Sunday, March 3, 2013

Some Heart: Sylvia Steinhardt's Eulogy

Mom, Thanksgiving 2012

Today, Sunday March 3rd, we held a memorial service for my mother, Sylvia Steinhardt, who died in January.  We celebrated her interesting, 90 year long life, and we said goodbye.

In attendance were my husband and kids, my mother's 85 year old "kid" brother and his family, my brother Bruce (Sylvia's step-son) and most of his family, plus many friends, in-laws, and a pair of dear old friends of my parents, nearly the last surviving members of that once-large clan.

Photos from various points of my mother's life were on display. Anyone who wished to share a memory of Syl was invited to speak, and quite a few did, including both of my sons.

But first I read a blog post (found here) written immediately after, and about Mom's dying moments.  And then I read this eulogy:

The day before she died, the cardiologist who first met my mom in the ER a few days prior came in to her room to speak with me. "When you said her aortic stenosis was critical you weren't kidding. It was SUPER critical. In fact" - he added, clearly quite impressed - "I have never seen anyone with such a tight valve still alive and so asymptomatic... That's some heart your mother has!"

And I say yes! That was some heart my mother had.

In fact I would say it was her defining feature: My mother’s capacity to love and be loved. Her big generous, open heart, and how many hearts she lives on in will be her defining legacy.

She had a warmth, a natural curiosity about people. Spend five minutes with her and she'd know your life story, the names of your children (or parents, or both) and where your ancestors came from.

She was also genuinely gracious, sincerely grateful to everyone for everything done for her.

In the hospital, in her very last days, she even whispered a "Thank you" to the nurse giving her a shot of vitamin K. The nurse turned to me, her face alight, and told me she had never been thanked before for giving a patient an injection.

That was Mom.

My father, as much as he loved his family, was defined by his life's work: his photography.

My mother, like so many women (especially of her generation), was defined by her relationships, the people she loved and who loved her. And at this she excelled, oh so well.

Mom made friends everywhere she went. At Carnegie East House, the assisted living community she had moved into with my father, and where she continued to live as a widow until her disastrous, hip-breaking fall last May, she had two close friends of a similar temperament: smart, funny, artistic, literate, left-leaning and bohemian. Not your typical "little old ladies" by any stretch of the imagination.

They called themselves "The 3 Musketeers" and took every opportunity to laugh at the foibles of old age and their situation, vowing not to become like some of the farbissinas* at the joint.

The staff at the nursing home where Mom spent the last six months of her life were shocked when I called to give them the news of her passing. "Oh, no! Not our DDF!" they all cried.

That was her particular nomenclature: I have been her D.D.D. for years - Dear, Darling Daughter - (and she my D.D.M.). And the women who looked after her at the home had become her D.D.F. - Dear, Darling Friends.

It was somehow fitting that nursing home where my mother spent the last six months of her life at was back on her beloved Long Island - a place that defined and encompassed so much of her life - where she grew up, held her first jobs, where she raised her family - me - where she came into her own as Sylvia Steinhardt of Steinhardt Gallery.

As she was living in the same community as her brother Walter - Port Washington – they were able to spend much time together at the end. His visits, and those of his children – my cousins – and their children, brought her so much pleasure.

Whenever I would visit, she would point out the flowers brightening up her nightstand. “Aren’t these lovely, Walter always brings flowers, he is so good to me.”

What was amazing about Mom was that this kindness, this deeply loving nature was found in a woman also funny and complex, sophisticated and keenly intelligent. How intelligent?

When I was about ten, Mom decided she wanted to take some classes at Nassau community college. Since she had never been to college, she started with Freshman English. For her final paper, did a study on how the classic English ballads changed when they came to America that included an amazing analysis and an audio tape recording of both Peter, Paul and Mary’s and Led Zeppelin’s version of Hangman. It was graduate level work... for a Freshman English class. Needless to say the professor was stunned. (She got an A+.)

I was sometimes sad thinking of what my mother could have done, might have been if she had grown up in a family that valued girls and thought them worthy of higher education, but sadly, that wasn’t the case.

My grandmother valued WORK and MAKING MONEY, and so that’s what my mother did, after graduating high school, finding a job in a furniture store, then coming to work at her family’s candy shop afterwards in the evenings.

Shortly thereafter, the US entered WWII, and mom found herself joining the throngs of other young women swept up in war work… yes, my mom was a Rosie the Riveter.

She worked at Grumman Aircraft in small airplane parts through the war. And I remember feeling terribly proud of my mother for doing this, when I became aware of how brave and radical that was.

After that, mom began to work in clerical positions, eventually to become a top fundraiser for the Joint Defense Appeal – the fundraising arm of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

This job was in THE CITY, where Mom had finally left her parents home and moved to, with the help of a good therapist, and much to her mother’s dismay (the shanda of an unmarried daughter leaving home having kept my mother bound there too long before she finally broke free).

At this point my mother began an exciting phase of living her own life: going to museums, plays, films, listening to jazz, dating interesting men – including William Styrone’s roommate - (and even living with one for a while). But she still hadn’t found her one true love.

That she finally did in the summer of 1958, at a resort in the Berkshires called The Music Inn, where my father, recently divorced, was also vacationing. They met, sparks ignited, they discovered that they lived mere blocks away from each other in Greenwich Village.

Vowing to play it cool and go slow, they then proceeded to see each other every day, becoming inseparable as soon as they got home to the city. And in a few short months, on March 1st, 1959, they married.

And then, things changed, rapidly. My father had two teenage children from his previous marriage – my brother Bruce and sister Lois – and immediately after my folks married, my Dad’s ex-wife had to leave the country for almost a year (it’s complicated – don’t ask), and left the kids with them.

A friend of my mother’s had joked that in marrying my father, she has gone from swinging single gal in the Village, to matronly mother of teenage kids on the Upper West Side in one fell swoop.

And that wasn’t far from the truth. Furthermore by the time Bruce and Lois had returned to their mother’s home, Mom was pregnant herself… with me.

My mother loved being pregnant, had wanted a child of her own for a long time, and had been unsure if she would even be able to have one at the unheard of old age – for that time – of 37.

She loved to tell me stories from her pregnancy – of how she had gained so much weight right off the bat, that when she, at 5 months along, went to the maternity ward to visit my Aunt Eva and see her new niece – my cousin Jessie, someone said to her “I know who’s going got have her baby tonight!”

How, while absentmindedly crossing Broadway against the light, a truck driver had yelled out to her: “Hey Lady, watch where you’re going, you know you can get knocked DOWN, too!”

And THAT is classic mom – having a great sense of humor. As well as a tendency to curse like a sailor. Salty as well as sweet.

Her humor - and her cursing – stayed with her, through to the end. When she was in acute rehab, trying to heal from her broken hip, she was working on walking down the hall with a walker. It was hard. She was weak and tired and in pain and the therapists were pushing her to take a few more steps. “I don’t want to.” She complained. “I just want to sit down, can’t I fucking sit down?”

“Sylvia…” said the therapist with a disapproving tone of voice.

“Oh.” Said my mother “I’m not supposed to curse.”

“Yes” said the therapist,

“It upsets the other patients.” Said my mother.

“Yes!” the therapist chirped, glad she was “getting it.”

“OK” Mom said. Then with PERFECT timing that would have made a borsht belt comedian proud, she added, under her breath: “Fuck ‘em”

In this she and my very funny father were well matched. In fact they were well matched in nearly everything, a true pair of soul-mates, bonded by a love that burned bright to the very end.

She took such loving care of my father as he was failing, he the center of her life, her anchor. It was not easy to be with him in those last, plummeting, months, when he was so difficult, drifting & out of rationality. But Mom made sure to only curse him out when her back was turned to him so that, deaf, he would have no idea.

After Dad passed, Mom missed him fiercely. She frequently teared up thinking about him, telling me yet again and again: “He wasn’t just my husband he was my best friend.”

And they had had a good life. They LOVED to travel, and for twenty years - after I left home and before they became too frail - they explored the world together. Mom and Dad took trips to Greece, Hungary, Italy, Turkey, Alaska, Mexico, Trinidad, Israel, and Bali - to name a few places on their expansive itinerary.

And, true to their nature, these were not your standard touristy tours of national monuments. Because my parents were genuinely interested in other people and cultures they went deep into the hearts of these places, seeking out the spots the locals frequented, letting themselves enter into the true spirit of journeying.

Even when they took tours, these were folk dance tours, and they involved going to small villages, learning the local dances from the people who lived there, then joining hands and joyously dancing together with them.

What afforded them these wonderful trips was that the family business, Steinhardt Gallery, had finally become incredibly successful - the move from Westbury to Huntington perfectly timed to coincide with the resurgence of Huntington’s downtown.

Earlier I had said that Mom was defined by her relationships, and yet that is not entirely true. She was also defined by and hugely proud of The Steinhardt Gallery - that she had been a part of, as my father’s partner, since the beginning. It was where both Mom’s impeccable taste and people skills could come together and flourish.

She loved being surrounded by and dealing with beautiful things, She loved getting to know and interact with the craftspeople she bought from, the customers – who often became friends, and the staff, who became an extended family.

In fact, my parents really ran the business like a family, in a good way. Everyone who worked there, and all the artisans they dealt with were treated with fairness and respect, and, always, warmth and humor.

My mother loved the fact that she was not just Sylvia Steinhardt but Sylvia Steinhardt of Steinhardt Gallery. And it always made her day when someone would either recognize her or the name of the gallery when they were far from home – on a cruise up the Alaskan coast for example, or on a Caribbean island. “Oh,” they would say ”I LOVE that place, all my favorite gifts come from there.” And Mom would just beam.

And I loved being a part of the Gallery, too. Growing up in a family business meant being intimately connected with my parents working lives in a way that folks whose parents go “off to the office” can never be.

This is one thread in the fabric of the close relationship I had with my mother. She loved children and being a mother. She included me in her life, sharing her passions with me, telling me her stories and listening to mine.

I remember countless trips to art museums; watching classic Japanese movies on channel 13, snuggled together on the sofa; Mom teaching me how to Lindy in the kitchen during a nostalgia craze in my high school years.

And now, everywhere I go, everything I light upon, I find traces of her. And I find evidence that so much of who I am has come down from her.

Recently, I found myself in the dentist's chair, the radio tuned to the classical music station. Beethoven's 6th symphony came on (the "Pastorale") and I found myself conducting with my hands. "Oh, you know this one?" my dentist asked, surprised, explaining that he usually has the radio tuned to classic rock but his previous patient expressed a strong preference for WQXR.

"Yes," I told him, "it was my mother's favorite symphony, she played it often in my childhood."

"Sorry," he apologized, knowing of my recent loss, "that must be painful." But somehow it wasn't. It instead filled my heart to the brim with gratefulness that my mother had passed on her love of music, that she had shared with me, her child, all the things that brought her joy, and that their beauty lives on in me now.

As much joy as Mom found in parenthood, she found that joy doubled as a grandmother, seeing her feelings replicated in me. She loved watching me revel in my own children, yet another bond between us: we were both mothers.

Mom also just flat out loved being a grandmother, first to my brother Bruce’s children, Rachel and Simon, and then recently to my twin boys, Ethan and Jacob.

She never happier than when holding her baby grandsons, rocking them to sleep. When they were toddlers, Mom always got down on the floor to play with them (even though with her bad knees she needed help to get back up afterwards) and seemed as delighted in building a block tower or putting together the pieces of a simple puzzle as the boys did.

Delight. That’s a word that describes mom’s enthusiastic response to so much in life. Not that she didn’t have her dark days, but she was always pulled back to the light by her passions.

Mom loved, among many other things, and in no particular order: people, purple, chocolate, art, nature, the ocean, lox and bagels, chocolate, Birkenstocks, a good joke, flowers, family, birds, dogs, cats - in general and Willie, her last cat, in particular, The Steinhardt Gallery, seltzer, handmade things, chocolate, Scandinavian furniture, travel, folk dancing, bird watching, African violets, Art Nouveau, word puzzles, artichokes, lobster, Maine, Long Island, music, poetry, Paul Klee, Shakespeare, Broadway Musicals, modern dance, champagne, hugs, Sunday mornings, babies, silver jewelry, the Chrysler building, chocolate, her husband Jim, children – in general, and Me, her child, in particular.

She loved me in a way that left no smidgen of doubt. She loved me so deeply, so freely: as a mother loves her children – with pride and acceptance and gratefulness for my mere existence.

I whisper in my children's ears (now, mostly while they are asleep): "I will always be your mother, and I will always love you."

She taught me to love like that, my one and only mother.

And I loved her in return, fiercely.

And I miss her every day.

(p.s. If you are a regular reader of this blog and some of the words of this eulogy seem familiar congratulations, you are observant. I did, indeed lift and rework a few paragraphs from a number of past blog posts to use as elements in its creation.)


  1. Perfectly perfect, Varda! I did recognize some snippets and believe you expanded them -- already like blossoms -- into new flowers. I am so sad for you to have lost your dear mother but am grateful that her love for you and the way you've chosen to express that love is so evident -- even for those who don't "know" you. I send you peace and blessings as you continue to mourn her.

  2. I also recognised some parts from previous posts but they come together here beautifully to make a wonderful and fitting hespid for a great lady and amazing mother. You did her proud. I wish you and your family long life to continue your mother's legacy of love, humour, intellect, fun, and strong family bonds.

  3. Varda, your beautiful words about your Mother reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite movies and I believe these words apply so much to your Mother:
    “And remember, my sentimental friend, that a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

  4. A beautiful tribute to your mother.

  5. So beautiful, Varda. Your mom makes me want to be better, to be like her--to take more delight in everything, but especially from my kids.

  6. What a woman. What a daughter! Your relationship with her shows the rest of us how it could be, if only....

    So much love, joy, and laughter.

  7. A stellar tribute to a clearly even more stellar mom.



I am so sorry to have to turn word verification back on, but the spam-bots have found me - yikes!