Tag Archives: Family

Goodbye to My Mom

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A portrait I shot of Mom in August 2013, five months after my Dad died. She wanted a nice photo to get her started in the world of internet dating. She never ended up going on a date- I’m not surprised, who could seem even remotely interesting after being married to my Dad?

My mom died on Friday night, March 15, 2016 after a two year battle with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive cancer. At some point I’d like to do a post about my parents’ battles with cancer and how it’s influenced the work I do in chronic disease prevention. But that’s not today.

I didn’t deliver a eulogy at my Dad’s funeral 3 years ago and I’ve regretted it since. So in a way, this eulogy was for both Mom and Dad.

Over the last few weeks I’ve posted dozens of photos of mom in the sixties- friends all over the world seem to have enjoyed them, as well as the stories that accompany these images. I thought some of you might be interested in hearing a little more about my mom, so I decided to post the eulogy here.

Mom's college graduation portrait

Mom’s college graduation portrait

A Daughter’s Eulogy | Esther Krohn 1946-2016

 

Mom with baby me

With baby me

Anyone who knew Esther Krohn knew that she put everyone else first. Her family and her friends were infinitely important to her, and she invested all of her energy into ensuring that the people she loved were happy and well cared for.

This was evident in Mom and Dad’s relationship from the very beginning. Soon after they started dating, Mom bought tickets for a music festival due to take place upstate in the summer. At the last minute, Dad had to take call. Did Mom call a girlfriend and make alternate travel plans? Absolutely not. She stayed in the city on a sweltering August weekend as she didn’t want Dad to feel extra disappointed about missing out. That little music festival turned out to be the most important musical event of the 20th century, if not ever. If missing Woodstock to take care of your boyfriend isn’t the purest incarnation of altruism, I don’t know what is.

Mom and Dad on their wedding day

Mom and Dad on their wedding day

And of course that’s how it went down- because Mom always put herself second. Or third. Or fourth. There was nothing more important to Mom than being sure that her family was happy and that their needs were constantly anticipated and consistently met.

Her desire to care for us took on innumerable forms, some obvious, some more subtle. For instance, during East Hampton summers she monitored the motion of the leaves around our house or the fluttering of the flags on the ocean beaches, hoping that these observations would relate to the conditions at Napeague, ensuring Dad a good windsurfing day. Likewise during those summers she observed and reported the intensity of the sunlight, hoping that I might have a productive and enjoyable day photographing.

Mom never let anything get in the way of caring for the family- what she called “her job.” I don’t remember her being sick a single day in our childhood- and I doubt it was because she didn’t get a cold- it’s because she never let it stand in the way of doing that job. Regardless of whether she had slept 3 hours, which was often the case, or whether she recently had a major surgery- she was always there to make us breakfast, get Dad off to work and us off to school, drive us to after school activities, make us dinner, help us with our homework and get us to bed.

Mom at Summer Stock in the summer of love, 1967

Summer Stock in the summer of love, 1967

At the 1964 World's fair

At the 1964 World’s fair

Mom was expert at caring for those she loved. But she was expert at so much more, in both the physical and intellectual realms. She had an impressive and diverse athletic ability- trying everything from skiing to windsurfing to sailing to running to tennis- she really did it all. And she was an aesthetic virtuoso –this was evident in her legendary green thumb, in her encyclopedic knowledge of art and antiques, home decorating, and her uncanny ability to walk into a space, see the vast potential- and then achieve it.

She took pride in sharing her love of art and culture with us as children- any weekend we weren’t skiing or sailing, she piled us into the car early and ushered us to a museum or performance in the city- I am forever grateful for that immersion so early on.

Somewhere around 1966-67

Somewhere around 1966-67

Everyone here knows of Mom’s phenomenal sense of style- a sense that transcended medium. It was apparent in her knack for decorating, flower arranging and gardening, and in her impeccable personal appearance. The aesthetic details we saw on the surface of Esther Krohn were a confident expression of her vast knowledge of art and design.

My personal favorite era of Mom’s were the 60s and 70s- in fact it’s likely that the photos of her in this era as well as a hermetically sealed time capsule of floor length psychedelic dresses, hidden away in the basement of our childhood home, informed my own love of vintage style. Mom forged on with countless reinventions, all successful in their own way. Even her collection of 1980s hairdos, some rather mullet-y in nature, were pulled off with grace and flair.

My parents in Paris sometime in the early 70s.

My parents in Paris sometime in the early 70s.

A collection of Mom's Scarsdale Pool passes. My favorite mullet is the Jimmy Page-esque one upper left.

A collection of Mom’s Scarsdale Pool passes. My favorite mullet is the Jimmy Page-esque one upper left.

She even had a style overhaul a year into her cancer battle, eventually ditching the wig for a chic pixie-like cut in her natural, strikingly beautiful grey, which no one had ever seen prior. She stopped wearing makeup, with the exception of a bright red lipstick that highlighted her infectious smile. When her clothes no longer fit, she assembled an entirely different wardrobe, resulting in a new look- one more unique and striking than anything I saw her wear since the 70s. It was authentically her, and it was beautiful.

Mom, right with her dear college friend, Sherry, this past summer in East Hampton.

Mom, right with her dear college friend, Sherry, this past summer in East Hampton.

And speaking of beauty, it’s tough not to mention her legendary, outward physical beauty. From the time I was in nursery school, every teacher and parent commented on her loveliness and elegance. And it wasn’t just because she was a babe. Her beautiful smile, engaging nature, compassionate demeanor and sense of humor all played a part in her attractiveness. All of these attributes made her the life of the party, the belle of the ball, and a devoted friend to innumerable people over the course of her life. She was magnetic, and everyone gravitated toward her.

With her granddaughter, my niece Genevieve

With her granddaughter, my niece Genevieve

Many of you reaped the rewards of Mom’s aptitude for entertaining. As Max mentioned she was a gifted cook and an exemplary hostess. Whether a small dinner or a big charity fundraiser, entertaining gave mom the chance to show off some of her numerous talents while taking care of other people.

In working so hard for the sake of making others happy, and in putting everyone else first, I don’t think mom saw herself as coming last. Mom took great pleasure and pride in being there for her friends and providing the vital framework for her family’s happiness and success. That being said, when others need you most, it can be hard to carve out the time and space to take care of yourself, particularly if you’re the kind of person who mom was.

Mom and me on our boat the Nephron, around 1977

On our boat the Nephron, around 1977. My Baby Peggy phase.

Perhaps the most potent example of mom’s altruism, and sadly a tragic aspect of her propensity for caring is that she sublimated her own intense physical suffering when Dad was dying. Who knew that she too had cancer, but put Dad’s pain ahead of her own, so that he would feel loved and comfortable without feeling ashamed or guilty. We all knew that she was suffering emotionally, and that her stomach issues, at the time thought to be anxiety induced, were irritating to contend with. But in retrospect, it is haunting to think of her stoically enduring the effects of cancer alongside her husband.

That was mom. Everyone else first.

I can’t imagine how rough it must have been for fiercely independent mom to eventually let others help for a change once she received her diagnosis.

When she had no choice but to relent and let others help, she never complained of her own pain or sadness. All she communicated to us and to her valiant caregivers was her guilt about disrupting our lives. To the end, her main concern was that her family should not feel inconvenienced.

Just as we all did, I wanted so much to do something meaningful for mom in her time of suffering, and I feel so grateful that in the end she finally allowed me to do just that. On the last night she was verbal, the night we initially thought she would go, Max and I stayed rather late. While he took a nap I sat at Mom’s bedside holding her hand, as we had done for weeks. She thought the end was near as we did- although tenacious as she was, it turned out that she would go on fighting for another week.

Around 1 am, I told Mom that I was about to head home, and I’d be back to see her in the morning. Ordinarily she would say something like “you do what you need to do,” and send me on my way. That was sort of her code for “I kind of want you to stay, but it’s more important to me that you tend to your own needs.”

But that night, she looked uneasy, and didn’t respond. “Mom,” I asked, “do you want me to stay? I can stay.” Mom had a hard time talking in her last few weeks, and with the oxygen machine blaring in the background it was tough to hear her faint whisper. So I put my ear a millimeter from her mouth and heard one very distinct word: “Stay.” Of everything Mom did for me over the course of her life, and there was a lot – that one word was one of the greatest gifts- the permission to return a lifetime of caring by just being there in her time of need.

Skiing somewhere in Europe

Skiing somewhere in Europe. Wear your sunscreen, folks.

I began with a musical tale so perhaps it’s fitting to end with one. My most Proustean memory, at about 2 years old, is being with our parents at a condo called Middle Earth, in Sugarbush, VT. It’s 1976 and the the two 8 tracks perpetually on were two of our parents’ favorites- the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road. To this day, any time I hear those albums I am transported to Middle Earth, and am instantly embraced by a sense of warmth, home, and the unconditional love of my parents. But even as a child, those albums were tinged with sadness, as it occurred to me that they would be uncomfortable to hear when my parents were gone. I never imagined that time would come so soon.

The last line of Abbey Road’s The End is  “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Our parents put a tremendous amount of love out into the world, and in return, were blessed by the love of each other, of their family, and a vast network of friends. Their example of love and compassion continue to inspire me every day of my life. I only wish they could have stayed around a little longer to inspire us all.

On one of Mom and Dad's boats- either The Intuition or The Nephron

On one of Mom and Dad’s boats- either The Intuition or The Nephron

Mom and dad at my brother's wedding in 2006.

Att my brother’s wedding in 2006.

Mom just after giving birth to me. Kind of unreal. With her sister, left and her mother, right. I need every piece of clothing in this photo, btw.

Just after giving birth to me. Kind of unrealistic postpartum beauty! With her sister, left and her mother, right. I need every stitch of clothing in this photo, btw.

 

Savory Butternut Squash and Tomatoes

I don’t know about you, but as soon as fall rolls around, I’m ready to eat all of the squash. From October to March you can always count on at least one variety of squash (and a pile of sweet potatoes) residing in my kitchen. They’re truly fall and winter staples.

When it comes to squash, butternut and kabocha are my all time favorites. I’m pretty lazy with kabocha and generally just do a quick steam. But I’m willing to put in the time with butternut. True, it’s rich and savory simply baked in the oven with a brush of olive oil. But this dish, adapted from a 2007  New York Times recipe, turns an already beloved ingredient into a complex and comforting centerpiece. Make it for a dinner party, holiday or potluck and I guarantee you’ll get rave reviews.

Kabocha squash is nutty, sweet and pairs so well with cranberries.

Kabocha squash is nutty, sweet and pairs so well with cranberries.

The Times’ original recipe serves as a pasta sauce, but I’ve adapted (and veganized) it into the main affair with the addition of beans. In lieu of said beans, I’ve also used Beyond Meat chick’n or tempeh, either do nicely. Definitely serve it with a heap of broccoli rabe, kale or another dark, leafy green. The garlicky squash and deep greens are the perfect pair. But feel free to round it all out by piling the squash onto whole wheat pasta or quinoa. Either way, this is a satisfying dish that will warm and comfort you on the cold nights to come!

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Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1/4 cup sliced shallots

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste

2 cups chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned)

1 butternut squash, cubed or shredded

1 can white beans or chick peas

1 Tbsp Nutritional yeast (or to taste)

Pink salt or sea salt and pepper

Directions:

1. Put olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, shallots and pepper flakes and cook for about a minute; add tomatoes and squash, and cook with some salt and pepper.

2. When squash is tender — about 15 minutes  — add beans and nutritional yeast. Stir to incorporate and cook until beans are heated through.

All Gone

All Gone. Those were Grandma Ruth’s words as I spooned chocolate pudding into my mouth. Her melodic voice and proud smile made every spoonful feel like an enormous accomplishment. While I was a picky kid, it wasn’t tough to finish off the contents of that footed dessert glass, particularly one topped with Cool Whip. Grandma made some amazing concoctions from boxed Jello. It all started with plain chocolate pudding, but she eventually graduated to create elaborate pies in neon colors- my favorite at around ten years old was the pistachio- pineapple dessert she made for our Florida visits. Because of it’s green hue,  it was affectionately known as “Grandma’s Slime Pie.”

My grandparents, departing for their honeymoon, in 1935.

My grandparents, departing for their honeymoon, in 1935.

The house where my Dad grew up, in Sheepshead bay. My grandpa on the left, Mom in the pink shirt with me, Grandma on the right. When asked about the apartment house behind, put up ten years after they moved in, my Grandma used to say, "What apartment house?"

The house where my Dad grew up, in Sheepshead bay. My grandpa on the left, Mom in the pink shirt with me, Grandma on the right. When asked about the apartment house behind, erected ten years after they moved in, my Grandma, ever the character, would say, “What apartment house?” Click and you can zoom this photo in big to see faces.

When I was thirteen, my Dad told us that Grandpa Sam had died in the night. He delivered the news through the first tears I had seen him cry. On a grey morning this past March, my mother called to tell me that my Dad was gone. This morning, it was my brother’s turn to let me know that Grandma Ruth died last night. Suddenly, all gone.

All beaming proudly, after my Dad's medical school graduation.

All beaming proudly, after my Dad’s medical school graduation.

For the last fifteen years, Grandma had been in a state of here sometimes, gone other times, but she was still here, a loving and permanent presence, her thoughts firmly attached to the events and everyday moments of her family, whether those thoughts were in the present or in 1935.

Grandma died just five days shy of her 99th birthday. Earlier this month, my brother and I talked about sending her story to The Today Show’s centenarians announcements, the goofy segment on which Willard Scott touts the talents and accomplishments of those who’ve lived to 100- now fortunate to be seen plastered on a jar of Smuckers jam. Max was given erroneous information that 99 year olds were eligible, but I’m glad I didn’t know the rules, otherwise I might have missed out on one last visit and an excuse to photograph her for a last time. So last week I visited Sarah Neuman, her nursing home in Westchester, with a mission.

Where I learned to play piano, Salem Drive in Scarsdale. Although I was more interested in a cookie here. My brother is beside me, my cousin, who Grandma also loved dearly, in front.

Where I learned to play piano, Salem Drive in Scarsdale. Although I was more interested in a cookie here. My brother is beside me, my cousin, who Grandma also loved dearly, in front.

The elevator doors open on the second floor and I see the familiar backs of thirty-odd white heads, staring up at a small television from their respective wheelchairs. Five years ago, it was easy to pick out Grandma’s trademark bouffant hairdo, but recently, it has lost it’s volume and deliberate shape. After failing to find her in the crowd, I discover her in a narrow hallway, asleep in her wheelchair, lunch staining her face. A nurse obliges my request to clean her up, and we roll off toward her room, she in her chair, I in the scooter I use to travel longer distances.

During these visits, our conversations are pretty one sided, and often I am unsure if she knows me as her granddaughter. Nevertheless, I operate under the assumption that she knows, or at least that she senses I am a person who cares. I tell her all the news about the family, about what’s going on in my life. I show her the family photos facing her bed, shrine-like, adjacent to a stuffed badger and sundry objects, no doubt left over from a previous resident. She looks at me, as if there is something she wants to say, but the words never come. She might fall asleep, or look away, as if I’m not there anymore. These times invariably recall my father’s last days, six months ago, in his respective nursing home, when the brain tumors impeded his thoughts, perceptions, possibly sight and hearing. And I wonder if she knows my Dad, her only child and near-daily visitor, is gone.

In her room at the nursing home, last week.

In her room at the nursing home, last week.

I had awoken her from a post-lunch slumber when I arrived, so it is no surprise when her eyes close softly as I point my lens toward her. But several minutes later, while shooting interiors, I look over to see her quietly smiling at me. It was as if she were somewhere else when I arrived, and was back now. Dad took these journeys as well- he would travel elsewhere for days, then return to us.

Grandma gives me a kiss when she awakens- on these visits, that one kiss is a gift, and the silence and surroundings shrivel in their importance. In her more conscious days, my Dad called her signature the “machine gun” kiss- not one, but a series of rapidly successive, waxy orange- colored kisses in the same spot. Difficult to remove, but easy to love. These days, all she can manage is one soft peck. The lipstick, once a rule (I was often chastised for appearing in public sans lipstick, even if public meant an emergency room) has been long gone from her mouth. Gone as well is the fancy shoe collection, accumulated from every flea market in South Florida. And her trademark gold baubles that once adorned so many limbs and appendages, clinking musically as she moved.  And of course, her impeccably manicured, two inch long nails are no more, the nails I heard clicking on the piano keys as she imparted the wisdom of her Julliard training.

That smile. The hair, poofed on the right, covers a large benign tumor on her head.

That smile. The hair, poofed on the right, covers a large benign tumor on her head.

The quiet smile I now see through the lens is one of remembrance, one of a different time and place. It is the state I had hoped to capture and preserve. It feels like pure Grandma, one without judgement, without  expectations, without constraint. It was the smile behind her voice as she read me The Little Puppy at three years old. It was grandma, who loved me, just as I was.

I click the shutter. She returns to sleep.