Unboxing Rivka

Dear Blog Readers:

The below remembrance of my mother is unlike anything else in this blog. It is long. VERY long. It is broken into three parts. The first part, identifies how I came to write about my mother. The second part is more or less a traditional, chronological summary of her life. The third is a dive into the psychology of our relationship. The final part was written many months after the first two. There is more to write. There always is more. And as you will see if you grind out the entire piece, Mom would have approved continuing the explorations in writing. No doubt in my mind.

Ruth Jaffe Farber, as a Red Cross Social Worker, circa 1944

Part 1: Introduction – Written in the Spring of 2021

When Mom died – oh my word, has it already been over 15 years?! – sisters Laurie, Ann and I collaborated in all the legal, financial, and logistical necessities of turning the page. Our labors were admirable, nurturing, and healing. Our hardest decisions, distributing Mom’s personal effects, had nothing to do with coveting conflicts between siblings. Rather, our challenges involved decisions deferred.  “Well, we can’t throw THAT away,” each of us hoping that the burden of storage would be placed on one of the other two. “You take it, Daniel.” “No, YOU take it, Ann” “But wouldn’t this look better in YOUR living room, Laurie?”

Mom was a prodigious correspondent to a far-flung family, long-nurtured friends, and a wide assortment of colleagues.  She never became a published author[1], at least under her own name, but she was a fluid writer and a better editor. Dad’s professional writing and speeches benefited greatly from her regular review. I kept a healthy sample of our voluminous correspondence, and she kept most of mine to her.

For several years in her 8th decade, Mom also became a dedicated memoirist and keeper of family written history – job applications, Dad’s theses, etc.  So we three kids were left with several boxes of Mom’s unpublished oeuvre to distribute.

Ann agreed to handle the finances. Laurie agreed to take most of the personal writings; at least initially. Ann and I swiftly scanned through the stacks of Mom-lit and picked out a few jewels that sparked our egos.   But otherwise, the boxes went to Laurie.

A few years ago, Laurie asked whether I wanted to look at Mom’s writings.  She had meant to get around to a serious perusal, but it had eluded her, and she was in downsizing mode at home. I agreed to take a box.

And here the box sat unopened. Through yet another Farber move. Through months and years of good intentions.  Until just a few days ago, when, after deciding that the next topic for my writing class through the Senior Center would be my mother, I realized that I had a trove of research sources neatly packed in the downstairs closet.

Once opened, the contents of the box were mesmerizing, surprising, hilarious, and emotionally gorgeous.  It revealed a person whom I had known only as a fragment of her full self. Yes, I could have asked more about her life when I was younger and when she was alert. Yet, in her writings, posthumous writings that she knew could be read by me, my sisters, her beloved grandchildren, and others, she left a life record rich with variety and conscious, adventurous choices. Through exploring the contents of Mom’s box, hers was a life exposed.

I mentioned exploring Mom’s box to a friend and asked if he – a professional writer – had any similar stash of his parent’s prose. “My parents weren’t writers,” was his reply.  And so, with the great privilege that my mom bequeathed to me, I provide you, my gentle readers, a perspective on the life of Ruth Jaffe Farber.

Part 2: A Biography – Written in the Spring of 2021

Rivka Antolept, the eldest child of Beyla Yevslin Antolept and Yacov (Yankl) Antolept, was born August 1, 1919, in the city of Orenburg, Russia near its border with Kazakhstan along the Ural River.  Beyla and Yacov had left Latvia/Lithuania[2] a few years earlier to escape The Great War’s Eastern European front.  Beyla had previously been betrothed to Yacov’s older brother, Ber-Dov. However, when Ber-Dov went to America – probably around 1917 – to earn enough money to bring Beyla over, he fell in love with another woman in New York named Anna. After hearing about Ber-Dov’s “Dear Beyla” letter, Yacov snapped up the jilted maiden, and a match was made.

Life in Orenburg was one of extreme deprivation. Yacov’s resourcefulness supplied nourishment for his wife and baby girl and medicines that saw Rivka through life-threatening diseases. The family had enough food to survive, but as The Great War ended, and the Russian Revolution rolled on, the Antolept family went back to Latvia in hopes of a better future. Still, the deprivations continued.  30 years later, Yacov wrote to his only daughter about that period, humbly stating that without the help of his sister, Frieda, his family would have starved.

Soon after arriving back in Latvia (records show that it was probably the large coastal town of Riga), Beyla gave birth to Leyb, Rivka’s brother.  Yacov concluded that if the family were to have a promising future, it would be in America. Though Beyla desperately wanted to stay with her larger Yevslin family, Yacov sailed in 1922 for New York.  He joined Ber-Dov in the sign painting business with the goal of earning enough money to reunite with his wife and two children in Die Goldene Medina.

Beyla prepared 4-year-old Rivka for the voyage across the sea by telling her again and again about the beautiful and wealthy land on the other side of the world. Rivka knew she would miss her family and friends in Dvinsk, but she was eager for the trip to start.  She remembered that on the days prior to departure her mother would writhe and weep all day long. But Rivka could not wait to depart.

Beyla, Rivka and little Leyb Antolept on their way to America.

Beyla, Rivka and Leyb Antolept journeyed west from Riga by rail to the port city of Hamburg.  From there they were placed in steerage along with a crushing mass of desperate and bedraggled humanity for the ocean voyage west to America. Rivka remembered being packed in like sardines and the smells of people’s vomit.   “I crossed the Atlantic,” she later wrote, “and the long, uncomfortable trip, stormy seas, and an on-board vaccination resulted in pain, nausea and a subsequent leery, frightening association with ships and the bounding main.”

But she also remembered the thrill of seeing the Statue of Liberty and the joy of reunification with her father.  In this new land she was quick to embrace a new identity, a new language, and a new name. Rivka became Ruth. Yacov became Jacob or Jake or even later, Jack. Beyla became Bessie and little Leyb became Leo.  Tired of being mocked as an “antelope,” Jake and Ber-Dov (Bernard or Benny) even changed their families’ last names to Jaffe, their mother’s maiden name.

Jake and Benny’s sign painting business continued through the 1920s and 30s. Never reaching comfortable financial security, the Jake Jaffe family did manage to eke out a living. But home life for Ruth was unstable and tense.  Jake and Bessie struggled in their marriage.  Ruth remembered her mother’s youthful beauty and her love of singing and music in the home.  Yet her housekeeping was haphazard, her cooking boring and tasteless, and her mood often dark. Jake was disappointed in his wife and dismissive of her complaints. Loud arguments were common.  While loving both her parents, Ruth became embarrassed that her mom never learned to speak English well, and her father spoke with a strong Yiddish accent. Ruth had no interest in the stories of the old country at that time and later regretted not asking more about her family’s history.

The Jaffe’s economic struggles continued throughout The Great Depression. Ruth remembers the family moving every year or so because landlords would often give tenants the first month free as an incentive.

The stresses of homelife landed more deeply upon little brother Leo. Sickly and meek, Leo failed to meet his father’s expectations for masculine heartiness.  Ruth remembers one incident where she had a fight with Leo and hurt him physically and emotionally.  Bessie took her aside and told her that Leo is little and frail, and that Ruth must promise to never ever do that again.  From then on, Ruth became Leo’s protector.

Ruth’s response to a stressful family life was to grow in her confidence and independence as quickly as possible. Staring at herself in the mirror, exploring her features at the age of six, Ruth concluded that she was beautiful. And that was a good thing.  To strengthen emotional resiliency at home, she plowed into reading and studying.  Going regularly to the public library to pick up books, she aced her school classwork. As she matured, she was increasingly able to escape the house by playing sports, going to movies, and spending time at her friends’ homes with more stable and pleasant atmospheres. She became the golden immigrant girl in Die Goldene Medina.   

Her brother Leo, two years her junior, continued to struggle.  His coping mechanism for a tense family life was to withdraw into himself. Leo would have a sorrowful, tragic life of schizophrenia, institutionalization and eventually suicide in his late 60s. Another brother, Joseph, described by Ruth as her parent’s happy accident, entered the family when she was nine.  In many ways, Ruth became the third parent for Joe, and a positive, capable influence in his early childhood. She wrote:

“At first, he was a darling child to be pushed in the carriage, then a kid brother who asked deep and sometimes teasing, humorous questions. Then there was the serious, young teenager who approached me for help.”

By the time Ruth was a professional social worker, she recalled Joe coming to her and asking, “I am very unhappy and have few friends. I’m not into sports or girls. What should I do?” Ruth responded as both a sister and a counselor, calming his worries and helping him see his strengths.

Ruth’s family of origin was a motive force toward her future vocation, as she witnessed her intimates cope with mental illness, marital stress, social estrangement, and economic privation. Viewing herself as an increasingly confident and capable child, Ruth recalled,

“a summer trip to a delightful country place, featuring an attractive lake.  Oh, how I admired the kids who were swimming and frolicking so easily!  Since I was an active ten-year-old girl, a good runner, and games player, I assumed that swimming would come naturally to me. Alas, I had several near-drowning episodes that resulted in genuine fear of this perilous form of play.”

Different escapades beckoned as Ruth turned 13. Her friend Henrietta “introduced me to the reality of teenage sexual adventurism.” Ruth was persuaded to

“… put on lipstick and join her to ‘meet the Navy’…. Somehow the power of our loyalty played a part in my assent, plus my own excitement and curiosity now that I was a real teenager! The upshot was that Henrietta kissed a sailor, and I listened supportively for a long time to a homesick lad from Iowa. (An omen for my future.)”

As the teenage years proceeded, Ruth’s confidence and vivaciousness led to her being called Ginger, a moniker, one would imagine, derived from her obsessive love of dancing and its association with movie star and dancer Ginger Rodgers.  There was also an emerging seriousness of purpose and a knack for leadership.  Soon after the “meet the Navy” episode, her friendship with Henrietta ceased and she “took on the task of starting a Camp-Fire Girls group” which she chose “for its wholesome values and its own woodsy rituals.”

Ruth talked little and wrote less about her high school years.  She described herself as outwardly quiet, but inwardly stewing on “a wide, daring palette of emerging ideas and a moral consciousness about social problems.” At 16, she graduated from high school and passed a rigorous entrance exam to enter Hunter College, a city-funded university.  But she chose to defer entrance for a year, wanting to earn some money to defray the financial burden on her parents.  She was also “shocked on reading the high-school annual description of me as ‘a volcano, quiet on the surface, but boiling underneath.’”  She decided to experience the real world and go on a pre-college “journey of discovery.”

The “Ginger” Years

The first job Ruth applied for was as a babysitter.  She saw an ad in the paper, took the subway all the way from her Bronx home into the heart of Brooklyn, and discovered to her dismay that the address listed was a tavern.  Upon entering the bar all eyes suddenly turned to her as she asked the bartender about the advertised job.  “The wife is up the stairs to the right. You’ll find them there.” At the last riser she opened the door to a smelly, disheveled apartment with an overwhelmed mother holding her infant. “Here… take him,” the mother said as she practically threw her baby at Ruth.  Both the baby and Ruth were stunned, and the wailing that commenced and the confusion on Ruth’s face was enough evidence for the mother to reach her conclusion. “Yeah… I don’t think this is going to work,” she said as she handed Ruth 25 cents and told her to go catch the subway home.

A slightly more successful gig came next, as Ruth took on the role of bus girl at a Greek restaurant. She ended up talking a bit too much to customers and staff, dropped a glass of water on a customer’s lap, and was fired after one week. 

Finally, she accepted a job in a Brooklyn radio condenser factory, owned and operated by a subcontractor to General Electric.  She was dexterous and rapid in the detailed hand work necessary to combine the condenser materials and was proud to be a member of the working class. After several months on the line, she felt ready to resume her academic path.  It was on to Hunter College, the premier public women’s college in New York City.

Ruth wrote about “growing my voice,” and Hunter College politics was her first big step toward that end.  Friends encouraged her to run for Freshman Representative on the Student Council. She claimed to be “surprised, flattered, and scared, but agreed.”  It was in that successful run, that Ruth first learned the traits of leadership and influence. “Develop a brief, clear and positive presentation,” she was advised by a friend who was already holding office. “Speak slowly and firmly, for this lessens fumbling.” One must always “look into the eyes of individual students.”

Ruth was re-elected her sophomore, junior and senior years, rising to the level of Sophomore Class Vice President.  She served alongside fellow student Bella Abzug (nee Savitzky), who was later elected as Student Council President.  Years later still, when Bella was in Congress and visiting Washington State to drum up support for the feminist cause, Ruth went up to greet her after a fiery speech. “Why if it isn’t Ruth Jaffe!” Bella screamed, upon seeing her old college friend.  Ruth was so pleased to be remembered.

On the Student Council, Ruth learned to speak up, even during stressful confrontations. She advocated for student interests with faculty and administrators, pressed the city for more free books, and set up meetings to protest the Nazi regime. Ruth found that she had abilities as a peacemaker between warring factions.  Her student government position “gave me the chance to be an impresario and a relaxed mistress of ceremonies.” She emceed a presentation about the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, urging women to boycott Japanese silk stockings. Ruth felt “moved by being a special part of action that corresponded with my sense of justice.”

She majored in “Pre-Social Work” at Hunter. During a party at the beginning of her senior year in 1939, Ruth observed a tall and handsome man across the room and said to herself “now he’s the kind of man I want to marry.” She struck up a conversation with the man, Arthur Farber, who was bound for social work studies at the University of Buffalo. Ruth immediately found him to be intelligent and overflowing with similar enthusiasms as her own.  They chatted that evening for hours.  “This was a romance spiked with much talk, discovering common values, sharing personal and family experiences, and learning more about social work education and work opportunities,” Ruth gushed.

In a 1951 essay about their relationship, Art wrote:

When I first met Ruth, I was immediately attracted to her, (sounds a bit like the “love at first sight” stereotype, but I truly feel there is something very important in the immediate spontaneous feeling attraction and response, which I have come to regard with deep respect).  I was drawn by her prettiness as a woman, the charm of her personality, the sense of wholesome strength and sense of self she carried about her. “

Nevertheless, Art left for Buffalo soon after the party, and spent the next year finishing his undergraduate education. The two didn’t see each other again until Art returned to New York to start his Master’s program at Columbia University. 

When I returned to the city, I was drawn, magnet-like, toward her. I was then filled with a new enthusiasm about life, and my own growth experience, both professionally and personally.  It was a new me, a readier me, a very pulsating self, much like the exuberant, burgeoning hero of Thomas Wolf’s “You Can’t Go Home Again”, and I brought this to the relationship I now actively reached out for.  I was ripe for a deeper relationship than I had experienced before, and Ruth responded more fully and genuinely than any woman I had known before.

By the time Ruth graduated from Hunter in June 1941, she and Art had been married for a month. Art had graduated from Columbia and Ruth’s application for Columbia’s Master’s Program in Social Work was approved with enrollment set for the autumn.  Sequencing of these college entrance and marriage events was humorous, if not also a bit dubious.  Art had given a laudatory reference letter about his “friend” Ruth the month before the university’s acceptance and two months before their wedding day.

In the fall of 1941, Ruth dove into her Columbia studies with passion and energy. “Almost immediately after entering school, I felt positively challenged and reassured that this was what I had been basically wanting.” She loved the breadth of the curriculum “from critical study of welfare systems to the theories of human development.” She was stimulated by “the diversity of the students with respect to age, home base, nationality, race, and variety of experience.” She was one of the youngest students, “fresh from college,” but she connected easily with classmates.

The Grad Student and the Soldier

Then came Pearl Harbor.  Quickly, Art was drafted into the Army and became a “90-Day Wonder” Second Lieutenant, assigned as a Military Psychologist to the home front.  Over the first two years of his service, he was stationed on multiple bases around the country, eventually completing his service in Florida. Over the next five years, Ruth combined stints at graduate school, where she would return to her parents’ home, with extended periods around the country with Art.

In what would be a preview of her coming career, at Columbia “much of the heart and development of (my) social work skills took place outside the classroom” in field work placements.  In Spanish Harlem “I was assigned my first case,” a young Puerto Rican mother living alone with her 8-year-old daughter:

My supervisor stressed the importance of getting more information and establishing a relationship. I was to write a detailed process of the interview. I felt as if I was being shot into space, with no knowledge of the technology.  That interview was my first immersion in professional casework.  I recall that the woman and child continued to come for the balance of my placement. The mother became a bit more assured and gave me recipes for rice and bean dishes. The little girl lost some shyness with me and did not skip school as much.

Ruth graduated from Columbia with her Master’s in Social Work in 1944. She immediately joined the Red Cross as a Psychiatric Social Worker and settled into married life with Art in Florida during the remainder of the war. They were stationed at Camp Blanding, near the city of Starke.  It functioned as an army training center and for a while also held German prisoners of war.

Ruth and Arthur at Camp Blanding

It would be difficult to over-emphasize the challenging crucible that the war years placed on the relationship between Art and Ruth. The marriage commenced in the Spring of 1941 with a joint determination and expectation for equality and mutual support.  The war years separated the two physically right from its start and changed the power dynamics profoundly. Ruth soared in her confidence and academic progress, while Art struggled with his identity.  Ten years later, Art reflected on this period, in a 15-page paper he wrote titled “Relationship” for his Advanced Curriculum program in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania:

In our relationship, we both wanted to achieve a promotion and enrichment of our individual lives. This was not to be a patriarchal family with the underlying assumption of male superiority, no matter how subtly disguised. We regarded each other as peers, even with our differences, embarking upon a voyage of shared responsibility and mutual self-development. I, consequently, put out a great deal towards making possible my wife’s professional training soon after we were married.

Yet soon, Art’s military obligations and status would challenge his commitment to equality:

Then, a shift began to take place in our relationship. I was in my first real job in social work and was very uncomfortably trying to find my way in the wake of being drafted into the army. My wife was doing very well at school, and in all of her absorption with the exciting newness of training, I felt a detachment…. our separateness came to a head as my wife very capably took part in the leadership of a student-sponsored social work conference, in which outstanding people in the field participated.  I was both threatened and anxious about her chairmanship of a panel discussion and compared her sense of poise and adequacy with my own felt inadequacy in this area.…  I think I was also finding … both of us becoming caseworkers, too difficult to bear. Now, I think that if we had to do it all over again, I might have helped her, if she had chosen, to become the nursery school teacher she had seemed to want to be when I first met her. In any case, I do not think I would have sold her so hard on social work, which was my own strong interest.

Even with these transformations of power and roles, the couple persevered. After the war, both Ruth and Art worked in the social services field in New York City.  Art in a refugee resettlement program with the Long Island Jewish Family and Child Service, and Ruth as a family caseworker and therapist.  Ruth also put her collegiate leadership skills and connections into political advocacy.  In one of the women’s organizations she led, Ruth recruited former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to speak.  Bringing her mother-in-law Ida to the event won her many chits from that huge Eleanor fan!

Meanwhile, less than a year after Ruth and Art’s post-war return to New York, Ruth became pregnant with their first child, Ann Helen. By January 1950, their second child, Laura Jane, arrived. Though the marriage was intended to be based on equality, and both parents had identical master’s degrees from Columbia, it was Ruth who shouldered full-time child-rearing and homemaking responsibilities. Later, when asked by her son why she assumed her husband’s last name and total responsibility for domestic duties, Ruth replied that at the time “there simply wasn’t any thought that an alternative existed.”

However, these traditional gendered roles took their toll on Ruth.  She endured post-partum depression and bouts of anger.  Deep emotional connections with her children did not come automatically. There were tensions with Art, leading to episodic marriage counseling sessions. Much later, Ruth would reveal that the conflicts were in part due to Art’s insistence on creating task lists and asking Ruth to be more organized. Art’s view was that Ruth was better at receiving love than giving and he felt periodic separateness. But being a stay-at-home mom was not satisfying for the activist, intellectually stimulated Ruth.

Five years after Laurie’s birth, Ruth became pregnant with her third and last child, Daniel Ben.  It was an unintended event – a mishap with a diaphragm in the shower – that Ruth later revealed for the first time to her middle-aged son, proclaiming it “a happy accident.” Nonetheless, the timing of this latest family expansion probably played a role in activating Ruth’s wanderlust and craving for adventure.  Art and Ruth also expressed a keen desire to get away from less-than-ideal family influences in New York. One day, while watching Arlene Francis on television, Ruth viewed a visually rich report on life in the Pacific Northwest with all the usual stars on display – Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, old-growth forests, rhododendron gardens, and the Olympics. That evening Ruth sat Art down and explained with an insistent tone, “I want to move to Seattle!”

Six months later, Art got the job of Director at the Carolyn Klein Galland Home, a Jewish home for the aged in Seattle.  Until Danny was old enough for pre-school, Ruth continued to be a stay-at-home mother and homemaker.  Early on after the move West, the Farber’s purchased a ¼-acre tract in Lake Hills, a large suburban development east of Seattle, and had a five-bedroom home constructed.  They hired a professional landscape architect to create a “low-maintenance” garden, and for the first time, Ruth was living the middle-class idyll. 

She loved to get her hands into gloves, pulling out weeds and planting annuals.  She loved weekend family day trips to Mt. Rainier, Hood Canal and various state parks. And she began to get active in the local PTA.

Meanwhile Art’s career bloomed.  In 1961 he became Director of Seattle’s Jewish Family and Child Service and in 1964, moved to an academic career as professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work.  Art’s intellectual explorations complemented Ruth’s strong interest in research and professional development.  The marriage partnership expanded even more into a professional one, as each relied on the other to critique and support their explorations of innovative ideas and complete academic publications.

At the new home in Lake Hills with Ruth’s three kids

Ruth and Art filled their home with abstract sculptures and paintings; with Danish modern furniture in addition to the Pennsylvania Dutch dining room pieces they brought from the East. Their house pulsated with the sounds of folk, blues, jazz, klezmer, and classical music emanating from their mono LP player; with family games of Cribbage, Yahtzee,  Charades, and Ping Pong; with children’s practices and performances on the upright piano, banjo, flute, clarinet, trombone and guitar; with dinner parties of friends and colleagues; with birthday parties for kids; with Thanksgiving feasts and Passover seders of friends and family; and with larger gatherings of activists dedicated to advancing one sort of social cause or another that Ruth or Art felt passionately committed to advance and thus host at their lovely home.

As her youngest entered kindergarten, Ruth was able to incrementally re-establish her professional social work bona fides.  First working part-time and then eventually full-time, she had a 25+ year career as a marriage and family counselor at the non-profit United Way-sponsored Family Counseling Service of King County. During this period, she also served for many years as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington School of Social Work, providing practicum instruction to students in the counseling track. Upon retirement from the agency, Ruth continued as a therapist in private practice, led workshops on mother-daughter relationships and other family systems topics, and stayed active in national social work organizations.  

Ruth’s analytical, intentional life direction was forcefully jolted upon the shocking, but not surprising, death of her husband. Art died of heart failure in the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, Israel, while he and Ruth were traveling internationally for his academic sabbatical. Ruth was only 61.

Ruth and Arthur in China during Sabbatical

Family and friends observing Ruth at that critical time, all had the same impression of a woman who, while honoring marriage and the partnership she had with a life-long love, nevertheless was analytical and systematic in pushing through a productive grieving process.  Ten years after the event, Ruth wrote about her determined approach upon Art’s death under the title “Myself as an Aging Woman Therapist:”

My reactions to my husband’s death were complex:  numbing loss of a close, loved partner; inability to function around practical tasks, and other natural symptoms of grief and mourning.  I was fortunate to have great, mutual support with my children and close friends. Utilizing my knowledge about the value of behavioral change, I set tasks and affirmations for myself: such as brush your teeth, call a friend, congratulate yourself for spontaneous crying at hearing our favorite music. When I returned to work on a part-time basis, I was different – a calmer, deeper person, more sensitive to the issues of clients who were facing the death of family members.

She established an Arthur S Farber Wellness Educational Fund at the University of Washington School of Social Work and put together a workshop on her husband’s core academic pursuits.

After the workshop, I sensed a powerful change within me.  I moved from my identification as A’s wife and sought for separateness in personal relationships. No longer was I accepting of the customary couple relationships we had enjoyed; perhaps there was too much reminder of our mutual loss and some of my questions of how I was individually regarded.

Ruth felt both Art’s loss and her individual freedom. Freedom from men in general and freedom from Art’s “shadow” as she put it. 

No man was truly appealing, nor did I truly seek such possibilities. However, I was free (as I can see was my perception of A’s wish) for my individual development. In overt ways I removed myself from A, the sabbatical experience, any thoughts and possible reaction to an open examination. Of course, that was reinforced by my blockings and fears about public writing. 

Movement towards agency retirement was an autonomous, planned and gratifying step. The earlier establishment of a small private practice helped grease my confidence.  And yippee, it brought me closer to my personal reality, to my singlehood and individual future.

So, Ruth sought out friendships with women and women’s groups.  She joined and became very active in the Older Women’s League (OWL), where, among other activities, she helped establish a “Life Review” writings group[3]. She co-founded the Women’s Therapist Network in the Seattle Area.  She also faced head-on the “necessity to assume greater responsibility in my professional and financial/administrative affairs.” This led to “my choosing an active rather than a victim-resenter stance.”

Ruth filled her retirement – and post-marriage – years with productive and adventuresome experiences. And with continued and expanded connections with people.

She traveled extensively with friends and with tour groups; using these opportunities to both eclectically learn more about science, literature and the arts, and rejoin parts of her life experiences and ancestry. Elder Hostel programs brought her to Glacier and Grand Canyon National Parks. To rafting the Colorado and theater with geology lectures in Ashland. To Hawaii and Alaska and Mexico. For almost two decades, Ruth participated in such travels at least once a year.

When the Soviet Union began to open up due to Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika initiatives, Ruth flew to Moscow where she miraculously met up with first cousin Sarah Goldman[4]. A cousin who – with spectacular luck leading to ease of communication – had been an English Teacher! Until USSR’s last days before its 1991 collapse, Ruth was not even aware that that part of her father’s family had survived the Holocaust.

Ruth embraced her Jewish identity in retirement more than she ever had in her working years. She served on the Board of the North End Jewish Community Center in Seattle.  She attended High Holy Days services with her son.  She joined a Yiddish club, reviving her childhood mamaloshen (mother tongue) skills. With the help of a beloved family rabbi, she translated her father’s Yiddish poems into English and shared them with her reconnecting world-wide family.

Her favorite “Pappa poem” was titled “Marriage,” as it summoned the sweetness of her parents’ early life together:

No need for rabbi to unite us                                       Nit keyn rov zohl undz farbindn

Lips together sing the blessing                                    Lipn oyf lipn veln di brokhes opzingn

Hearts together light the candle                                 Hartz oyf hartz veln di khupe-likht tsindn

Hands together solder the rings                                 Hant in hant veln shmidn di ringn

The free heavens are the canopy                               Der frayer himl vet di khupe shpreytn

Stars: the witnesses and guests                                  Di shtern veln zayn di eydes un gest

The Green Grass prepares the table                          Der griner groz vet dem tish tsu greytn

Love is the food we eat                                                  Undzer libe vet zayn di gerichtn vos men est

The morning dew sets the wine                                  Der morgn toy vet dem vayn tsushteln

The rising sun greets us                                                 Di oyf geyende zun vet undz bagrisn

Friendship and trust are with us                                 Frayntshaft un tsutroy zohl gor nit fein

Pure as well water our conscience                             Vi Kval-vasser reyn zohl zeyn der gevisn

Even as she maintained a full schedule of independent activities and passions, Ruth was proud of and engaged in her roles of mother, grandmother and family elder. The marriages of her children and births and development of her grandchildren often brought her great joy.  Family events also brought worries and sorrow when divorce or other challenges occurred.  As a professional family therapist, Ruth could look at her own family’s dynamics with an analytical eye. Yet also feel profound emotions.

Connecting with her world-wide family, Ruth with daughter, son-in-law, and cousins from South Africa and Russia.

The last years of her life were for the most part poignant, even in their occasional sweetness. Ruth was stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease.  A woman who could blaze through the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, was left unable to read.  A woman whose profession required verbal precision, was unable to speak. And the lost capacities extended incrementally and tragically for close to 10 years.

At first, she could not finish sentences.  Sometimes the words would just trail off.  Driving, never her strong suit (she infamously failed the state driving test three times before finally passing), became a greater and greater risk. When she started getting into accidents, claiming, “the other car came out of nowhere,” her children finally convinced her to stop driving. Hardest on everyone still was a core symptom of the disease: to deny that one has it. Her loved ones had to gingerly work through the process of keeping Ruth safe.

But in an extraordinary fashion, the dreaded disease also brought opportunities, fleeting though they were, for joy and tenderness. For decades, Ruth would not open herself up to the possibility of romantic love and companionship. Alzheimer’s brought with it a touch of humility, perhaps even vulnerability, as she let herself enjoy the companionship of a wonderful man, Max Applebaum, from her Yiddish group. They even moved in with each other for a while, prior to Ruth’s continuing deterioration which required 24-7 care in a nursing home. In a wondrous piece of life’s circularity, the nursing home Ruth entered, Kline Galland, was the very same one that her husband had been hired to direct 43 years earlier. The former “grand dame” of the home had become one of its patients in need of blessed care.

Ruth with partner Max and grandson Zac at her 80th birthday party.

Even as the ravages of dementia overtook her reason and communication faculties, two stories of true sweetness reveal the essence of Ruth. When she first arrived at Kline Galland, Ruth somehow perceived herself as functioning as the nursing home’s social worker, and could be found sitting with other residents, holding their hands and providing them a compassionate ear.  She went to the actual social worker on staff and managed to get across with a few words her interest in understanding how much she would be paid for her labors. The social worker told Ruth that she would investigate it and get back to her.  After a few efforts at this, Ruth forgot to ask again.

Later, at a stage when Ruth could no longer speak, her son and soon to be new wife Jean, visited her at the nursing home. They told her of their decision to get married.  Ruth reached out her hands to both, and broke into a grand, loving smile of recognition and blessing.

Born Rivka Antolept in Orenburg, Russia on August 1, 1919, Ruth Jaffe Farber died December 6, 2005.

Part 3:  A Son’s Perspective – Written in the Winter of 2022

Author and Ruth Jaffe Farber, circa 1980

Soon after completion of Unboxing Rifka – Part 2, I got an email from sister Laurie. “I’ve found more boxes with Mom’s writings,” she pronounced. I also knew that years previously I had stashed many personal letters from family and friends in my attic, having made a habit of never throwing such intimate mementos away.

The sheer volume of these additional materials proved staggering.  Sorting and organizing Mom’s papers and mine was a task onto itself. Then there was the time-consuming and inexact challenge of deciphering her penmanship!

From my childhood up to her senility, I received – and kept – over 125 personal letters and cards from Mom. These were missives that contained substantive feelings and thoughts – enough substance that made them for me, apparently, worthwhile keeping.  She wrote in over 20 journals about her travels, feelings about daily life, philosophical musings, and professional observations. She wrote what appears to be a 29-page opening portion of a larger manuscript that attempted to summarize and contextualize the intellectual explorations of her and Dad’s sabbatical journey. A journey that ended in his death. So far, the remainder of that paper is either yet to be found or was never written.  

In her Older Women’s League (OWL) life-review writing class – that she founded – she developed more than 150 short essays. In the Women’s Therapist Network that she also founded; she wrote a 14-page history of the organization. And in a complete surprise, one that contradicts Part 1 of “Unboxing Rifka,” it turns out that yes indeed, she was a published author. Mom was a contributor of book reviews to the national professional periodical “Social Casework” from the mid-70s to the early 90’s. 

Hers was a life in words.  Thousands of pages of words.

As I digested, often with stunned surprise, the volumes of prose and poetry that her hand and mind churned out, the trove of revelations caused me to reevaluate my assumptions and predilections and judgments about Mom. About who she was, about the complex and multi-faceted nature of our relationship, and about who I was and am as a person. These revelations weren’t always pretty. But sometimes they really were.

Let’s say it bluntly and launch from there.  Before diving into “Mom lit,” my feelings about our relationship could be summarized thus:  I loved my mother because she was my mother and one has to love one’s mother, but in substantial ways I didn’t like her. In memory, I found her affected.  Arrogant. Insensitive to my feelings and the feelings of others.  I found her intrusive.  Overly analytical. Her own self-criticism held back with a detached superiority.

“Don’t social work me!” I would say to her when the situation warranted.  My sisters and I shared this resistance to her perceived invasiveness. This led all of us to keep our emotional distance from Mom, but perhaps mine was the most extreme reaction.

In memory, I withheld information from her. Not letting her “in” because it would come across as a strategic psychological victory for her over me.  I experienced her interest as sucking me emotionally dry.  If I let her in just a bit, Mom would want more and more details about my “feelings.”  So, out of a sense of competition, I didn’t give in to her probes. In sum, before “Unboxing Rifka,” memories of my relationship with Mom were fundamentally distant and rather negative.  

With the latest explorations of her journals, the fullness of our correspondence, and research into her professional writings, my appraisal has not just become more nuanced.  I have concluded that those memories were fundamentally and grimly distorted. The written record, which can never be the whole story but must be trusted far more than undocumented memory, is that Mom and I had a deeply positive, warm, loving, sharing, mutually respectful and highly valuable relationship.  The written record is replete with examples of her tenderly and with great wisdom supporting my maturation. And of equal surprise, my writing featured regular and gushing praise and open and effusive gratitude.  We gave each other credit for a deep friendship.

So why the profound disconnects between memory and evidence?

I decided to probe the written record for clues, exploring moments of crisis or near crisis in each of our lives as flashpoints for discovery and insight. These times of risk and fulcrums for change were not only trials for one or both of us, they also produced the greatest volume of correspondence as evidence.

Due to her extensive studies in the psychology of human growth and development and her keen – even obsessive – interest in writing about the “process” of life – Mom made special effort to communicate in her letters at a level she perceived was developmentally appropriate. 

In my first remembered personal crisis – as a 9-year-old, I had run away from overnight camp due to constant teasing about my foot cast – Mom wrote:

Dear Danny,

We guess you’re having more fun, now. It may have been hard at first because of your foot. We know how well you try, and what fun you do have with kids.

Lady got a bath today – My, how good she smells!

Love,

Mom & Pop

Communication between us became quite different, of course, as I became a teen.  During Dad’s sabbatical year in London, when I was 17, Mom, Dad and I lived in a Belsize Park flat. It was an exciting time of growth for me, but also a time of maximal stress and pain in my relationship with Mom. At one point, the three of us sat down and negotiated an agreement. Mom would ask nothing of me, and if I was not adequately carrying out the household tasks, Dad would be the designated parent to make an approach. Mom had become an intolerable, irritating presence in my world.

Yet, letters that flowed between us after I alone departed for the States to finish my senior year of high school, completely belied the previous emotional distancing. A month after our separation I received this missive from Mom:

“Dear Dan: Your letter was received in high style – Pop whooped up the stairs and we’ve enjoyed and savored several readings. We are impressed with all you’re pulling together for yourself, and how you struggled (with your friend’s help) to achieve a new stage in self-respect. That’s really great!”

At the time, I was living with a friend’s family until June.  Not until then had I seen a different way of daily living.  While my host family was generous and kind to me, I was shocked into true appreciation of both my parents that only separation can provide.

Mom and I carried out an extensive correspondence when I went off to various colleges during the 1970’s. I expressed to both my parents, various struggles I was having in school and with relationships. Sometimes my letters would go just to one parent. Sometimes responses would come – and be signed – by one parent.  It was important for both to develop “bilateral relations” with each of their children. With Mom, there was constant change and meshing of identities in the terms used for our relationship. She usually signed off correspondence with a “Mom/Ruth.” Sometimes it would switch to Momma and sometimes the word Friend would be added.  A typical, encouraging note from her was:

“Dear Daniel (Son, Friend, Person),

So you are off on another journey! I hope and believe it will be exciting, sometimes boring or perplexing, challenging, and growing above all. And always remember, (like Shelley Berman) in Seattle/Bellevue, you have a home – one of many – for your “family” is wide and far-sprung.

Love, respect and caring,

Momma Ruth”

For my part, during this 1970’s period, much of my correspondence was of praise and thankfulness:

August 27, 1978

Dear Mom,

I’ve just been listening to Bikel. No tears but a lot of warmth inside.

I thought of you. And I thought of myself. This Jewish thing is something, isn’t it?

This is a time of consolidation for me. I’ve made so many changes in so many directions that I’ve lost the old foundation. It’s there, I know it is. I’ve just misplaced it.

But I’ll tell you something. Part of that foundation is my Jewishness. More than I’ve allowed myself lately.  I need that Jewishness now and I’ll need it in the future.

Why am I just writing to you? Not Dad too?

Because I feel, to a great extent, you are my Jewishness. The emotions (sometimes misplaced emotions), the search for knowledge, the vision of a better world – it’s all there.

I guess I’m feeling the you in me beginning to assert itself, express its needs.

I welcome it with open arms – and you too.

Love,

Daniel

May 13, 1979

Dear Mom and Dad,

I’ve been doing some thinking lately. This anniversary – birthday – Mother’s Day time might just have a bit to do with it.

You know, you’ve been awful nice to me – really. I mean, first you go and get me born, then you raise me – and lower me a little as well when it’s good and necessary – and then you continuously support, encourage, love me through my 23rd year. And you don’t show the littlest sign of giving that up. DO YOU KNOW HOW THAT FEELS? Do you know what that means to me?

I’ll tell you what that means to me. You’ve given me life and then you’ve given me the tools to make that life a grand one. For that I love you, thank you, and say the following:

I Pledge to Arthur and Ruth Farber:

  1. To love both of you for the rest of my life, and
  2. If you’re (either or both) ever in need, to help you in any way I possibly can.

Happy Anniversary and happy Mother’s Day with love and thanks from

Daniel (your only son – you know, the tall one)

With the death of my father Arthur, in 1980, our mother-son relationship was instantly on a new footing. We shared in the reality of being two single adults, though each at very different stages of life expectations.  But Mom’s discipline, drive, vision and emotional maturity was extraordinary. On October 16, 1980, one day after her husband died, Mom wrote to a professional colleague, whom I believe she and Dad had intended to visit in the UK after Israel:

“Dear Allan (Pepper),

Your letter was transferred to a friend’s home in Israel, and I have the painful experience to inform you that Arthur died yesterday, of what I assume was a quick, devastating heart attack. We had been traveling since September 1 on sabbatical leave (Japan, Hong Kong, Mainland China and India) when we arrived in Israel (for Art’s study of health and Kibbutz living). He had already picked up a nasty, debilitating virus in the last period of a demanding Indian tour. He was slowly recovering in Israel, and we were looking ahead to an abridged plan of professional appointments, and then on to U.K.

I’m at a point when I need to be organized and planful, along with periods of deep sorrow and loss, as well as remarkable memories of a thoughtful, loving man with whom I was fortunate to share many (but not enough) years.

He would have wanted me to let you know that he carried the Peckham message everywhere, including some remarkable health-oriented people in a Japanese village; a surprisingly open-minded tour guide in China; some fascinating people at the Sri Aurobindo ashram in Pondichary, India, and a health “moshav” (cooperative community) in Israel.  Also, we had the warming experience of learning that several Peckamite.(sic) or its principles were utilized in an experience in Madras, (you likely know that). Just the other day, Dr. Gample, head of the preventive health community project in Jerusalem said that a Dr. Kark had been involved and positively influenced by Peckham.

Alas, Art would not be here to continue and to work. Yet, I feel his presence and his enthusiasm, and so will others Best wishes on your plans, and do keep me informed (if you wish), for I intend to be involved on some level with Art’s interests, which I share.  I am leaving for the US in a few days but may not be home for several days.

Yours,

Ruth

Just hours after her husband’s death she was already summarizing for a colleague the sabbatical’s journey and purpose, openly acknowledging the terrible emotional toll of the event, and respectfully staking out a professional legacy.

In the short months that followed, Mom and I wrote frequently to each other. I decided to relocate for the month of December away from my university in California to her home in Bellevue, where I took a temporary planning job just to be near her. I wrote to her soon after returning to school:  

1/8/81

Dear Mom,

(The letter starts with descriptions of the classes I was taking in school and other minutia.)

Mom, it was so good to be with you this past break. It was a tremendous strengthening process for me and I hope for you as well. Yes, my father, your husband, is dead. We miss him so much. But our love for him can be such a source of pure joy. We can think of him, see him running nimbly in the woods, see him hit the dance floor with lightness and grace, see him get excited by an idea; we can think of him and be very very happy.

And yet, strangely, we live on. Time is still at the grand controls. We need to make decisions, do work, live on without him.  I have felt sadness at his loss in the past and will feel more in the future. But right now, I just sense the curious and queer fact that time has separated me from Dad not because we wanted it but because time wouldn’t allow Dad to keep traveling along with it.  Time filed for a permanent divorce with Arthur and won….

Write and tell me how you’re doing, kiddo. I think about you every day and when people ask me how you’re doing I say, “My mother is amazing.  She’s a very strong capable person who’s treating herself right.”

You are, and I love you mucho,

Daniel

It was really the closeness to my mother, not just need for closeness, but genuine emotional connection, that caused me to choose to return “home” after completing coursework in California.

5/16/81

“Dear Mom,

Sitting down in the living room and listening to a Woody Guthrie record and letting my hair dry from the last shower, and thinking of you….. (I go on to explain my failure in job search efforts.)

I think I should move up to the great northwest. I think it soon will be time to move up there and do some work. Mom, I’m beginning to feel like an adult.

I also want to be with you and let you cry and talk and be together. It is time for that as well.

My best wishes and energy to you, Ruth. Enjoy and be enjoyed. Do a mitzvah for someone and have one done for you.

Love,

Daniel

In 1981, homeward bound it would be. I very briefly moved in with Mom until I got a part-time job to support living in a shared house in Seattle.

May 10, 1982

Dear Daniel –

Birthday greetings from me – your mother, friend, person (see, I have my own stationary!).  Today was a significant day – wedding anniversary – and I had and encouraged wonderful memories; Singing old songs, smelling flowers and shrubs, and working four hours in garden – finishing one fence section!

And then there are memories of how “we” felt about you these last years. Yes, we said, Dan is a man, and we felt basic confidence and love. A man is not a finished “male machine” but a growing adult – tender and tough – vulnerable and vigorous – caring and competent – Knowing and always learning – and that’s how I feel about you – now

It’s a tough time but “we shall overcome” and also have some good living.

Enough of “philosophy” –

Thanks for your loving, fun Mother’s Day baseball game – And the beautiful breakfast.

Daniel – I liked our talk about our relationship, and your resentments – I’ve let it sink in – and can understand your feelings – I accept you as adult – person – son – and rejoice in who you are

Love,

Mom/Ruth

Mom was continuously sending me positive messages. Praise. In looking at the above letter of 1982 some context helps. 

There was little argument that in many ways I was at a low point in my life.  Much self-doubt. I was one massive incomplete paper away from graduating from my master’s program in city planning.  It would be more than a year away from when I went to a therapist to help me finish that.  I had no wife, partner or even the glimmers of a girlfriend. And hadn’t for years.  I was a part-time bus driver and part time volunteer for the city of Seattle in a dead-end position.  So, her letter is reviewed by me now – and probably then – as “over the top” praise.

What happens when one gets such praise?  In part, one may think it’s undeserved.  But since it comes so consistently, it also reflects suspicion upon the praiser. 

Was Mom being honest with herself? Honest with me? And if full honesty is not apparent, what then the motivations?  Was she manipulating me?  Or, as I often thought, was she “social working” me?  Identifying through her professional research the optimum parenting model? Analyzing the best approach?  And in so doing, not being “real.”

I saw, in the writing she did on the day of Dad’s death, a concern about her role as a mother.  She described each of her children and what resultant role she would need to play in helping them through the grieving process. She described me as intensively admiring of Dad and needy of his support and encouragement. She wrote in her October 15,1980 journal:

How dreadful that will be – I almost felt I could stand to bear it alone – but how to deal with other’s pain – Dan who adored Arthur & so needy of him – Ann who was always fleeing death in the family – How will she meet this (I think with more maturity) And Laurie – the glory – whose strong feelings are sometimes squished by her need to be unsentimental – and Edith, the Yegermans – and the friends.

SO… this is a thing.  As a parent, as a human, how does one “help” another? For Mom/Ruth, this was important.  Not just important professionally. It was defining of all her relationships.  As a son/person I was both blessed to have a caring parent and put off by the “inaccuracy” of praise. I mistakenly – in retrospect – did not honor her intention.  For her behavior and communication was real for HER. Honest for HER.  And what would I otherwise have wanted?  Her not to give me love and support?

Strange too, how my ancient memories of our interactions dwelt on the negative.  For in reading the letters that I sent to Mom over the years, they were predominantly effusive. Thankful for all that she had given me. Appreciative of the “fullness of her being” as Mom and Dad would put it.  I thought that I hadn’t recognized that fullness, but at least in my writings I had.  And those writings – no psychological surprise to come – mimicked the very over-the-top praise that I had been questioning from her. I was writing like Mom. Giving her abundant encouragement and praise.

That May 1982 letter also references, briefly, a challenging verbal conversation, where I had been highly critical of her. And her response to that criticism?  Praise again for my directness and a willingness to look at herself.  Wow! What else would one want from another? From a mother? I was a constant challenge, and yet she kept pouring out expressions of love to me.

For Mom, and for me, there were two additional life tragedies that we were to go through together that would test our relationship. The first, very much of my doing. The second, of providence.

I met my future wife, Karen, at the end of 1982.  She had just graduated from the University of School of Social Work, having entered the quarter that Dad died in Israel. As our relationship bloomed, a deep connection occurred between my mother and Karen. As the song went “I want a girl, just like the girl who married dear old Dad.” Our marriage and subsequent siring of our child, Zachary, were major events in Mom’s life, and she placed high value, and received much nakhes[5] from our marriage.

From the date of our marriage in 1984, Mom often wrote to both Karen and I, and was over the moon happy in her perception of our family. She shared openly her feelings with us both:

10/10/88

Dear Daniel and Karen,

I’m writing to share some thoughts about Arthur and, of course, the meanings are different for all the family. I want to look beyond my oft-expressed regret that he is not here to see Daniel’s life strides, to enjoy the warmth and insight of Karen, and the breath-taking charm and aliveness of his namesake.

What seems important to me is to take the time to reflect upon him, and how I am still living and learning with the memory of his specialness. In many ways, I have grown more independent and yet more involved with people on an honest, intimate basis which Arthur and I learned for ourselves.

Let me “make it perfectly clear” that the three of you provide great joy for me, and, in fact, I feel fortunate that “all my children” and their loved ones are very dear to me.  Daniel, do you remember when I shared my anxiety that Poppa’s loss was so enormous for you, that you might have wished that he had been the surviving parent!

Shocking thought, and yet understandable. You were so reassuring about this, and I now feel myself as being a whole parent-person, not just a fraction of the “real” thing. I’m so glad to think about him, and to capture his spirit and make it my own in my way.  So I’ll light a candle in his memory.

See you soon (Friday 1-/21)

Love,

Mom/Ruth

A few months after sending the above letter, I informed her that there was in fact trouble in the marriage. Karen and I would separate in the spring of 1989, try to reconcile through the remainder of that year, and eventually divorce in 1991. During that period, Mom had a tightrope of emotional communications to negotiate. I was certainly in a frayed and vulnerable state, and Mom sought to both support me and encourage whatever possibilities of reconciliation existed.

“September 13, 1989

Dear Daniel,

… What can I say?  Well, this must be an intense, challenging time for you around your decision to try to work out issues with Karen – along with your work work – and father-son stuff – and family/friends – Of course, as you know, that could be seen as good stress – but also that requires some self-care. Right?

At the risk of sounding like a mother, I respond – yes! – And here’s a point I want to make.  I love you – Daniel – Dan – Danny not only because you’re my son in a formal way but because of who you are as a person – and our former and ongoing relationships.  I value you not primarily because you’re Zac’s father (although I’m thrilled that you helped create him and that you are a great, loving father), but again for yourself.  I was pleased and still am that you married Karen (who I experience as a caring, fun, warm, growing person) but because I saw her as being – and potentially developing ever more, as a loving accepting partner to you.

As you know, I was not privy to the great conflicts – and the issues that arose – and my hope is for greater understanding, and honest coming together with the facing of pain and hopeful healing. But – and – in all this process – You are important to me in our special way – even as I am deeply bonded to Zac – and warmly related to Karen – and you all as a family….

Love,

Mom

My memory was that any positive statement by Mom about Karen at that critical juncture felt almost like a betrayal or denial of reality. Yet the above letter now reads as supportive primarily of me, while also wisely and hopefully allowing for – even encouraging – the possibility of reconciliation. The tension between Mom and I was real, and our verbal exchanges were no doubt less balanced, but in the reading, the above letter, and several others, displayed Mom’s brilliant and strategic and loving prose.

After the reality of the divorce sunk in, Mom was not only a wonderful support to me as a single father, but developed a strong, loving relationship with my son Zac.  I dated a few women, who I introduced to Mom, and Mom and I had many positive connections over the coming years.

There was a consistency in our family relationships from the early to late 1990s. Mom had three grandchildren, one from each of her three children.  Passovers and Thanksgivings were traditional gatherings for us all, and grandchildren-focused conversations, events, and programs were frequent.

That consistency led to a certain regularity in our correspondence.  Logistical arrangements, summaries of recent experiences and planned events were interspersed with philosophical musings and references to current events.  Mom was an ardent political liberal. She was a member of numerous civil rights and social justice groups. With hilarious inefficiency, she would fund a plethora of organizations with $5 donations, practically assuring that the net value of her contributions was close to zero.  Nevertheless, her letters to me were spiced with encouragement to support one cause or another, and entreaties to join her “in the streets.”

Mom and Zac, in her Seattle Condo, circa 1998

By the mid-1990’s however, I was convinced that something was seriously wrong with Mom’s memory. And it was getting worse.  In a trip to Israel in 1995, she lost luggage – including her passport – at the airport. My own visit to Israel was overlapping hers, and I was able to assist in securing luggage and identity documents.  But she seemed overwhelmed by events.

Getting back to the States, and over the next few years, her condition slowly worsened until she was faced with the inevitable Alzheimer’s diagnosis. This must have been a terrifying time for Mom. She denied, but failed to hide, her mental deterioration.

Throughout her adulthood, as it was revealed to me through this “unboxing,” she had episodic depression.  She talked openly about it occurring early in her marriage, but then I discovered a letter from Dad to her on the occasion of her 55th birthday:

Sooo how can it be that Monday and Tuesday were so flat & low & tasteless & dull – after the good entertainment of the Bellevue Films Festival …. Yes, you did struggle and how much I was affected by your efforts at writing and getting that “thing” to say what you wanted.  The circles, and my mostly futile attempts to help – other than that you must have known how much on your side I felt and prayed you well….

Well, what shall the rest of to-day bring????  We’ll just let it flow you said, and so we will.

Mostly it’ll be you, and me w/you as a – horrors – that word – dread – terrible, COUPLE. – But we shall somehow bear it – for we’ll soon be off in our separate ways – acting & being our individual selves. [With apologies to Bergman’s new film.]

I hope your to-day pleases, delights, satisfied, entertains, enriches you/ and in some unforeseen sense touches, too, your talent to give, nurture others & help make this a better world. – I wish this wish for your to-morrows, too. And my third wish is that I may be a part of your dreams for more time to come……….

Left unknown from that letter was the frequency of her “flat” times and the relationship challenges implied by her rebellion from the word “couple.” The closeness and pervasively positive correspondence about their relationship, however, could only reinforce the outward appearance of its loving and respectful strength.

But Mom had her demons, and Alzheimer’s must have been the ultimate challenge. In an undated writing, though by its penmanship it must have been in the late 1990’s, Mom writes (with some illegible words):

The weave of my thought is not pretty tonight

The mirror on my wall looks twisted

I look into my heart – my way among all

Not nice, I say, but see, it’s me

There I am stumbling and caught in chatter,

Not hearing or heeding others, but grinning

    empty – smug-like – scared

Whirling, dishonest words, trying to be a self, not me,

    but see it’s me

I am tired of acting, of being ???? someone

Of drenching myself in self-pity – concocted

There is a righteousness, self-absorption

???? people – the new each day

And the old we must destroy –

To it! – and perhaps through calm and love

A different me will be and ????

It saddens me now to read of her torment. A torment which stretched on, in cascading intensity, for years.

A different kind of torment was experienced by her loved ones. Experienced by me. I lost my father in a blink of a moment at the height of his intellectual and professional influence and the peak of our interpersonal relationship.  I lost my mother slowly, incrementally, connection by connection. Which was worse?

In Part 2 of “Unboxing Rivka,” you the reader have already been introduced to Mom’s fate. The unraveling of her mind. In our relationship, too, there was an unraveling, with a clear change in roles.  Mom became Momela, a sweet soul. But not the person whom I had known for 50 years. I became at first a devoted son, and then just another person to observe.

For years, each visit to Mom in her various congregate care centers was painful. I did not visit every day, or even every week. More and more, the person I would spend time with wasn’t really my mother.  The frequencies of those visits corresponded to my level of guilt, even shame. What propelled me into the car for the long drive north was my struggle with a key question: what do we owe our parents?

I asked that of myself.  I asked the same question of others, getting varied responses. Nothing ever landed as an absolute formulation. Should I come this weekend? How could I live with myself if I didn’t come this weekend? So that’s when I came.

As you enter the front doors of the Caroline Kline Galland Home for the Aged – the institution which brought the Farber family to Seattle for Dad’s directorship and the institution that cared for Mom in her demented state – you are greeted in large bronze letters with the biblical injunction: “Honor Thy Father and Mother.

It was during these nursing home days that I truly saw Mom’s Jewish soul emerge as a core of her being. When Alzheimer’s took away her last words, she could still sing.  And her melodies… Yiddish and Russian.  These were her roots.  Hurrah, she was back home!

I do not now think the distortions of my memories from our earlier time together were caused by the last 10 years of Mom’s discombobulation. Mostly I chock it up to my undesirable tendency to remember the negative more easily than the positive. Can it be as simple as that? Yes, dear reader, I know your answer to that: Mom would have written pages on the topic!

The fact that I kept all this documentation and that Mom kept all of hers, is a great treasure for my old age.  And before Alzheimer’s took it away, her old age as well.  It has allowed me to rehabilitate our relationship, and through that process, more fully grasp what a wonderful person and mother Ruth was, and how lucky I am to have shared such time on this earth as we had. Her preserved documentation has felt like an ultimate gift of a mother to a son.  And with this writing, my attempt, indeed, to honor her and her blessed memory.


[1] See “Unboxing Rivka Part 3” which was written almost a year after Part 2, for a surprising amendment to this statement.

[2] The exact location that each of Rivka’s parents lived immediately prior to Orenburg is uncertain, but it is likely somewhere around the towns of Dvinsk, Latvia and Zarasai (aka Novoalexandrovsk when it was in Russia), Lithuania. Rivka’s family name, Antolept, almost certainly was derived from the nearby small town of Antaliepte, Lithuania. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish people would travel and settle peripatetically in various communities within the Pale of Settlement.

[3] The same writings that contribute so much to this piece’s historical substance.

[4] A first cousin that Ruth learned, fascinatingly enough, was from BOTH sides of her family.  An uncle on her father’s side married an aunt on her mother’s side.  When Sarah and Ruth met, Ruth remarked, “So that’s why we look so much alike!”

[5] Yiddish, meaning parental pride  https://jel.jewish-languages.org/words/394

What is so special about June 17?

After graduating high school in June 1973 and prior to settling into a college start in the fall,  I went to work as a nurse’s aide at the Interlake Manor Nursing Home in my hometown of Bellevue, Washington.  It was my first full-time job, and I got paid precisely the minimum wage – $1.60/hour.

The value of those 10 weeks far exceeded any financial gain. My nurse’s aide summer came to define my adult character more than any subsequent college learning. It was the time of my coming of age, both morally and politically.

My father, Arthur, had been a director of a nursing home in the 1950’s and early 60’s. His institution was exclusively for geriatric residents.  Interlake Manor had a geriatric wing and a non-geriatric wing.  I worked in the latter area with younger people struggling from muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological, developmental and physical disabilities. Some of the residents were faced with progressive diseases. Others had longer, more stable futures.

As I was making beds, cleaning bedpans, and assisting with feeding and other essentials of daily life, I was also developing deeply and mutually caring relationships with residents. Their lives, their personas, filled my days.  A few folks – first names only here – became life-long memories:

Billy had muscular dystrophy, a progressive disorder.  He was described to me as also being developmentally disabled.  But the latter wasn’t so! Even as his body failed him more and more, he maintained a delicious sense of humor, an extraordinarily positive outlook on life, and a kindness to others that inspired many.

Norm was Billy’s roommate. He had cerebral palsy – which was not progressive.  He was a thoughtful and gentle man who was supportive of Billy.  Seven years later, I happened to see Norm in downtown Seattle. Technology had allowed him to escape nursing home life, and he was in a wheelchair, being lifted onto a Metro bus.  He remembered me with a great smile and a warm handshake. He proudly told me he was living independently, with some assistance, in a family home.

Marty was developmentally disabled, moved incredibly slowly along the corridors, talked in a slow, hushed tone, and seemed withdrawn from life at the nursing home.  But then, all of a sudden, he would straighten his back, break out into the most expansive smile of all time, and yell out at the top of his voice, “I love you Mrs. Mitness, ya cow!”  Marty, who was talking about the head nurse at the home, proceeded to let out a flourish of guffaws. And then, just as quickly, his back humped down again, his smile turned to catatonia, and he slowly shuffled quietly away.  I loved Marty… ya cow!

Sheryl was the most severely stricken person at the home with cerebral palsy.  She could not walk or talk.  But she could type letter by letter with her head hitting a keyboard attached to her wheelchair.  She was a beautiful young woman, and while I was there, she announced that she was getting married to a well-bodied man who had been her caregiver at the nursing home.  He was a sweet and caring soul, and their vows were pure beauty.

Patricia was blind, and developmentally at a one-year-old level, I was told. Yet she had a dignity about her which was unmistakable.

As I was caring for people, throughout the home, the television was tuned to the greatest political show on earth – the Senate Watergate Hearings.  I would sit glued to those hearings during breaks, before my shift, and after my shift. Committee Chairman Sam Ervin – just a poor country lawyer with twitching eyebrows.  Howard Baker – what did the President know and when did he know it?  Daniel Inouye, with the world’s most resonant voice (and doppelganger for my dad’s colleague Professor Cal Takaki). Lowell Weiker, the “liberal” Republican from Connecticut who turned out to be on Nixon’s “enemies list”.  And yes, of course John Dean, his wife Mo sitting behind and to the left, and his even-tempered description of the cancer growing on the presidency. It was all mesmerizing. 

But so were the whole cast of characters we came to understand as intimates in a morality play put into real life.  Haldeman and Ehrlichman, Nixon’s high-level henchmen. Egil “Bud” Krogh, who headed the “Plumbers” unit. He later recanted his role in the administration, moved to Seattle, and was a seen as a “nice guy” years later by my legal assistant female roommate. He may have been a nice guy, but he also directed the bugging of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office (I later worked for Ellsberg, but that is a different story).

As an 18-year-old man-child all this was mind spinning stuff.  Working intimately with vulnerable people and dedicated, caring professionals in the nursing home.  And at the same time, seeing the machinations of the powerful and unethical.  The combination of events and observations of that time dug deep predilections into my moral universe.

Why I fixated on the date of the Watergate break-in, June 17, 1972, I’ll never remember.  But it was during that extraordinary summer of 73’ I committed to telling someone, anyone, on June 17 of every year for the rest of my life, that “this is the xxx anniversary of the Watergate Break-in.”  And with nary a miss, I have kept that promise.

Most younger liberal/progressives now see Watergate as a distant event, and Nixon, while an evil man, as causing less damage to the United State polity, than the sinister consequences of Trump’s particular combination of psychoses and phenomenally successful “cultification” of a political party.  Yet, as I watch the January 6 Hearings, it all feels like a re-enforcement, not a new set of insights.

And it IS June 17, 2022, after all.  What’s that?  Why it’s the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in.

The Hazards in Humor

Soon after I published a recent blog entry entitled Bad Buskering, I heard from a friend that she wanted to talk with me. The post was intended as a humor piece mixing nonsense about public musicians playing poorly with a critique of the legal system and a dig at the Supreme Court.  It wasn’t that funny, but that turned out to be the least of its problems.

My friend and I talked, and she said that I had made light of a horrific experience in her life and the lives of many other women. The blog piece had prompted an emotionally traumatic response that hurt her deeply. Upon hearing that, I apologized to her and have deleted the blog entry.

Humor can be cutting.  It can exacerbate trauma.  It can, when done effectively, also bring comfort to those – and that is all of us – who have experienced the cruelties and craziness of life. It can help us cope with loss.

My piece on buskering, in retrospect, failed to deliver the comforts of humor not only for my friend, but for me.  

When my son was about 6 years old, I remember a discussion we had about humor. We had been acting silly but then I needed him to do something important.  He kept joking around even after I said that the time for humor was over.  Finally, I said to him, “What we need to do now is serious and you must listen to me. It might be that you can’t tell the difference between when I’m joking with you and when I’m serious. Do you want me to stop joking with you?”

“No, Dad.  I don’t want you to stop joking.”

So, we worked out an agreement about what I would say when I needed him to take me seriously. We put some boundaries on humor.

I won’t stop reaching for humor when it stares me in the face. And I’ll probably step over some lines.  But Bad Buskering was another lesson in the dangerous consequences of insensitivity. The recognition that indeed, there are hazards in humor.  

The Art of Slowing Down

“What do you notice about her face?” our cousin Rachel Kalnicki asks, pointing to the Degas sculpture of a young ballerina with tattered tutu and grim countenance. Jean and I are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with cousins Shirley, Dan and Andrea. Rachel, born in Brazil, who has been a volunteer docent at the museum for over 15 years, is giving us a personal tour.

It is a famous sculpture. One that Shirley knows well.  But the back story Rachel tells of the piece’s originally controversial and poor reception, of its social commentary on the exploitation and injustice borne by the impoverished girls in the Paris ballet’s back rows, is not obvious.

Slow down. Examine. Consider. Reflect. Reflect some more.

As a regular part of our writing class sessions, our instructor, Keith Eisner, has each of the students read a portion of a writing prior to our collective discussion of the piece. He believes that slowing down and hearing the writing is essential to its understanding.   

Last week, prior to his first-year student’s public readings, Keith read a poem by Tennessee Williams.  With the war in Ukraine about to enter its second month, with over three million refugees – 90% of whom are women and children – fleeing death and destruction, he asked people to consider the purpose of art:

The world is violent and mercurial—it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.

Last night, joined by our cousins Shirley and Dan again, Jean and I went to a performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, part of the New York City Center Dance Festival. Jean had secured the tickets and as we were led to nearly the front of the auditorium, I remarked to her at how close we were to the action. “Well, we can see the orchestra,” she replied, “but for dance, we might be a bit too close to get the wide view.”

A young woman of slight build, wearing a mid-length black dress and black mask, sat next to me on my left. To the left of her, a solidly framed man in black shirt and pants, chatted purposefully with her. As we waited for the performance to begin, I listened as the young woman started talking softly with an older matron in the row ahead. At a break in their conversation, I asked my neighbor if she was a dance performer.

“Yes, I am a dancer,” she replied.

During the subsequent 90 minutes, prior to the start of the dance and during its intermissions, I learn more about my neighbor. I learn still more after returning to our apartment and searching for web references.

Her name is Lauren Lovette and the man seated to her left, Michael Novak. Novak, it turns out, was hand-picked by Paul Taylor to take over the reins of the dance troupe after Taylor died in 2018.  Lovette had just been named by Novak last month as the company’s resident choreographer.

I knew none of that, of course, when our conversation began. “You’re a dancer. Oh, that’s wonderful,” I respond innocently. “Do you ever perform professionally?” And away we went.

Lauren had grown up in a deeply religious North Carolina household.  And she had a gift.  At the age of 14, she got a full scholarship to attend a prestigious New York City ballet school.  It was a hard decision for her parents, but they released her to follow God’s plan.  She never returned home to stay.

After understanding, if only vaguely at the time, that Lauren was not only a performer, but also a choreographer of some note with a Taylor-produced world premiere (“Pentimento”) performed only the night before, I dove right in.  “May I ask you a challenging question.”

“Well, yes, but I may not be able to answer it,” she replied. I could see her smile beneath the black mask.

“The obvious physical differences between men and women seem to play out consistently in dance. The men are powerful and lift the women. They display acts of strength while women are placed in a trusting role of being moved around by the men.  What if anything has happened in modern 21st century dance to reflect the changing roles of men and women in society?”

Lauren thought about it for a moment. “You know, I’m not really political in my choreography. I look at the abilities of my dancers and explore from there. There are women who are amazingly strong and able to do things that, frankly, I can’t do.  I’m trained in formal ballet. It involves a certain verticality – movement up and down – while modern dance is more horizontal.”

She described movements that require a greater understanding of the body than I can describe, yet I did follow her at the time.

“Recently, I was working with two men. One of the men, very strong, had always functioned as the lifter of women.  But in a piece I was choreographing, he was being lifted by the other man.  He simply broke down and cried for the joy of the experience.  People are different. With different passions and yearnings to fulfill. I love to work with that.”

I asked Lauren, in addition to her new choreography position, if she still performed. “Yes, I’m going to Southern California next week to dance at a maximum-security prison.”

She showed me a picture of a colleague of hers who was in Poland, assisting Ukrainian refugees. They were collaborating on an arts-in-the-prisons project. Then she showed me a picture of a grizzled prisoner she was working with on the LA project. “He has a swastika tattoo which he says he will remove when he is released next week after serving a 15-year felony sentence.”

The Paul Taylor Dance performance was a spectacular tour de force. In parts silly and humorous. In parts tragic.  Always an overwhelming expression of the depths of feelings possible from movement of the human body.

Slow down. Slow down. Take in the essence of the moments unfolding.

My son Zac is marrying Vicky in May. Vicky is an art curator. Zac an editor… kind of a curatorial role in journalism. As I have gotten to know Vicky, and am continuing to know my son more as well, I have thought more about art.  About the work of curating. About the importance of contextualizing works of art. Be they cat narrations of the apocalypse (https://artreview.com/candice-lin-cat-demons-will-heal-you/) that Vicky is working on), the history of musical instruments at The Met (another Rachel specialty), or Lauren’s work to advance freedom for people by expressing our body’s wonderous capacity for movement.

Slow down. Observe. Do a bit of research. Take it in. Be changed.

Obligations: For the Fun of It

In the summer of 2017 – feels like antiquity – my mother’s side of the family tree held a reunion in New York City.  This Antolept gathering of the flock brought together the descendants of a Lithuanian-based Jewry who had dispersed to four continents due to war, anti-Semitism and hopes for a better life.

For a couple of days during the reunion, Jean and I stayed with sister Laurie and brother Robie in an Airbnb-rented brownstone walk-up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.  We ate brisket, walked the Eastern Parkway border abutting the Chassid-dominated Crown Heights neighborhood, and strolled Prospect Park with our newly discovered cousin Rhona.

Rhona, a bright, professionally accomplished, energetic, and delightful early retiree, loved telling jokes. Not always great jokes… but jokes delivered with a joyousness that prompted smiles. 

We just instantly felt close to Rhona and as we departed, she said with the utmost seriousness, “You know, I have a lovely apartment in Brooklyn Heights. I’m rarely there, as I spend most of my time in my home in Pennsylvania.  You are welcome to stay at my apartment anytime you are in the city.  Stay a night, a week, a month… whatever you want.”

“Are you serious?” I responded.

“Absolutely!” she quickly replied.  “But I have only two conditions.”

“OK,” I said out loud, but thought, “here comes the catch.”

“Two conditions: First, is that you water the plants once a week.  Second, is that you have fun.”

Rhona let out a big laugh and a bigger smile as I said, “we might just take you up on that.”

“You do that. But remember, you must have fun.”

Fast forward four years.  Last summer I visited NYC and on the last night of my trip I stayed with Rhona in her 3rd floor apartment in the exquisitely precious and historic Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Upon our parting, Rhona reissued her offer and restated the same conditions.

Rhona’s 5-storey brick apartment on Hicks Street

And here we are now, March 2022, in the middle of one month in Brooklyn Heights.  For Jean and I took Rhona up on her extraordinary offer and are endeavoring to meet our obligations. Jean is handling the plant watering duties.  And we are both chasing bliss.

Having fun… this is always a sword tinged with guilt for me. My affluence, relative to the peoples of the world, allows for indulgences. Any problem with that?  “Of course, there is!” says the ever-present gnarly little ethicist dangling from a live oak tree in my amygdala. But then my rational hippocampus counters with the reality that one’s joy does not need to reduce others, and in fact, can induce positive effects more broadly. You know. Fun breeds fun.  Which is my guess as to Rhona’s view for her guests.

So, fun it is and fun it will be on the trip.

Our good friend Brian joined us for a few days. One afternoon we all took in the Whitney Art Museum then attended a taping of “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” Hilarity ensued, but no pictures were permitted.

Artist Jennifer Packer presents with intimacy and empathy, African-Americans, in a special Whitney Art Museum Exhibition

The next day, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge…

Brian stops to pose before heading to Manhattan

Across to downtown New York…

The spires of Trinity church and the World Trade Center

Down into the financial district…

Brian and bronze girl take on the powers that be.

Where we rubbed horns with Wall Street’s brass bull.

Not going to show the young lady who laughed while rubbing the bull’s brass balls on the sculpture’s other side. This is a family blog.

For the last couple of weeks, we have chowed down on delicacies from local delis and specialty ethnic restaurants.

Jean loves the pickled turnips!

Terrific baba ghanoush, hummus and tzatziki. Et cetera!

Best oysters on the half shell in my life!

Our cousins Shirley and Dan will be joining us soon. The pace will pick up immediately.  Museums to visit. Broadway shows to be wowed by.  Coney Island demands a Nathan’s visit. Dan is looking into a train ride out to Montauk.

There is a pace to travels, when you have one or two weeks and you want to see stuff. Shirley and Dan are on that ride. Up to now, that hasn’t been our pace.  We are reveling in doing nothing in the apartment.  Maybe a short walk to take in the extraordinary skyline views from the Brooklyn Promenade first thing in the morning. 

Three short blocks to the promenade.

Or rounding the corner for a hot bagel.  Or going no further than the living room and settling down for a long read with one of Rhona’s books.

One can, of course, enjoy a good book at home. But doing so in an historic and gracious apartment in Brooklyn Heights is just plain fun. And after all, that is our obligation.

The Eulogizing Predicate

This blog entry is in response to an assignment in my writing class. The instruction was to create a “Craft Paper.” As I understood it, we were asked to explore some aspect of the writing process or some type of writing. Here, the topic is writing and delivering eulogies.

Writing for Giving Praise as if Life Depended on It

“Arthur Sigmund Farber is dead, and we have come together to mourn and to pay tribute to his life. We have come to review, reflect and understand once again what he was, what he believed, what he fought for, and how Arthur has – and still will – affect us in our lives, in this world. And he still will affect us because Arthur Farber was a quite remarkable man.”

  • Daniel Farber, Age 25, Portion of Eulogy for Father

My father, Professor Arthur Farber, taught a course called Death and Dying at the University of Washington School of Social Work.  As a class highlight, he would take his students on a weekend retreat and ask them to write an autobiographical eulogy.  It was a neat trick, really.  A strategic tool designed to get each student thinking about their life. To assess what really matters… in the end.

Aging, death and dying were regular parts of our home’s dinnertime conversations.  One wintry evening, we even hosted Elizabeth Kubler-Ross[1] for dinner and professional dialog. As a hilarious bonus, Elizabeth tutored me through my middle school German lesson. Stages of grief indeed!


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_K%C3%BCbler-Ross

So it is with humility, and some dose of shame, that I recall my teenage self being anxious and awkward at communicating with the ill and dying. In one memorable incident, I visited a dear family friend who had cancer. Hers was a gloomy prognosis, and I did not know how to approach our conversation. Surprisingly, she recovered to live 10 more years! Yet I remember feeling that with my family academic inheritance, I should have known better how to converse with a terminal patient. I should have done better.

As it turns out, I and most everyone else who has the privilege to grow old, get plenty of practice conversing about death and dying. Both talking with the dying and talking about the recently dead. Usually, this talk is spontaneous and informal.  But occasions for formal writing and speaking about the recently departed tend to come up with increased frequency as one ages.

I have volunteered or found myself asked more than half a dozen times to perform eulogies at memorial services.  These opportunities for research, writing and oral presentation have been profoundly gratifying. The eulogizing process deepens and informs the grief process.  It heals the writer, certainly no less than it serves other mourners.

To better understand why it has been of such benefit, I decided to look into the history, purpose and process of writing and delivering a eulogy.

Civilization: Writings about Death and Life

Death is a central concern of the living.  Humanity has always placed great importance on public rites of mourning. Many – perhaps most – funerial rituals do not place a layperson’s eulogy as a central expectation.  Often, the professional clergy take on that responsibility. Yet, some form of praise and honor for the dead seems a universal ritual.

A core Islamic rite in China is the speaking of the “Hundred-Word Eulogy.” African-American eulogetic practice derives from a fusion of African indigenous religious tradition and primarily Christian New World ritual.  The ancient Greek practice of epitaphios logos, or the Athenian funeral oration, established formal speech expectations during funerary ceremonies. Honoring the dead, and their contribution to the polis, was essential for the ongoing health of the polis.

The word eulogy itself comes from the Greek eu- meaning “good” and -logia meaning “words.”  Its focus is on the praising of an individual, and for the most part, eulogies are oral prose presentations – speeches aimed for delivery at memorial events.

Eulogies can be distinguishable from similarly written expositions, though there are many overlapping characteristics. Consolatios are a wide range of literary devices used in ancient times, including speeches, essays, poems and letters, designed to console readers as they go through the mourning process. Elegies are poems of praise or tribute to the departed. They may be read at a funeral or provided in writing. Paeans are songs of praise or triumph. The subject may be an individual or many people or events.    Panegryics are public speeches or public texts praising people or things.  Eulogies are a kind of panegyric. Tributes are acts or gifts, but also statements, intended to show gratitude or respect to individuals or groups. Obituaries are written tributes to individuals found in newspapers or other broadly accessed media. They usually contain a very short description of the major relationships, events, and accomplishments of the individual. Biographies are generally longer and attempt to provide a more comprehensive assessment of the individual’s impact on family, friends and the larger society. Epitaphs are expressions found on a gravestone.

All those terms are, to an extent, eulogistic. They are attempts, through words, to rise to the high challenge of praise as a means of healing through mourning.

Eulogies in American Popular Culture:

Eulogies in the United States are often delivered by a close relative or friend of the deceased at the funeral or memorial.  They are opportunities to both express deep emotion and connect the subject’s life to the lives of the rite’s participants.

The first eulogy I ever delivered was at my father’s funeral.  In practical terms, it was a team effort, described in its beginning as:

“the product and process of family members coming together with their special memories, of excerpts from Arthur’s recent journal, and of past letters he has written us. We see this effort as a part of our mourning, as well as our healing and our learning. Let us use this time of his death as a focus toward his life, and ours.” 

I subsequently delivered or had a significant hand in writing eulogies for my mother and sister, grandparents, aunts and uncles, in-laws, friends and colleagues.  Never once did I prepare by researching the structure or approach to writing eulogies. Nor have I read any of the numerous books on the topic with such titles as “The Art of Writing a Eulogy” or “Eulogy Writing:  For Beginners!  How to Write The Perfect Eulogy & Funeral Speech.”[1]


[1] Those titles come from an Amazon.com book search for “Eulogies.”

Of course, now, like every other aspect of modern life, when a question comes up, one can “ask Google.” If the question is raised “What should be included in a eulogy?”, the Googled response is:

Share her notable life accomplishments.

  1. Retell your favorite stories from growing up together.
  2. Highlight the kind of person she was.
  3. Summarize your relationship in a few short words.
  4. Talk about what she meant to you and how she influenced your life.

Entire websites – businesses – are built upon the premise that people need assistance in the writing of eulogies.  Speech Form  https://www.speechform.com/ is one such site. It provides a fill-in-the-blank approach to guidance, i.e., “___ was a very special guy and I really miss him.”

Eulogizing has been a source of galvanizing people toward emotional and political unity. President Ronald Reagan’s statement after NASA’s Challenger disaster not only saved the space program but also improved his popularity. He poetically proclaimed:

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

President Clinton’s ranking in public opinion polls soared immediately after his eulogizing the fallen from the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing:

“You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.”

Hollywood movies have many examples of eulogies as a way to humanize their characters and emotionally connect audiences to their stories.  Here’s one example from the comedic movie Trainwreck : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVXT4sv2JI4

Considerations for the Writing and Presentation of Eulogies

There are no rules for how to write and give a eulogy, nor even expected principles of prose or performance. My own experiences in listening to and giving eulogies does not provide proof of their quality nor the value of their reception.  Nevertheless, reflection and self-evaluation on these examples has left me with eulogistic approaches that have “felt right” and seemed to work for me. So, I provide some ideas to consider, if the task – and opportunity – to eulogize is to fall upon you.

  1. Start with inquiry.  Contact the subject’s loved ones and those who cared about and knew the subject.  Ask them what was most important, striking and distinctive about the person. Ask them for stories or specific memories that they could share which capture the essence of the person. These could be happy memories or just memories of import. Tell people that you would like to share their memories with others, if possible, either in a eulogy or other mechanism. If people respond to your inquiry in writing, all the better if you can quote their responses in the eulogy.
  2. Eulogies are wonderful opportunities for subjects to express their own beliefs and self-descriptions, if you can find and use examples of their writings.  If you have such examples, read and select the most representative of them.  Ask others for examples of a subject’s writings. They may be formal documents written for professional use, or simple personal letters or notes.  All writings can provide insight into the nature of the subject.
  3. Eulogies should give a sense of the positive impact of a subject on family, friends and the world. The eulogist’s goal is praise, yes, but also accuracy.  Life throws everyone loops.  Challenges.  Hardships.  How did the subject deal with those? Are there stories of overcoming adversity? How was it done?  What was the effect on the subject and others?
  4. What did the subject accomplish in their life?  What were they proud of? What were they known for?  Can you describe significant moments throughout their life, from birth through death?
  5. Talking about a person who just died is talking about life. Theirs, yours, others, and an argument to be made about universal truths. What does their life say about what is important in life? What can people learn from the example of the subject?
  6. Death is about loss and sadness and pain, so it is important to include loss as part of the summing up about the subject.  What will you and others miss?  If the subject was very old and had a wonderful life, there is still a hole.  If the person died an untimely death, be it accident, crime, or illness, there will inevitably be a greater sense of tragedy in the eulogizing moment.
  7. The means of death is likely something that people will want to know about. Not all the details, but at least the core cause of death. Then people will benefit from your, or others, reactions to that cause.
  8. There should be humor to the extent that you believe the subject would appreciate it and the audience would be receptive. If the humor could come from quotes from the subject, all the better. The nature of humor can bring out distinctive aspects of a subject’s character.
  9. The spoken delivery is a vital part of the communication, and should match as much as possible or knowable, the character of the subject. Talking slowly, with clear enunciation and volume is essential. Emotional resonance comes from whatever is real for the speaker. Crying is not only appropriate, but often unavoidable. Yet the orator must also stay audible. For the audience to see the eulogist’s emotions, gives permission for their own emotions to present.
  10. If you are lucky enough to have samples of the subject’s writings or music or other artistic creations, it is a wonderful opportunity to interweave them into the eulogy. Perhaps you can have different people read excerpts from the subject’s letters/emails or other writings.  This brings the subject “alive” in a real way.
  11. If you know what the subject enjoyed or took solace from or strongly believed in, it would be of special value to include that somehow in the eulogy.  Did the subject have a favorite author? A favorite quote?  A favorite sports team?  Anything that distinguished the subject in the eyes of others, would be of great value in the description of the subject’s life.
  12. Finally, if possible, find a way to include those present in the content of the eulogy. Find a way to recognize the importance of them in the life of the subject.

A life cannot fully be summed up by eulogizing.   But putting together a eulogy is an opportunity to give the gift of attention to a person.  To think of them intently and to attempt to pay great respect for their life, and for those whose lives the person touched. Delivering a eulogy heightens the critical moments of shared grief, and if you are fortunate to grow old and retain the document, the opportunity for many years of reflection and sweet, recoverable memories.

Thread Counts

I’ve been going over personal correspondence from my life. My purpose is to fill in memory gaps on a longer piece I’m writing about my mother. You’ll see it here on the blog soon.

I kept every letter and card that I felt at the time mattered.  Mostly letters I received. But also letters I sent to my mother and father, sisters, grandparents and friends that made it back into my possession… somehow.

The letters stretch from my birth (congratulations received by my parents upon my entrance to the world) to more recent times.  What they have in common is that either I, or my correspondents, thought that I might want to read them again. When? Well… now.

And it is now, even now, that their value is realized.  For they are a different kind of memory. A memory that demands an assessment of continuity.  How am I similar to that boy of 8? That teen?  That man of 29?  Who was I … that still exists?

In the reading, there are certain truths of my identity.  How I became the me that I am now.

We measure the quality of sheets, by a thread count. For keeping the thread… counts.

About That Gala for McGovern

Earlier in this blog, I published a non-fiction piece called “Bodyguarding Paul.” Here is a fictional account of the same story, written as an assignment in my writing class.

The campaign was not going smoothly.  The outcome, an increasingly dim prospect as George McGovern’s 1972 Presidential race entered its final stretch run. Joyce Hanrahan, the 36-year-old divorced mother of three, office manager of McGovern’s cramped yet gaudy Coventry Street campaign headquarters just off Leicester Square, let out a howl of delight.

“We’ve got Paul!”  She jumped up out of her seat, and gathered her flock of elderly and youthful volunteers, ex-pats all, for the big update. “This oughta stir the troops,” she thought.  And she’d turn out to be right.

American presidential campaigns are international affairs.  Not only are American citizens living overseas eligible to vote, but they are also eligible to contribute campaign cash to the candidate of their choice.

Often well-heeled and politically to the left, mining for political donations in European capitals had become, by 1972, a tradition and campaign necessity.  But emptying wallets did not come easily.  Campaign pros needed certain skill sets. The talent for persuasion, of course, was essential, but one also needed connections.  Turns out, Joyce was particularly strong in both departments.

Joyce Hanrahan grew up in Bel Air, California, daughter of Miles Hanrahan, the vaunted film noir screenwriter, and Charlene Sizemore Hanrahan, a cinematic make-up artist. Charlene became infamously powerful by cultivating trusting relationships with a set of stars, including Jane Mansfield, Ginger Rogers, and, as providence would have it for her daughter’s political life, Joanne Woodward.  Their movie contracts stipulated that Charlene must be on set or they would not.

Joyce had been fixated on a campaign concept since June, right after McGovern had all but secured the nomination. She would hold a major fundraising event in London and try to draw on her Hollywood connections to make it soar.  Sure, it would be a vehicle to haul in cash, but it would also be a chance for real fun. Joyce liked real fun.

“Look you guys,” Joyce slowly started speaking. It was almost in a whisper to her small but eager group of campaign volunteers.  “Our October 9th ‘Gala for McGovern’ is now really shaping up.  I just got off the phone with his scheduling agent and get this: Paul Newman has committed to attend. Paul’s an amazing guy and really knows his politics.”

“And he’s also awfully cute,” interrupted Valerie Ingram, who at age 67, was trim, lively and ready to party.

“Yes, indeed he is, Val!” Joyce laughed with a cathartic release, as she continued with her spiel. “I think we now have the star power to pull this thing off.  But it will have to be a full team effort here at HQ.  I’m going to ask each of you to tell me how much time you can commit in the next six weeks.  I want you to go home today, talk to your family, and then come back and let me know the dates and hours you can provide us.”

For 17-year-old Dan Farber, this was just the kind of useful excitement he sought.  His dawning political awareness was recently spawned by an enmity toward President Nixon and passionate support for McGovern’s anti-Vietnam War position. Volunteering at campaign headquarters also got him out of the two-bedroom flat he shared with his father, a social work professor on sabbatical, and his mother, with whom he was in full teen rebellion mode.

The “Gala for McGovern” was to take place in the corner of a convention complex under the arches of Charing Cross Railway Station in Central London. Joyce had compiled a list of stars (her mom called them “bankables”) and up-and-comers whom she thought could draw a throng.  It was hard work to get the first few notables to commit, but once some of the pretty folks were on board, others would want to be seen with those who are seen. 

She knew Paul Newman would be a big kahuna, but as it turned out, his appearance would come with a price. He was obsessed to connect with the author Kurt Vonnegut. Joyce knew Vonnegut’s agent Charlie Steinmetz since they had been lovers at USC in the late 50s. She also heard that Vonnegut had been staying in London for the last three months doing research for another war novel (and according to Charlie, shtupping a gal pal he had met while strolling Hampstead Heath). Newman told Charlie that he loved the movie “Slaughterhouse Five” and wanted Vonnegut to release the film rights to him for “Cat’s Cradle.” Joyce promised Charlie that the Newman-Vonnegut meeting could occur at the Gala, and in addition to negotiating rights, they could appear jointly to help the presidential ticket.

Charlie told Joyce that he’d certainly ask his client to think about it and then get back to her with an answer. But in fact, Vonnegut never did make that commitment.  This info, she kept to herself. And as the Gala date approached, and the publicity materials went out, Joyce made sure that Newman and Vonnegut got twin top billing.

Dan enjoyed his weekly Friday morning Northern Line tube run from Belsize Park to Leicester Square to hang with Joyce. Emerging from the long escalator to street level, he’d pass the seedy strip clubs, curry houses and travel agencies promising warm white sandy beaches on winter days to pasty-faced Brits. Walking through the bell-clinging front door, he’d arrive at HQ, excited to hear the latest campaign gossip. The actual work was rote. Mostly stuffing envelopes, sorting correspondence and cobbling together various task lists for other campaign volunteers. But the lure and highlights were listening to chain-smoking Joyce tell stories about parties with celebrities, and men who’d done her wrong. Once too often, his nagging about Joyce’s foul Gauloises habit got under her skin. “Those cigarettes will kill you faster than Tricky Dick at the Cambodian border,” Dan pestered.

To which Joyce responded, “One more word about that, and you can catch the tube north today and don’t bother coming back.”

On the morning of the Gala, the McGovern team loaded up party supplies and equipment and headed off to Charing Cross Station. Sprucing up the multi-story congregate space under that rail center was a frenetic pleasure. Joyce ran around directing her volunteers to affix brightly colored banners and ribbons throughout the various rooms and alcoves.  Klieg lights were brought in by video crews to highlight stages and stairs. HQ volunteers were all given white t-shirts with “McGovern 1972” stenciled in bright red and blue campaign font lettering.

Dan was assigned the task of first setting up, and then manning, the “game room.”  Intended to preoccupy the teens, or perhaps provide for some a more intimate respite from the larger, socially central auditorium, the game room was a dimly lit, 10’ x 12’ space practically hidden under the main stairwell. Ever eager to help, the game room chore was for Dan, an unexpected let down.

……

Gina Samuels, Sarah’s mom, was an experienced and savvy political animal, stemming from her days of rage and justice as a leader in UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. When Mario Savio summoned his wits to risk and rise on the steps of Sproul Plaza, it was from Gina’s talking points he read. Personally shy, yet intellectually bold, Gina knew political strategy.   Years later, when Mario was reminiscing with others in his FSM leadership cadre about how the movement exploded onto the scene, he asserted that without Gina’s tactical sophistication, they most certainly would have failed.

Twelve-year-old Sarah knew only the faintest outline of her mom’s earlier heroics.  Gina ended up marrying Gary Samuels, a Londoner and fellow grad student in UC’s Philosophy Department. (Gina specialized in Kantian ethics and Gary in epistemology. Their ongoing and whimsical intellectual spats became legendary entertainment for friends and relatives.)  They moved to England immediately after graduating from UC Berkeley, and settled into a life of academic bliss, she at the London School of Economics and he at the University of London. Sarah, dark-haired and vibrant, was the social and emotional opposite of her mom: unquenchably gregarious.

“Momela, can we please go to the Gala for McGovern next Saturday?” she pleaded.  She knew this wasn’t really Gina’s thing, but she also knew her mum was a sucker for anything that even faintly projected a social conscience upon her only daughter.

“Well… sure, lovey.  Your poppa and I haven’t been out for a while and it could be …”

“Uh… um… well, Momela, I was thinking more about just going with my friends. No offense, but it would kind of be a drag to go with you guys. I’ve already asked Silvia and Shirley, and their mums said it would be ok if the three of us go together on our own.  I promise we’ll be back before 21:30.” 

Gina relented and Sarah was ecstatic.

“I know… I know… Paul Newman is going to be there,” Sarah squealed on the phone to Silvia. “This is going to be SO COOL.  What are you going to wear?  I’m thinking teal.  But maybe yellow would be louder. We should plan this with Shirley so that we stick out like a team.”

The girls arrived early, just as the doors opened at 17:30.  They were pumped.  “Where’s Paul?”, Silvia asked Rene, a bright-eyed 21-year-old McGovern volunteer, who was racing around purposefully putting finishing touches on the décor.

“Paul Newman?” Rene replied. “Oh… I don’t know sweetie.  Not sure he’s here yet.”

The three girls’ anticipation only grew, as they quickly ran around the gala spaces, trying to get their lay of the land.  Asking any t-shirted McGovern staffer they saw the same question; they received the same answer.  “He’ll be here soon enough.  You’ll know it when he arrives.”

As the evening progressed, Joyce could be seen running around too, feverishly announcing the arrival of the famous and near famous.  “Lee Remick” she’d shriek. “Ava Gardner, Nicol Williamson,” she gushed.

Rumors began to buzz that Paul Newman had made it to the event and would be speaking from the upper balcony.  Dan decided to leave his lonely post by the “Count the Jellybeans” game, to see if he could get a look at Paul. He snuck deftly up the rear stairwell. 

 Just as he got to the top of the stairs, Jerry Seacrest, Joyce’s brother-in-law whom she had drafted to help at the event, spotted Dan and his wiry 160lb, 6’4” frame. Likewise wearing the official McGovern t-shirt, Jerry motioned for Dan to approach. 

 “Paul is going to come out of that door to the right,” Jerry whispered. “Stand in front of the door, and when it opens, I want you to walk in front of Mr. Newman to clear the way for him to address the crowd. Over there, on top of the balcony. Can you do that?”

 “Sure,” Dan responded with a serious look on his face.  “I can do that,” and proceeded to station himself in front of the doorway. 

The room was getting more and more filled with a mass of excited, slightly boozed humanity.  Word got out to Sarah and her crew as to the location of Mr. Newman’s entry.  “Come on, girls, let’s go for it,” she encouraged as they wriggled and squirmed their way to the door where Dan stood sentry.

“Please, please, please let us in,” they squealed.  “We want to see, Paul.  Can you at least take this paper and get us his autograph?”

“I can’t do that,” Dan commanded in his deepest and most imperious voice. “But I’m going to touch him soon.  I’ll give you my autograph.”

They fell for it.  And for the next couple of minutes, Dan was signing autographs for 12-year-old girls who were thrilled to have them. 

But on the other side of the door, Paul was not a happy camper.  “Are you frigging kidding me?!” he screamed at a sheepish Charlie Steinmetz.  “I was assured that Kurt would be here! You think I’d be here if I knew that Vonnegut would cut out at the last minute?!!”

Charlie had an incensed celeb on his hands and was pretty sure the truth was no ally. “Paul, I understand your disappointment, and we’ll try to arrange an opportunity for you two to get together just as soon as we are able. But Kurt was unavoidably called out just this morning to deal with a critical family emergency in Amsterdam. It just couldn’t be helped.”

Charlie was bald-faced lying here, and Newman had his suspicions. But Charlie also was sure that the family-oriented actor would not challenge the values inherent in the excuse.  Besides, just because Vonnegut said that there was no way on God’s green Earth he’d let some pretty boy play Jonah, or for that matter Bokonon, doesn’t mean he wouldn’t relent later after a few drinks and some wooing by the blue-eyed actor and race car driver.

Newman steadied himself.  The show must go on. It always went on.

The door opened and Dan didn’t look back.  He just felt an electric presence behind him.

 “Make way,” he intoned, as Dan spread his arms and led Paul up a few stairs and over to a point of prominence. From there, the two drew even as Newman began his address to the assembled admirers.

 “My goodness, that man’s eyes were blue!” Dan thought in amazement.  Posture erect, yet also somehow soft and relaxed, the actor held a coffee cup in his left hand, as Dan stood beside him, about one foot away to his left.

Paul Newman spoke about peace and justice and Nixonian horrors.  Dan marveled at his calmness, his graceful motions, his famous smile, and the palpable glow that emanated from his face. As Newman finished his oration, he turned to Dan and said, “Let me be with the people.”

Just as Paul spun around to greet his admirers, with Joyce audibly calling out his name as she went in for a hug, Dan’s right upper arm “accidentally” brushed Paul’s right shoulder.

 After all, he had promised the 12-year-olds!

Streaming Judgments

Joining a Zone

Vaxxed, boosted and haven’t been to a gym in nearly two years. At a certain point, a 66-year-old has to gauge the odds.  What is the greater danger?  Exposure to COVID from the errant spray of fellow fitness freaks, or utter failure, for a seemingly unending time, to truly get aerobic and muscle toning workouts on a regular basis?

Sure, I hear you snicker. “Why doesn’t he just buy equipment for the home?” or “Can’t he jog to the park or follow those Sliver and Fit videos daily?”

Answer:  I’m a failure at such discipline.

There.  Got your pound of flesh?  Or in my case, about fifteen pounds of flesh.  Snicker away, but for me this question of sloth drags me down and out. 

Heckling, with all loving intentions, but heckling nonetheless, from my wife Jean – or should it be called “encouragement”? – had me finally check out a free (for Medicare recipients) gym in town.  It is West Olympia’s Planet Fitness, one of over 2000 sites where that company has located its outlets.

Initial impressions of the place are positive for COVID.  Wait. Cross that out.  I mean positive for its attention to COVID health protocols – mask-wearing, sanitation centers, distancing between members and equipment, and verbal reminders over the intercom to follow those protocols. So, I join, and make an orientation appointment with the site’s fitness pro.

Two days later we are facing each other across a table, developing my new regimen. As he talks, his mask sags below his nose. He does not readjust. Midway through development of my workout routine, he also mentions “You know, you don’t really have to wear your mask over your nose, just your mouth.” I am feeling disappointed and on edge about his statement, but I don’t say a word about it.

The Misfit Begins

The next day my “regular” workouts commence.  Getting dressed in the locker room, some men are wearing masks, others not.  Walking out onto the main workout room, everyone has a mask on in one way or the other.  Three formulations of “wearing” can be observed.  Most have properly fitted masks over both their mouths and nose.  Some go for the “mouth only” approach.  And still others find that protection of their chins is paramount and have decided that interfering with either of their breathing apparatuses would be harmful to the work out.

I take all this in, mulling and sorting, as I climb aboard the elliptical machine for 20 minutes.  I have not brought my cell phone and earbuds for an opportunity to focus on anything other than my surroundings.  Taking in the visual stimuli is all I’ll have to work with.

When one has little but one’s mind for companionship, well then, stuff gets telling quickly. Out flows your biases, predilections, and confused musings.  Here spills an example of both psychological mayhem and a semblance of who you are as a person.  Well, at least the inner life of your bored mind.

Pick the machine close to CNN.  Oh, FOX news is next to CNN.  And look, no MSNBC and there are twice as many FOX screens as CNN.  Got it. Political bias. Pisses me off.  Vast majority of customers completely ignoring screens.  But the corporate tilt is apparent.

Starting up machine, when will the “go” sign light up… there, it did it. Good. Now increase the resistance up and the incline. Yes. That’s good for a start.

Stream of Elliptical Conscious Nonsense

Improve your posture, Daniel.  Stretch back and lift neck… there.  That’s good.

Read signs on the wall. “Planet Fitness = No Criticism,” “You Belong,” and the most dominant one  of all “Judgement Free Zone.” Geez, “Judgement Free Zone” has been written on virtually every machine in the place.  Judgement Free Zone.  Judgement Free Zone.  They have misspelled judgment and the damn sign is the theme of this corporation:

Welcome to Planet Fitness. The Judgement Free Zone®

Spelling “judgment” with an extra “e” is wrong.  It feels right.  But it’s wrong.  I’ve looked it up before.  The extra “e” is appropriate sometimes in the UK, but not America.  What kind of corporate culture would permit the main theme to be misspelled?  Could you imagine someone – some big personality boss – coming up with the theme.  Doesn’t ANYONE in the echelons of a corporation with 2000 locations bother to do spell check?  And if they did, were they too chicken to mention it.  Or if they were not too chicken to mention it, would they have been batted down.  Ridiculed as nerdy. Had the judgement with an extra “e” already become the corporate theme?

But how many people would know that in America an extra “e” is “wrong?” 10%? 5%? And how many who know it, would care? At all?  What’s wrong with me that has me obsessing over this?

Look. Over there.  Those three young guys, with chin-straps for masks. They are laughing. They’ve got pretty good muscles. Don’t they frigging care – seemingly – about COVID?  Are they Trumpsters? Or just apolitical?  Do they read? Do they care about the frigging extra “e” in judgment?

Which is why, of course, we liberals are losing.  Egad! Who could stand the judgmentalism that I am displaying inside my brain as I’m doing this stupid elliptical?  Do those three guys – who can outvote me three to one if they bother to vote – know that an old man on an elliptical is thinking about them and being highly judgmental in front of a sign that says, “Judgement Free Zone?”

But COVID is real and real dangerous.  Do I have a duty to go over there and ask them to put on masks?  Do I go to the Planet Fitness staff and ask them to enforce proper mask-wearing? Even as I look at them, only half of the staff have masks over both orifices.

And then there was the stop at the health food shop before the workout to pick up some lactase.  As I go to the counter, other customers are wearing no masks at all.  This, even in a state which requires indoor masking while shopping and even in a frigging store whose purpose is to advance health.

CNN is talking about the omicron variant. Bummer. Why does the Fox News chyron say “Crime Up in Democrat Cities and they don’t Care?” Exhausting.

Why is that guy to my left talking on his cell phone with his mask down? A few feet away from the sign that says “cell phone calls only in the lobby.”

But ya know… I do seem to be sweating nicely. That’s good. Pretty far from other exercisers. Good too. I like the easy adjustability of the elliptical settings. The shopping channel next to FOX has a highly silly sweatshirt they are selling.  It’s so wonderful that my heart is sound, almost three years after the mitral valve surgery. I wish I brought a larger towel to wipe off my brow.

Judgement Free Zone indeed!

Anne’s Freund

Toward the end of her life, my mother partnered with a man named Max.  The intimate relationship only lasted about a year because Mom was cascading downhill with Alzheimer’s.  But our family liked Max a lot and even after Mom died, we stayed in touch with him. 

When Max died, his daughter asked me to perform the hosting function for his memorial service.  Max was an atheist, but also a proud Jew and active Yiddishist.  I agreed to do the hosting and led about 50 people in a principally secular service. But I did ask if it was ok to include the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer that is said when remembering the dead.  The family agreed to that.

After the memorial, an older woman came up to me and said, “thank you for leading this event, I haven’t been to anything like this in a long … long time.” 

I replied, “you are most welcome.”

But then she didn’t walk away.  She just kind of quietly, nervously, stayed next to me. It felt like she wanted to say something more, so I stayed quiet.

“Yes…. I hadn’t thought about…” her voice trailed off.  “Well, when you did that prayer… you know…. I was once….” 

She couldn’t finish her sentences.  I then asked, “are you Jewish?  Your accent sounds German.”

The woman was silent for a bit, but then replied, “when I was a girl, I was from a German Jewish family. During the war, we went to Amsterdam.”

“Oh,” I said, “that must have been an extraordinarily difficult time for you.”  Again, she paused for a moment in what seemed like she was preparing herself for something emotional to say. 

“I have never told anyone about this. Never.  But after the service today, I will tell you.”

I stood next to this older woman – later finding out she was 86 at the time – prepared to hear about the Holocaust.  I was not prepared to hear what came out of her mouth next. 

“I was best friends in Germany with Anne Frank. This was before her family went to Amsterdam and before mine did too.  We didn’t know each other in Amsterdam, but after the war and when her book became famous is when I found out about what happened to her.”

Upon hearing that, I was stunned.  And a little disbelieving.  That’s when I asked her age. She also told me that she didn’t want to admit to anyone after the war that she was Jewish. Her parents were killed.  She was raised by others – non-Jews. Eventually she came to America and didn’t want her past to define her future.  But finally, as an old woman, she felt safe enough in Seattle, at Max’s memorial, to tell someone, a stranger, about her childhood secret 80 years later.

I thanked her for sharing that information with me and we said goodbye.