EDITH GOLDBERG ZELMAN
died February 6, 2016 / 27 Shevat 5776 buried February 19 / 10 Adar I
“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
Today we take time to remember what a remarkable woman Edith Zelman was and celebrate her life today. Yet we know that her passing brings a time of mourning and sadness. We extend our deepest sympathies to those whose lives have been forever changed by her life and death.
Describing the death of a parent, the author Joan Didion shared this reflection about grief from her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking:
“despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago. We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections.”
Our time today is for recollections. Today we honor Edith, of course. But it is also the beginning of a major shift in the lives of her children, a time for all kinds of memories to arise. We extend our deepest sympathies to her loving son Andy Zelman and his wife Doris Cahill, and to her devoted daughter Cindy Zelman. Today you have entered a new stage of adulthood, as you become the oldest generation. Those of us who have crossed that threshold know how jarring that transition can be. All of us offer you comfort and strength to begin life without your Mom.
We also offer condolences to Edith’s beloved granddaughters Sharon Gassett and her husband Daniel, and Natalie Zelman and her friend Mike Drake. As you reach new milestones in your lives, we pray that you feel your grandmother’s loving presence with you. May you see her smile at your future celebrations and know how much she loved you.
Rabbi Alan Steinbach has written:
A shooting star across the sky
In golden flaming arc;
A muffled groan of fragile life
Surrendering to the dark.
No weeping if a shooting star
Will never glow again;
What loss one vanished satellite
Where myriads remain?
But when life’s somber firmament
Contains a single star,
What darkness when its light is quenched,
How deep, how deep the scar!
I’d like to call on Edith’s daughter-in-law Doris, and her daughter Cindy to share their distinct and cherished memories.
As I listened to Cindy, Andy and Doris talk about Edith, I was moved by the love that infused their remembrances, a love that Edith surely shared with them in every aspect of their lives. Though I did not know her as you did, I was reminded of the following anonymously written definition of success, often falsely attributed to Emerson:
“To laugh often and love much; to win and hold the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of little children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and to endure without flinching the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty always, whether in earth’s creations or human handiwork; to have sought for and found the best in others, and to have given it oneself; to leave the world better than one found it, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, a cheery letter, or a redeemed social condition; to have played with enthusiasm, laughed with exuberance, and sung with exaltation; to go down to dust and dreams, knowing that the world is a wee bit better, and that even a single life breathes easier because we have lived well, this is to have succeeded.”
Edith’s success story began nearly 86 years ago in the unlikely town of Amesbury, Massachusetts. She was the only child of Sam and Mary Goldberg, who lived together in an old schoolhouse turned home. It was a simple place with no hot water, that had been passed down in the family. Edith, a bright straight-A student, curious about the world, could not wait to leave small-town life behind. When she turned 18, she took her first opportunity to head to the city, where she shared an apartment with her friend Doris and enrolled in Burdett College, a well-known business school for men and women in Boston. There Edith learned bookkeeping, a skill that suited her well and became her life-long career. Edith took her first job at the Fish Pier in Boston, where she worked for a fishery and for the Tabby Cat Food Company. Adult life had finally begun!
When Edith met Ben Zelman at a dance, her working years would come to an end. Ben was a city boy who grew up in Dorchester. She was attracted to his debonair looks in his camel-hair overcoat. But she was cautious. Ben pursued Edith until she married him in 1952. After Andrew was born, they moved from an apartment in Brookline to a single-family house in the suburbs on Bay Road in Stoughton. Then Cindy came along to complete the family. Ben provided for the growing family, adding a pool and an air conditioner for their comfort. But when Cindy was just 4 years old and Andy was 7, Edith and Ben separated. By 1970, they were divorced. Edith went back to work at the Route 138 Easton Motel, where she stayed for over 30 years, a single mom who worked hard for her children and for her independence.
Andy remembers that every Sunday they all went out to breakfast at the Pewter Pot in Cobb’s Corner. Afterward, Edith bought them a toy. Though she struggled as a single mother, she made sure they always had what they needed.
Cindy remembers how her mom generously supported her love of books. A voracious reader already in first and second grade, Cynthia got to choose as many as she wanted from the Scholastic Book Club. Thanks to Edith, while most of her friends bought a few select choices, Cindy brought home a pile of books.
Edith always got them ready for school in the morning and was there to pick them up after school. They ate the earliest dinners in history at 4 pm, so that Edith could go back to work or go out with friends in the evening. On Sundays, Edith prepared her finest recipes for Sunday dinner, so good, in fact, that often their father would join them for dinner.
When Cindy was a teenager, her friends always came over to the condo in Stoughton because Edith was “the cool mom.” She didn’t put on airs or criticize them, and everyone called her “Edie.” And she made such good food, friends would go home with stomach aches from eating too much lasagna.
Edith enjoyed her life. She was devoted to her job, made friends easily, and found fun every day, whether in the bowling league or mah jongg or going out dancing. She loved mystery novels and was always reading. She wrote poetry and took pride in having two poems published. Most important, she was happy with her life.
Cindy lived with Edith until her twenties, when she struck out on her own for a few years before returning home again. Eventually Edith moved in with Cindy and they haven’t been apart since. Because her mom was such a great cook, Cindy never learned how to cook. It was only in the last few years, when Edith wasn’t well, that Cindy took over in the kitchen. But learning to cook from Edith wasn’t easy. She had no recipes and loved to experiment. If you asked her, “How long do I cook it for?” she would answer “until it’s done.” And “how much salt should I put in?” – “as much as it needs.” Though people loved her recipes, it was nearly impossible to get them, unless you watched her cook yourself and took notes. And were willing to experiment.
Edith didn’t measure ingredients and she didn’t measure what she had or didn’t have in life. Andy remembers fondly that she never desired more than she had and never felt angry that she missed out on things. In fact, things simply weren’t important. Edith cared about people. Her parents, aunts, friends, parents of friends–from a young age, she was known for her compassion and kindness.
When the motel closed, Edith retired from work, but not from life. She continued to go out with her girlfriends, and always had a male admirer. An attractive woman all her life, Edith was always put-together. She loved to have a nice-looking guy on her arm.
Among her many companions, Edith always had cats around. As a child she played with the barn cats. One cat in particular went missing during the winter and Edith pined away, thinking he would never come back. But when spring came, the cat came back. When Cindy was in college, she brought her a black and white kitten who loved to chase and retrieve balls. That cat lived a good long cat life of 18 years.
Cats were a major theme, with cat decorations all over the house. Natalie and Sharon received cat clocks, cat sweaters, cat hats, and cat calendars for birthday gifts. They will always remember the birthdays and holiday dinners with Edith, especially when she brought kugel or sweet and sour meatballs.
The last major event when Edith was able to go out and celebrate was for Cindy’s graduation in 2010, when she received her MFA in creative writing. But the last ten years were increasingly difficult for her, and she was blessed to have Cindy there for company, to take over the financial responsibilities, to take care of the cats, and eventually, to be her caretaker. Once Edith was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, she stopped going out entirely. Because she was so meticulous about her looks, she simply didn’t want to be seen in that condition.
But in the end, you were all blessed to be able to see Edith in her final days and say goodbye. This was very hard for her, as undoubtedly it was for you as well. Yet you each made the effort to show her how much you loved her. Sharon made a special trip to visit her in the nursing home, and Natalie came with her parents to say goodbye as well. In fact, after Andy had said goodbye, the hospice nurse noticed how sad Edith had become. The nurse asked whether she was feeling bad that she would never see her son again. Miraculously, within an hour, Andy showed up again, and she got to see him one last time before she went into a coma.
The great artist Michelangelo once said,
“If we have been pleased with life, we should not be displeased with death, since it comes from the hand of the same master.”
Despite challenges and setbacks throughout her life, Edith always remained pleased with life. Though she may not have been overly affectionate, and may not have said so often, she loved her children and grandchildren deeply. She always told her friends, “I have such great kids,” and she meant it. And it’s true. The love that she gave to you, you returned to her in hours, days, months and years of devoted care. You have been blessed with your mother’s undying love, a love that will remain with you long after today, a love that taught you to be kind and generous, to try new things, to believe in yourself, and most of all, to enjoy every day.
Yehi zichrona baruch—may her memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner
Temple Hillel B’nai Torah
West Roxbury, MA