
My mother proudly called herself the "matriarch" in her later years. She was the last of her generation, and she symbolized the toughness of all those who came from Russia and Poland with nothing but their lives and then built a life.
In a way, we lost Mom at 98, when she withdrew into an inner world that was all her mind could manage. Yet, even as she slipped away, she was with us through her stories, her determination, and the occasional smile of recognition that penetrated the darkness of her days. On a grand scale, her life - as all our lives - was not terribly remarkable. On the small scale, which is what matters most in the end, her life was remarkable indeed.