From adding machines to cubicles

I wonder what I look like. Each day I sit in a 6 X 6 cubicle at work. I sit near the end of the floor so people walk up from behind me, see the back of my head, read my name plate, and turn to say hi if they know me.  Work. The office. Part of my daily routine, a much-needed structure in my life. I drift without structure, a lone survivor on a life-raft, no land, no people, no measure of myself, nowhere to plant my feet. The 6 X 6 beige panels keep me grounded and sane. I’m a Taurus (look it up), which makes me the perfect person to work in a cubicle-ed environment.

Today is my 17th anniversary at my company. Seventeen years is a long time to work in one company. I have a long history of cubicle-dwelling.

My head pivots back and forth between my two 21-inch monitors, as my fingers click-clack on the keyboard.  I bring up a gigantic Excel spreadsheet on the left monitor, and the company’s intranet Web page on the right. As the years go by, we increasingly employ shared Web space for dialogue, data, files, and other equally scintillating work objects. If I stop typing for a moment, I can hear several of my co-workers also click-clacking on their keyboards, in their 6 X 6s, some drumming quickly and some tapping slowly, perhaps composing a difficult email to the senior management.

My thoughts turn to my mother whom I lost in February to cancer. What would she think if she saw me sitting in my cube like an air-traffic controller with the two big screens in front of my face? What would she think about the complicated-looking spreadsheet to my left, or about the never-ending online activity to my right?  I work in a world that would make little sense to her.

I did try to teach her how to use a computer. She was bored with Wheel of Fortune and the usual crap that was on TV.  I was a terrible teacher. My mother frustrated me. Her hands were nervous and twitchy on the keyboard, and she kept trying to guess what I was going to say next rather than listening. I wasn’t very nice. I wrote down what I could so she could learn on her own when I wasn’t home, but it didn’t work out. Once day she called me at work to tell me the mouse was broken. I told her she needed to hold it in her right hand move the cursor across the screen.

“I am,” she cried, “but nothing is happening!” She was truly stressed. She was in her late 70s and this was a different world to her.

“You’re trying to move the cursor across the screen?”

“I’m moving the mouse across the screen, but nothing is happening.”

After another five minutes of this conversation, I burst out laughing.

“You are literally picking up the mouse and sliding it across the monitor, aren’t you?”

And yes, she was.

My mother, born in 1930, worked for much of her adult life. Her last and longest held position was as a bookkeeper for the now defunct Route 138 Motel in Easton, Massachusetts. The motel went out of business in the late 1990s, and now there is a Roche Brothers Supermarket Plaza, a CVS drug store, and medical buildings on the property that once held a grimy old two-story motel.  My mother had a filthy office; the motel owner was a filthy man who smoked cigars until the walls of his motel turned yellow and brown, and who heaped junk into my mother’s office since she only needed so much space. But she had real walls. And a big metal office desk.

On the outside, the motel looked okay.

My mother was the bookkeeper at the motel for 30 years. She got the job when I was four and she was 36, just after she and my father separated. When I was older, she told me she applied for the job one night while sitting at the bar in the motel, drinking martinis.  The owner came up to her for a chat. No resume was provided. She told him about working on the Fish Pier in Boston for Swanson frozen dinners, about doing the books for Tabby Cat Food.  Her hiring at the motel was spontaneous and informal. The year was circa 1966.

On the inside was another story, but I was young enough not to notice. Note the TV. This was the 1960s.

When I was a young kid, my mother would take me to work with her during the day, or when I was in school, on days I was out sick. She would wrap me in blankets, and I’d rest my head against the big Great Dane, Max, who lay on the floor between her desk and the owner’s junk. As I got older I paid more attention, and I watched my mother be a bookkeeper. I was mesmerized by her ability to use a 10-key adding machine, with a roll of white paper to keep track of the numbers, the only piece of “tech” on her desk. Her fingers flew across those 10 keys at lightening pace. She didn’t look at the adding machine until she hit the subtotal button, at which point she would enter the number into a paper book of accounts, a “daily” ledger. She had all kinds of paper ledgers and journals to keep, to maintain the motel’s books. I asked her, “Mom, how can you use that adding machine without looking at it?” She said, “I’ve used it so much that it’s a part of me. I don’t need to think about it.”

The adding machine, very much like the one my mom had

In 2016, as I sit at my desk, I know what she means. I type so much, and have for all my adult life, that I type fast and accurately, if I just let my fingers do it and don’t think about the letters on the keyboard. If I think about typing, I will make mistakes.

My mother took great pride in her abilities as a bookkeeper, and she was a good one. My father used to say she was a great bookkeeper. He owned his own children’s clothing business in Boston during the 1950s and 1960s, and my mother must have helped him with the books. My father mainly criticized my mother, so for him to be so complimentary about her bookkeeping abilities made me truly believe she was a shining star in her field. I do know she loved to work. She was a role model to me in that way, a mother who worked each day and on her own, after she and my father separated.

I think this is called a “tanker desk.” I remember my mom’s as much larger.

Gone are the days of adding machines, big metal office desks, smoke-filled offices and paper ledgers. Gone is my mother. But here I am, using an updated version of her tools: two big monitors and an Excel spreadsheet, and the newest version of an office – the cubicle.  I’ve been with this company for 17 years, just 13 more before I have achieved what my mother achieved. If I can ever achieve it.

The purge

My last post: More than I have spent, is about buying this plaque for my mother’s grave. The plaque was installed recently. I was very pleased with it, and equally pleased that the cemetery kept the kitties I had set on her grave before the plaque was available. 

I have been purging my house of clothing, books, junk, and rubbish. The purge commenced after my mother’s death in February 2016. I felt the need to bag up her belongings and donate them to charity. I could not be one of those people who keeps the deceased’s bedroom intact, clothes hung in closet, mystery books on the shelf, and so on, as if she had never died. Some people find preserving the room of a loved one comforting; I find that a purge reassures me. I touch my mother’s belongings once more and say goodbye.


Tomorrow the junk men come to haul away her dresser, night table, and the ancient sofa from her bedroom. I have wanted to get rid of that sofa for years – 1970s “fun fur” nearly bald – but my mom had insisted we keep it. “The cats like to sleep on it,” she said. But Monday it goes.

I will only keep the bed and the television. The bed is nearly new and completely clean. I think it’s a great bed but she hated it. It’s hard to buy a bed for someone who can’t come with you to the store. She was very sick in the last year of her life, when the old bed she’d been sleeping on finally broke, after slowly collapsing over a period of months into the bedframe. My mother could not cast off much with ease, not beds or clothes or cars, until they were unusable. One of her cars fell into itself much like the bed did, although the car, shifting on its frame, was decades ago. Her shoes and slippers were always holed with the souls worn thin. My mother was a fashionista out in the world, when she could still get out into the world, wearing fancy, fun, shiny, and sometimes crazy clothes.  But in the house, she clung to the old and known. She hated the unfamiliar bed. It’s a Laura Ashley with a pillow top, firm but soft, too.

“It’s too high,” she’d said after pretending for a few weeks she liked it so as not to hurt my feelings. “I feel as though I’ll fall out of it.” And as she got sicker she did fall out of it, or rather, she slid off of it as she tried to get up to hobble to the bathroom. I discouraged use of the potty that Hospice had left beside her bed, as I couldn’t bear to empty and clean it.  I found her next to the potty in complete darkness on the night I made her leave home. Her back against the bed and the floor lamp, the back of her head stiff and low against the wall, impossibly angled down, as if someone had glued her head to her shoulder. It’s hard to believe someone could spend an entire day in that position. She didn’t have the strength to move at all, never mind get back on the bed. She’d spent the day peeing on the floor. Once again, she had refused to press the alert button that would have summoned me home.

“I’m calling an ambulance,” I said.

She cried, “No!!!, I’m not going anywhere tonight!”

I screamed, “Yes, you are!” 

She screamed, “Just give me my shoes and I can get up!”

This was not true; it was one of her delirious thoughts. The week before she had insisted the landline phone could not make callouts correctly, as she had tried to dial her credit card account number rather than the phone number. I demonstrated several times that the phone worked perfectly but she couldn’t believe that, had in fact, forgotten how to dial a phone. There she was in that strange, twisted pose, all day on the floor. She had to go. But she was my mother, and I didn’t want her to leave me, so I tried to pick her up to get her back on the bed, get her to her feet, to keep her home, but every time I touched her to try to lift her, she screamed in fear and pain. And I screamed back in the same way.

“I’m calling an ambulance!”

“No, Cindy, Cindy!!!!!”

And then I went outside so I wouldn’t have to hear her. When I went back in, she was still screaming my name. It was the most desperate sound, “CINDY, CINDY, CINDY,” as if I’d shoved her off a life raft. I went back outside after screaming again, “The firemen will be here soon!”

In addition to the bed and the television, I also saved her black and gold sequined dress outfit that she wore to my brother’s wedding in 1986. She wore it for other occasions, too, like her 50th high school reunion. The last movie we watched together before she died was Rentacop with Burt Reynolds and Liza Minelli because she wanted to show me that Liza had worn her outfit in the movie. I kept my mother’s ratty, ripped red sweater she’d worn for the last two years to keep her bony body warm.

This was the ancient dresser in her room, worn and broken, that I had hauled away. The books (and my more of them) were donated.

Since February, I have bagged up approximately 75 green garbage bags of her stuff and a few things of mine. By green garbage bags I mean those enormous ones for lawn and leaves. Yesterday, I threw a good 300 pounds of books from 10 garbage bags into the book donation box at the Ahavath Torah synagogue parking lot. I have donated nearly $2,000 worth of clothes, from items ranging from $2 to $10, so hundreds of shirts, blouses, shoes, skirts, dresses, and so on. I buried her in a smart black and purple dress that I remembered her wearing in her younger days. So that item of clothing was not donated.


Some of her things still lurk in the nooks and crannies of my house, more clothing stuffed into the third bedroom closet, including some winter coats. More sweatshirts and slacks folded long ago into plastic storage drawers when it seemed to matter to hold onto these things. Her room is empty, but it seems there are always more spaces to purge.

Post script: the next day.

The junk guys came, and I leaned against the arm of the living room chair as I watched them haul heavy furniture downstairs: that fun fur sofa from when I was nine years old and living on Bay Road, my mother’s dresser and night table, purchased when I was thirteen when we moved to the condo in Knollsbrook, and the desk and bookcase she bought for me the same year, knowing I was a kid who loved books and writing. I nearly cried as they moved all this ancient, junky furniture out of the house. I hated the furniture, but the decades marching out the front door reminded me of the lifetime that had passed.



More than what I have spent

Yesterday I bought a cemetery plaque for my mother’s grave.  The inscription will read, “Loving mother, kind soul, and free spirit.”  My brother came up with “free spirit” because my mother lived life on her terms. She was separated and divorced in the 1960s when splitting from your husband wasn’t so acceptable. She did as she pleased as a single mom, again, before this ever became okay with society.  I came up with “kind soul,” because of her gentleness and thoughtfulness toward others, her compassion, much stronger than my own. I watched my mother cry over dying peers while she, herself, was dying. She felt bad for people on vacation in summer, people she did not know, if it rained all week. She was no saint, but she was our mother, so “loving mother” was easy to come up with. She died six months ago today on February 6, 2016.

The plaque costs $2,600 with installation at Sharon Memorial Park. It took me a long time to adjust to the thought of plunking down so much cash for an item that is essentially unnecessary. My mother’s body lies in that grave at Sharon Memorial, but that body no longer houses her essence, and that body will soon be nothing but bones.

I have shopped online a few times since she passed to try to find “a deal,” something that might knock $500-$600 dollars off the price. The Zelman side of the family, my father’s side, has a tradition of always seeking a deal, even in the circumstance of death, apparently.  You can buy anything online now. I wouldn’t be surprised if offered cemetery plaques, but I didn’t actually check their website.

The cemetery won’t allow anything but bronze plaques to pay tribute to the dead buried there. My research showed that at most, the online dealers could save me only a couple of hundred dollarsor. So, each time I researched, I delayed the purchase, hoping that prices would improve. I was not ready to commit to the plaque. Mourning takes many forms, including the inability to spend a few thousand dollars to honor your mother.

In the end, I didn’t trust the quality of product or the customer service of any online monument store. Who is behind such websites? What if I needed to return the plaque? What if I found a defect after it had been installed? Would I have to dig it up and ship out a 100-pound rock? In the end, I chose a local monument dealer, and the price included a marbled granite frame to anchor the plaque. Very pretty.

Today is Saturday and my mother died on a Saturday.  She had been such a pretty, vibrant woman for most of her life, but Saturday, February 6th was the last day of her life. When I arrived at the nursing home, her breathing was so shallow that every breath sounded potentially like her last. She had been in a coma for eight days. She had surprised the hospice nurses by lasting so long, the time in the coma and not eating or drinking for the last week she was conscious. Yet her body endured for fifteen days without nourishment. She had a strong heart. She had a good heart.

“It will be this weekend,” said Karen, the morning nurse. “Your mom will pass this weekend. I don’t think it will happen on my shift, but soon.”  I watched my mother and listened to her shallow breath for a few hours. I said, “I love you, Mom,” but I don’t think she could hear. I was told that all the senses go as one dies, with the hearing going last. I knew she was already blind, having seen her focus-less, clouded right eye, when the lid had been opened inadvertently while the hospice aide washed her near the end. I had squandered many a chance to tell her I loved her or to apologize for my bad behavior while she was still conscious. Perhaps she knew of my feelings anyway. My poor mother is dying. I shifted, got up from my seat, and left the nursing home for a break and some lunch.

I was watching television as I ate my sandwich, trying to find the will to travel back to the nursing home to spend the afternoon with my mother. I procrastinated for nearly two hours after I finished eating, with dread spreading through my heart and soul, as well as crawling up and down my limbs. I had been visiting her for two and a half months at the nursing home, and each day, she was sicker than the last. I almost couldn’t bear another minute. Eventually, I did make it to the car, but it was well after 4:00 in the afternoon. My mother was spending her last weekend on earth breathing shallowly, and I had waited so long to drive back, instead had decided to spend time watching reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore show.

Karen’s shift had ended well over an ago, and as I was driving, the afternoon shift nurse, Kelly, called.

“Mom passed” she said when I answered. I was five minutes from the nursing home.

“Okay, I will be there in a few minutes.” My mother was dead. I arrived at the nursing, and spent a couple of more hours with her  corpse until the funeral home picked up her body.

The words “Mom passed,” still ring in my ears every so often, when the late afternoon sunlight hits my dashboard as I drive through my home town. Down Pleasant Street, soon to take the turn onto Prospect. “Mom passed.” A bright, sunny day in February, the words and the scene play like a touching and sad film in my head.

My mother would not have wanted me to spend money  on a plaque for her grave. She especially would have balked at my spending such an exorbitant sum.

“Save your money,” I can hear her say. “I don’t want you to spend it on me.” She hadn’t even wanted a funeral, because she was afraid my brother and I would have to pay for it. In the end, she had saved enough to pay for her own funeral, although I was the one who made purchase on a cold winter evening, picking out a coffin and answering questions about prayers and limosines.

I have spent the last six months trying to come to terms with her no longer existing on this earth and no longer living in my house. Sometimes the mere sight of some house detail – like the blue and light gray stone floor in the kitchen where she stood as she cooked meals and did the laundry for more than a dozen years – can render me speechless. Or the sight of the staircase, with its worn beige carpet, where I witnessed her climbing to her bedroom each and every night. On so many of those evenings I joined her to watch TV. Thousands of evenings.

A plaque is a way to memorialize and honor my mother, but someday, the rest of the family will be gone, the human race may be gone, and perhaps we will have blown the earth to bits. What a waste of $2,600 should the plaque explode with the entire earth someday.

Most of the time lately, I do not want to move out my house although I periodically bandy about the idea of buying a condo, of moving out of this town. I have lived in the house for fourteen and a half years, most of those years with my mother, until I had to push her into a nursing home nine months ago. She kept falling, she was incontinent, dehydrated, often she didn’t make sense, she forgot how to use a telephone, she wouldn’t press that goddamned “I have fallen down and can’t get up button.” She was entering end-stage cancer. I could no longer care for her.

When I am not considering moving, I decide I will make the house new again – refinish the hardwood floors, possibly have hardwood added to the stair case and bedrooms upstairs, new paint, new furniture, same house, but reborn. These kinds of upgrades cost money. I have been feeling paralyzed and unable to proceed with any house upgrades. My mother’s grave needs a plaque.

I dreamed about my mother last week. One night, before I fell asleep, I said out loud, “I miss you mom. I’d like to dream about you.” And she came to me that night. Nothing significant happened in the dream. She was back in the house, although my house appeared different. I’m not even sure she spoke a word, yet I felt our connection. I thought I was awake during the dream, as her presence lingered. In the darkly comic tradition of my family, I said to her, “You know you’re dead, right? You know you can’t stay here.”

The day my mother died, I was aware of my heart; it felt enlarged and warm, very present in my chest as if her soul were passing through mine on her way to her new existence, a place I could not comprehend as an earthbound body.

This week, I woke up knowing I would buy the plaque. Not only did I realize this, but I looked forward to making the purchase. My heart felt the same warmth and connection as the day she died. After I left Quincy Memorials and left a down payment on this useless, impractical, expensive piece of granite and bronze, I felt my heart swell. The next day, I also found myself calling a handyman and junk haulers, something I had been unable to do since her passing. I  spent $229 for two tickets to see Rent in Boston when it tours in 2017 for its 20th anniversary. I felt free to spend money on my house and on myself only after I spent $2,600 on that useless plaque.

Sometimes, events need to arrive in a certain order that may contradict, if not actually defy, logic. Honoring my mother had to come before hiring someone to haul away her dresser. Her death had to come before my regrets. Her no longer existing on this planet made me realize how important she had been in my life. My compassion came after her death.

“Loving mother, kind soul, and free spirit.”

You are worth so much more than what I have spent.



Edith Zelman Eulogy – Doris Cahill, author

My mother passed away on February 6, 2016. On February 19th, we held a memorial service. My sister-in-law, Doris Cahill, was one of three to give a eulogy. Here are her words in honor of my mother.

Thank you Andrew my husband of 30 years for having me speak on your behalf. A very satisfied person, never raised her voice, never complained, nor criticized me for how I raised her grandchildren. Always welcoming. I often wish she was more noisy and disruptive like other members of my family. It was not her way. She was not bitter for things she did not have, nor did she compare herself to others. It was not her way to disparage others character. Its hard to recall a time she wanted anything material. Edith married in 1952 and very much wanted to have children. She experience no less than 3 or as many as 6 miscarriages, when after a medical procedure had Andrew in 1959. Edith gave me my husband and my two beautiful daughters; Sharon and Natalie, thank you… There is some debate on how many miscarriages with my Sister in Law Cindy, so I will agree to 3. Andrew’s memories are often about their first house on Bay Road, we brought a nice black and white picture for all to see. More often than not Andy insists we make the drive by his first house in Stoughton MA as if it were the first time and then get our ice cream and Crescent Ridge Dairy, just down the street. We still do that drive by and suspect we always will. Statuesque and beautiful, Edith kept herself meticulously.. Even in her final days barely a wrinkle or gray hair. It was only in the last years due to her battle with cancer she no longer came out to visit. She enjoyed a party, bright outfits and never missed her weekly hair appointment. At our wedding she wore a black beaded dress edged in gold beaded trim weighing 10 pounds. I did question who wears black to a wedding?….Edith smile emoticon. A lover of cats, my girls and I were often given cat motif gifts. Cat sweaters, cat music boxes, cat clocks, cat pins,,,,everything cat. Not a single visit to her home or our home was empty handed, she always came with our favorite dishes; Noodle Kugel and Sweet and Sour Meatballs. Edith celebrated the holidays and our children’s major life events. My youngest Natalie would try to get the recipe for sweet and sour meatballs and Edith would only say “a jar of jelly, a jar of chili sauce and its as much as it needs” Edith was most proud of her poetry. It was a great personal achievement when a few of her poems were published. She called our house with great pleasure, that her work was in print, she was so very excited. Never wanting of material things and soft spoken, I want to be like Edith, yes I want to be Edith. Allow me a moment and read the two poems written by Edith. (placing the cat music box on the podium)

“Pet Eulogy to Kitty,” by Edith Zelman

We once had a cat named Kitty

She was black and white, very pretty

Kitty was our reigning queen for over seventeen years

When her time came to leave us, we cried “crocodile tears”

She was smart as a whip

Wouldn’t take any lip

Although known notoriously to stage a sudden attack

We’d do anything in the world to have her back

Some may have found her offensive

She was merely being extremely defensive

Kitty may have caused a bit of havoc and harm

But in her own way she possessed elegant grace and magical charm

The Fears Gone By

by Edith Zelman

At twenty I was immature

By thirty I didn’t know much more

Forty was quite a shock!

It left me with a mental block

Fifty came and I felt blue

Now I was a real old shoe

Then came sixty and I was frightened

Would I ever be enlightened?

At seventy I’m still alive

I worry as to how much longer will I survive

With all my complaints and fear

I am thankful to the world that I am still here.


Edith B. Zelman Eulogy by Rabbi Barbara Penzner


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.

Doris speaks

Cindy speaks

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

Edith B. Zelman Eulogy by Cindy Zelman

My mother would have turned 86 on Friday, March 4th, 2016. Below is the eulogy I read at her funeral on February 19th.

My mother passed away on Saturday, February 6th, 2016 at the age of 85 years, 11 months, and two days. Today we honor her.

My mother possessed a quiet strength which I often misread as passivity because she was not direct  and bold as I am. My mother was very strong, however, right up to the end. So ill from cancer, unable to eat or drink, and then unresponsive, she continued to defy all predictions of her imminent demise, confounding every hospice nurse who visited.

“We expect her to be gone within 72 hours.”

But still she breathed.

“It could be this weekend; it could be today.”

But still she breathed.

“She will be gone in 24 – 36 hours.”

But still she breathed, and hospice stopped predicting.

Until she breathed no more, and on her own terms, she passed.

Many decades ago in the 1960s, when my brother and I were small children, my mother was a woman ahead of her time.  She had married my dad in the 1950s but by 1966, she knew her marriage would not be a happy one. She and my father separated.  My father tried to come back, but she wouldn’t have it. “It’s either you or Fran,” my father said in his inimitable style.

“I don’t feel as if I’ve lost a husband, Ben,” she said to my father, who loved large quantities of shoes and clothing. “I feel as if I’ve gained a closet.”

When my father was officially with my stepmom, Fran, he said to my mother, “Fran says we should get a neat, legal separation because of the kids.” To which my mother replied, “I don’t want a neat, legal separation,” and as my father’s eyes grew wide thinking my mom might want him back, she continued, “I want a neat, legal divorce.” She showed this strength for her own well-being before the Women’s Movement made it okay. My mom wanted what she wanted on her own terms. She was willing to be a single mom and a divorcee before society said it was okay.

She was strong.

My mother was kind. My mother lived a long life filled with kindness. She loved my dad, despite his difficult personality, which often expressed itself with verbal taunting. My mother could easily have been angry at Fran.  But my mom was too kind to be unfair.  My dad once “bragged” to my mother that Fran didn’t mind when he spoke to her poorly, to which my mother immediately replied, “You shouldn’t talk to Fran that way either!” Many of us would have found some measure of satisfaction in hearing that our ex-es significant other was now experiencing the same hell we had. But my mother was much too kind to feel vengeance.

In fact, she forgave my father for all of his infractions because she was kind, just as she always forgave me for mine.  I was not always as kind to her as I could have been, but she always forgave me with a mother’s unconditional love.

My mother was a much loved woman. In her senior years, before she became ill, I would take her out to shop at clothing stores or bed and bath stores or what have you, or we might go out to eat at a local restaurant. No matter where we went, people always came up to her and said “Hi, Edie!” with big smiles on their faces. I was very impressed.  Even at the nursing home, there were genuine tears when my  mother passed. “I loved your mom,” one nurse said, echoing the sentiments of several of the staff who cared for her at the end.  It’s quite an accomplishment to be so well-loved.

Some of you know me as a writer. Some of you know I have often written about my mother and my relationship with her in a light that is not flattering to her or to me. So today, as we honor her, I would like to read in public for the first time two short passages from my essays that do honor her.

The first is from a published essay called:

From A Smirnoff and Coke:

Once, my mother was a colorful figure of the night, showy in her dress, donning bright green-and-orange sweaters, or stark black-and-white dresses. Hitting all the singles clubs.  I remember giant-checkered skirts, and circle- and leopard-skin blouses. She wore wedge heels and bright pink lipstick. She was always tall at nearly five foot eight, with a well-developed bosom that LURED man after man to her side. She had thick dark hair that she wore in whatever style prevailed in a given decade. I remember the flip-up hairdos in the 1960s and the pictures of her from the late 1940s wearing banana curls, which she called “shit curls.” She turned heads in her day: Edie, the tall, thin Jewish girl with the big boobs and the jet black hair. More than once she has repeated what her mother-in-law said to her when she was dating my dad, “She can’t be Jewish, she’s too tall and too skinny!”  Imagine my grandmother saying it with derision and a Yiddish accent. Of course, my mother took it as a compliment – she was skinny and tall, as opposed to short and fat, like my grandmother.

From Paper Moon:

My mother was the first woman who took me on a date. I was eleven and she was forty-three and she asked, “Would you like to see a movie and then have dinner at the hotel across the street?”  She caught me pre-adolescence, young enough still to want to spend time with her whenever I could. She was home so little during my waking hours, maybe three hours a day, before she headed out the door for an evening of god knows what.

At age eleven, I said, “Yes, yes, let’s go to the movies.”

We saw Tatum O’Neil and her father, Ryan in “Paper Moon.”  

I recall sitting in the dark theater with her as the movie began to play.  I believe the movie was in black and white to visually capture the poverty of the Depression era.  Up on the big screen we watched Ryan and Tatum put on their con artist show for those of us sitting in the glow of the movie.  He was so handsome then; Tatum was so cute.  My mother sat next to me on a Saturday afternoon and then into early evening as we ate a mediocre meal at the hotel restaurant. She was disappointed with the food.

“I thought the food would be better,” she said as if to apologize. “We should have gone somewhere else to eat.”

“It’s fine,” I answered.

I sat in my chair and gazed at her. I thought: my beautiful mom, all to myself.


I was lucky to have my mom in my life for nearly 54 years. Some people do not get that luxury. I was lucky to have such a kind and quietly strong mom whose love I never doubted.  I was lucky to have generous mom and a mom with a sense of humor. She was my mom and she was my best friend for my entire life. I miss her terribly but I hold on to the belief that I will see her again when it is my time.

Mom, we are all here for you today. I love you and will think of you always.

2015 was a very shitty year

I know it’s nearly the end of January and a little late to be taking stock of 2015, but I’ve been busy. I work full-time, have a household to run, and my mother is in a nursing home dying from cancer. Other than coping, my accomplishments were few in 2015.

On the relatively positive side, I attended concerts filled with the classic rock and pop music of my youth: Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Madonna, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Beatles tribute bands, The Fab Faux and Rain, Chicago, The Indigo Girls, Led Zeppelin tribute band, Get the Led Out, and the actual, original Robert Plant.

Publications: Just one this year. Thank you to The Broken Plate for publishing my essay, “This Time I Fell in Love with the Daughter.” If not for that, I would have published nothing in 2015.

Blog: Sadly, in 2015, I have had only four blog posts all year. My writing production was nearly non-existent in any form: essay, blog post, personal email, not even much activity on Facebook.

No good deed goes unpunished: For two years I tried to help a man escape the horrors of his life on the other side of the world, but I realized at the end of 2015 there is no way to end my involvement but to cruelly walk away. This man keeps after me, with every drama and life threatening situation imaginable. He is not lying, this is his life. You know who you are, and if you read this, LEAVE ME ALONE. Stop calling, stop texting, stop emailing, because I will no longer send you money. I can no longer fund your life or your death.

You see, I have limitations to my generosity, and I can be a mean person, just as Steven said I was. As I get older, I don’t care about being less generous or being mean. As life starts to wreck you, you disengage from humanity, and your existence becomes about survival, emotional or physical or both. As I continue to watch my mother die, I feel more wrecked, and I try to survive.

Purchases: I purchased a little inexpensive computer in the hope that I would start writing again. I purchased a cheap television and many concert tickets because I need some way to escape the horrors of 2015, and I have yet to take up drinking. I have learned that purchasing such unnecessary items does as much to help the poverty of the world as sending thousands of dollars directly to someone in need. In other words, neither activity helps at all. I would suggest never funding someone directly. I have learned you can’t solve any problems by throwing money at them, you can’t save anybody’s life. The experience will only leave you feeling guilty and angry when you have to say no. So buy yourself a TV instead.  It’s cheaper in the long run. Subscribe to Hulu. Watch the original Star Trek. Buy those Who tickets. Buy a car. Live your American dream. Find a reputable charity if you insist on throwing your money away.

Work: For the most part, work was fine. I am not a superstar at work, but hopefully, a steady player, a sixth man in basketball, a backup shortstop, a special teams player. I work with some brilliant people who are also my friends, so I am very lucky in that regard. My senior management is understanding and thoughtful, so I am grateful for that also. In my younger years, I would have needed to excel, to shine like a superstar. But now, in my fifties, I am happy to have a solid job that challenges my brain, provides a paycheck and benefits, and helps to allow me to live my life. That’s all that my poverty stricken man wants, to live his life, to have a job. What I take for granted, he will never have. He lives in a really shitty place that gives him no breaks, only obstacles, illness, deeply seated prejudice and pain on every physical and emotional level. I could have sent him every dollar in my  bank account and still he would be on the edge of crisis, or even have fallen into the abyss never to return.

Health: I believe I am healthy, despite the fact that I am working out less and my pure cardio workouts have ceased. My once lithe body is starting to get bulgy around the middle. My size 8 pants are getting tight around my thighs. I could easily solve this issue by increasing the frequency of my workouts and eating less sugar. Or I could start buying size 10 jeans.

This year I had my third colonoscopy in 10 years as I tend to be symptomatic, but I’m fine. If my friend, Bill, had had such a procedure a few years ago, he might still be alive today. Even in this country, with all its privilege, death grabs you and you succumb. Please take note.

I had a cyst removed from my scalp.  I tend to get such things, but so far, all has been benign.

Romance and Sex: None whatsoever in 2015. And I don’t miss either. I am becoming something less than human, I understand.

Life and Death.

A friend of mine died in February. She wasn’t my closest friend, but I had known her for most of my life. Our mothers have been best friends for nearly 50 years. Although Karen had many medical problems, I never expected her to die suddenly, as she did. I believe she died from a heart attack caused by a blood clot in her leg. Three weeks before her death, we attended a Fleetwood Mac concert in Providence. A week and a half before her death, she accompanied me to the dermatologist and waited while I had a cyst removed from my scalp.

“She’s a good friend,” the nurse said.

Yes, she was.

My mother is alive but dying. Today (January) she has slept the entire day, including the two and a half hours I’ve been sitting here. It could be the drugs or it could be the encroachment of death. It’s snowing outside her window. Winter is symbolic of death, isn’t it?

My mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in the fall of 2013 and lived with me in my house until November 2015.  She first fell in May. She fell in the morning while I was at work and lay on the floor, peeing all over the white throw rug, for the next 10 hours. When I returned home, I could barely lift her onto the couch. I called hospice and a nurse arrived. “Forget about the bathroom, that’s over with,” she said. But she was wrong. Eventually, my mom gained enough strength to continue living in my house and using the bathroom.

Six month later, after her third fall in five weeks this autumn, I couldn’t let her stay.

I had her rushed to the hospital by ambulance, against her will, after finding her fallen beside her bed, sitting in her pee, for 10 hours (again.) She was extremely dehydrated, I would come to find out, and she could not think straight, nor had she the strength to lift herself up and onto the bed. Nor had I the strength. I called an ambulance.

I had her admitted to a nursing home, five days after her hospital stay, again, against her will. She acquiesced because she had no choice. I refused to take her home.

I had my mother sign a Power of Attorney five days before she went bonkers again from dehydration. She signed the document voluntarily with a notary public as witness.  I had access to her vast fortune which was just enough to pay for her funeral and two months in a nursing home.

I pre-paid my mother’s funeral and bought her a coffin for Chanukah, on December 7, which coincidentally was also the 10 year anniversary of my stepmother’s death.

I filled out a forty page application for Mass Health, which will start paying my mother’s nursing home expense, once her assets have been depleted. It’s early January and her assets have been depleted. I sent Mass Health another forty pages of supplemental information.

I don’t know how to end this post. My mother is still sleeping. They tell me she has been sleeping all day. I wonder how she will be tomorrow. I wonder how I will be. I wonder how 2016 will be.