(September 12, 2010)

My mother died five years ago today. Recently, among some old papers, I discovered a “report card” from when she attended Diet Workshop beginning in the Spring of 1967. The card lists her name—June Lovenheim—and each week’s entry records how much weight she lost since the previous week. By September 12th she had lost 9 1/4 pounds. Nearly 40 years later that would be the day, at age 88, on which she would die.

Typically, we memorialize loved ones on their birth dates. For national figures—Lincoln and King come to mind—we make their birthdays official holidays. In the Jewish tradition, however, it is common to remember a person primarily on the date of death. The Yiddish term “Yahrzeit” means year’s time, or anniversary. On that date, we light a memorial candle, recite Kaddish—the mourner’s prayer—and give to charity in the deceased’s memory. It’s not that we forget a loved one’s birthday, but as the years pass, the Yahrzeit becomes the key date on which the person is remembered by family and community.

This September 12th will be my mother’s fifth Yahrzeit, and in preparing to observe it, I found myself intrigued by one fact: throughout her life, my mother had each year lived the date of her own death without knowing it. When, on September 12, 1967, she stepped on the scale at Diet Workshop, to her it was just another day, and passed unnoticed. This prompted me to think of other September 12ths my mother had lived:

September 12, 1927: My mother, June Knopf, is 10 years old and this is the first Monday of the first full week of school. She sits at her desk in a fifth grade classroom, anxious, perhaps, in anticipation of the new school year. At noon, she walks across the school yard, over a bridge spanning the city’s trolley line, and up a tree-lined street to her house. Her mother is there with an egg salad sandwich on white bread—my mother’s favorite lunch.

September 12, 1935: Having graduated from high school, my mother takes a year-long secretarial course. Perhaps she practices taking dictation in Gregg Shorthand, recording today’s date as a mysterious combination of squiggles and lines.

September 12, 1945: My mother, now 28, has polio. It’s a mild case but still, with a two year-old son and seven months pregnant, this day is a struggle. For some relief from the late-summer heat, she rests on the screened front porch of the wood-frame home she and her husband recently bought. The house is on the same street and just four doors down from the house my mother grew up in.

September 12, 1957: My mother gets all three kids off to another day of school. She is a full-time mother now, and just weeks ago moved to a new, contemporary style, five-bedroom home in the suburbs. This weekend, despite some lingering effects of polio, she may practice her new pastime—golf—at the country club.

September 12, 1969: Now 52, my mother poses in front of Buckingham Palace as my dad snaps her picture. Maybe the stint at Diet Workshop was to prepare for this—my parents’ first trip to Europe.

September 12, 1977: The Jewish Holidays come early this year. My mother sits in synagogue next to my father, reading aloud with the congregation the central poem of the service: “Who shall live and who shall die, Who shall have rest and who shall wander, Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued.”

September 12, 1989: This is Tuesday, so my mother sits at a bridge table playing cards with her sister and a small group of friends, most of whom she has known since childhood. Remarkably, the “Tuesday Group” will experience only one change of membership in 64 years, and disband only upon my mother’s death.

September 12, 2001: My mother walks with a cane, listens to television with an audio loop, and reads the newspaper with a magnifying lens. But she still goes out to lunch every day, still gets her hair done once a week. When I check on her and my dad in their apartment, my mother is sitting in front of the TV stunned—as we all are. She speaks of similar days she has lived through: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt’s death, the assassination of John Kennedy.

The last September 12th of my mother’s life began for me with a phone call at 12:15 a.m. from the hospital, where my mother had been taken by ambulance only the previous day. She had advanced pneumonia. At 6:15 that evening, with our family gathered by her bed, my mother took her last breath, turned her head to the side, and died.

As we go through our lives, our date of death remains unknown to us. Yet I see now how rich in meaning that date can be. You can open it up, like Russian Metrushka dolls, and find inside the years upon years a person lived. And when those days reveal themselves, you see the ones filled with hope, and struggles, and failures, and love, until lined up in a row, they tell the story of a person’s life—not just when she died, but how she lived.

©Peter Lovenheim