Eighteen years ago today, my mother, Ethel A. Lipnack, died at the age of 78. This morning, I had the chance to stand on the doorstep where she had passed so many times--at the corner of Myrtle and Clinton Avenue, where she was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. A Connectict Muffin shop occupies the candy store that my grandparents ran at the edge of what was then a very posh neighborhood. I write this tonight from our daughter's apartment, just a few blocks from my mother's original home. In all the years since she died, this is the first time I've been nearby on this anniversary. Sad and happy, all at once.
Just a few words here about my mother: she liked to say that she started working at the age of five, delivering newspapers along Clinton Avenue. She was just 20 years old when she graduated from Hunter College at the height of the Great Depression. With a German major and a French minor, there weren't many jobs available yet she managed to turn her love of language into a lifelong career. She was one of the first teachers of lipreading in Harlem, a skill that she took with her to Pennsylvania when my parents moved there in 1945, founding the first lipreading school in the Philadelphia area. One of the significant coincidences of my life is that I married a man with major congenital hearing loss (60% loss in the speech range). My mother called my husband one of the greatest natural lipreaders she'd ever met.
In her late forties, my mother turned her attention to teaching high school English, where she got to spend her days with the age group she loved most--teenagers. She taught for many years at Daniel Boone High School, in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, where she eventually chaired the English department. After she retired, she continued teaching reading and English. She was leaving the class she'd just taught at a business school when she had a massive stroke on March 26, 1984; she lived for five-and-a-half more years, requiring round-the-clock care, but never losing her sense of humor.
On the day she died, I found a letter she'd written for her funeral in a drawer. About the young people she so admired, she wrote: "Teenagers are great sources of joy, but most people don't know that. They should take time out to discover this."
One paragraph from her letter has stayed present for me across the years, the last sentence so compelling that we made it the epitaph on her gravestone:
My big fight with our society has been against bigotry. It is unfortunately pandemic. I wish I had had a magic formula for eradicating it. I didn't, but I do think I raised people's consciousness about it. So we're different from each other. Good! Let's learn about the differences. They're fascinating. At least I've found them so. This is my legacy: Love each other despite differences and because of them.