The day after my mother passed I wrote a piece entitled, “An Angels departs”. Today as a special milestone approaches I offer you this piece, entitled, Remembering an Angel.
Sixty years ago this Saturday, January 1st, my mother and father were celebrating my mother’s 40th birthday together with friends in Cincinnati, Ohio. During a game of Canasta, my then very pregnant mother started laughing so hard she went into labor 2 weeks early and I was born the very next day. While I embrace my upcoming birthday with gratitude, it is somewhat bittersweet, because I know I will not be alone in remembering and missing my mother on what would have been her 100th birthday.
When I saw the upcoming date, 1/1/22, I couldn’t help feel like it looked familiar to me. It was then that I remembered how much my mother embraced the uniqueness of the numbers representing the day of her birth, and how these numbers signified this very special day approaching. There are so many things to say about my mother, Sipora Groen, born Sipora Catharina Rodrigues-Lopes. The thing I say to people most often, partially because it sums her up so well, but also because I know she would have liked it, is if you didn’t like my mother, you didn’t like anyone. She was warm, loving, jovial, and as social as anyone you will ever meet. But what very possibly made her so special, was that she was so very much more than that. Some of her greatest attributes were so understated that they could easily be missed by the casual observer. This was very simply because she was never who she was for show, she just was who she was, and was blessed with qualities most never acquire.
Some of the strongest and most intelligent people we meet or know of, show off these qualities on full display for all to witness and acknowledge. I do not say this disparagingly, since these qualities are meaningful and positive, I merely state this to emphasize one of the most remarkable things about my mother. When it came to her strength and intelligence, she was one of the most non self-promoting people you could ever meet. Highly intelligent, she had no trouble sitting in a room of people and allow them to take center stage. Whether it was wisdom or natural inclination, she understood that her intelligence was just another tool she could use to improve her life and the life of those she cared about, not something to show off to others.
Her strength was not something she ever used to achieve a dominance over others, rather a means of helping other and dealing with experiences that might have crushed the spirit of people with lesser means of coping.
My mother was just 13 years old when her mother passed away of natural causes. Left with a brother almost 3 years younger and a father struggling emotionally from the loss of his young wife, my mother had to deal with hardships most 13 year olds do not have to face. When the Nazis invaded Holland 5 years later she would have to face a different level of hardship, one almost impossible for most people to even comprehend. She went into the war with a fiancé who would subsequently be one of the 75% of Dutch Jewry murdered by the Nazis. Her father and brother would be taken to Auschwitz and murdered as well. Many friends and family perished in this time, and had in not been for my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen, my mother would have very likely met the same fate. She came out of the war with her newborn son Marcel as the one thing she had to live for, and had to spend many of those early months quarantined away from him due to illness. Eventually my father would return from military service and begin to build a family together with her.
My parents would be together till the death of my father on June 13, 2007. I always say that there was only one thing my father feared, and that was being without my mother. While in many ways my father was the strongest man I’ve ever known, I am not so sure he would have been able to live 10 years without my mother with as much fulfillment as my mother did without him for her last 10 years. My mother loved and respected my father dearly, and I truly believe the one thing she missed in her last ten years on earth was her husband of over 60 years. Even so, her incredible wisdom and inner strength drove her to rebuild those last years and recreate her life in a truly remarkable way. About a year after my father’s passing, give or take, one day she turned to Marcel and said, “he’s not coming back.” From this point on she rebuilt her last years into one final chapter of an extraordinary life, spreading joy, love and strength to whoever was open to receiving it from her. She was “Oma” (Dutch for grandmother) to so many, and made the term one of endearment to so many who had never even heard it before.
As I sit here, nearing what would have been her 100th birthday, there is still something I find thoroughly amazing. My mother was a short, gentle, physically unassuming woman. She sometimes looked at life with a simplicity that made her appear to be a young soul, for those of us who believe in such a thing. Yet more than 4 ½ year after her body left this earth, her presence, her very soul still guides me and supports me in a way I could have never dreamed possible, and I know from others who knew her that I have not been alone in feeling this way.
So while I am not alone in wishing my mother was here on earth celebrating her 100th birthday with those she loved and who loved her, I know that her birthday was, and still is a cause for tremendous celebration, something I will do with the joy I know she would have wanted from all of us.
Happy Birthday Mom.