People often speak of their loved ones after they're gone as though they had lived lives of nothing but exemplary behavior and accomplishment. I'm going to do a little of that, because my mom did lead a remarkable life, despite circumstantial and medical challenges. But she was not a saint, as no one among us is, and her mischievousness and flair for drama is a side to her that we all adored.
Let's start with the fact that she found, fell in love with and married a man whose last name was the same as hers. And used both names with gusto. Nancy Popkin Popkin. Seriously? It became her legal name, her byline and a great source of confusion to those who didn't know her personally. Another newspaperwoman once devoted a column to my mother's name , the headline of which read, "Nancy Popkin Popkin — gotta find out what that's about".
For me, it usually went like this every fall in school when the emergency cards were reviewed. I'd be called to the office. A secretary would look at me kindly and say, "Now Debbie, before your mother married your father she had her own name. It's called a maiden name." This got old quickly — especially when I was a straight A student entering high school. To this day whenever I write my mother's maiden name, I type in all caps in parentheses "NOT A MISTAKE". And add an exclamation point.
My mother was raised without a father by her grandmother Etta and her devoted, talented mother, my gran'ma Bess, who worked for the Anti-Defamation League by day and played violin professionally in her spare time. She made my mother's clothes but neglected to teach my mom the first thing about cooking or how a kitchen worked.
When my mother and dad were first married she was constantly yelling to him from the kitchen for help. Once, as newlyweds, he found her trying to figure out how to use a juicer they'd gotten as a wedding gift. The problem? she didn't understand you had to hold the orange down on the machine. True story.
What my grandmother did pass on to my mom was her love of books, the arts, travel and music. My mother sang, acted and wrote in high school, in college, professionally and in local community theater. She loved her jaunts to Tanglewood in the summer and to Symphony throughout the year.
Before her stroke, she had started to write the story of her life for her grandchildren on yellow-lined pads of paper. She wasn't able to finish, but what she wrote was pretty great.
When she decided to move to LA after her stroke I was profoundly struck by her courage — to leave her lifetime surroundings, the only state she'd ever lived in, and best friends of 50-plus years, made a certain sense under the circumstances, but it must also have been terrifying, especially having lost so much of her extraordinary communication skills. This woman, who, let's face it, wouldn't shut up much of the time, was ironically and sadly partially silenced by the cruel effects of her stroke.
When she got lonely, she saddled up to the bar at the Cheesecake Factory for a Cosmo and some calamari. The first time I accompanied her, the bartender barely glanced at me, turned to her and said enthusiastically, "Hi, Nancy! The usual?"
EVERYONE loved my mom. It seems kind of obvious but it can't be overstated — the legacy of Nancy Popkin Popkin, who danced on my coffee table at her 80th birthday party, is her unrelenting determination to celebrate life, family, and friends, with an abundantly generous spirit and a refusal to let even significant losses stand in her way.
I am trying to honor her life by embracing her spirit and values and hopefully passing them on to my children and their children. Even on the worst day of my life — [the day she died] — I had to consider how grateful I am that I was by her side and that she left this earth knowing she was not alone. I am so glad I had the chance to tell her one last time how much she was loved and that I truly wouldn't change a thing about her.
Adapted from eulogy given March 21, 2013, Salem, MA