A tribute to my beloved mother, Mrs. Paula Eisemann, may she rest in peace, on her yahrtzeit.
Being in mourning for a loved one can be transforming. Life goes barreling on, demanding its due, like a hungry child. Babies are born, engagements take place, weddings are celebrated, seasons pass, colors and fashions change and beckon as music plays in the background. But the mourner, who doesn’t attend simchas, doesn’t listen to music, doesn’t buy new clothing, walks beside life—there, but slightly distant.
Death of a loved one takes you out of life and puts you into observer mode. Thousands of days and millions of minutes begin to coalesce, in your mind, into a life story. It is death that gathers up all the plot twists, curve balls, and bolts from the blue that life hands us and pulls them together into a theme, with a title. Because if there is an end, there was also a beginning. Death is the ending which bundles seismic life events with all those small moments—the cups of coffee, the loads of laundry, the oh-my-its-summer-again fleeting thoughts —and frames them into one cohesive whole, called life.
The end of my mother’s life—as sad and painful as it was—was also beautiful.
It was Saturday night in Israel, but still Shabbos in America when my sister and I got the dreaded phone call to come, because the end was near. As recently as Thursday night, which was Purim, we had spoken to my mother on Skype. Though uncomfortable, she had been so alive, smiling her beautiful smile—and giving her trademark wince at the off-key singing of some of the besodden seuda participants.
My sister and I wrangled our way onto an El Al flight leaving at midnight, communicating with my brother through the non-Jewish aide, hoping against hope that we would still get there in time to say goodbye.
Our frantic phone call upon landing assured us that Mommy was still alive, although no longer conscious. We wound our way through the endless, endless lines of passport control in New York with a slow, draggy, moving-under water sensation, feeling like a cliché come to life, trying to get to the head of the line by telling the officers that our mother was dying.
Oh, the wonderful gift of technology that allowed us to connect to the hospital room during the tortuously long hour-and-a-half drive from the airport. From the backseat of the taxi we tuned into the charged but strangely peaceful atmosphere around my mother’s bed. We could hear the beep-beep of the machines, see the rise and fall of my mother’s breathing; we could see my father sitting at the foot of her bed, eyes glued to her face, and all her children and many grandchildren around her.
We talked to my mother. Mommy, please wait, we’re on our way. Don’t leave before we get there. Vidui had been said and re-said, and the family began to sing. Beautiful, fitting songs. Ki b’simcha tzeitzayu. V’taher libeinu. We watched, choked with sobs, willing the taxi to go faster.
As we swerved into the hospital driveway, two of our nephews were waiting downstairs for us. “Run,” they said, pulling the car doors open. “Leave the suitcases.” We dashed in, teetered for a few seconds gaining our bearing, then ran for the elevator. Yet death was faster. As the elevator slowly inched its way upward, my mother, Pessa bas R’ Chaim Hakohein, may she rest in peace, moved from This World to the Next.
We didn’t make it for the yetzias ha’neshamah, [departure of the soul] but we were there to see my mother’s face, so beautiful and so, so peaceful. We were there to cry together and to watch my father lean over and whisper in my mother’s ear, to hear his thanks to her and his blessing to her on her journey. We were there to hug and hold the life in the room, which was teeming with my mother’s progeny, both biological and spiritual. We were there to feel the strength of her legacy. My mother was no longer there—but in this imperfect world, there was life.
My mother, Mrs. Paula Eisemann, was born in Berlin, Germany, the daughter of Rabbi Chaim Cohn, Rav of a shul in Berlin, and the first Torah teacher of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, ztl. In a sefer dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, Rav Wolbe, zt”l, calls him mori v’rabi hamuvhak, hachassid shebekehuna [awkwardly translated as: my Rabbi, my teacher, pious one among the priests].
The morning after Kristallnacht, my grandfather took his young children to the site of his burned-to-the-ground synagogue, and told his family never to forget what they saw. Wondrously, the next morning, the family—two parents, seven children, a grandmother, were able to make their way out of Germany to Switzerland, and from there to London.
My mother’s father was a tall handsome man with a long beard who loved life with exuberance. My mother used to tell us how her father would spread his arms wide and flap them as he ran down hill, just for the fun of it. Her father’s teasing suggestion when she cringed with embarrassment—“Just pretend that we’re only distantly related”— became a well-worn family joke.
Through a series of serendipitous events, the family was able to procure a house in a small seaside town called Dorking, where they opened up a boarding house to make ends meet—though perhaps “boarding house” isn’t the right term for a place in which indigents stayed for weeks and even years on end, becoming members of the household.
Shortly after they arrived in England, my grandfather was exiled to the Isle of Man as a precaution, lest he was a German spy(!). He was taken away right before his son’s bar mitzva and was gone for about a year. Brokenhearted that his father had missed hearing him read the Torah portion, my uncle prepared the parsha every week thereafter, in the hope that his father would be released and becoming a skilled baal korei in the process.
My mother had a fierce tenderness towards her parents—for her father who never regained the position he’d had as a successful Rav with an adoring congregation, and for her mother who worked her fingers to the bone, eking out a living for the family. My mother used to tell us that she and her siblings never fought. Life was so precarious and demanding that the children were united in the common goal of helping make life easier for their immigrant parents. (Her observation was probably inspired by the fact that her own children had no such compunctions…).
In 1952, a young woman came to vacation in Dorking with a few small children. She was so impressed with the young Paula Cohn, who was so kind to her children and to the guests, that she thought she would be a wonderful match for her brother—my father, Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, shlita, then learning overseas in Lakewood, New Jersey. After receiving a missive from his parents that it was time to come home, my father bought himself one boat ticket from the US to London, and—with refreshing bachur-hood-naivete –bought two tickets for a Mr. and Mrs. Eisemann, for a few weeks hence, back from London to the US!
His bets definitely paid off. The Mrs. Eisemann for whom he bought the ticket turned out to be a life partner in every sense of the word. Until the very end of her life, their relationship never became stale.
From the much-recounted story of the first tea my mother lovingly prepared for him on the boat—most of which had slopped away by the time she reached the deck, but which my father claimed was the most delicious tea he’d ever tasted—to the very end, when the highlight of her day was making a beautiful fruit platter for my father every morning for breakfast, my father was the sun around which my mother’s life revolved.
They often told us how, during their early years in Lakewood, my mother would walk my father to yeshiva every day; years later, they were still laughing at how an elderly neighbor asked my mother if she accompanied him because my father was scared to walk by himself.
My mother thought my father was G-d’s gift to humanity; in turn, my father treasured her, lighting up whenever she came into a room.
All of this, of course, didn’t mean that they always agreed—in fact, they often didn’t. Somehow, though, they managed to imbue even their disagreements with a subtext of respect and admiration. For example, they would argue about who would take out the garbage. My mother would insist that it wasn’t fitting for my father to take it out, while my father would try to spirit it out when my mother wasn’t looking.
My mother often told us how hard it was for her to visit England. Leaving her parents after each visit was so painful that she often wondered if she could bear coming again. She kept in constant contact through letters, always worrying about their well being.
My mother had inherited her tender heart from her parents. Family lore has it that her father didn’t have a winter coat, because whenever someone bought him one, he would come home without it, shrugging off all inquiries until they’d discovered that he’d handed it over to someone he thought needed it more.
The standing argument in my parent’s early years was about letting babies cry. My father, whose parents had employed a competent nanny who insisted that holding babies in between feedings would spoil them, was of the opinion that it was healthy to let a baby cry. It would teach the baby to self-regulate and be disciplined. My mother, though, had internalized her father’s approach. Letting a baby cry would either teach the baby to disregard other people’s pain, or make him cynical as his own needs were ignored. On that front my mother won hands down. She literally could not stand another’s pain, no matter who it was. In today’s language we would say that my mother was an empath to the highest degree.
I remember once being in a department store as a child, when a young boy was arrested for shoplifting and led through the store in hand-cuffs, head hanging in shame. My mother was devastated and told us how sad it was that he’d grown up in such circumstances that brought him to this, and what a travesty of human dignity it was to parade him through the store like that.
If a bug or any flying creature ever ventured into our house, my mother would capture it carefully in a glass and bring out to the porch to let it free. She had someone build her a bird table off our third-floor porch and would make sure to put crumbs out for the birds, especially when it was snowing.
One morning, at breakfast, my mother told us about a nocturnal adventure. In the middle of the night, my mother had woken up to a knocking sound coming from the big green dumpster three floors down. My mother realized it was probably a raccoon that had crept into the dumpster in search of food—and that the contents of the dumpster had somehow shifted, closing the lid on him. She tried convincing herself to go back to sleep, but in her mind’s eye she pictured the huge garbage truck arriving at dawn, how it would tip the contents of the dumpster into the relentless jaws of the garbage grinder. That image propelled her out of bed and down the stairs to the dark and spooky parking lot, with only a broom to accompany her. Standing as far away as she could, she used the broom stick to lift the edge of the dumpster, whereupon a raccoon jumped out, and, with a grateful glance at his robe-wrapped-rescuer, waddled back to the woods. (And, yes, for those of you who have read my young adult book, Family for Awhile, this is the origin of Gila and Talli’s raccoon—aided–reconcilement…!)
The very first time my mother came to visit us in Israel, I warned my new husband to expect my mother to be the last one off the airplane, helping some little old lady with her bags. Sure enough, at the very end of the rush of passengers, my mother appeared with a little old lady in tow. “Oh, rubbish,” she said to me when I told her what I’d predicted, “she just happened to be sitting near me.”
I grew up knowing that whatever problem there might be in the community, my parents would solve it. Once my mother discovered an elderly woman who was raising her very rambunctious 12-year-old grandson on her own. My mother immediately took them under her wing, inviting the boy over to give the grandmother a break, and stopping by often to see how she could help. Another time, I got a ride with someone and overheard the driver telling someone that he was terribly depressed. I told my parents and shortly after that, that family was invited for Shabbos.
Nothing and nobody was out of her purview. A friend told me how she used to get letters from my mother in camp, because her own mother wasn’t well, and my mother worried that she wouldn’t get letters.
Any empty space in her life—an extra bedroom in the house, more room around the Shabbos table, an unexpected surplus of money—became a resource to use to do G-d’s work. Who needed a place to stay for a few days, months, or years? Who would appreciate a Shabbos invitation? Who needed help? My mother’s antenna, with its exquisite sensitivity to pain, was constantly up. Even in her later years when she was already walking with a walker, she would stop on the street if she saw a child crying, and she would agonize over the beggars that sat on the side of the road.
For years, my mother visited old-age homes on a regular basis. Once she was asked to visit a lonely old German Jewish lady, who didn’t know English. My mother worried that the lady would be mistreated by the staff because she was so alone, and she came to visit her not once a week, but every single day for months on end.
People who give a lot often get burned out, but for my mother, life was always fresh and interesting—and if it wasn’t she would look for a new project.
After years of rearing her own children—my youngest sister was born when my mother was 47– as well as a number of foster children, my mother was still looking for opportunities to help others. In her seventies, she took in two Russian high school girls, caring for them as if they were her own children: She did their laundry, took them to the library for book reports, and made them sandwiches. She manufactured a daily household job for a ben bayis who felt uncomfortable always being on the receiving end, and then made him feel like the whole house ran on his contribution.
Anything that needed to be done was always her responsibility. On the rare occasion that she stayed in a hotel, she would leave the room spotless; she couldn’t stand the idea of someone having to clean up after her.
Toward the end of her life, when she was so disabled and weak and had a hard time speaking, she suddenly looked at me lovingly and said, “It must be so hard for you to have to care for your own mother. I am sorry.”
As a kindergarten teacher for over 45 years, she had such a soft spot for children. She saw their vulnerability—their confusion and their dependence on sometimes undependable adults—and was a fierce advocate for them. For a short while, she had a small business selling dollar prizes from our house. Some industrious children would knock on the door numerous times each day to spend the pennies they’d accumulated from various contests. As annoying as it was to be interrupted five or six times a day for a child who wanted to spend a dime, my mother vicariously felt their excitement and would reopen “the store” just for them.
My mother loved reading to children, entering their world as she read and hamming it up, her tone and pitch fluctuating with the story. After retiring as a kindergarten teacher, she recorded The Purple Van Family, a collection of children’s stories I’d written. The CD has no whistles or bells, just my mother’s warm, comfortable reading voice, yet so many people have told me how their kids love it and listen to it over and over again, feeling as if my mother is right in the room with them.
She was so emotionally in tune with us children, and tried so hard to pad our lives. Our lunches every day were a work of art—and this despite the fact that she left the house at the same time as we did every day to go to work. Her sandwiches—made on homemade whole wheat bread, adorned with neatly cut tomatoes slices and sprouts (or grass, as we called it), accompanied by bags of fresh cut-up fruit and vegetables—were legendary. She would often send these lunches to her local grandchildren or anyone who left for a trip from our home. Recipients would often wax poetic years later about the love they felt in every carefully wrapped sandwich.
My mother had a great sense of humor and an impish sense of fun. She would throw her head back and laugh unreservedly at a funny story. A talmid of my father told her that he was giving shiurim in a prison. My mother’s immediate reply was, “Oh, wow! That’s what you call a captive audience!” She used to tell us how she could never sleep on the plane because she “had to stay up, to keep the plane up in the air with her worrying….”.
As we bent over the screen in the back seat of the taxi, during my mother’s final moments, my heart caught in my throat when one of my brothers began to sing my father’s slow, heart-rending Chasal siddur pesach [This is the end of the Passover seder].
How apt it was to sing this song now, as my mother’s soul was leaving this world. The Seder of my mother’s life—her rich, saturated with meaning, crammed-with-worthwhile-action-life in this world—was over.
B’chol mishpato v’chukaso. [The Seder which was conducted according to all its laws and requirements]Hers was a life lived with precision. With all her warmth and playfulness, with all her good humor and her memorable laugh, she lived a serious life. She was a driven person. Driven to use her resources, driven to alleviate pain and suffering, driven to do the right thing. There were no cutting corners, not much taking it easy. Hers was a life jammed to the very edges with purpose.
K’asher zachinu l’sader oso ken nizkeh la’aso [as we merited to perform the Passover Seder, may we merit to bring the Passover offering in the rebuilt Temple]. Pesach preparations are so daunting and demanding. We try so hard, and yet, despite our efforts, that errant Cheerio sometimes goes unnoticed. Life is imperfect and so are we. May we live a life of striving, and eventually taste perfection.
L’shana ha’baah b’yerushalyaim [Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem].My mother yearned for a time when people would be kind to each other, for a time when G-d would remove tears from every face and there would be no more suffering.
May my mother, may she rest in peace, be an adovocate for the the Jewish People, in heaven, and may “the Pure One on High lead his redeemed flock back to the Holy City in joy“.