Saturday, March 10, 2007

Eulogy for my Mom

My mother died nine years ago, March 11, 1998. Believing that souls are eternal, etherial and everywhere, I know she reads my blog. In her honor I am posting the eulogy I read at her funeral.

Eulogy for Rita Seidel

It is humbling to speak to family and friends about Rita, knowing that nothing I could say would approach what is in each of your minds. Words did not come at first, only images and pictures and feelings. Something about my approach was making this difficult to write.

It then came to me that this was going to be the easiest piece I ever wrote, because there is nobody here I have to convince, no one story that would sum it all up, that the thing that made Rita unique was how many people she touched in so many different ways. All I want to do is tell the framework of the story, and let all our memories fill in the rest.

We all have distinct phases of our lives. One striking thing about Rita is that somehow, all the phases of her life kept weaving through each other, and as her life went on she kept drawing on her experiences and becoming stronger. This goes beyond the obvious physical strength and will power. Her insights into people, her direct dealings, her advice, her appreciation of the joy of living, were never stagnant. They always increased.

I found several identifiable phases, and I want to talk briefly about each.

Rita was born in Berlin, Germany in 1932. My impression is that my Nana & Opa, and Grandma Esther, Aunt Rose and Uncle Max, Aunt Gusti and Uncle Freddy, and Uncle Max Newman, would have had comfortable business and personal lives. Rita's brother, my Uncle Mickey, was born a few years later, also in Germany. By 1938, when Rita was six years old, her entire family and extended family were forced to leave their homes and their businesses and their futures, by the insanity of Nazi Germany. She has told me her early childhood memories were happy, before it all happened. What this must have been like for a happy young girl. Father taken away, badly hurt, physically and mentally. Forced out, objects of hate in their own country. Could this be the same person we knew later? How many Ritas died without having the chance to have the life she had. We should never forget this, and although Rita was never a zealot about such things, she never forgot. Part of her legacy should be for us never to forget.

At age six Rita started school in Washington Heights in Manhattan. She spoke no English when she started school. Her parents had a store on Dyckman Street, and had the foresight to speak English at home, so Rita became pretty American pretty quick. I think her life at home was very difficult. But not so difficult that she didn't make life long friends, not so bad that she couldn't develop a love of learning, and reading, and music, and the arts. A person doesn't just show up later in life as a complete person, there is always a foundation. Actually, the problems a person overcomes, whether as a child or even later, becomes a part of their strength and character. Rita developed these strengths at a young age, and cultivated them as time went by.

My parents were married in 1954. Some of you knew Rita and Manny then, and some of you didn't, but I want to share something Rita recently told me. She obviously remembered the details of things that went wrong, which at age 41 I was finally ready to hear. But, in her typical direct, honest, "saying exactly what she meant" way, she regarded her married life as some of the happiest times she ever had. She just never saw the point in emphasizing the negative. The negatives are often obvious, and focusing there keeps you negative. She wanted me to know, in detail, about the happy times, and what made it nice, because in a way, if you know that, you start to know where to look for yourself.

The next phase I will sum up with one simple sentence. Brian and I are two of the luckiest people in the world.

While raising us, Rita started another phase, her career. She was a freelance commercial artist, and used to do retouching at home with an airbrush. I remember watching her retouch photos for a tool catalogue and asking her why people wanted to look at pictures of screwdrivers. On our dining room table she designed the logo and label for a small company called Solgar Vitamins, now one of the world's largest vitamin companies. Ironically, during Rita's final days, a huge ad campaign containing her logo was all over buses and billboards in New York City. Lately, as I walked around Queens, those buses were everywhere. It shook me up at first, until I decided to smile every time I saw one. So, if you see one, smile. Trust me, it helps.

About 12 years ago, Rita decided to leave New York and start out fresh in Princeton. To me, the whole thing was baffling and confusing, but since she seemed sure it was the right move, what could anyone do but wait and see what happened. Who could have known? I must admit, for her first few years in Princeton I really didn't know what she did here. Until, about 7 years ago, she had some kind of surgery and I spent the night at her place while she was at the hospital. After about the 20th phone call from people I did not know and had never heard about, I said to number 20, "What the heck is going on here?" She said "You don't know, do you?" Fearing the unknown, I asked, "What don't I know?" "How important your Mom is to so many people". Things between us were different from then on.

Oh yes, I should also mention that although Rita had an art related career, when she moved to Princeton she knew virtually nothing about computers or computer graphics, other than it was going to be the way things were done. She became a computer graphics expert in her fifties and sixties, by determination to reach a goal, to be skillful and artistic on the computer, and she did it. And kept doing it. And why not? She was an artist and she loved her work. People are drawn to people who are enthusiastic. Certainly Rita's enthusiasm about ALL things drew people to her.

Then, this cancer thing. I will never forget these last three years, but strangely, something inside me feels these were positively wonderful times. Inspirational times, proud times. So many friends, so many people, so many stories. Such a fight. Such a team. Such helpers. Such memories. That party at the lake. Hearing her tell me in June she was going to Clare's wedding around Labor Day (thinking to myself "yeah right"). The many conversations we had about anything and everything. But most of all, sharing the experiences with all the people.

The last few weeks were a phase unto themselves. Rita could do anything beautifully if she chose to....and once again she chose to. I want to publicly thank all the doctors, nurses and other professionals who helped Rita during these times. You are truly special people.

In conclusion, I want to refer to my favorite movie "It's a Wonderful Life". George Bailey had trials and tribulations, culminating in his wanting to kill himself. A guardian angel came to him and said he could help, but killing himself was not the way to go. George reluctantly listens, and says "Maybe it would have been better if I were never born". The angel thinks about it and says "Yeah, that'll do it", and he lets George experience what the world would have been like without him. This is a bizarre and frightening world, considering all the things that happened (or didn't happen) because of his absence. So, and this is a long way to get to my favorite part of the movie is when George realizes what an impact his life had on people, and how each person touches and affects so many other lives, and the one thing he knew he didn't want, was not to have lived his life, because he had such a wonderful life.

And that's how I feel about Mom.

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