Together beneath the Abrahamic tree: Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom adventures

Two weeks ago Sunday, two carloads of my Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter drove down to Chicago for an afternoon of camaraderie and training in how to engage in thorny discussions.

SOSS.jpg

Along with the Wisconsin contingent (Milwaukee and Madison), women came from Illinois (Chicago and beyond) and Iowa (Quad Cities).

Our facilitators did a great job, and the hours passed quickly.

The following week, my story about my own experiences pre-dating and since joining the group ran in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. So, in the spirit of “well, maybe we can’t all just get along but damnit, I’m not gonna stop trying,” I’m posting it here.

It was interesting to write, because I’d just been told to “write a first-person piece” about the group. Looking at where I’d come from and how I’d ended up as a SOSS member was the most respectful way to accomplish that without accidentally violating the privacy of my chapter sisters.

The journeys for all of us are so different. I’d love to see an anthology of personal journeys to chapter membership.

But that’s another story for another day.

Click here to see mine: Click me!

 

 

 

 

#Metoo vs. #Poormetoo: Senate Committee hears from Ford & Kavanaugh

I caught a little of the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee today.

10155177205089919.jpg
What else am I gonna use? Something horrible? Thanks but no thanks. There’s enough of that already in this post.

It was horrifying.

The contrast between the two witnesses was stark. Dr. Ford told her story with remarkable composure. She was visibly upset, but did an amazing job describing her reasons for coming forward. She answered questions about the event that had brought her to the Senate hearing room, recounting the feelings of a traumatized teen and also using the vocabulary of an expert in explaining the biology of trauma. She was respectful of the process, answering the questions she was asked and asking for clarity when she wasn’t sure about a question.

Before today, I’d done a lot of thinking about Judge Kavanaugh and whether, if he did what Dr. Ford described, whether it should disqualify him from serving.

My conclusion was that while it would have been horrible and terrible and wrong, it would not necessarily have been a deal-breaker.

Why not?

It’s simple.

If Brett Kavanaugh had said, “In my youth, I did things I regret and one of them was sometimes drinking to the point where I didn’t remember things. I don’t do that any more and haven’t since (whenever he realized that this was not a great thing).”

Then, he would have apologized to Dr. Ford, and there might have been some sort of private meeting between them that none of us need know about. And he’d probably have been confirmed. Which he probably will anyway, but we’ll never know now whether he would have been otherwise.

What we do know after today is that Brett Kavanaugh is an overentitled brat whose sense of entitlement is only matched by his sense of outrage at the possibility that he might be called out for his behavior.  And I’m not talking about what happened with Dr. Ford. If I thought I was being falsely accused of something that big, I’d be salty, too.

It’s the other stuff, about his drinking and his actions around a woman who’d attended a nearby girl’s school.

He reminded me of Ex 1, who was at his nastiest when someone challenged his version of reality, whether or not it matched actual events. It was his way or the highway.

Kavanaugh explained away yearbook references to heavy drinking, eg:  “Treasurer of the 100 Kegs or Bust Club” and “Beach Week Ralph Club, Biggest Contributor,” to his love of beer and“weak stomach” and insisted he’d never been drunk enough to forget anything that happened under the influence.

He insisted that he and a bunch of his buddies who repeatedly referred to a girl named Renate and posed for a photograph as the “Renate Alumnius” did so because they had such reverence for her. That makes him sound like a) a really pathetic liar and b) a patronizing asshole. I mean, seriously. How dumb does he think we are?

It was painful to watch the contrast between the lack of respect he seemed to have for the process and Committee. It was even more painful to listen to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) try to out-nasty Judge Kavanaugh.

Not a great day for the Senate, for Dr. Ford or the Judge Kavanaugh. And most definitely not a great day for We, the People.

‘A preference for autocrats and dictators:’ Op-ed writer luckier than Riyadh Ibrahim

On Wednesday, The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed by someone serving at the pleasure of President Trump.

7464355013.jpg
“Wait, you mean they didn’t even sign their name!????? And the paper still ran it!????”

It was not exactly news to read that the current occupant of the White House is a petty bully who does whatever makes him feel good and repudiates anyone who dares to intimate that he is anything less than the Greatest Being in the Entire Universe.

Also not news? Covert resistance and dissent in the White House.  Rogue POTUS Staff announced itself on Twitter shortly after the inauguration in 2017.

From the get-go, it was clear that @RoguePOTUSStaff was comprised of mid- and lower-level staffers, worker bees beneath the notice of their imperial betters.

The news part was that this writer self-identified as one of the Imperial Betters.

“…many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them.”

The operative word, of course, is “parts.”

“We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous….”

(These, according to Imperial, include “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.” Imperial isn’t specific about “more,” but based on his or her definition of “safer and more prosperous,” all signs point to a hawkish member of the 1 percent class who has never sat in the cheap seats.)

As to President Trump’s “worst inclinations,” Imperial provided this example:

“Take foreign policy: In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un…”

I have lots of thoughts about this whole matter, but the one thing that I keep coming back to is the book passage of which I was immediately reminded. It’s from The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein’s Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis,” Elaine Sciolino’s examination of Iraq and the rise of Hussein’s Baathist Party was published in 1991. Which I know because I reviewed it for The Milwaukee Journal. (Sciolino was a New York Times reporter covering Iraq – file under “random weird coincidences.”)

Here’s an abridged version. If you get a copy of the hardcover edition, it’s on Page 90.

“In 1982, just as the war with Iran started to go badly, Iraq’s minister of health, Riyadh Ibrahim, was executed. Saddam told foreign reporters that Ibrahim had knowingly distributed contaminated medicines. In a rambling speech to the Revolutionary Command Council, which was also filmed and distributed to Party leaders, Saddam called the minister a dangerous saboteur, a traitor. His crime was not just an inadvertert action, a mistake, but a political crime against the state.

“Those who knew Ibrahim and his family told the tale differently. According to an Iraqi doctor who investigated the matter, Saddam became worried when Ayatollah Khomeini began to demand Saddam’s ouster as the price of peace. “One day, when the pressure of Iranian military forces was very high and Iraq was under the threat of occupation by the Iranian Army, Saddam called a cabinet meeting,” the doctor said. “Saddam was in a critical situation. He asked the cabinet ministers, ‘Is there any solution you can find to solve this problem?’ They said, ‘No, Mr. President, you are the hero of our country. You are defending our territorial integrity.’

“Saddam replied, ‘No, tell me the truth. What is the best way to stop the Iranian invasion, even if you believe my resigning is the way to stop the war.’ All the ministers said, ‘No, we don’t agree with you.’ Then Saddam said, ‘No, I don’t mind if you tell me the truth.’

“The health minister said, ‘Yes, Mr. President. I have a suggestion. If you resign temporarily, for three or four months, the Iranian Army will go back to their bases and then you can reappear again.’ Saddam said, ‘Yes, thank you very much. You are very brave. Thank you for your solution.’ He asked the other members what they thought and they all said no to the suggestion. After the meeting, Saddam turned to his bodyguards. They captured Ibrahim and led him out of the room.

“The wife of the minister knew the First Lady. She asked the First Lady to intervene and ask the President to release her husband. When Saddam’s wife told him about the matter, he called the minister’s wife himself and asked if she was asking for her husband’s release. She said, ‘Yes. You’re his friend. You are the leader.’ Saddam asked her, ‘When do you want your husband?’ and she replied, ‘As soon as possible.’ ‘Can I send him tomorrow?’ Saddam asked her. She said of course.

“The next day the security forces came to her house. She rushed to the door and asked, ‘Where is my husband?’ They gave her a big black bag and said, ‘This is your husband.’ And she found the body of her husband, chopped into pieces.”

‘Enemy of the People’ reveals building blocks for ‘fake news’ story on cataract surgery

Cataract surgery #2 is in the rear-view mirror. I have decided to use the opportunity to don my journalist/ “Enemy of the People” hat and pull back the curtain on how trained reporters go about preparing for and conducting interviews in order to bring readers useful information.

Cataract2_20180830.jpg
This is the hairstyle of a print journalist, but I am actually sharing this post-op picture so you can see my very dilated right eye.

Why am I qualified to do this? The obvious reason might seem to be those two recent cataract surgeries. The actual reason is my history as a professional journalist.

Before the “Social Work by the Seat of my Pants in a Snake Pit” years and my current gig as “The Happiest Public Librarian in North America,” I worked as a reporter and editor at two newspapers and one magazine. I continue to write freelance pieces for a couple of outlets.

Some reporters go to journalism school. My sister falls into that category. Some just write and write, starting at a tiny little publication – maybe their high school or college paper or a local alternative weekly – and work their way up the food chain. That’s how I did it. All my training was on-the-job, with some second-hand wisdom from the good professors in the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire courtesy of the newsroom at the Marshfield News-Herald, full of reporters who’d all attended there and regularly quoted their professors in conversation.

By the time I got to Marshfield, I’d already developed my own writing hierarchy, to which I continue to adhere.

  1. Accuracy – If the facts aren’t right and it’s not coming out exactly the way you’re trying to express what it is you’re trying to express, keep trying.
  2. Accessibility – If you have to use big words and long sentences to be accurate, so be it. But if you can say it with small words and short sentences, that’s better.
  3. Cleverness – If you can do those two things above and be entertaining and witty and clever, more power to you!

The pay was terrible, but being a reporter was a great job. News reporters go where things are happening and gather information on it. The major questions in newsgathering are Who? What? Where? Why? When? How?

Let’s say the “happening” is a house fire. Here’s what a reporter sent to the scene of a fire needs to put together a story:

Whose house? Where is it? Was anyone inside? How did the fire start/how was it contained/how did people get out? When did it start/when was it contained? How many firefighters/battalions responded? If there were people in the house, did they get out? Was anyone injured? Killed? Were there smoke detectors? Who reported the fire? When does the fire department expect to issue a final report? What is the cost of the damage? Was there insurance? How much? (The Public Affairs Journalism prof at Eau Claire told his students to “follow the money.”)

The reporter gathers the available information and writes it in a way that anyone reading it can easily follow. Here’s what it might look like:

“Three people, including a firefighter, were injured in a house fire at 123 Broad Street on Wednesday. Captain Edward Schnauzer of the Mayfield Fire Department said the cause is unknown at this time, as is whether or not there were working smoke detectors.

A passerby noticed smoke coming from an upper window and called the fire department shortly after midnight. Two occupants of the house, a 39-year-old woman and an eight-year-old boy, were taken to St. Bernard hospital for smoke inhalation. One firefighter was treated and released for minor injuries, according to a hospital spokesperson. Three other occupants of the home escaped without injury.

Four battalions responded to the fire, which took two hours to get under control. No nearby houses were damaged.”

That’s news reporting. You go to the event, you find an authority who knows what’s going on, you cite that authority in your story (eg: the fire captain), any other authority who you end up needing to talk to as a result of talking to the first authority (eg: the hospital spokesperson). You might also get a quote from a neighbor watching, one of the people living in the house or, if the house was rented out, its owner, depending on their availability and the time between your reporting and your news outlet’s deadline.

This same principle applies to municipal meetings, political gatherings and basically any event in which there is a beginning, middle and end. If deadline precludes you from reporting on the middle/end, you report as much as you can on the beginning and then follow up to write the rest if the event warrants doing that. (Maybe the fire turns out to be arson for insurance purposes, children playing with matches, or faulty electrical wiring. Depending on the cause, the story you write will either be a small thing or something you follow through to a trial and sentencing. You never know, which is part of the adrenaline rush of being a news reporter.)

But today, I am going to be a feature reporter doing a feature on cataract surgery.

That “who, what, when, where why and how” of newsgathering is also going to come into play.

Who gets cataract surgery? Why? How? What happens? Is it covered by insurance? Are there complications? What are they? Those are the questions I’m going to look to answer.

Because it’s a feature story, I’m going to want to talk to (preferably local) people who’ve undergone the procedure. I will look for someone who is happy with the results, and someone who isn’t. I’ll want to interview a doctor who performs the procedure to get his or her take on what happens, what prospective patients should know going into it and about aftercare and followup.

I can’t do those interviews, though, until I’m educated enough to ask the right questions.

I’ve had cataract surgery. But this isn’t just a first-person story, even though I’m going to let readers know I’ve had the procedure.  So I will set my experience aside for the moment.

When it comes to background research, Google and Wikipedia are your friends, as long as you treat them as starting points and not final authorities.

Entering “Cataract Surgery” into a Google search box turns up 11,600,000 results in .54 seconds.

Cataract_Page2Ads.jpeg
The top of Page 2 looks just like the top of Page 1, minus the Froedtert ad.

The top result is an ad, which I know because of the “ad” box to the left of the URL.

Someone has paid money to have their listing come up first, a big ol’ red flag to anyone in the news or library business. Librarians and reputable journalists share a reverence for reliable, unbiased information. Our goal is for end-users to be able to make an informed decision about whatever it is they’re looking to figure out. The best way to help make that happen is by providing high-quality, objective source material.

Which is why Google is only a first step. I make a point of going several pages in – usually seven to 10 – to get a sense of what’s out there and what people are looking at and for. (Paid ads aside, Google tends to rank its results, so more popular results show up on the initial pages.)

MayoClinicCataract.jpeg
This is on Page 1
Page3PubMedCataract.jpeg
I’d definitely check out the National Library of Medicine’s information. (Note that those paid ads are still up on the top of Page 3.)

I gravitate toward sites with .org, .edu and .gov as extensions. I don’t rule out commercial sites (.com), but if a site’s main objective is sales, there’s an obvious bias. I can probably do better with a different type of site.

CourseraCataractSurgeryClass.jpeg
This is on Page 7. Good for seeing how doctors think.

In addition to my Google search, I’m going to hit up my local public or university library (assuming I have access to a university library) and check out their books and databases.

The difference between a search engine and library database is like the difference between your grandmother’s attic and her spice rack (if your grandmother is a great and adventurous cook). The former is full of random stuff that’s been piling up there for years; the latter is orderly, relevant and everything on it is fresh. In other words, it’s highly curated. Library databases contain information that’s been pre-selected by subject experts for reliability and quality.

I select my source material, I read it, I get literate about my topic. Some of that will come into my story, with citations from those articles ( e.g.: “According to a 2018 study by…. ). Other information will come from interviews. I’d want to talk to at least one person who had the surgery before I talk to the doctor, which would inform some of the questions I asked the professional.

The finished story will emerge from these elements.

With all my information gathered and in one place, I look at it as a whole, searching for a starting point. (I call this part “finding my way in.”) If I get it right, my final product will be accurate, accessible and entertaining.

Here’s a completely true sentence that could serve as the lede (journalist-speak for the first sentence) of how I’d start this first-person story:

“If I had run over my glasses three weeks earlier, it would have been a disaster. But cataract surgery rendered it a non-issue.”

‘Honoring Miss Pietsch’ or how a composer helped me get my house in order, featuring 1886 wallpaper

 

House1904AAUW
Composer Edna Frida Pietsch stands in front of her house in 1904, insert is Pietsch at 8, in 1902. The awnings are in the attic, although they’re pretty worn out. (Photo from Wisconsin Women: a gifted heritage©1982, a project of the Wisconsin State Division AAUW

If anyone with a social media presence wants to see their blog stats tank, here’s my advice:

  1. Quit Facebook.

Even though my blog is my gift to me, a place where I write what I want to in order to loosen myself up to write better and more freely and not about how many readers and followers I have, I will freely cop to being a little sad at how dramatically my readership disappeared when I parted ways with Zuckerberg & Co.

But, I’m over it now. (Okay, maybe I am. Or maybe I’m just lying to myself.)

In the meantime, I have made excellent use of the time between blog posts to do something I have not been able to do since moving into my current house. With a little push from the house’s longest resident, Edna Frida Pietsch, and a lot of help from a couple of neighbors, my house has turned into a place I want to hang out in instead of run away from.

Well, the first floor, at least. Which is a lot, given that the first floor includes a kitchen, living room, parlor, dining room and a couple of porches. All presentable, all beautiful.

MusicRoom
The parlor – and music room

What brought on this miracle?

Two things, actually. One was our neighborhood’s annual home tour. Sweetheart and I live just outside a historic district that has hosted a home tour for the past 28 years. When he lived here with Then-wife, they were asked multiple times to open the house up for the tour, but didn’t.

I’d done the tour before. My previous house was inside the neighborhood boundaries, and there was nothing  wrong with it that a cash infusion of roughly $250,000 wouldn’t have addressed nicely. It was 2005’s “house-in-progress.”

The tour prep process resulted in a lovely, tranquil and neat first floor that stayed lovely, tranquil and neat for six months. Then, a car accident rendered me unable to do much of anything involving cleaning up after people who messed up faster behind me.

Still, it was a valuable lesson. I learned I could create and maintain order – something I had not had the chance to know about myself prior.

In the ensuing years, my decision to live in what could diplomatically be described as a pigsty was informed by my priority list.

When Sweetheart bought his house back after By-Then-Ex-wife put it up for sale, I was working full-time and in graduate school. That overlapped with helping Mom move across six states into an assisted living high-rise and then to a nursing home. Good grades, keeping my job and caring for my mother took precedence over housekeeping.

Still, the process of organizing Mom’s house while she was still there to ensure maximum safety and efficiency while she lived independently, then breaking it apart twice more for her moves showed me I had somehow mastered the art of hanging on to the right stuff without hanging on to all of it – or even too much.

There are people for whom housekeeping and clutter-repelling comes naturally. Sweetheart and I are not among them.

So, for almost 10 years, I lived in this house and whenever I had the time to look around, mostly wanted to cry and run away because there seemed no way to get it under control.

Graduating from library school in 2014 freed up time, but by then Mom was in the nursing home. My free time went there until she died.

Then, it was March of 2018, and all I had was a job. No Mom. No school. Just an upcoming neighborhood home tour focused on the arts.

And Edna Frida Pietsch, the neo-classical composer whose father and grandfather built our house. Pietsch spent either all of her life here or lived here from the time she was five – in 1899 – until she died in 1982.  She taught theory and composition at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music for 35 years and composed solo, chamber and symphonic works.

20180511_123022
A cassette recording of Edna Frida Pietch’s “String Quartet in D Major”

Given that, there was no question that her house had to be on the tour. So, thanks to a pair of Sallys – the tour chair and the volunteer chair – we cleaned, and scrubbed, and excavated. (Good people going through rough times –intimate partner violence survivors and people living with brain disorders – will make good use of what we don’t need and won’t miss.)

I took a trip to Madison’s Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin, where Pietch’s manuscripts and recordings are housed. Library Director Jeanette Casey and her staff were wonderfully helpful. After I left, they digitized some of her music so I’d have recordings to play on Tour Day.

 

 

 

Pietsch’s portrait hangs in the Art, Music and Recreation room of The Milwaukee Public Library. Librarians there let me scan reference copies of her music. And an anthology of Wisconsin women published by the American Association of University Women featured a section on Pietsch and photo of the house from 1904.

MPL_PietschPortrait.jpg
Edna Frida Pietsch, painted by Joan Beringer Pripps

Hands in Harmony, a local piano studio, provided three hours of live music from teachers and students, including some works by Pietsch. The house looked fabulous.

The morning of the tour, I was putting the finishing touches on a display board. An empty board was laying on the dining room table.

“Can I use this?”

Sweetheart was cocking his head at the display board, his arms wrapped around a worn-looking cardboard box he’d brought from some cluttery corner of the attic or basement.

He began laying chunks of dusty plaster on the cardboard, arranging them in lines. Some broke apart as he lifted them from the box.

1886WallpaperBoard
Chunks of dusty plaster

“Um….what are these?”

Which is how I found out about the second chimney sprouting a leak, causing a dining room wall to buckle. Sweetheart and Then-wife had to remove the plaster and replace it. Underneath the molding, they found the 1886 wallpaper. He’d boxed and kept it, along with a sample of the old-school jute-lined linoleum that had been under the carpet when they’d redone the floors.

WallpaperCloseup.jpg
The 1886 wallpaper

We gently wiped the wallpaper with damp cloths. The plaster dust vanished, revealing a floral pattern in deep burgundy, with various shades of pink, almost silver, and gold. I thought – not for the first time – of how lucky I am to have a life partner like Sweetheart.

Hitting the ‘delete’ button on Facebook: a Dispatch from the quiet zone

 

On April 10th, I posted this on my Facebook feed:

I was going to just leave quietly, but it feels disrespectful to so many of you who I care about. I joined Facebook quietly in December of 2006 as a puckish joke on one of my kids, and it quickly became a mechanism for staying in touch far-flung friends. It also helped me make new friends, and valuable connections. But for a lot of reasons, it’s time to go. I’m reassessing a lot of things in light of Mom’s death, and the way I engage with social media platforms is on that list.

 Regarding Facebook, I know enough about what privacy means in an electronic environment to have kept my settings set at maximum privacy, not take any of those damn quizzes or list my forty favorite songs, colors or facts about myself I wasn’t willing to share. But the way Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg made it okay for anyone who let the vampires in to also let them in to their friends’ houses was not okay.

Two days later, I clicked “Delete my account.” I was informed that if I logged in within two weeks, all would be forgiven and my account restored.

Now, that’s a non-option.

QuittingFacebook2015-06-19teehee
And then, with a single keystroke, I flushed Facebook.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over Facebook’s lack of respect for user privacy, but knowing what I knew about the ways in which data gets collected, mined and used, I was less surprised about the outrage than I was at the constant (see blog archives for the paper I wrote about it in 2008) insistence by Zuckerberg & co. that they had no idea that FB data could be used for anything other than good. If I, a nobody sitting at my kitchen table in 2008 could identify multiple ways personal data could be used for less-than-savory purposes,  there’s no excuse for those two to turn into a pair of outraged Victorian ladies, all atwitter at this assault on their delicate constitutions.

Still, a lot of people, whether or not their data was scooped up by Cambridge Analytica (mine was, unsurprisingly), are sticking with Facebook.

I’m not one of them. When I left, Sumner & Jessica were about to become first-time parents. I wonder how my fellow librarian pal Keith in Syracuse is faring, whether Celia got to the beach for the annual sea turtle rescue and how many impromptu house concerts and other adventures Marge has had in the last week (probably about 20, knowing her as I do).

But the truth is, Facebook had become an avoidance strategy. In the time Mom was declining, it was a way to decompress and run away from thinking about what was going on in my life. The energy it took me to do what I needed to for her left me with little time to address my house, which was becoming more cluttered, and the long-form project I’ve been working on – mostly in my head – for decades.

So really, Cambridge Analytica was just the final push forward on a journey that I’d been trying to summon up the will to start taking for awhile.

Since leaving Facebook, I can’t say I’ve made major strides on any of these things. But I have made strides.

As I write this, the radio is on and I’m half-listening to an episode of Hidden Brain in which a young mom talks about how reluctant she was to portray anything but the perfect life and compare hers to other peoples’ perfect lives.

The dog is begging for a bite of the waffle I’m eating, Sweetheart broke a dessert dish in the microwave warming syrup; there’s a load of laundry in the wash and the litterbox needs changing.

I was actually on national television and in the New York Times for being one of the first “old” people on Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg may have kind of needed me then, but he sure doesn’t now. At the time I quit, I had more than 1,500 contacts. All of them were there for a reason, whether or not we’d met in person.

I used Facebook to connect people with each other, to stay in touch with far-flung friends and to stay current in my job. There are times when I miss the ease of being able to manage those connections.  But I managed just fine before Mark Zuckerberg.

I’ll be fine without him.

Death: the most unlikely of happy endings or ‘Bossiest Eulogy Ever’

MomReadsPaper

Mom died on February 25th. Her funeral was in Utica, New York; yesterday was her memorial service. This is the eulogy I wrote and read yesterday.

Eulogy II

The first Tuesday after Mom’s funeral, I woke up and, because it has been part of my waking-up ritual for what seems like forever (even though it wasn’t) she was my first thought.

The picture that immediately popped into my head was her coffin newly lowered into her grave – a gorgeous, round-topped pine box the color of warm tea, black grain running through like tea leaves.

The feeling it evoked was a mixture of happiness, relief and serenity. Mom was okay. Mom was safe. She wasn’t confused, afraid or anxious. Her body wasn’t stiff and rigid because of a Parkinsonian freeze. She was beyond pain, beyond fear and I felt at peace.

This is not always how I feel about having a dead mother. The range of emotions I am experiencing on account of this loss are different than any of the others preceding it. Sadness. Relief. A little conflicted about the relief. Relaxed in a way I haven’t been in years. A little conflicted about that.

I am happy she got to see me finally marry the right guy, graduate from library school at 55, even if she slept through a good deal of the ceremony (lucky Mom, right?), share some of my life in Milwaukee and give me the most incredible gift of all – the absolute trust that I would have her back as she navigated the terrible and solitary torture of a slow, agonizing slide into helplessness and utter dependence.

For a woman who associated being dependent with being neglected, marginalized and abused – for valid reasons – this required an unprecedented leap of faith, on two fronts.

 

A little context – on two fronts

Mom’s upbringing, combined with the circumstances of my birth, had not laid the groundwork for dependence with dignity or mother/daughter compatibility.

She’d been a surprise.

Her parents were excited about another son to help with the planting, harvesting, milking and other farm chores. Instead, they got a fourth daughter. She was two weeks old when her sister Bessie suggested calling her ‘Arlene’ with an ‘I.’ (Her birth certificate reads “Baby Chernoff.”)

Mom grew up poor, Jewish, left-handed and unwanted on a farm during the Depression. A doctor told her parents, immigrants who hadn’t gone past sixth grade, that she shouldn’t be allowed to read outside of school because of her poor eyesight. The only toy she ever had was a doll her brother took apart. She once told me that when she really wanted to set her mother off, she’d walk around the house singing “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.”

Her incredible tenacity in surviving her first year at Syracuse University with so little preparation for college life, eventually figuring it out (in part, after the dean in whose office she was crying told her to start doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle every Sunday) and going on to graduate and build a life in New York is remarkable.

 

A brief digression

I will now break from this eulogy to present a brief episode of “Irlene Chernoff: Life in New York.”

Scene: Girl’s night out. Syracuse Alumni Lois (tall) and Irlene (not so tall) enter the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to attend a talk by Eleanor Roosevelt.

They stroll across the lobby to the elevator and press the call button. The elevator arrives. They step in. The elevator is occupied by two women, one tall and one not-so tall.

The tall one is Eleanor Roosevelt.

The not-so tall one is Dorothy Parker.

Brief Silence. Furtive staring.

Lois: “Irlene. I never realized how short you are.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: “Good things come in small packages.”

Dorothy Parker: “So does poison.”

End Scene

 

Two-front context – continued

Then, a 50’s-era miracle happened. After having all but cemented her place in the family as the cool aunt and successful old maid career woman, Mom snagged the hottest bachelor in Utica. Being “Mrs. Rabbi Waldman,” in the words of my friend Debra, was her favorite job ever.

Here’s Mom, describing Dad in a letter turning down a job offer in New York in April 1958, because she’s getting married:

“…he is everything I ever dreamed of in a man. He is warm, sensitive, human, strong and the most understanding man I ever met; in addition to being liberal, of diversified interests and professionally a rabbi …”

By the time I came along, Mom’s older siblings had all reproduced. Used to being bossed around by the four elders, none known for being shy about their opinions, she was nervous in the way of any first-time mom. Unfortunately for both of us, I was born by emergency C-section two weeks after my due date, and because of Mom’s reaction to anaesthesia, by the time she was fully awake and ready to be the Best Mother Ever, I was a week old and had bonded with Dad.

Things were different 17 months later when Debby came along, and thus, the family rectangle (Amy/Dad, Debby/Mom) was established. It worked well until 1974, when Dad died.

A seismic shift

Until about 2005, Mom and I did not have the easiest relationship. Sometimes that happens with mothers and daughters, and if the daughter is lucky – which I was – she gets to a place where anger, sadness and resentment are replaced by gratitude for (in my case) the care she does give, and for a great husband and in-laws, supportive friends and the ability to have built different relationships with my own daughters.

One by-product of Parkinson’s disease was that – to paraphrase Mom – she stopped seeing everything she didn’t like about herself in me and started seeing me. Our subsequent relationship was deeper and more satisfying for its having happened long after I’d had enough therapy and done enough interior work to understand that parent-offspring compatibility is an add-on, rather than part of the standard package.

Nothing compares with what it feels like – after almost 50 years – to suddenly have a mother who goes out of her way to tell you you’re terrific and you feel it it so much that you could spend the rest of your life lying on your back and rolling around in it.

Even if that had never happened, and I was standing here, I’d still be grateful for everything Mom gave me, because once you know that nothing you do will please someone, it gives you the freedom to not worry about displeasing them.

Which, like the love you can roll around in, is also a gift.

And as the daughter who ended up being Mom’s Primary Person on her Grand Exit Tour of Planet Earth, it was my job to make sure she faced some unpleasant stuff in the service of making sure that her Grand Exit went the way she wanted.

Son of seismic shift –  the nursing home version

It would not be an overstatement to say that Mom’s Exit Plan did not involve a slow agonizing slide into helplessness in a Milwaukee nursing home. She had ordered up a serving of being “carried out of here feet-first,’ “here” being the condo she’d bought on Cape Cod in 1982.

I have vivid memories of visiting nursing homes with 50-something Mom. We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Near-comatose people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sat in wheelchairs in the halls or rows in common rooms in front of a TV, some aware of us, some staring at nothing. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation on the same theme.

“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”

I didn’t shoot Mom, and I didn’t give her pills. But there were so many times, especially over the past two years, when I wondered why she was still alive. I went from being angry all the time to “she’s warm and I can hug her.”

And I came to rely on a group of people I had already grown to love and respect – the holy women (and occasional man) who cared for Mom and the rest of the people in the Helen Bader Unit with relentless devotion.

They helped Mom through these past brutal years, but they also helped Debby and me. It was a team effort in a game that ended with Mom’s death. And now that it’s over, I’m gonna tell you two things. First, we won. Second, we were able to because of three other things.

The most important – Thing One, if you will – was Mom. It was her decision to move into the nursing home. I’m not saying it was easy, and I’m not saying it was pretty. Debby was freaked out about her spending $10,000 a month on 24-hour care on top of rent for her assisted living apartment. I was slightly less freaked out but knew it wasn’t sustainable. That four months, though, gave Mom the time she needed to wrap her head around what she realized needed to happen. It was her idea to tour the Home; she chose Bader.

I have seen – and continue to see – new people coming in who didn’t choose. Some are angry, and what’s hard is made harder, both for them and for the staff who care for them. It is a stark contrast and a constant reminder of the remarkable courage my mother displayed in making her own decision to move to a memory care unit.

I also know that part of the reason she was able to make that courageous choice was because she knew – Thing Two – she could count on me. By then, we were far enough down the road that, given the choice to stay and help or have me do it, she jetted off to California to hang with her sisters, allowing me to set her room up in a way that it could serve multiple functions (seating and dining facilities for six) and favorite pieces from every room of her former home(s).

The “as happy as possible under the circumstances” ending

Bragging about your childrens’ achivements – the albums, the concerts, the book deals, the degrees, the awards, the jobs – that’s easy.

Entrusting your own well-being to their care is a whole different level of affirmation.

I did it as right as I could, and I think, for the most part, I got it pretty right. But I got it right because she helped me get it right. I got it right because she was honest enough and courageous enough to face her own death, and when she wasn’t, she borrowed my courage and my love for her and we got through it together. And when I wasn’t courageous enough to face her decline, I had spent enough time at the nursing home to be on a first-name basis with the people who were caring for Mom, and they helped me. That’s Thing Three.

If your mother lives in a nursing home, it’s a nursing home. But your mother lives there, so it’s also your mother’s house. When you come around more, your mother might not get more attention and more care than the people whose families don’t come around, but I know this – she gets better care. Because as good as those caregivers are, no one has time to rummage through your mom’s drawers and discover the several-sizes-too-small bra that belongs to the lady across the hall. Also, they are going to have your mom’s back like nobody’s business if you show up, because you’re going to see what they do and how to make your mom’s life and their lives as easy as possible, given the circumstances.

So this isn’t really as much a eulogy as it is a message, and kind of a directive from us. Mom’s death was beautful, and it was beautiful because I never stopped telling her, right up to the end, that this was her old age and eventual death and that she was in charge. And I never stopped believing it.

In truth, I started pushing her to talk about what she wanted and what we should do long before she was ready.

But because of – or maybe in spite of it – Mom and I were able to have all the hard conversations, and even find some light moments in the midst of them. We planned her funeral and this memorial service together, and the comfort of knowing what she wanted and being able to make it happen has brought me the kind of comfort that only a supportive mom can give.