I was originally going to spend this time telling stories of my mother’s life, her achievements and her work, but then I realized that no matter how long I spoke, I could never begin to cover it all. So I did what you might have expected me to do - I made a website. So to read about Naomi, to hear her tell her own story in her own voice, just go to naomirothschild.com whenever you’re missing her in the days or years ahead.
If there’s one thing that I remember about my mother, it would be her perseverance, against all odds. She never gave up. When at age 89 she was cut out of the wreckage of a high speed auto accident with the jaws of life, I thought that this was going to be the end - lots of people that age don’t survive a fall in the bathroom or a bad cold. Then when she pulled through her emergency surgery, I thought that she would never walk again. But she incentivized herself with Milky Way bars to take one step, two steps, and she not only walked again, but before too long was walking more than two miles into town. When she was admitted to Englewood Hospital with pneumonia last spring at age 93, it was on the tuesday before the weekend of the annual hospital gala at the Museum of Natural History. She told the doc in the emergency room that they could admit her, but that she needed to be discharged in time for the party. And she was.
And I myself am only here talking to you today because she and my father never gave up. They were married in 1946, started working on a family right away, and weren’t successful for 16 years. There’s an upside to that, because otherwise I would be almost 70 now. Thank you, mom, for never giving up. And little Maddie is here because Naomi’s spirit inspired Alison and me to keep trying again and again, using a lot of technology that my parents didn’t have.
Speaking of older parents - a topic that I know something about - my mother was especially lucky after having her only child at age 42, to not only have grandchildren, but to have almost 25 years with her grandchildren. My mother loved Adrian and Dylan more than they will ever know. She was always thinking about them. She would rush into the VIP lounge at the Roundabout theatre to snag extra bags of potato chips for Dylan to take back to college. She made Adrian enough scarves to warm the necks every hipster in Williamsburg. She would stop at every Starbucks she passed and grab a bunch of those gift cards for iPhone apps to give to the boys. Hey, what 24 year old video editor doesn’t want Dora the Explorer to help him learn the alphabet? And she loved Maddie just as much - the last thing that my mom did before she got sick was to go to Maddie’s little music class. My mom told everyone with pride how she just did whatever she wanted to do, and didn’t listen to the teacher. Seriously, she thought that was terrific, I think because the two of them have such similar personalities - strong, independent women. One of the most important things that we all have to do in the years to come is to make sure that Maddie never forgets her grandmother.
Something that makes the sadness worse for me is the fact that I had such a great and everyday relationship with my mother. Until about a month ago, she was living independently in her home, taking car services into New York to go to theatre, and volunteering at Englewood Hospital. And because she was so vital and engaged, she and I shared a lot of wonderful experiences. Even in the past few months, we did big family trips to Bermuda and Lake Tahoe. She was a daily part of my life - she came to my talk at B&H, to my presentation at a dive club in New Jersey, she even came to see my short lived Grateful Dead cover band. Looking back, I guess I thought that she would just go on forever, which is why the news of her passing was such a surprise to so many who knew her. Normally when a 94 year old woman dies, you don’t expect the kind of shock and disbelief that I heard from people getting the news. When she threw a huge party for her 90th birthday in 2010, we considered putting down a deposit on the room for 2020. My friend Jonathan used to get together with me and my mom frequently. I remember him saying once after we all went out to dinner, “Hey, that was a lot of fun! I wonder who she is going to hang out with after we’re gone?”
Even as she faded over last weeks of her life, she never lost her loving spirit. I was late getting out there one night because of an emergency case that I had to do - a bronchoscopy on a newborn baby. The next day, with great effort, one of the last things that she was able to ask me was “Michael, how is that baby doing?”.
I want to leave you with my own insight about the nature of our lives, which comes from another great project that my mom and I did together. For many years, she had done extensive genealogical research about our family - back in the pre-web days, when it was much harder to do. She and I did a tremendous amount of this work over the years together. We compiled a big family tree, we archived photos and movies, we added her own narrative soundtrack to films of relatives from nearly a century ago. So because of that, these distant ancestors seem very real to me. The more I learned about them, and in some cases saw and even heard them, the more they seemed like relatives that I might visit today. And then I started thinking about the future, and who will come after me. The people who might someday read these stories, trace these family trees and watch these movies. And I realized that watching my mother slowly slip from my life wasn’t a unique tragedy that could have been prevented. It was a sad but integral part of the beauty of our lives.
When you watch the final chapter of a life well lived, remember this. We are all part of an endless river, and our lives are wonderful little scoops of that stream. Our lives sometimes overlap with other people’s lives. We might be children when they are old and dying. Or when we are reaching the end of our own lives they might be just starting their journeys. When I looked at my mother, too weak to lift her head or open her eyes, I saw that cute little toddler running around with her sister Ruth on her dad’s farm. And when I look at little Maddie, giggling with joy at Cookie Monster, it makes me smile to imagine her as an old woman, slowly and happily walking up the street, going to theatre with a grandson who will barely know my name.
The sadness that we sometimes feel is just the unavoidable result of being out of phase like this with the people we love, but that’s really the whole point. Life is river and not a lake. If you study your family history, you’re going to find a lot of people upstream who made the water better for you. So try to do the same during your own time here for the people downstream, even for those that you’re never going to meet.
Thanks, Mom. I love you.
- Michael Rothschild