Tuesday, October 26, 2010

We say goodbye to a Woman of Valor

Eulogy for Helen Schekman Feinberg, delivered by her son Ron Feinberg at Riverdale Cemetery in Columbus, GA; Oct. 26, 2010.

It’s a vague memory from the early 1960s, possibly more fiction then fact. My brothers and I are playing a hotly contested game of knee football, scurrying across the living room carpet when one of us knocks up against a side table and a figurine crashes to the floor.

My mother peers in from the kitchen, than hurls herself in our direction, shouting that she had told us over and over again not to play in the house and pelting us with licks from the cotton slipper she has pulled from her foot. Each blow lands like a snowflake.

First my brother Larry begins chuckling, then me, followed by Gary and Ian. In minutes all of us are howling, including Mama. Welcome to life and discipline in the Feinberg household.

My mother wasn’t a doctor or lawyer, not a waitress, sales rep or clerk. Today she would probably be labeled a stay-at-home mom. In the 1950s and ’60s she was a housewife, a role she cherished from the moment she met my father during the dark days of World War II, married and eventually settled down here in Columbus.

Her days were filled with the stuff of life – cleaning, schlepping and cooking. My mother wasn’t a religious woman, but in her prime her brisket, kugel, matzo ball soup and chopped liver made for a spiritual experience. All of this was her American dream come true, a vision she shared with an entire generation that had come of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Get quiet enough right now and you might be able to hear some of the voices of her close family and friends. Many are nearby – Abe and Ida, my grandparents, just over the rise back there; and my father, resting here now for well over a decade.

Glance about and there’s an entire community, the Jews of Columbus who discovered that life could be good and rewarding in the land of cotton. For that generation of my family, my mother is the end, the last member of the “Greatest” generation. I like to think that she’s with the family now, perhaps sitting out on the porch of the old house on Second Avenue with Daddy, Stella and Harry, Lou and Ester, Sam and Theresa, Itchy and Flo, Morris and Sarah, Ester and Sammy.

At her side is a display stand of tchotchkes – all her Japanese figurines and artistic figures of Buddha, a Chinese dragon of Jade and lots of plastic flowers. She’s relaxed and comfortable, but what she’s really thinking is that the yard needs raking and the porch needs a good dusting. That’s my Mama!

There’s a rich scent of cologne mixing with the huge magnolia tree in the front yard and around her neck and on her fingers are a mix of precious stones – diamonds and rubies, and a batch of CZs – go figure!

Of course the real precious gems of her life are out here – her family. You gave meaning to her life and brought joy to her days. She was proud of all her boys and their wives, and took special delight in her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandson.

It was left to many of them – Mom’s special grandchildren – to teach her late in life that it was okay to share her emotions, that saying I love you is as natural as dying your hair red and teasing it a foot high. It’s a lesson that took hold and brought her comfort I think in her final years.

I saw her heart grow, even as her mind faded. Saying I love you became the touchstone that allowed her to share her love, while reminding her she was loved.

Just a few weeks ago, when the circle was nearly complete, I was attempting to feed Mama lunch. She was losing the ability to swallow and was taking little of the pureed goop I was offering. Finally, out of frustration I called out to a nearby aide and told them they’d need to take over.

I stood to leave and bent over to whisper goodbye. Before I could speak, she turned and in a raspy, pain-filled voice said, “I love you”. Those were the last words I would hear my mother speak.

I have shared with some of you what a memoir of my mother might look like. The first section, DEATH, would be about my father’s life and passing a dozen years ago. LIMBO, the second section, would focus on my Mom living in Atlanta, years of independence and joy; sadness and isolation.

The third section, HELL, would detail her fall into the bottomless pit of dementia, a painful, humbling experience that offers lessons on just how vulnerable we are as humans. But it’s the final section where my mother now rests. REDEMPTION. In her struggles the disease wiped clean the armor we build about ourselves and the only pure emotion that remained was love.

In the last hour of my mother’s life, a dozen of us filled her tiny room in the Jewish Home in Atlanta. Time moved, yet stood still. A sacred thing was happening and we were being offered the privilege to watch. There was near silence, just the slight hiss and hum of a machine offering up oxygen. Mama took a breath, her chest heaved and she took yet another breath. It was agonizing to watch, yet mesmerizing.

The veil we know little about was being slowly pulled aside. One journey was ending. Another was beginning. There was sadness, but no longer fear. There was ache, but no longer anger. There finally was total silence.

Just a moment earlier there had been another soul in the room and now it seemed gone. But where? I’ll leave such metaphysical musings to the poets and philosophers among us.

But this much I know is true. At least part of my Mama’s soul now rests in the hearts of all who were there and all those who loved her. The rest I like to think is making its way to a place where pain and misery don’t exist, the beauty parlor is always open and house cleaning is an Olympic sport.

Zikh-ronah liv-rakha … may my mother’s memory be for a blessing. Amen


  1. What a beautiful memoir of your mother. I remember her well. She was usually full of joy when around family. My condolences to you and your family. Remember her fondly, when you find yourself saddened and missing her. Find something to laugh about in her memory. I'm sure there are many more memories that will create a smirk on your face.
    Much love and thoughts to you and your family.

    Annette Cohen Pallowick

  2. A lovely remembrance of a lovely lady.

  3. Ron, You have more than fulfilled the mitzvah of a son to his mother of kibbud ha-em, honoring your mother and k'vod ha-met, honoring the dead. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words with your community.