Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In Memory of My Mother-in-Law Matilda

Matilda looked great in red!
I have been thinking a lot about death lately. Not in the morbid sense (well, perhaps a little), but in the OMG, I can't believe how many family and friends have died in the last two years. And naturally, one begins to think about the time limits we all have. I used to think I had all the time in the world to do all the things I dreamed about—writing that book; becoming a choreographer; learning how to draw/paint; traveling the world; watching my children get married and have their own families. Now I am more realistic. I know my time is limited, and honestly, that makes me very sad because I'm not ready. Yeah, I know; nobody is.

August 1953 with Doug
This Sunday, we will have an unveiling for my mother-in-law Matilda. I miss her. Several pictures of her are in my office. I take great comfort in surrounding myself with my loved ones, and I confess, when work throws me a question, I look at one of those pictures and start talking to it. (None has answered—yet!)

I miss the messages she would leave on our answering machine. Unlike my mother's "Hello; it's your mother" (as if I would not know her voice?), my mother-in-law never identified herself. Her message always began with "Are you people there?" For some reason, she always referred to Doug and me as "you people." I wasn't sure if it was because she saw us as a unit, a huge mass, or if she wasn't quite sure which one of us she wanted to talk to, so she lumped us together. Of course, she did that in person as well. "What did you people do this weekend?"

Reading with Russell
I miss her knowledge of politics and world events. She loved to watch CNN and CSPAN and read Time and Newsweek. She was always up-to-date on who was who and what they were doing. While I didn't always agree with her opinions (and yes, as demure as she seemed, she had some very strong ones), I always admired that she had them. She was not shy about letting us know what politicos she thought were doing a lousy job.

Visiting with Perri at MICA
I miss her sense of humor. It's hard to believe that this petite proper lady loved watching old Marx Brothers movies. But she did, and her laugh was infectious. That she shared that love with Perri makes it even more special. There were many sleepovers at Grandma Matilda's where after a dinner out, they'd be in their pajamas watching A Day at the Races or a Night at the Opera.

I miss her cooking. Doug and his sisters did not grow up on canned string beans like Bruce and I did (probably why I have such an aversion to them to this day). Nope. Matilda cooked real vegetables, and they tasted great. Her lentil soup, her creamed spinach, her artichokes, and yes, even her string beans were the best. I'm honored that she even shared a few of her recipes with me.

I miss our conversations. She shared stories about her parents and growing up in Paterson; she conveyed her worries about her daughters; she expressed pride in Doug and, indeed, all her children; she talked about movies, and politics, and (my favorite) her grandchildren. We shared many tears and many smiles together.

So this Sunday at her unveiling, instead of thinking about death, I will think about her life, about her accomplishments, and about the greatest joy she gave me—her son.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Piled Higher and Deeper

Two weeks into construction, and there is not a spot of clean in our house. Oy! But I can now see that the vision that Doug and I had when we started this project is slowly coming into being, and that is very exciting.

The laundry room, front hall, and den tiles have been laid and grouted, as has the kitchen floor. We have a new sliding back door to our porch, with a lock that actually works (no more bars in the track to keep out intruders) And no more stickies on the door to prevent someone from accidentally walking through the glass; there's no mistaking there's a door here. A new storage closet in the den has been framed out.

A pocket door is in the works to hold a stained glass door that we took from my mother's and father's house. When closed, the door will separate the front hall from the den. Years ago, my mother commissioned an artist to do a door in grays and white, with a red cardinal—my father's favorite bird. The door led from our dining room to an enclosed porch. I could not bear to leave it behind when we sold their house, and now it will become an integral part of my own!

The bathtub has been installed (complete with dirty rug inside); there's new insulation in the bathroom, kitchen, and den. Leaky pipes in the den have been fixed. An electrical upgrade is in the works, lights and light switches have been moved, and yesterday we passed our initial plumbing and electric inspections.

Lessons Learned
What I've learned (actually, it's just reinforced what I already knew about myself) through all this is that I, indeed, can be flexible.

  • I can live with constant noise and block it out if I have to. I do realize, however, that I love the quiet and relish 4:00, when the banging stops, the radio is shut off (country music, no less!), and the constant chattering ceases. 
  • I've learned to live with the toilet seat constantly up, though honestly, I'd prefer not to. When Doug and I were first married, I used to charge him a nickel a pop if he left the seat up (it only took one time of falling into the bowl in the middle of the night to institute that policy). I did the same with Russell, but charged him only a penny; he was a child, after all.
  • I've learned to live in very limited space, though this, too, is something I'd prefer not to. I never realized before how much I roamed the house in between completion of my work assignments. Now, there is no place to go; it's basement or bedroom for me. And it's too cold to just walk around the block.
  • I've learned there are solutions to most problems. There are two contractors working on the project. Each brings a different specialty to the job. One is an expert tile layer, while the other is a master carpenter. One is quiet and planning, while the other loves to talk and go with the flow. But both are great problem solvers. They love figuring things out. They love finding a solution to whatever quirks this old house (or I) throw at them.
  • Most importantly, I've learned dreams do come true.
Note to self: Keep dreaming!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Total Chaos

It is bittersweet that the construction that I have been dreaming about for years (at least 15!) of a new kitchen, bath, and den has now begun, and the only way it was made possible was through my mother's death. I know that she would be very happy that some of the monies she left to me are going to fix up the house. Whenever she gave us money as a gift, she wanted it to be used on something that she could see, not be added to the general operating budget to pay the mortgage.

To prepare for the construction, we had to move everything out of the three rooms and into others. Over the last few months, Doug and I have slowly been going through everything we own to see what we need and what we really want to keep. It's amazing that despite the amount we have donated, trashed, gifted to our children (Russell keeps asking why every time he comes home now he leaves with more than he came with!), there is still so much left.

What is left has now been moved into the basement where I work (making an already messy space even messier; no clients are reading this, I hope), the porch, the garage, the kids' rooms, and our room. Even Perri's goldfish (his/her story of perseverance is a tale for another day) had to find a new home for a few months.

The den is now the cleanest room
in the house!

I'm not a neatnik by any means. But there is not one room in the house that is not loaded with relocated furniture, dishes, pictures, linens, and stuff.

Like most things, you need to tear down before you can build up (hmmm, a life lesson for my scrap of paper?). So yesterday began the tear down. Walls, floors, ceilings, tiles are now in a dumpster sitting in our driveway. Added to the chaos of stuff all over the place is dust all over the place. One of the crew said I should get used to living in dirt for a few months. Really?

Friends who have gone through home renovations had warned me, but I really had no idea how much chaos we'd be living in.

Note to self: What were you thinking?

Monday, January 26, 2015

In Loving Memory of Meyer Millman

Today marks the 17th anniversary of my father's death. Serendipitous that my brother Bruce was over yesterday to look through the boxes of army memorabilia that Dad had saved. Sifting through the boxes of photos and postcards from every city he served in, letters (in triplicate) of every order he received or authorized, army-issued books and maps, and even telegrams to our mother, gave us a glimpse of the man he was and the father he was to become.

Coincidently, two days ago I also came across the eulogy I had given at his funeral. I am proud to remember him here, again with those words:

Though a communicator by profession, how hard it is for me to stand up here and convey to you my love for my father and what made him a very special person.

The consummate educator, he taught me many things that have guided and shaped my life and how, hopefully, shape the lives of his grandchildren.

He taught me to be passionate about work, for he truly put his heart and soul into his job. He was dedicated to his students, to his teachers, and to his building.

An honorable man, he taught me right from wrong. His ethics were grounded in his Jewish background and his love of Judaism—which he passed along to me.

He taught me that family comes first. There was always time for us, even after a long day's fight with the district office.

He also taught me that:

  • Money doesn't grown on trees;
  • We don't own the utility company;
  • I wasn't born in a barn;
  • If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right;
  • I could be anything I wanted...though he advised me against being a teacher...but I have to work hard to get what I wanted.
I would like to read from Psalm 15, which describes the character of a man worthy to come into the presence of God. I think my father was such.

Adonai, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle?
Who shall dwell upon thy holy mountain?

He that walks uprightly, and works righteousness,
And speaks truth in his heart.
That has no slander upon his tongue,
Nor does evil to his fellow,
Nor makes a false charge against his neighbor.
In whose eyes a vile person is despised,
But he honors them that fear Adonai.
He keeps his promise at all costs, and changes not.
He that lends not his money on interest,
Nor takes a bribe to injure the innocent.
He that does these things shall never be moved.

He was a supportive and good husband; a loving father and grandfather. I still miss his calm demeanor, his warm embrace, and his wry (and sometimes dirty) sense of humor. 

Pops, I love you.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Looking Forward to The New Year

Doug and I were fortunate to usher in 2015 singing and dancing with friends at Maggianos—a different experience, to be sure, which hopefully augurs a different and promising new year.

The last few years we have been focused on taking care of parents, on illness, on death and mourning. We've experienced a lot of losses, including both our mothers, one of our dearest friends, and a childhood home. As we've closed out our parents' estates, we've had to get rid of objects that bring back many memories of better times; the good news is that we've also learned that a lot of those "things" are merely that—just stuff. I don't think either of us ever truly appreciated the value of our temple's bazaar, Goodwill, and Craig's list prior to this last year. And how wonderful that our children are now of an age to have apartments of their own; it's quite liberating to get rid of our "crap" and pass it along to them!

Sadly during the last few years, we've had to neglect some of our friends, our home and yard, and even ourselves. There are friends who have taken us off of speed dial, if not deleted us completely from their devices. Perhaps our deletion felt as liberating to them as our getting rid of stuff was to us! I can only hope so. We do, however, regret that we are no longer part of their lives. It's easy to let go of things, not so much people.

Hobbies over the last few years have gone by the wayside. While Doug has continued to play tennis, and I have continued with my book club (thank you my dear ladies for keeping me sane!), I think we both have misplaced some of our passions about other interests.

So as we start 2015, I think we are both ready to shred our shrouds and don brighter colors and, more importantly, refocus on those areas of our lives we have neglected. As a friend (depressingly) reminded me on New Year's Eve, we only 20-40 years left. So, we'd better make each day count.

I'm not big on new year's resolutions (mostly because I seem to break them and/or forget about them by day 2), but I am big about thinking about what my future might look like and what changes need to be made to get closer to that dream.

As a first step, we are changing our environment. Those who know me well know that I have been talking about renovating our kitchen for at least 10 years. We learned (from the same wise friend who reminded me on New Year's Eve about living in the moment) that when you renovate you should work from the top down. If you've been to our house, you also know that our lovely pink bathroom (original to our 1960s home), which is right over our kitchen, is in desperate need of a redo. And, as long as we have a contractor coming in, we might as well fix the den...right?...which has cracked floor tiles held together with clear packing tape, sliding doors with gel leaves on them so no one walks through the glass, and early American-style built-in bookcases (UGLY).

The most exciting part of the renovation will be the installation of a pocket door that will contain a stained glass door from my mother's house. That door holds a lot of memories, and I am happy that our entire family (and friends) will be able to continue enjoying it.

More changes to come—outward and inward. I am, indeed, looking forward to 2015!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Jacob Set a Pillar Upon Rachel's Grave: Genesis 35:20

Yesterday was my mother's unveiling. While it should have been done before her first yarzheit, I delayed. I jokingly (well, not totally) told my sister-in-law Lorrie that I was still holding out hope that mom would suddenly reappear. But alas, she did not. At least not in her physical form.

She appears daily, however, in my memories. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of her, though my thoughts are less focused on the last year of her life and the difficulties she had and are more focused on better times. I remember her lessons and advice, some as unwanted as I'm sure my own is to my children. Others more welcome as I struggled with something that I knew she would have the solution to.

I remember her singing, especially I Just Called To Say I Love You by Stevie Wonder, which she would sing every time she called and spoke to Russell. I had wanted to play it at the unveiling, but Bruce thought it was hokey. So, couldn't resist here.

And I remember one of her last pieces of advice...which came in the form of a poem she brought home a few years ago from a friend's funeral. Apparently the poem has been shared at many a funeral, since a Google search turns up more than 2 million results for it. She told me she liked the message: that the living should go on living.

I'm Free
Don't grieve for me, from pain I'm free
I'm following the path
God has laid you see.
I took his hand when I heard his call,
I turned around and left it all.
I could not stay for another day,
To laugh, to love, to work, or play.
Task left undone must stay that way
I found peace on a sunny day.
If my parting has left a void
Then veil it now with remembered joys.
A family shared, a laugh, a kiss
Oh yes, these things I too will miss.
Be not burdened with times of sorrow.
I wish for you sunshine of tomorrow.
My life's been full; I savored much
Good family, good times
A loved one's touch.
Perhaps my time seemed all too brief
Don't lengthen it now with undue grief.
Lift up your hearts and peace to thee
God wanted me now
From pain I'm free.

So yesterday, we dedicated a footstone in honor of my mother, Garie Solomon Millman.

May we think of her tenderly and revere her memory. May we devote ourselves wholeheartedly to our chosen tasks for her sake. Thus will our beloved mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, be recalled...and live every day.

And even though she has left our midst, we know she will never leave our hearts, where her memory will endure as a blessing forever.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Words of Love...Though Not the Last

My beloved mother passed away three months today. I go back over events of the last year...the last months... and ask myself if I could have done anything better? Could I have prevented/delayed what happened? Could I have made her last months and days any easier? Did I tell her enough that I love her? In my head, I know I did all these things. In my heart, I still ask the questions. And while I still cry, every day it's a little less.

I was quite moved by the outpouring of love and support from family, friends, and clients. Their notes and phone calls were comforting and reassuring. I was baffled by friends and family, even clergy, I never heard from. My mother would not have been surprised and would have excused them and moved on; she would forgive, but she would not forget. I try to mirror her behavior. I was even more touched, however, by the outreach from strangers. Their kind words have touched me, and in a short period of time have changed my own behavior towards others.

Several of us spoke at my mother's funeral. It was interesting that while Russell, Noemi, and Avi (three of her four grandchildren) remembered different things about their grandmother, the underlying theme was the same...she was a proud and independent spirit, who wanted them to be the same. Here's what I said at her funeral.


My mother would be so pleased with all the people here in her honor today. Just as she touched your lives, you all touched hers. If the funeral home had let us, we would have passed around some whiskey sours and toasted her in Garie style. Instead, we will toast her 93 years with words only.

It’s difficult to sum up my mother because she lived life to the fullest. In many ways, she was a Renaissance woman. She was a science teacher who could dissect a frog, but would scream for my father if a spider or bug were in the house. She was an artist who didn’t like the colors orange and brown. She played the violin, she danced, and she sang…all the time. She was an athlete who excelled at volleyball and swimming and was the shortest member of her high school basketball team. She was a financier, who helped the economy of our country with her endless shopping. And despite the rumors, it’s only a coincidence that the economy tanked four years ago when she got ill.

A teacher, my mother has taught me my whole life. Even in these last few years of her decline, she taught me much about living. I had started a blog to capture those lessons. Here are excerpts from one entry, which stands out more than the others.

I remember many trips to shopping malls, antique stores, and flea markets as a youngster. My mother once told me that she liked to acquire “stuff,” because as a child she didn't have much. She talked about a doll that she and her two sisters had to share, making its bed in a shoebox with clothes fashioned out of scraps of material that my grandfather, a tailor, brought home.

But in all her acquisitions, I only remember a few things that she actually searched out—a white wicker rocker, a glass and silver match striker, and an antique cranberry glass pitcher.

For many years, she used that pitcher at holiday dinners, putting milk in for the coffee drinkers. When I was about 15, she delegated the task of filling the pitcher to me. The memory is still vivid. As I poured the milk into the pitcher, I heard a noise, and then noticed a huge crack near its bottom. I was devastated. She had searched many years for that antique; it was one of her joys; and in one instant, I had destroyed it.

Though upset herself, she tried very hard to console me, claiming blame for the crack. “I am a science teacher,” she said. “I should know that if you pour cold milk into a warm pitcher, the glass will expand...and crack.”

Then the teaching moment: “Besides,” she added, “things aren't that important; people are important.”

And THAT is her legacy—that people are more important than things. She made friends everywhere she went, as witnessed by all of you in this room. She loved talking to people and being with people. She was a devoted daughter to my grandmother, a loving wife to my father. Her sisters Miriam and Helen were her friends, and her machatunim Marilyn and Matilda were her sisters. My brother and I were not her only children. As soon as Bruce married Lorrie, and I married Doug, she would say “I have two sons and two daughters.”

When rummaging through her drawers the other day, Bruce and I came across a sealed envelope, which she had put together in 1967 before a trip to Mexico. It would be her second time on an airplane, and apparently she was worried that it might go down. She left several sealed envelopes—one each for her two sisters, one for her dear friends Edythe and Sig, and one for Bruce and me.

Here is her final lesson:

Dear Children:
Remember to have a good sense of humor and to be honest and courageous. Remember to love each other and to always keep close, even though you will raise beautiful families of your own. Remember ALL the family and try to patch up any misunderstandings. Remember that we tried to do our best and that we both love you very much.

She certainly did her best.