Lunya Herszkorn. Leah bat Josef v' Yehudit. Lillian Herszkorn. Mrs. Lillian H. Calem. Dr. and Mrs. William Calem. Wife, Mom, Aunt, Grandma, Great-aunt.
My mother went by many names, reflecting the different stages of her life and identity. Born December 28, 1928; Died June 12, 2016. A long, rich, complex, unique life, as many tend to be.
I'd like to share some thoughts and reflections this morning from my unique perspective, as one who was there from just about the very beginning, on my parents' extraordinary partnership. I seriously only missed the courtship phase, since I was born at the end of my dad's intern year in general surgery, only 11 months after their wedding, just days after my father's graduation from Downstate.
That began when Mrs. Fink, the mother of my dad's best friend growing up in the Bronx and a "frenemy" of my Grandma Eda, announced to my grandmother that she had the perfect marriage prospect for my mother. My mom, two years out of NYU and enjoying some independence as a Spanish translator for the Legal Aid Society, wasn't in such a rush, but in those days, well, 24 was quote getting up there. Dad was in medical school, my mother was a doctor's daughter, a perfect match, right? Of course, right.
My mother, used to dating older boys, suggested on their first blind date that he might be interested in meeting her younger, gregarious, and I must add, gorgeous younger sister. A quiet, studious type himself, dad was not to be put off by what he immediately perceived as my mom's keen intelligence, seriousness of purpose and discipline and ambition. And her love of going dancing, even though he had a hard time keeping up with that part. Sorry, Dad.
I'm sure he didn't know what he was getting into. After all, do any of us? And while quote old for their generation, let's face it, at 24 and 26, coming straight from their parents' houses, they were still practically children. Again, typical of the time.
They were eager to start a family, as I mentioned, and Paul followed me just two years later, before Judy and Rob joined the party. We were a pretty cacophonous bunch, lots of sibling rivalry, amid the playing and crying. And my mother was left largely on her own, with the demands on my father of surgical residency, attending and chief of surgery at a city hospital and then full time solo practice, once they moved to the south shore of Long Island. It was far from easy on both of them, and certainly tested their relationship.
But what stands out to me very clearly are the goals and values they shared and instilled in us. Failure was not an option. Life was not frivolous. As Depression babies themselves, they scrimped and saved, first to buy a home in the suburbs and later to put us all through private college and graduate school. Education was supremely important.
My mom may have followed a traditional path, but she was no shrinking violet. She never let my dad get away with doing any less than his best in his profession. Any doubts he expressed when it came to navigating hospital politics or building his practice, she dismissed and pushed him to overcome, helping to build his confidence and be proud of his success.
Our family's connection to Jewish life mattered deeply. Even though they were not observant (as a doctor, my dad insisted we have milk—whole milk, that is—at every meal, yes, with meat, too. Thanks for that cholesterol build-up, Dad!) the first thing they did whenever we moved, which when I was little was frequent, was to look to join a synagogue. We were classic High Holiday and Passover Jews. Chanukah was a time to light the candles and sing "Rock of Ages." Gifts, material luxuries, were not a priority. But they were fiercely proud of our Jewish heritage and identity. Support for the new state of Israel was unquestionable, and the very first vacation they took without the four of us was to Israel, in 1972, leaving me, a senior in high school, in charge of the household. I resisted the temptation to have my friends over to party, knowing that once they got back, they'd notice any object out of place. Plus, I had responsibility for the three younger children—getting everyone to school on time and feeding us. They obviously really trusted me, but that's because they trained me well!
Putting aside their own need for time together, avoiding spending money on what they considered unnecessary luxuries was challenging. But what mattered most was taking care of us, giving us a better life, better schools, comfort and financial security.
In sickness and in health, 'til death do us part. We all say these words as part of our wedding vows. I can tell you that no one took them more seriously than my father. He's been by her side every day, every hour, as her health has declined. His unwavering love and support has kept her going far longer than any of us had hoped.
Dad, I hope you recognize this necklace and earrings. They are the first gift you bought mom. It was a real splurge, for your first anniversary, which you couldn't really afford, but felt she just had to have. I remember her wearing the set often on special occasions, and I was thrilled when she said she wanted me to have it a few years ago. A week ago yesterday, on Monday, June 6th, D-Day, they marked their 63rd anniversary at Care One in Cresskill, where my mom was again, giving it her all, in rehab. I had put their card in the mail a week earlier and prayed she would live to see it, and she did. 63 years. Wow.
Dad shared with me that mom's very last words to him, when he leaned over on Saturday evening to kiss her goodnight and say he'd see her in the morning were "You know I love you very much." No ending could have more meaning than that.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in support of Dr. Shahzad Raza to the Medical Oncology Gift Fund at Columbia University Medical Center, online at https://giving.columbia.edu/giveonline/?schoolstyle=99991&alloc=07857 or by check payable to The Trustees of Columbia University and indicating Shahzad Raza in the memo, sent to CUMC Development Office, attn: Natasha McCabe, 100 Haven Ave, Suite 29D, New York, NY 10032. In addition, we are encouraging donations to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation: https://www.themmrf.org/ and to American Friends of Magen David Adom: https://afmda.org/donate/?gclid=CIfZhc_8qs0CFUk6gQod-zoBZA