Eva Dolgin passed away on the evening of November 29, 2006 (9 Kislev, 5757), a few weeks after her 97th birthday. Maxine and Marc were at her bedside - I was in a plane from Vancouver to Winnipeg, writing a eulogy. At her funeral on Dec 1 I spoke from notes made on that flight and revised following our conversation with the rabbi. Below is a reconstruction of what I said at her funeral.
My name is Avi. I'm Eva's baby. It used to bother me terribly when she'd introduce me that way when I was eight or ten years old. ". . .and this is my baby!" But as I grew older, I took to using the phrase. I'd visit her at the Sharon Home and call "Mum, your baby's here!"
Mum, your baby's here.
I've known my mother all my life. On the surface of it, that's a pretty stupid and obvious thing to say. But the extension of it is - I haven't known my mother all her life. Nobody here has. 97 years old! There is so much of Eva Dolgin that we here can never have known.
We can never know the young girl whose mother gently washed and combed her hair every Friday afternoon to get ready for Shabbat. We can never know the little girl who played on the floor or stood by the desk of her father in his office in the house on Machray Avenue. She spent hours there, in adoration of a man who dominated her household and her life. She never recovered from his early death. I was amazed as a child to see this grown woman of 50 cry over the death of her father as if it had just happened. At 50, at 60, at 70, at 80 she'd speak of him and the tears would come in memory (just as tears are choking me now).
There is nobody here today who knew the kindergarten girl at her first day at the Stella Mission (whatever that was). They were marching around inside and young Eva spotted some kids still outside. So she went to call them in - and got blamed for being in the wrong place. She was so mad at the injustice that she refused ever to go back there. Is there a moral to this story? As Mum told it to me years later she added, "Joe would say I don't know when to mind my own business."
I will never know, and we will never know, the girl they dubbed "The Flying Machine". Dared by some neighbourhood boys to jump off a garage roof, she did - and damaged her tailbone in a way that never really healed. She tried anything - and then spent her parent years telling her children "don't do that, it's too dangerous."
But Mum was very active. We all remember her that way all her life. Her goal was to go into Physical Education. But for that you had to go away to school in Minnesota. But these were poor times, and there were sons to educate as well, so she settled for living at home and going into nursing. She was a good nurse - she set it aside during the years she was raising children, but went back to it when I was school age - but always held the regret of not getting to do what she had dreamed.
It was while she was studying nursing that she fell in love with a mandolin-playing young man who was so sweet she named him "Cinnamon". And I doubt that any of us here today was there the day she helped her neighbour, Max Steiman, auction off a batch of Ben Moss jewelry. That's where she met "Cin" - an accountant/jeweler working that day for Ben Moss. And few of us were there as Eva & Joe, then newly married, moved into her mother's house. Her father had died the year before - and they needed a man around the house. (Though I wonder whether my father could be man enough for a houseful of Blanksteins)
They raised their young daughter there - amid the mix of Evelyn, Ingy and Morley. And what a daughter she turned into! A daughter whose love, energy and wise management my Mum sometimes took for granted - but who the rest of us all recognize!
And what are the things I do recall?
I remember her activity level. The girl who wanted Phys Ed became the woman who was always active. I grew up behind the glass at the Maple Leaf Curling Club. With a real child's pride I would think to myself "my Mum is the skip!" Curling was such a part of who she was. And not just curling. She bowled (though in later years that became more of my Dad's private domain) - I lived in a house full of trophies. That was my parents - Mr. & Mrs. B'nai Brith Five Pin!
But, more than anything, Mum loved to dance! You all saw her, dancing away at every wedding and bar mitzvah you went to. At AC's 60th birthday party, during what was perhaps her last visit to Ottawa, there she was, at ninety-something, up on the dance floor! This was a woman who took up line dancing when she was in her 70's and 80's
But she started much earlier than that. As you go into the Asper Campus you'll see her, up in the far right side, in a photo of the Chai Dancers back in the 50's (I know exactly where the photo is - Mum would point it out each and every time I went into Campus with her). She told the story of starting Israeli dancing. She was in her 40's - her partner was Sarah Somers, then in her 20's or 30's. But Sara died young - cancer took her before 40. "And I often think of that," she'd say, "her life was over by 40 and my dancing life was just beginning. I guess I've got a lot to be thankful for."
The Flying Machine never stopped flying - except for those times when it all got too much for her. So I remember her felled by nausea, lying with a cold cloth on her forehead, recovering from an energy level she couldn't quite sustain.
And if it wasn't dancing and sports, then it was her book club or art classes. The art classes that went for several years and left us with a set of paintings and sketches in a wide range of styles, as she explored and explored.
I recall her nursing career. She was a good nurse, and there are many women in this city who recall how she helped them during her years at the Maternity Pavilion. She sometimes told the story of how she learned to treat everyone with respect. Of the time she referred to "the lady in 301" and was told by the doctor "the lady in 301 has a name!" and never made that mistake again. And perhaps it was her medical training, her understanding of the need for proper nutrition and exercise that helped her make it to 97.
I recall her taste in clothes. Mum always looked good - that was important to her. Clothes well-tailored. Make-up always right. And right to the end, her companions at the Sharon Home kept her looking good. To Rosie and Paula I offer not only my family's thanks for your attention, but I offer my mother's thanks for keeping her seen as she'd want to be seen.
But let's be honest here. My mother not only attached importance to looks - hers and other's - she attached too much importance. She was judgmental and superficial in viewing others. Their clothes, their hair, their weight - none of it escaped her evaluation. And comment.
And she remained observant of people's looks right to the end. I'll tell you about my last conversation with my mother. Two weeks ago, when I was visiting her in the Sharon Home at the time of her birthday. "Conversation" is not exactly the word for it. As you know, she had lost all language skills and was limited to smiles and some gestures. I came in to where she was resting in her wheelchair. "Mum, your baby's here." She looked up at me, smiled, and slowly did this: (here I raised my right hand and brushed the back of my hand slowly across my chin) And I knew exactly what she was saying:
"Such a sweet face! What a shame you've got that beard!"
And, of course, a son remembers his mother's cooking. Do I need to tell you about her wonderful chocolate squares? And Morley, you remember her spinach borscht. We could never go out to Gimli without her making a special batch for you. And carrot pudding! Every Friday night she'd serve up carrot pudding.
"Mum, I don't like carrot pudding"
"Of course you do, dear."
"No I don't."
"Mum, I've never liked carrot pudding. Marc likes carrot pudding."
This is not a conversation that happened just once. It's one of the refrains that echoes from my childhood.
No, I didn't like carrot pudding - I liked her knishes. I loved her knishes, and I was in awe of her ability to turn out perfect knishes, with just the right texture and flavour, each and every time. Imagine my crushing awakening when, years later, I discovered that she'd been using Shirriff Instant Mashed Potatoes!
And plum pie. Every year we'd break the fast with her plum pie. Even today, Yom Kippur is not complete unless it ends with Mum's plum pie. But now Ruth makes it, from Mum's handwritten recipe card, and I must say she does a damn good job. But Ruth had her own memories:
"Be sure to mention her goldeye."
"Goldeye?!! Goldeye is a fish! You buy the stuff all ready!"
"True, but she had a special way of warming and deboning it that no one else could do."
So there you have it. Each one of us in this room with their own Eva foods and their own Eva stories. Stories! Is that what we're left with?
I'll tell you what I'm left with. I'm left with the legacy of what I think were my mother's core values. Three of them. Let me explain:
First, being Jewish.
Mom went to synagogue every Shabbat. Living across the back lane from Rosh Pina, regular attendance there was just one of the things we did. She was upstairs, and I was in Junior Congregation. She was committed in other ways as well - as president of the Sisterhood, in Hadassah, in her trips to Israel. And of course she kept a kosher home. True, she drove Maxine crazy in her later years with her kashrut worries in the Portsmouth. But doing things Jewishly was a concern all her life.
But for someone who was fairly traditional in her Jewish practice, one thing stands out today. She was very clear in her instructions - there was to be no reading of "Eshet Chayil" at her funeral. That was a poem that diminished independent women, and she'd not have it repeated for her!
It was Mum who gave me that first push to participate in synagogue that has carried me to my current level of involvement in Jewish ritual and learning. And it was Mum who was the driving force behind my attendance at Hebrew School and Jewish summer camps. And for this I want to thank her.
(I'm a little disoriented here. I had expected Mum's casket to be in the sanctuary with us for the funeral. That's the way it's done in Vancouver - but apparently not the way it's done in Winnipeg. I wanted to talk to her, but she's stuck out there in the lobby. Forgive me if I raise my voice.) Hands cupped to mouth, yelling out toward the lobby:
Mum, for the Jewish identity you have given me, thank you!
The second value: Try!
Growing up, the three of us agree that Dad was always the easy-going one. Whatever his children did was fine with him. But Mum had a different worldview. We should set goals. We should strive for excellence. Any doubts we'd express would be met with "you never know till you try."
Maybe it's because she never got to do Phys Ed that she always wanted us to achieve our dreams. Or maybe her dreams. Yesterday as we talked with the rabbi, Maxine told how Mum had sought to overcome her disappointments through her children's successes. Mum had wanted dance lessons as a child, but she was given piano instead. Well, Maxine did want piano lessons. . . .but she got dance!
I gotta tell you, Mum's dreamings and urgings weren't always well received when I was a child. Were these supportive statements? Or were they just pushiness, meddling and the subtle message that I wasn't good enough? Strong opinions about what I could be, what I should be, weren't what I wanted to hear as a youngster.
But now I'm a parent. And a teacher. And now I've come to value the setting of goals. Now I see "you never know till you try" is a wisdom to live by.
Mum, for the purposefulness you've put in my life, thank you.
And finally: family.
Nothing was more important to my mother than family. She would say, "your friends come and go in your life, but you've always got your family". And she wanted her family connected.
Maybe it began with her father, and the tears for him that never stopped. But you saw it also when it came to Evelyn. For all the criticism (deserved!) that Evelyn came in for, Mum defended her sister loyally. We should consider her good side. We should consider her past difficulties. We should consider. . . But, when there was no one else complaining about Evelyn, you should have heard my mother's list of grievances! But she never stopped loving her. And she loved all her brothers. Morley, I want to say to you that in all my years with my mother, I never once heard her say a bad word about you.
Like I said before, she also had high hopes for her children. And I recall one day just a few years ago, with Marc and I visiting with her in Maxine's living room, that Mum said ". . . and I never had any trouble with my two boys." I looked at Marc. Marc looked at me. "Uh, Mum, that's, er, not what you used to say. I think we may have given you, er, a little trouble when we were younger." "Oh, no! I don't remember any trouble at all. You boys were always wonderful!" I looked at Marc. Marc looked at me. We shrugged. Maybe there is an upside to memory loss.
But she leaves behind her three children who love each other. And the children of her children all matter to each other. Her values live on. They live on in the way we will laugh and complain and share of memories of her. And laugh and complain and share our lives with each other.
For this, my family, Mum I thank you.