When I was eight, I came to my mother, furious about an injustice: the free calendar we’d gotten from McDonalds had left out all of the Jewish holidays we celebrated.
Many parents would either tell their kid to stop making a big deal out of something for which, after all, they’d paid nothing—or alternately, agree that this was disappointing and then tell their kid to move on.
My mother found the address of McDonalds’ regional manager, and she helped me write him a letter.
A few weeks later I received a written apology and a promise that this would never happen again. And as far as I could tell, based on the years of future calendars I diligently checked after that, it didn’t.
The lesson Mom taught me that day—about standing up for myself, about speaking up for what I believed was right—has stayed with me to this day.
If in the years that followed, I went on to turn that lesson on her as much as on anyone else, I still never forgot where it came from.
My mother spent her entire life speaking up in defense of others. From taking on the schoolyard bullies—and school administrators—who tormented me as a child to being there for the countless friends who needed her, no matter how late the hour, to giving her all for the many, many people she looked out for, in so many ways, throughout her professional life.
Mom was the youngest child of Russian and Polish immigrants, the first generation born in the United States. At 19, she dropped out of college to get married. In her 20s, she had three kids—first me, then my sister and brother. In her 30s, she returned to school, earned her nursing degree, and spent more than a decade looking after the patients entrusted to her care.
In her 40s, she returned to school again, earned her business degree, and became a union organizer. When she ran for Business Agent of her Teamsters local, people told her no woman had ever held that job. When she ran for President, they really told her no woman had done that. Their doubts just made her more determined to succeed. For more than two decades, she won election after election. She spent so many years serving the employees she represented. Whether she was negotiating better contracts or getting back the job of someone fired unjustly, she was always there for her people.
And I do mean always. Her phone rang constantly, and she almost always answered it—often to the dismay of family and friends hoping to enjoy a few quiet moments with her. On one memorable occasion, after we met up in Manhattan, she even picked up the phone as we were enjoying a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park.
I’m not sure Mom really believed in time off. I am sure that giving 100% was never enough for her. She gave everything she had to everything she did, always.
And as for all those friends who turned to her through the years? She always answered their calls as well. She gave them all she had, too.
Or as she put it to me just a few weeks ago, “I’ve always worked at a high energy level.”
That’s an understatement, truly.
As the decades passed she was thrilled to add a growing number of grandchildren to the list of those she cared about. She always answered their calls, too.
A few years, just before my own daughter started kindergarten, I unexpectedly required open heart surgery for a congenital heart defect. Busy as she was, Mom flew across the country to be with me. She stayed for a month, putting most of her work on hold—though of course her phone kept ringing, and of course she kept answering it. I knew that time for the precious gift it was: a chance, one last time, to have my mother take care of me as well.
It goes without saying that I’ll miss her terribly. And I know, by the way her phone kept ringing until the end, that you’ll all miss her too.