My mother, Rita Lerner, was laid to rest at the at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for the Aged Cemetery in the Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in West Roxbury yesterday, May 6th, 2020.
Officiating was Rabbi Karen Landy from Hebrew Senior Life at NewBridge on the Charles.
Attending included Cathy, who was allowed to be by the graveside after the casket was filled in and the grounds workers had left, my cousin Ed Lerner and close family friend Marcia Lifshitz via Zoom, and me via FaceTime.
Rabbi Landy read the eulogy I prepared.
At the end of the ceremony, Cathy added soil to mom’s grave.
Mom’s family, our cousins, and many friends since childhood, have poured out their hearts in sympathy. Many wish they could be here but given the times and circumstances we know that is impossible today. The pandemic also made it impossible for me to travel to the U.S., and even made it impossible for Cathy to be with mom at the very end, which breaks her heart. But we realize the special circumstances, and that we are not alone at the hour of loss.
We are grateful for the time we did have with mom on her last days, and deeply appreciate the caring support mom received from all the nurses and care workers at Beth Israel and the people at Hebrew Senior Life these last years. And we want to thank Rabbi Sara for her help in making the burial arrangements, and of course Rabbi Karen, who is officiating today, and who has extended her hand in support so many times.
Mom’s closest friend, of course, was Dad. Dad preceded mom in passing almost 11 years ago now. They were, until then, inseparable, and lived a very special, different kind of life together. They both had an endless yearning to travel and seek new experiences and adventures away from the New York of their childhood.
Mom and Dad’s love of new experiences and new places took our family to many new homes, travels to many countries, cross-country trips by car, and voyages on ocean liners. Cathy and I had a unique childhood because of this. While it was difficult to establish roots anywhere, it gave us a wide range of experiences and perspectives we otherwise never would have had.
They both shared a love of Latin America and we lived in Mexico for a while when I was very young and my father was in grad school.
Mom and Dad’s love of Jewish history and culture were the most enduring and strongly felt. They were both fluent in Yiddish (and I know they were talking about us when I heard the words “di kinder”).
They were, together, a treasure house of Jewish lore and language. Along with Dad, Mom educated and entertained people at venues wherever they could, with performances conveying Jewish humor and song.
Their love of Jewish culture brought our family to twice attempt Aliyah. Once, when I was 11 years old we lived for a time at the Ulpan Ben Yehudah in Netanya. And once again, when Dad was a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan we lived in Bat Yam, where I had my Bar Mitzvah.
Ultimately, though, our family’s American roots proved too strong to overcome, and we returned home.
Back in the U.S. we continued to move about – to South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, New Mexico, Florida, and North Carolina. Wherever we lived, Mom and Dad both contributed much through community work and political activity.
My mother studied chemistry in undergraduate school, worked in education in New York, and when we lived in Texas and New Mexico was a proud volunteer for Planned Parenthood for many years, and worked to raise social awareness in support of mental health services. Both my mother and father were also delegates to the 1964 Democratic Convention from Texas, and I still remember how exciting it was attending with them in Atlantic City when I was 8 years old.
My parents wanted to retire someplace with academic culture, but with a slower pace of life than New York, and I helped them move to Columbia, Missouri, the home of the University of Missouri, in the early 1990s.
Both my mother and father were independent souls at heart, and I believe they found a good deal of happiness there, and became involved in cultural and campus activities, enjoyed the campus area cafes, and made more new friends.
Yet, in 2002 everybody came to feel, with my father’s declining health, it had become too difficult for my parents to cope by themselves in the house in Columbia on five acres. I came there and helped them move to Boston to be with my sister.
Cathy is devastated today, as are we all. I must describe what she did for years as caregiver for both my parents.
Cathy’s first goal was to have my parents live with her. So, despite her own health problems, she managed to find a handicapped accessible apartment in a quiet area outside Boston, with a river view.
But Dad’s time living there was regrettably short, as his disabilities required more and more care. After exhaustive and endless searches from one assisted living facility to another, all over the east coast, he ended up at the Hebrew Rehab Center campus in Roslindale. Mom eventually joined him in living there, where they shared a corner room together. Eventually Mom changed to the Newbridge campus in Dedham.
That was just the beginning of Cathy’s care giving. Mom and Dad had already become the center of her life, and after Dad’s passing, Cathy spent each day with Mom, working to give her comfort and a sense of satisfaction with life as she continued on her long mental and physical decline. Everyone recognizes that Mom had so many years, beyond expectation, because of Cathy’s ceaseless love and care.
While I myself have been away overseas over 30 years, except for yearly visits, Cathy devoted her entire life to making sure that Mom and Dad were as happy as possible, with their declining health and our limited resources.
I admire Cathy for it, I am in awe of it, I am proud of her and I love her. I can’t honestly say I could have done the same thing to the extent she did, even if I had been in the U.S. all these years.
Mom and Dad knew each other in childhood, found each other again as adults, and were married nearly 54 years. I have never seen a closer couple in my life. While growing up, Cathy and I rarely heard a harsh word cross between them. They were so fortunate to each have found a soul mate, someone to share everything, and with whom complete understanding existed.
The Rita that most people saw these last years is very different from the Mom I grew up with. When people see an elderly, increasingly incapacitated person, it’s almost impossible for them to look beyond that into what they were when they were younger. Mom’s character and interests and abilities would surprise, amuse, and amaze the people who knew her mostly in her later years.
Be honest – when you think of Rita Lerner do the words “tech maven” come to mind? But it was Mom who loved all the electronics we had through the years, and it was Mom whom we all relied on to make sure everything was hooked up and ran right – including TV sets and video recorders and answering machines, and later on computers with Dad. She was in charge of email communications for both of them.
Mom also loved gadgets – something I inherited from her. When I was starting in physics in undergrad school in 1974, we were learning how to use slide rules. Personal calculators were just being introduced, and I had my eye on a really cool one from Hewlett Packard. My mom caught wind of my interest and surprised me with the calculator one day. I think she enjoyed playing with it as much as I did.
When you think of Rita Lerner do the words “Trekkie” come to mind? Probably not. But Mom was a huge Star Trek fan and we used to watch episodes together. After I moved to Japan, Mom would regularly record “Star Trek – The Next Generation” for me and I ended up with many boxes of video cassettes that Mom regularly shipped to me.
Mom loved music of course. She had a beautiful voice, and even sang for a while on the radio. Even in her last years she knew the lyrics of all the old songs and would sing along whenever she heard one. She also loved newer musicals, and when we lived in Charlotte we went together to see “Grease” three times.
When you think of Rita Lerner do you envision her jumping on a trampoline? I can remember jumping with her on a trampoline in a park when I was a young teenager in Florida. She got a real kick out of it
She wasn’t the elderly, incapacitated Rita Lerner you probably remember now. She was alive. She was filled with life, and interests, and caring, and wanting to help people, throughout her life. It was an unusual life. It didn’t lead to financial security, but it filled her and Dad with many great memories.
And now we have memories of Mom, and of Dad. Some were good, some were difficult, and we went through many upheavals in our lives. But it was endlessly interesting, and it created new worlds for Cathy and me to experience.
Mom and Dad were the living embodiment of the marriage vow of for better or for worse, in sickness and health, as long as you both shall live. Their marriage was a rare and a beautiful thing.
As we lay Mom next to Dad, I feel both sadness at the loss, and somehow comfort that they are together again forever.
After the ceremony, Cathy stayed behind and took these photos of Mom and Dad’s graves.