Delivered at Stanetsky’s Funeral Home, Canton, MA, January 2, 2014.
I sat down to do the impossible, to try to put into a few words what my mother means to me, my family, and to all of us here. And I came up with fifteen hundred words about her commitment to family, her joy at being part of so many communities, and her fierce and fearless embrace of life with all it has to offer. But when I looked at what I wrote, it just felt so generic. Where was the mom who dressed up as Sonny Bono while I dressed up as Cher to perform “I’ve Got You Babe” at a USY lip sync competition? Or the mom who, into my thirties, would read menus out loud to me to make sure there were things I could eat at whatever restaurant we were at? Where was the mom who, after ten years devoting all of her free time to USY dropped everything and missed what would have been her final Spring Convention so she could sleep on my cousin Karen’s couch and help her family when Chad was born? Where was the mom who faced down the school board so my high school graduation wouldn’t fall on Shabbat, or the mom who didn’t leave my side for four weeks when I was hospitalized at age ten with an enigmatic GI disease, never letting me know for a minute how terrified she was?
Everyone at a funeral talks about how their mother loved family, and mom made our family her number one priority. And her definition of family was expansive – our next door neighbors, the Shermans, were family, and no one took care of my mother – or me and my brother – like Auntie Ellen. The couples who formed my parents’ gourmet club were family, the women from my mother’s ORT chapter were family, Eddie’s girls – my mom’s oldest work friends – were family. And the list could go on and on. Just look around this room.
You know, I was born at the tail end of the blizzard of ’78, and my parents braved some of the worst winter weather to bring me into the world. There’s a poetic symmetry to saying goodbye to mom on a snowy day like today, and I am grateful to you all for braving the elements today to send her off the way she braved the elements to welcome me in.
After all, it’s what mom would have done. I don’t think there was a single wedding, bar mitzvah, or funeral she missed, and one of her few ongoing disagreements with my dad centered on her refusal to cap the number of people she would invite over for holidays, regardless of how many chairs or how much table space we actually had.
Mom loved family so much, she was constantly seeking out and finding new cousins I never knew existed and probably couldn’t find on a family tree without assistance, excitedly telling me about her lunch with this Silverman or that Monsein she discovered also living in retirement only a few towns over somewhere in South Florida. When I was in my twenties, she even forged connections with an entire branch of my father’s family I had never known existed, descendants of my Grandma Ida’s half-siblings I didn’t know she had, and even though my father wasn’t all that interested in these distant relations, mom loved emailing with them and learning about their lives and families too.
But for all her fascination with distant relations, that paled in comparison for the way she loved those closest to her. Although she and dad were rarely affectionate in public, their love was evident in the way they spent their time together – dad allowing himself to lose those battles and invite the crowds over, mom saving time to spend on just the two of them, or with only one or two other couples, whether out to dinner or cruising the world. I know how important my brother and I were to her – and how much it meant to her that we find our way past our occasional battles and learn to rely on each other the way she relied on her brothers. And mom adored her brothers and their families, through happy times and hard times. I don’t think there was a single thing she wouldn’t do for her baby brother Stuart, who she often held up as an example of unconditional love. And when Uncle Paul and Aunt Karin bought a home in the same community in Florida, she couldn’t have been more thrilled. She loved that she was able to bring them into her community there, and I know she so looked forward to spending even more time together once they too retired.
And of course, when her beloved sister-in-law, the other Lois Levy, passed away, my mom was devastated – and then stepped up to provide as well as she could to my cousins and their children, and she loved them more than you would even think possible.
Mom thrived not only on the time spent with family, but on the memories created with family. She loved family photographs, and just last month she was so excited to show me pictures from both of her brothers’ bar mitzvah celebrations that had been converted to digital, and her desk in Stoughton is plastered with pictures from dental school, ORT functions, and family affairs of days past.
Those memories enabled her to keep family members who had already passed close to her heart and ours, and she would share photos and stories often. Anyone who joined us for a Passover seder heard about how she could never make the chocolate chiffon wine cake until Grandma Ida made it with her side by side. No car trip was complete without tales of the family trips she took with her parents and brothers when they were kids, fascinating my brother and me as kids with the mythical and vaguely threatening reports of having to use the sissy jar to avoid stopping along the road. And she especially loved her Grandma Dora, for whom I’m named, and she loved keeping Grandma Dora’s spirit alive by telling me about this woman who was so central to her life and whom I never got to meet.
There’s one story from Grandma Dora that mom would tell me at every family funeral, so I think it’s appropriate to share it today. Grandma Dora was responsible for our family burial plot in Sharon Memorial Park. She chose this particular plot because it’s an exterior plot, on a hill, and she wanted a nice view. And then Grandma Dora paid extra to have a bench installed, so when we visited, we’d stick around and chat for a while. You can see why they were so close – all they wanted was to extend the time they could spend with family. I never wanted to think about the day when I’d want to spend time sitting on that bench, but I am so grateful it’s there.
I know for the rest of my life, I will be telling stories about my mother. And thankfully I have so many to tell because we spent so much time together.
She loved that our home was the natural gathering place for my friends, and even as my brother and I grew up and made friends at college, in our careers, and in other parts of our lives, she loved getting to know them and having them be a part of her life too. Once Facebook came along, and she could get first-hand updates about the lives of my friends without relying on me, I’m pretty sure she kept up with my friends better than I did myself. We’d get on the phone and say, “David! What do you think about what Erica Smith posted on Facebook?” and I’d once again have to explain that even though I spend a lot of time on Facebook, she can’t assume I had seen every update of every friend – even though she seemed to.
Mom liked to tell people that she and I grew up together, because she spent the ‘90s working for our synagogue’s youth program, first as the adviser to our junior USY group, and then as the youth director, a role she loved so much she held on to it for years after I had graduated from the program. And while I’m sure most teenage boys wouldn’t want their mothers so involved in their social lives, she knew just how to balance being present and giving me space
An amazing thing happened when mom started staffing USY events – suddenly, she was everyone’s mom, and to this day that’s what many of my friends still call her. I’m not sure if it was because she was just game enough to spend a week sleeping in a Camp Ramah bunk with two dozen 15-year-old girls or to take 45 teenagers to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and then stay up all night as we slept on a synagogue floor, or if it was just her mix of approachability and concern for every single person’s experience that made her a success, but she loved her days as a USY staff member and she loved the people, both the kids and her colleagues, whom she got to know along the way. She took community as seriously as she took family. I will never forget when her father died, how the chapel overflowed with USYers, and mom turned to me and said, “this is what it’s all about.”
Everywhere mom went, community happened. She devoted countless hours over the years to volunteering with ORT, and although the organization’s mission is about creating Jewish vocational schools in Israel and around the world, the organization’s heart is mobilizing networks of women to raise money through social events. Years after her first wave of ORT friends had moved on to other pursuits, she took pride in introducing a younger generation of women to the cause… and then doing the same thing once more, revitalizing the chapter in her Florida community the way she had here in Massachusetts. The example she set for me of what it means to give of yourself to build community and support a cause you believe in has shaped so much of the man I am today.
It didn’t stop with ORT. The regulars from Shabbat services at Ahavath Torah became regulars at our holiday tables. Friends from PFLAG flocked to Frederick’s book signings. And within days of buying their condo at Huntington Point in Delray Beach, my parents’ calendars were booked solid with club meetings and social events. And – sometimes to my dad’s dismay – there was no such thing as a small dinner party or holiday meal. Even if it meant setting up multiple tables in multiple rooms, no one would be left out when Lois Levy was hosting.
The most amazing part of all of this, to me, is that the mom I knew was already living in the bonus round of her life. Before I was born, before she even turned 30, she survived a bout with breast cancer at a time when the odds were significantly against her. Although she dutifully made a donation to the American Cancer Society every year and quietly reached out to support friends and family members when cancer cropped up in their lives, she never made a big deal about having stared death in the eyes and won.
She always told me how I was her miracle baby, but for many years she let me believe it was simply because following radiation treatment she was told she would no longer be able to have children. It wasn’t until I turned 21 that she explained that carrying my pregnancy to term was a life threatening risk she and my dad decided to take. I can’t imagine what that decision was like or what on earth possessed them to trust it would all turn out okay. But there’s not a day of my life when I am not deeply grateful and humbled by what choice represents.
That fearlessness and commitment to getting what she wanted out of life will always be a special part of my mother’s legacy. Over the last few years, as mom’s health started to decline, she made a decision that she was not going to go quietly, and that she’d rather have a few great days than a lot of bad ones. From cruises all over the world to road trips around the country – always with stops to see beloved friends and family members – she committed every last bit of strength she had to living the way she wanted to live.
When we spent Thanksgiving together this year, it was clear that her situation was getting harder, and we begged her to consider canceling some of her travel plans. Her response was to book us all on a family cruise with the Levy cousins for next July. A week after we returned home from Thanksgiving, she spent the week in Disney World, calling my triumphantly after the first day to brag that she hadn’t even needed a wheel chair. To paraphrase Jerry Herman, if life was a banquet, she stuffed herself.
And while I can’t really believe that I have so much more of my own life ahead of me without my mother in it, I know that’s not really true. So much of who I am is a reflection of who she was, and her example will continue to guide me as I become who I will be. Mom, you will always be a part of me. I love you.