Eulogy for Mom

Ruthie Duhan z”l, 1925-2012

Mom was born in the Bronx in 1925, to parents who had emigrated as children from Russia to New York. Faced with two talented older siblings, Mom created her unique niche in the family by developing a wacky sense of humour. Behind her humour was a lightning-quick mind, deep social and interpersonal insight, and a sense that she did not deserve to shine in other ways.

She went to Walton High School, where she was voted class athlete, while (she claims) receiving the lowest possible marks in gym class because she was always forgetting her sneakers.

Like many immigrant families, and like many families during the depression, Mom’s family of origin was quite poor. Still, they managed, without any steady source of income. Mom idolized her mother Leah, and you can imagine Mom’s heartbreak at losing her own mother when she was only twenty-one.

Mom graduated from Hunter College, where she majored in Police Science, and continued to work towards a masters degree. During the summer, she worked as a waitress in the Catskills. She loved the job and its social freedom, but says the resort fired her for eating up the profits.

After college, she was hired into one of the first cohorts of New York City policewomen. She was assigned to a job considered appropriate to women: juveniles, that is, wayward teens. Her favourite story is about a hellion of a young woman who, without Mom doing anything at all (she claims), magically turned around.

When Mom was twenty-five, a matchmaking friend set her up to play four-wall handball at the 92nd Street Y with an athletic male police officer, also the son of Russian Jewish immigrants – Bernard Duhan. Two years later, they were married on the television show Bride and Groom, complete with commercials from Betty Crocker. From the beginning, they had a volatile relationship – fighting and making up over and over again – but they both knew very well how to love and how to be a family.

Their first child, Freddie, was born in 1955; I was born four years later. Seven weeks after my birth, four-year-old Freddie died during surgery, in an incident of medical malpractice. Thirteen months later, Dave was born. Mom was terribly broken by Freddie’s death for a long time. As she once put it, “I don’t have any problems. I mean, I have some problems so big that they are the foundation of my entire life, but I don’t have any problems.”

Mom’s personal leave from the police department ran into her maternity leave, and she decided not to return. Her husband Bernie studied for the bar exam and became a lawyer. Mom threw herself into being a full-time mother and homemaker.

To the naked eye, Mom could appear somewhat disorganized, harried and always running late. But that was just a smokescreen. It’s true, she kept every clock in the house set to a different time – but she knew exactly how many minutes fast each clock was. She found time to play outdoor tennis 365 days a year. She coordinated Hadassah fundraising bazaars and school book fairs, sometimes managing teams of volunteers. She volunteered for a cerebral palsy organization, and became good friends with some of the clients. She stayed in close connection with her siblings and their families, and ran helpful interference in family conflicts. She learned about health food long before it was in fashion, and cooked magnificent, abundant Shabbos dinners.

She was absolutely dead set against getting a dog. But when Dave and I were about eleven years old, Dad secretly took us to a pet store and we came home with a wire-haired fox terrier we named Kellie (short for Kelev). Mom absolutely, utterly, and totally fell in love with Kellie. For the next forty years, she was never without a dog – or, more precisely, never without four or five of them. She developed a specialty in helping lost dogs, and ran an informal animal shelter in her backyard. No neighbor ever complained, because Mom befriended all of them. She became a strong supporter of animal organizations and charities. She was not in favour of euthanizing pets, and she cared for every dog herself at home until its last breath.

In 1991, she warmly welcomed my husband Chas into the family, and they developed their own special kidding relationship. Chas instantly understood her brand of humour and recognized (in his words) that her spontaneous jokes often held up a mirror for you, and gave you the opportunity to see yourself more deeply. Our children Hillary and Eli loved their grandmother’s humour, passion and eccentricity – as you have already heard them say, in their own words.

The last fifteen years of her life were full, but age took its toll. In the late 1990s, Mom’s arthritis became severe. Even after her hip replacement operation, she did not regain her ability to play tennis. She did keep her sense of humour, though, and when Dave and I sneaked into the recovery room to see her, she opened her eyes just long enough to say, “Feh! Who needs this?” and fell back into her anaesthetic doze.

In 2001, our father Bernie died. Mom spent a year actively reviewing her life, and engaging in deep self-examination. She let go of many inner attachments, and became a gentler person. She said, “I understand many things now in my eighties that I didn’t understand even a few years ago.” She became even closer with her dog Billy Boy. She became even closer with my brother David, who spent time with her every day and managed her practical affairs.

In 2010, Mom’s beloved sister Ros died. In 2011, her dog died. Two weeks later, she had a heart attack. Recovery was not linear and in March 2012 she chose to have emergency open heart surgery. Though Mom did not regain enough strength to graduate from the hospital’s rehab unit, she did not allow herself to be defeated by her heart disease.

She decided when she was ready to let go, saying simply, “My body is giving out.” She spent a beautiful day with Charles, Dave and me sitting at her bedside. She made jokes with her facial expressions, independently helped herself to her ice-water sponge, whispered a little conversation, and smiled at us. Early the next morning, before we could arrive, she motioned to the nurse to come close. The nurse gave her the pain medication she requested, Mom fell asleep, and a few moments later let go.

Like the Biblical hero Ruth, our mom was courageous and determined, and her commitment to family was absolute. She had many friends, and her closest companions were her sister Ros and her sister-in-law Sylvia. Dave and I feel that our Mom and Dad were an extraordinary team of parents. My own parenting style comes straight from Mom’s manual. Because of Mom and Dad’s unconditional love, I feel that the world can be a safe place. Torah says that love endures for a thousand generations. Of all the things I learned from Mom, that’s my favourite: Love is forever.

I love you, Mom, and I believe that you deserve to shine in all ways.

  1. Yehi zichrah baruch… May her memory be for a blessing for you and all who knew her – and for those with whom you’ve shared her story.

  2. May her memory be for a blessing. What a beautifully written tribute. In care,

  3. Dear Laura,

    Your mother sounds like a marvelous woman. She did brave things. I see from how you write about her that she lived ‘a life uncommon’.[ Phone msg with song to follow… I realize that iI can just link you to the song–but it lacks a personal.touch.]

    I was saddened for you and your mother for the loss of your brother in his early childhood during your infancy. We share an early and close acquaintance with women in grief.

    I’m wanting to link ‘We Can Have It All’ (and b/c they are linked for me) will — of your mother making choices, determining herself and her family. I don’t doubt that she found ways to make good of whatever was.

    No response required.


  4. Beautiful Laura. What a legacy. Wish I had got to know her more.
    So sorry for your loss.

  5. Dear Laura,
    Thank-you for sharing such a heartfelt love letter about your mom – Ruth. I am so glad you made it in time to be with your mom and family. If I knew about your mom I would have gladly “lead” the last couple of days to free you….however, everything was in Divine and Perfect order and you were there….many blessings as you heal…

  6. Dear Laura and Dave,
    I often think about your amazing mother and what an important part of our lives she was. She was probably my mother’s first friend out of the family.We loved her zany jokes and sense of humor and how she would look you in the eye and make you feel as if you were her equal, even if you were a kid.
    I think she even drove us to the airport when we moved to Israel, in 1970.
    She touched us all.
    Love from Susie Aziz Pam daughter of Auntie Ricky
    and when you come to Israel, please let me know. We have to get together.

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