Grandma Mary - A Tribute With Love March 23, 2001

My mother, affectionately known as Grandma Mary, was born, the third and youngest daughter into a Russian immigrant family in Manhattan on December 26, 1915.  The three sisters, Sarah (Ariela Sharon is after Sarah), Mona and Mary grew up speaking Yiddish and only learned to speak English at school.  From Manhattan, they settled into the Bronx where my Mom attended and graduated from Walton High School in January 1933.  In her graduation yearbook, my Grandmother Lena (Leah Gohar is after Lena) Sluchensky, who died shortly after my birth and therefore I have no firsthand memories wrote, " You may have a friend you may have a lover but the best friend is the one you call mother. From you friend Lena"   

Grandma completed high school on all accounts as a dedicated and diligent student with a thirst for knowledge. As fortune would have it, college was a luxury out of her means and she began to work in a TB Sanitarium in Albany NY for about ten years. It was in Albany where she married my father, the dashing Maurice B. Kaplan on October 31, 1943.  Following her marriage, the couple relocated to Brooklyn and finally to Staten Island after the birth of their two oldest children, Alfred, of blessed memory and Roslyn.  While living on Staten Island, Mom worked in the Traffic Court in lower Manhattan and finally in the Borough of Richmond Courthouse.  As a small child, I savored a day at work with my Mom in lower Manhattan.  She worked, commuting an hour and one-half each way from Staten Island (bus, ferry and train) to a building called the Tombs - the jailhouse and Federal Court Building. I felt inspired when the TV program known as the Defenders starring EG Marshall aired and pictured during the opening credits my Mom's building.  I knew she must have been doing important work.  Actually, what she did was to process traffic tickets - in retrospect not very inspiring - but always done by Mom with zest, eagerness and joy.  I remember her bringing home an envelope from Eleanor Roosevelt (who had sent in her traffic ticket) - this inspired me to learn more about this great humanitarian lady.  I loved my mother's friend, Sylvia Ponce - her soul-mate at work with whom every so often I would join for lunch in Chinatown - Huang Fat to be specific.  These ladies would stroll from the Tombs and via back allies enter a whole different dimension - Chinatown - but, not the Chinatown of tourists but the Chinatown of the native Chinese. The waiter gracious to these wonderful women always served authentic Chinese food as we were transported, albeit briefly, into an exotic realm.  A brief lunch, perhaps a stroll to the discount clothes stores on Chambers Street I believe, and then back to work.  And from work to home.  Mom always came home at about 615pm. I clearly remember waiting for her at our Legion Place Window watching for the bus that would drop her off prior to her stroll from Hylan Blvd and up Legion Place to our home. I rarely saw Mom in the morning since she was up and out by 6 or 630am. So, this was my special time as I awaited her arrival.  My Dad pitched in, transporting us children - ultimately three in all, doing domestic chores and cooking to accommodate Mom's work schedule.  

It was with joy and relief, at least to Dad when Mom was transferred shortly before retirement to the Courthouse on Staten Island. She was promoted to Court Assistant and served in this role primarily as the Judge's personal assistant. I remember Holiday parties at the Courthouse and how truly loved and respected was my Mom.  See, although not highly educated Mom was always eager to learn and was a true bibliophile.  One cherished and joyous memory I have was reading a common book and discussing it at length with Mom.  What a pity I often felt that Mom did not have the opportunity for formal higher education. Who knows, perhaps in a former or future life she was or will be an esteemed cleric or professor.

I remember so vividly growing up and feeling that my mother was such a uniquely good mother - I was and am so very proud of her. She would always be there, sometimes with Aunt Mona, to take a group of us kids to the theatre. How she loved Broadway! What a beautiful memory I have of seeing with Mom (since Dad didn't care for the theatre) Fiddler on the Roof for the first time ever during its NY debut with Zero Mostel. It was so fresh and wonderful. During the nightmare scene, I never laughed harder in my life. What a wonderful time this was which I shared with my Mom.

Or, there was the time when I was visiting Staten Island from our home in Minnesota for my 20th high school reunion. On a lark, I asked my Mom, since Isaac and the girls (still only three in 1986) were unable to accompany me if she wanted to be my escort.  It would be hard to imagine how much joy she had accompanying me to my 20th Curtis High School Reunion.  You see, my friends had become her friends and in a sense, this was to be her reunion as well!  What a wonderful mother who embraced and befriended people from all generations - she was never condescending- always respectful of each human being on his/her own merits.

And then, of course, how fondly and clearly I remember planning with my mother her first trip to Eretz Israel. My Dad, of blessed memory had only recently passed away (Erev Yom Kippur, 1975) and I wanted to take my mother to Israel to fulfill a wish my father sadly had never realized - to visit the Holyland.  There was no one more Zionist than my Dad and I thought it would be fitting, in his memory, for my Mom and myself to visit Israel.  And so, when Rabbi Arnold Goodman of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minneapolis announced a fully escorted tour, I convinced my Mom that we should go together.  Little did I know that shortly thereafter I would be blessed to meet my future husband, Isaac, and our trip to Israel would be not only a tour of the Holyland but a getting to know you trip for Grandma and myself to meet the Yomtovian Clan.  And what a clan it was - WOW. Wonderful family, wonderful food and wonderful hospitality with bountiful love.  And even though my Mom and Savtah Ezat (as we affectionately call Isaac's Mom) did not speak a common word language, they spoke a common soul language and I am sure share much more than meets the eye in a spiritual sense.

 And, of course, I remember dearly the many years that Grandma would accompany me to the annual American Association of Blood Banks meetings.  And, instead of lounging and touring while I attended the scientific sessions and exhibits, Grandma would find sessions to listen to - whether mine or others - and discuss later what she had learned that day with me.  A true scholar, my mom.  One episode I remember in particular was the time my mom visited the American Red Cross Exhibit at the AABB meeting. The year was perhaps 1983 or 1984 - a time when HIV was creating havoc with the blood supply and when one of my passions, Mom knew, was self or autologous blood donation. During these years, few advocated autologous donation despite its proven safety because of corporate fear of negatively impacting the general blood supply.  Unabashedly my Mom went up to this booth and asked them why the Red Cross objected to autologous transfusion!  Only one or two years later, at another meeting, she was amused to see that not only had the Red Cross now elected to endorse autologous transfusion, they made it sound like they invented the concept and all others were mere imposters. This didn't fool Mom. She has always known the score.  This and many other episodes have made me the proudest daughter alive bathed in a mother's love.

As the years went by, Mom was kept busy by her devotion to my brother and her eldest child, Alfred.  Afflicted with mental illness from an early age, Alfred was nonetheless a gentle and caring soul.  Mother and son were devoted to one another following Dad's death in 1975, my marriage in 1978 and Leonard's relocation following Medical School and his marriage.  Then in 1987 my Uncle Harold, Aunt Mona's husband passed away.  Aunt Mona grew increasingly lonely and isolated. Neither my Mom nor Aunt Mona drove so they were rarely together to share solace and love.  Through the efforts of my wonderful loving and caring Isaac, and with the support of the Cleveland Jewish Community, we were able to move Aunt Mona to the RH Myers apartments in about 1993.  My mother, true to form, caring for others before herself would not consider a move until Uncle Alfred could also be relocated nearby in Cleveland.  With good fortune, Alfred found a wonderful new home in Cleveland with his nieces and many extended family members as well as myself a constant source of joy.  Sadly, Alfred was taken from us after only about a year after his arrival in Cleveland.  With Alfred, however, initially settled, Grandma Mary moved from her home of 40+ years on Legion Place to RH Myers where she and Aunt Mona became neighbors - Mona in apartment 604 and Mary in apartment 603.  It became our family tradition to have Aunt Mona and Grandma for Sunday late afternoon early evening dinner.  Aunt Mona, always a wonderful cook was very complimentary to my cooking - naturally, I am very proud of this. During dinner, Grandma would closely observe Aunt Mona to make sure she didn't eat too many sweets lest her diabetes act up.

Mom and Mona - what a team! Even at ages 84 and 85 they still carried on like teenagers - going at each other for one thing or another - usually resurrecting memories from their childhood and teen years about which parent favored who more or who took this or that item of each other's clothing. For a long time, I was angry and upset with my Mom for I thought she treated her sister harshly. I have since realized in the last six months, and especially in the last two days that Mary and Mona shared a special and unique love - devoted to each other in every way - independent spirits - as different as night and day yet as integrally connected one to the other as night and day.  Just prior to Mom's death I finally learned that I was foolish and wrong to interfere or try to interfere in their special relationship.  How many relationships are utterly open and honest, no secrets, no hidden agendas as that between Mona and Mary?  It truly was and is in my memory a blessing.  

When Aunt Mona passed away nearly four months to the day before Grandma Mary, a great sadness entered Mom's soul.  She rarely spoke of Mona's death but it deeply affected her. Her routine, making sure Mona was OK, that she was taking her medications properly, that she was ready for meals on time now totally evaporated. When Mom said goodbye to Aunt Mona in the hospital for the last time, I knew that something very special was being severed. But even this deep sorrow did not deter Mom's struggle for life - she always chose life.

About two months ago Grandma developed confusion - I always knew this was a sign of a serious medical problem with Grandma.  She was diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia and during the middle of the night, I was called by the nurse in the intensive care unit indicating she was in severe and acute respiratory failure.   But, choosing life she was intubated and despite great odds recovered from this illness to return home to her apartment and the ladies who helped care for her who I know are part Angel.  Together my mother and her angels gave Mom renewed vigor. In these six weeks prior to her final illness and hospitalization, she had an improved appetite and gained weight. She even was able to celebrate my birthday with me coming for lunch with Isaac and I at the restaurant, Giovanni's.  This was a very fond occasion as my Mom never, ever forgot my birthday and always celebrated it with love. In addition, this was the same restaurant, even the same waiter, Pierre, with whom we celebrated Grandma's 80th birthday. And, what a memorable 80th birthday celebration it was - Uncle Alfred, Uncle Lenny, Aunt Ellen, Hannah and Jordan, Uncle Michael and Doda Lydia, Danielle, Ariel, and Morell, Alon, and Isaac and myself.  It was a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to my Mom.  And in this same place, a little more than five years later I was to celebrate, for the final time, my birthday with Mom.

During this last year I sometimes, half-jokingly said that my mother had more lives than a cat.  She was in and out of the hospital so many times - in Feb 2000, she was hospitalized for severe diverticulosis and inflammatory bowel disease. She nearly bled to death several times.  I remember traveling to Brown Memorial Hospital in Conneaut and on the way listening to my voicemail messages while on the road. It was a bright, sunny February day. All of a sudden, I heard my mother's voice on my answering machine saying help me, help me. I immediately called her apartment and thank G-d she was able to answer the telephone, She indicated that she had bled substantially and taken a fall. Immediately I dispatched Isaac to go over and arrange for her to be taken to the hospital. She entered Hillcrest for nearly 6 weeks during which time Uncle Michael, her physician tried and tried to locate a bleeding site, but could not. Then I remember Uncle Michael telling me that Grandma would need surgery, a subtotal colectomy or she would bleed to death. I told him that the decision for surgery would he her's and her's alone. At that point, I really thought Grandma probably would not survive surgery because of her very poor lung function and I thought she would decide not to have surgery. But, to my surprise, and ultimately my delight, Grandma chose life - she underwent surgery with flying colors - no complications whatsoever. I thanked G-d for giving me my Mom back.  On the day she was discharged from the hospital, we brought her to our home for recovery. As she got out of Isaac's car, something snapped (her hip as it turned out) and she fell to the ground. At work, I received a call from Isaac indicating that Grandma was being returned to the hospital this time to pin a fractured hip. Again, major surgery and again she came through successfully without complications. Following a short recovery time in Hillcrest, she was transferred to Montefiore for rehabilitation.  During the one month at Montefiore, Mom was pretty lethargic and depressed.  It was very difficult for her, with breathing problems and now with diarrhea from her recent colon surgery to rehab her broken hip.  My Mom, always a fiercely independent lady, who often said she was too young to be in RH Myers, or, that she was one of the few who did not need to use a walker or cane, now was dependent on caregivers for nearly every need and depended mainly on a wheelchair as her means of transportation. In any event, she was discharged from Montefiore and came home where she slowly gained strength. One of the challenges, at this point, was getting her to eat. Between a low dose antidepressant and the wonders of Ensure Milkshakes supplemented by blending in fruit and ice cream, Grandma regained some of her former strength and was able to ambulate, at least in her apartment, with her walker.  There were several short hospitalizations over the next several months - for diarrhea, congestive heart failure (a complication of the pain medication, Vioxx), a urinary tract infection, and CO2 narcosis.  A more serious hospitalization was for bacterial pneumonia.  Nonetheless, she recovered from all and for 6 weeks in between her final hospitalizations was making progress with improved appetite and weight gain.  

It was during the month of February that Ariela, Leah and I enjoyed several Sunday brunches with Grandma at RH Myers. We all looked forward to this event. On one such occasion, Leah took several beautiful photographs showed a smiling Grandma with a hearty appetite.  And how well I remember brunching with Grandma for the final time. Neither Leah nor Ariela were able to join us so I invited Inez, one of Mom's angels to eat with us. It was then that I noticed Mom have more trouble breathing and she also complained that she had a pain in her right arm.  Rest did not produce any improvement and so Monday, three weeks and three days prior to her death I asked Inez to take Mom to the hospital. When I visited her later that evening, she looked very comfortable. A short time later, the results indicated that she had suffered a small heart attack and that she had influenza.  Mom, throughout her whole life, refused, for whatever reason, to take the flu vaccine.  I guess she didn't really trust it.  Anyway, she seemed to be doing well when all of a sudden her breathing deteriorated and she needed to be intubated. We all thought this would be very temporary and indeed, a few days later she was extubated. I saw her in the morning after she was extubated and she was resting comfortably in bed - so comfortably it seemed that I did not try to wake her. Then came the ominous call at work indicating that her breathing tired and she had to be intubated once again. It was becoming increasingly clear that she had become ventilator dependent. Leonard came from Chicago and we discussed with Mom the options - performance of a tracheostomy and placement of a feeding tube which would keep her alive but dependent on technology or, removal of the breathing machine and possibly death from respiratory insufficiency. Once again, Mom chose life. In the second week of her final hospitalization, she underwent the tracheostomy and placement of the feeding tube. Efforts continued to wean Mom from the respirator but without success. It was becoming increasingly apparent that she would require this technology for the remainder of her life. We began to discuss with the social worker plans for discharge and how to care for Grandma with all this high-tech machinery.  As it would turn out, such plans were premature. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Grandma one day literally ripped out her feeding tube creating a hole in her stomach through which blood, acids and bacteria gained access. She developed peritonitis and overwhelming sepsis and died at 819am on Thursday, March 22, 2001.  I was at her bedside for several hours before she passed, as were Misha, and Uncle Lenny and Aunt Ellen were present by telephone.  Tears were in Grandma's eyes for two days before she passed - I do not believe these were tears of suffering but rather tears of loss - loss of her life and loss of her relationships to family and friends.  Grandma, I hope the end did not bring you too much suffering.  I shall forever bathe in your love and your wonderful memories.  As I continue to reflect on you and your life there is so much that I have learned from you and continue to learn from you which I would like to enumerate to honor your name. 

In the a reading from the Book, A Minyan of Comfort it is written:

    There are three crowns, our Sages taught:

    The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood,

       And the crown of royalty;

    But the crown of a good name excels them all.

"Blessed is the person who lives with a good name

And departs this world with a good name."

    Of such a person did the Bible say:

    "A good name is to be treasured above precious oil."

Wealth, like health, may pass away,

But a good name can live on forever.

  It can adorn a person throughout life;

  It can be bequeathed as a precious inheritance,

        Conferring honor on family and friends,

        Inspiring and challenging those who carry on.

    Therefore our ancient Sages taught:

    "The righteous need no monuments;

    Their good deeds are their memorials."

        The earth of the grave does not cover them;

        The hand of time does not erase them.

    The kindness they have shown, the love they have given,

    Remain an everlasting remembrance.

        Their achievements are more lasting than granite,

        Their devotion is an enduring legacy.

 The following are some of what I have learned and am learning even now from you my beloved Mom (not necessarily in any particular order but in some order I am sure):

  • Compassion - there was no limit to Mom's compassion for people, beginning with her own family.
  • Kindness - Mom was an unusually kind and generous person - she once said (at least once) - big ears (which she had), kind heart
  • Nonjudgmental - Grandma never judged people by their intellectual gifts or social class - she, however, did not care for selfish people
  • Honesty - When I was young once, I remember feeling a little embarrassed about Mom's honesty when she "declared" a leather hat purchased in Canada for tariff - it was such a tiny and inconsequential item.  I have since grown to admire, respect and value this quality.
  • Intellectual Thirst and Scholarliness - Mom always was learning, evaluating new ideas and concepts.  Knowledge was like oxygen to her.
  • Zest for Life - Years ago Mom once told me that when her time was up she did not want to be kept alive artificially. As she grew older this year and more frail she always chose life - without hesitation - even when it meant major surgery just over one year ago and performance of a tracheostomy only two weeks ago.
  • Acceptance - Mom never complained.  She valued her life as is with joy and hope, always thankful for what she had rather than thinking about what she didn't have or might have had.
  • Love - Grandma/Mom freely gave and received love. She both bathed in the love of many she befriended throughout her life and was a beacon of love to all those who knew her.
  • Slow to Anger - I can honestly say that I remember only one occasion in which my mother became terrifically angry at me. As a teenager she was folding my clean laundry and delivering it to my bedroom.  I was still sleeping and she interrupted me with this laundry delivery.  I screamed at her to get out, she promptly began to swat me with a fly swatter, and told me I could see my father henceforth for money. I don't remember for how long the latter arrangement lasted. I do know, however, that anger and Grandma were strange bedfellows. How I need to remind myself of this lesson and learn it as I raise my own children.
  • Patience - Along with her being slow to anger, Grandma was endowed with the patience usually reserved for saints. I truly can't ever remember my Mom being impatient with me. Another of her lessons that I should take into my heart more seriously as I raise my own children.
  • Reliability - My mother's word was as good as gold.
  • Hope - Mom never lost hope for those she loved, for herself and for the world.  As a child in high school I remember discussing with her - we were both standing in the kitchen of our Legion Place home - the threat of nuclear annihilation and how it was so much harder to grow up today than when she was young.  She gently reminded me that in each age the world's survival has been threatened - in her case, during her formative years the Holocaust was raging in Europe, yet the world had managed to survive. By putting my anxiety into a broader perspective, I was very relieved.
  • To Value Solitude - Although Mom often chose to be alone, she was never lonely. She used to say that when you are bored, you don't like yourself.  I can honestly say that I never remember my Mom being bored. Solitude I believe gave my Mom the spiritual space for self-growth and realization. And, although she attended synagogue only sporadically, she greatly appreciated her Rabbis - Rabbi Zachariish from Staten Island and Rabbi Schachter from Cleveland - and was a deeply religious and spiritual human being.
  • Courage - My Mom was blessed with inordinate courage.  Despite many difficulties, which my Mom confronted throughout her life and lately with herself over this past year, I never saw suffering or tears except in the final two days of her life.  And, these were not, I believe, tears of suffering, but rather tears of loss - loss of her life and loss of the relationships of those most near and dear to her.
  • Selflessness - my mother spent a life caring for the needs of others but ironically not at her own expense.  She still took care of herself and enjoyed her life - eating chocolates, fresh pastry, apple pie a-la-mode, drinking coke and coffee, reading and watching favorite television programs, broadway, and of course smoking - these were her endless joys.  Some of her smoking partners were dear friends - Sylvia Ponce (of blessed memory) from work in the Tombs, Herb Rosen, my brother Lenny's father in law (of blessed memory) and Donna Hendrix, my dear friend from the Blood Bank at University Hospitals of Cleveland.
  • No Tit for Tat - Grandma didn't give because it was required or expected. She gave from love and expected nothing, except her own self-fulfillment in return.  At the luncheon in New York, following the funeral with friends and family gathered a family member expressed sorrow and guilt that she had not appropriately thanked my Mom for her generosity.  Naturally, while a word of thanks or appreciation was always cherished by Mom - this was like icing on the cake. To Mom, I assured my cousin, the giving was thanks in itself.
  • Modesty/Humility - Despite my Mom's many virtues and accomplishments in life she remained down to earth and never once boasted or brought praise upon herself. 
  • Friendship - I am proud and honored to say that not only do I love and respect my Mom as a mother I feel a deep bond of unconditional friendship.  I've always cherished our friendship and her ability to be friends with my friends and colleagues - whether my high school friends, college/medical school friends or colleagues from work.  She never played a defined role - i.e. the mother. She befriended many people of all ages, races, creeds, religions and social classes.  Those who met her were often touched by her kind and generous nature.  After writing this, I came across my mother's high school yearbook, Walton High School, Bronx New York, January 1933. Although I had seen this before as a child, I had never read the wishes penned in at the back of the book. One being very pertinent to my relationship with my Mom is from my Mom's mother (who I sadly never knew) and reads as follows:

To Marry.  You may have a friend you may have a lover but the best friend is the one you call mother. From you friend Lena I wish you luck. Lena Sluchensky. MaMa

  • Connections - Grandma Mary always stayed connected with friends and family - often traveling alone from Staten Island by bus, ferry and train for a shiva call, funeral or Simcha.  As she grew older a kindly travel agent, Pose, helped her with her various sojourns. She also enjoyed written correspondence.
  • Quality - Grandma always believed in the highest quality effort. Compliments from Grandma were rare and treasured for when they were given they truly meant something special had been accomplished.  How I remember asking Grandma how she liked a play, book, meal, etc and mostly I would hear, it's OK.  She reserved real praise for the exceptional.  And, I will never forget her reading at Misha's Bat Mitzvah - it's on video - when she read the Prayer of I Country, I believe - it literally boomed with spirit and had perfect, masterful articulation.  It certainly was of the superior quality she espoused.
  • Sense of Purpose - Mom was endowed with a life of purpose - helping others and growth of herself until her last breath.  I love you Mom. I love you Grandma. Rest in peace.