Monday, October 29, 2018

Eulogy for Miriam Hammerman

Miriam Hammerman
I want to thank Rabbi Hamilton and Kehillath Israel for the gracious invitation that this funeral take place here.  I know my mom would have really appreciated it.  KI was always close to her heart – even at times when it wasn’t as close to mine.  And when she was no longer a fixture here and moved to Nahanton Woods, she belonged to Mishkan Tefilla for many years and loved that congregation too.  And now, here we all are, together.  And the fact that the certificate of occupancy for this building was received at almost the very moment of my mother’s passing, gives almost a bashert quality to our all being here today. It truly closes a circle, for my family and undoubtedly for others.

This coming week, Jews throughout the world will read of the death of the matriarch Sarah.  Strangely, the title of the portion is Hayye Sarah – the life of Sarah.

א  וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים--שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.
1 And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.
Two things of note – first, that a portion describing death has a title connoting life – and second, that the word for “years of” – shnay – also means two.  Shnay hayye Sarah, then, can literally mean, “the two lives of Sarah.”

When I think of my mother’s 95 years, I can really describe it as two distinct lives.  Her final chapter -the past decade – was very painful for her and those who love her, and her decline from Parkinson’s was horrible to witness and even more horrible to live.  She lost the gift of words, a bad enough fate, but even more cruel for a pianist, she lost the gift of her hands.  In a sense, the day her Steinway was sold and moved from her home in Nahanton Woods was the beginning of the end.  But the last chapter played out over six years, four residences and two states.  The care she got was excellent, particularly at the Jewish Home in Fairfield – but she was a shell of herself and, worst of all, she was keen enough to realize it.

Thursday afternoon, I received the call that she had breathed her last – it was a shock but not a surprise.  I had seen her the day before and she seemed noticeably weaker, her will to live ebbing from her.  But she still had enough life left in her to allow me to feed her one last guilty pleasure - a Drakes Yodel.  She loved chocolate until the end.  And when she died, classical music was playing in her room.

And so now, from the moment of her passing, we are liberated to look back at the whole life of Miriam Hammerman – to put that final chapter in its proper place, but to look at it all.

And when you do, you can find two distinct lives, in fact,  Shnay Hayye Miryam.  And almost right in the middle, the dividing line, was my father’s tragic death.

Seven weeks from now, just at the conclusion of Hanukkah, we will mark my dad’s 40th yahrzeit.  She was young when he died.  But what could have been the end for her was instead a new beginning.  She never wallowed in self-pity.  She picked herself up and built a life – a new life  - a second life, as it were.  She traveled – a lot.  She learned how to invest her money and did well at it.  She spent time with family and friends.  She loved elder hostels and never stopped challenging her mind – especially when it came to learning more about her Jewish heritage.  She even had a couple of boyfriends, but never wanted to remarry.  She reveled in seeing her grandchildren and at the end, great grandchildren.  She followed the news assiduously.  She was a CNN junkie long before cable news became a thing.  She stopped watching, but news such as yesterday’s out of Pittsburgh would have greatly troubled her.

And she cultivated her music.  For the first half of her life, she developed and honed her art, practicing many hours each day as a child, and giving up everything else.  Then as a concert pianist she most often accompanied others.  In fact, that’s how she met my father.  A girlfriend of hers was supposed to accompany him at a concert he was giving in the area, but she had to back off at the last minute and she reluctantly agreed to take it on.  They met and as she recalls, he gave her really hard music to learn.  It was not love at first sight, although she admitted that he was very handsome.  So the night of the concert arrives and they get to the hall – and there’s no piano.  He did the whole thing acapella and she was relieved. And it was nice but she figured that was it.  Until a few weeks later, she attended the first big convocation at Brandeis, where Eleanor Roosevelt spoke, and there he was!

And the rest was history.

Life number one was filled with music – and it was also filled with challenges. It's not easy being the spouse of clergy, while raising three children, including one with special needs. But she did it effortlessly, assisted by her two best friends, her Steinway, and Filene’s Basement.

My mom always had a bag in her hand, usually to return.  She had the whole system gamed.  She knew where to properly bury items in piles of clothing, so that you could go back a week later and everything would be marked down.

She had the gift of New England frugality down to a science.  Which is why I didn’t hire a rabbi to do this service.  For one thing, I know she was very proud of me, and for another, I came prepaid.  She was a saver – never wanted to waste anything.  Anything in her refrigerator that was about to go bad – she froze.  She would freeze eggs.  She would freeze so many items that I used to joke that if I opened her freezer we would find Ted Williams in there.

But when she wasn’t at Filenes, she was just being a great mother – she was always there for me, my biggest booster and biggest fan – as I’m sure all her friends will attest.  Her coffee table was also known as the Museum of Josh. 

She knew what the life of clergy is like and that my schedule was not my own.  As her health declined during her last years in Newton, I tried to get up to see her maybe every other week.  She always thanked me when I visited – but I always wished I could have done more.

Mom had a great sense of humor – though often overshadowed by the Hammerman side of the family, she was pretty funny herself.  Once, when she was looking at assisted living options, we were in my car and we decided to check out Newbridge.   I called them on my speaker phone and was explaining to the person there that I was looking to bring my mother by to see some of the units – and then suddenly, on cue, she blurted out, “I’m the mother.”

And she had a great laugh.  I always liked to make her laugh, which is another reason why the past few years have been so hard.  She did smile until very recently, whenever I would visit. 

And I should add, that she was a big Red Sox fan.  Right now, I can imagine her and my Brooklyn born Dad having interesting World Series conversations up there.

In her first life, maybe the biggest favor I ever did for her was to get the measles as a kid.  When the doctor made a house call, he noticed her smoking and slapped the cigarette out of her hand and said, this must stop now.  And she did. She was able to will herself to get rid of a lifelong habit. And it might have saved her life.  About a decade after my father died, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and the decision was made to have one lung removed.

She survived the surgery and lived the last three decades of her life with one lung.  Aside from occasional huffing and puffing, you would never have known.  Any time she had a respiratory infection, it was scary.  But she truly defied death.  She feared death and was often preoccupied with matters of health.  Her health lectures were constant - and sometimes comic.  For our anniversary, she once gave us an electric toothbrush.   Every time I would visit her, she would show me the “when I die” file that she kept, and planned meticulously.  Decades ago, she was suggesting caterers for the shiva.  But the fact is, she never gave in to death, and for as long as she could, she never stopped living.

She kept on playing, for a while doing concerts of duets and chamber music.  She taught many students and in only one case did she fail – with me.  I wish I had taken piano more seriously.

וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה, אֶת-הַתֹּף--בְּיָדָהּ.

Like the Miriam of old, my mother took the instrument, went out and made music.

My mom loved family.  She took care of her mother of blessed memory, who also lived most of her adult life as a widow.  She was a loving sister to Ernie of blessed memory and her sister Eleanor was also her best friend.

She became a family matriarch of sorts, for my cousins on her side, and on my dad’s side as well.  She was so proud of Lisa and Asher and their family, and until it just became too difficult, she loved going to Israel to see them, and when they came here. And she got to see Adereth several times, and then often via Skype, and her great grandchildren Neriya and Ohr Ariel – who visited last year, and through photos, videos and Skype.  When most of her words evaded her over the past couple of years, she would always want me to test her on the names of her grandchildren and great grandchildren – and she never did forget them. 

She and my brother Mark had a special relationship, and when my father died, she did not miss a beat in assuming his leadership roles at Humanity House, which she had helped my father to found, and later to the Barry Price Center.  Although it was very hard for them to communicate with each other at the end, she was always very concerned about Mark, who, in large part thanks to her, is in a very secure place now.

And she also had a very special relationship with Mara and Ethan and Dan and was so proud of them.  She beamed at her grandsons’ b’nai mitzvah, came to every birthday and brought back exotic gifts from her trips – including the most cherished item, a sheepskin rug from Morocco.  On those rare Shabbats when I was off, I often took them up to Boston with me to spend the weekend with her, and get a glimpse into my childhood.  And when it came time to move her into a new apartment, I knew I needed Dan with me, because no one brought a smile to her face more than Dan.  She wrote a letter to him for his bar mitzvah – saying that even when he entered this world he had a beautiful melodious cry.  You’ve blossomed into a well-rounded individual with wonderful values and interests,” and she talked about how she loved sitting with him in the morning and reading the New York Times movie reviews together.  She said, “I’m very grateful for the time we have together.”  She wrote to Ethan as well, saying, “You bubble with enthusiasm in all that you do.  I treasure the time you came over to me and sad, “I want to bond, Grandma.  Let’s watch this TV program together.”

She loved her family and she loved being Jewish.  Every week while growing up, I was entranced as she would wave her arms and bless the Shabbat candles, always adding special prayers that God bless her loved ones.  Even when all other words evaded her, she remembered the candle blessing, nearly perfectly.

For a few years, she kept a diary sporadically, jotting down impressions and quotes that she liked.

She wrote there of her family, after describing her 75th birthday celebration: “You are the best thing that ever happened to me.”  And “I have loved and been loved.  All the rest is background music.” She taught us all how better to appreciate all the music – background and otherwise.

And she wrote, "Turn your wounds into wisdom."  That wisdom is most helpful now.

May your memory be for a blessing, Mom.

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