My mother passed away on the first day of Pesach. About two years ago she almost did not make it and I recall the doctors telling us at the time she had about three to six months. Thank God that God is God and the doctors aren’t.
My mother was born in Lodz, Poland in 1934. In 1939, when Poland was overrun by the Germans, her father – my grandfather – who was in the Polish army, was captured and taken to a POW camp. He escaped by climbing out a roof opening and jumping onto a nearby train. He made his way back home to his wife and daughter and managed to get across into the Russian side of the then divided Poland. He said he knew he needed to get as far away as possible from the Nazis and the family ended up in Tajikistan (north of Afghanistan, next to Uzbekistan for most of us who are not familiar with Central Asian geography) for the duration of the war.
My mother spoke fondly of her childhood years in Tajikistan. She went to school and always had enough to eat despite the ongoing war. My grandfather was always the very resourceful type and knew how to make it no matter how difficult the circumstance. He noted that the ill-equipped Russian soldiers needed boots for the damp, muddy terrain and had my grandmother make them. Not only did they have enough provisions for themselves from the sales and bartering, but they were able to assist and feed other less fortunate souls.
They made their way to Canada after the war and at the age of 17 my mother met my father and married him despite the ten year gap. I don’t know about you, but if a 27 year-old wanted to marry my 17 year-old daughter I would knock his teeth out and call the police. But it was different times back then. People were a lot more mature in general and when dating I am sure they did not inquire from one another if they liked Italian food and the proverbial “long walks along the beach.” They survived the war, they were both Jewish, were attracted to one another and wanted to have a family – what more did you need? My mother gave birth to four red-headed boys by the time she was 26 with just six years and one month between the oldest, Reuben and myself “the baby”.
My mom was not always the strongest woman physically and she often seemed frail growing up. But reflecting back, she obviously had an unbelievable inner strength and determination to raise four boys and to live with my Dad, who was not the easiest person and had a very strong personality. We always said that our mother deserved many medals for persisting with him for 62 years of marriage. She was clearly not one of those alpha women but as my wife, Karen wrote to her JWRP sisters in her weekly email last week, “Eva Nightingale was a lady par excellence; demure, refined, classy and most of all a wonderful wife and mom.” I can never recall her raising her voice – not once, ever. She never yelled and believe me, she had plenty of opportunities. She was not interested in arguments, fights or conflicts and simple walked away before they could spiral out of control.
At her funeral, I spoke of the four foremothers and that three were very similar but one stood out different from the rest. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel were all super-stars in some respects. Jewish tradition says that Sarah had a greater level of prophecy than Abraham and through that defined the future of the Jewish people by arranging Ishmael to be sent away. Rebecca did the same when she orchestrated the scheme to push out Esau. Rachel was beautiful and gorgeous and Jacob worked seven years to be with her. Compared to these three, Leah was almost an afterthought. Jacob didn’t even want to marry her and through circumstances beyond her control she was thrust into a marriage she did not choose. All the Torah says about her was that she had weak eyes.
But when all is said and done, it was Leah who was the greatest in many ways. She more than the others created the Jewish people when they transitioned from a small family to the clan of 12 tribes which was the forerunner of our nation. Leah gave birth to half of those tribes. And so while she may have not had the celebrity status of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, in the end she more than all three was responsible for the creation of the nascent Jewish nation. Her vision was limited, forcing her to focus solely on that which was right in front of her – husband, home and family.
Just like Leah, my mother also had very bad eyesight and as kids told us that she never learned to drive because of it. She too kept her vision local and focused on the important things right in front of her – my dad, creating a warm and beautiful home and raising four boys to be mentsches.
My mother always thought of others and never focused on her own needs or pain. My father’s funeral, a little over two years ago, took place on a bitter cold early December day. If there was ever a day for her to think solely about herself and her own pain from losing the man she spent most her life with, this was the day. And yet she showed up to the funeral with extra scarves in case someone needed one. Even on this most sorrowful day in her life when she had every excuse to look only inward, she didn’t stop being a Mom.
She was like this to the very end, even when bed-ridden in her final weeks. Before she received her single bed and was in a larger bed, the nurses had to lean in to feed her and she expressed concern that they not strain themselves and hurt their back from having to lean over to reach her. She always said please and thank you whenever she needed anything from her caretakers. Even in failed health and at the very end of her life she never had any feelings of entitlement.
She was the epitome of unconditional love that only a mother can offer. Whenever I felt a bit down, depressed or overwhelmed I would call her just to bathe in her warmth and love that I knew would automatically pick me up. “You got your health? That’s the main thing” she would remind me. She never wavered from her positive outlook and always said that everything will be ok, assuring us sons even as she lay infirm in her bed.
At the shiva one hears stories and gets slices of a life that one does not see from their limited perspective. If you did not know my mother, I hope this gave you some sense of her. And if you did, I would love to hear any recollection or anecdote you may have of her. May we only share good news and may my brothers and I and our families continue to live her legacy of strength, love and a perspective of what is truly important and meaningful in life.
I can’t for the life of me
Remember a sadder day
I know they say let it be
But it just don’t work out that way
And the course of a lifetime runs
Over and over again
No I would not give you false hope
On this strange and mournful day
But the mother and child reunion
Is only a motion away
Oh, little darling of mine
Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale
Aish South Florida