THE CLASS OF 1969 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Going to a 50th High School Reunion can be an exciting prospect – if it’s yours. I recently went to my husband, Tom’s 50th Reunion in Schenectady, New York, and, to be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. I’m shy in big groups and pictured myself following Tom around and having nothing to say to a room full of strangers.

Tom’s ID badge with his senior photo

I was pleasantly surprised. We met three of Tom’s high school friends and their spouses at a local tavern before the official opening cocktail party. Everyone was delightful and friendly and we had a great time. Tom’s high school best friend, Stewie was there with his wife, Mar-C. In preparing for the reunion, Tom and Stewie discovered that they had been living an hour away from each other in Connecticut for over thirty years! We got together a few weeks before the reunion so I already knew two other people. And Mar-C and I had compared notes on what to wear to each of the reunion events so my comfort level was pretty good by the time we arrived in Schenectady.

Tom and me with Stewie and Mar-c

After our private dinner, we headed over to the party and mingled with the 130 members of the Linton High Class of 1969 who showed up. Everyone was easy going and so nice. I realized from attending 20th and 40th reunions of my own, that as we all get older, the whole high school dynamic changes. You don’t have the cliques anymore or the high school rivalries. People are no longer trying to impress everyone with their job or professional accomplishments, or, as time went on, the jobs and professional accomplishments of their children.

The main topic of conversation was – are you retired yet? If so, good for you and what are you doing to have fun? Most of us had reached the stage of life when we can wake up whenever we feel like it and spend the day doing whatever we feel like doing. Everyone I talked to seemed genuinely happy and fulfilled. No competition any more. Just stories of hobbies and grandchildren. Some people still did projects for work but on their own terms and schedules. Some people were traveling and having a ball exploring the world.

Class of 1969 yearbook and 50th reunion yearbook update

At the dinner the second night, there were fun games with prizes for the winners. Who’s been married the longest? 50 years! Who has the most kids? Six. Who’s kids are the oldest? 50! And the youngest? 23. I was thrilled that Tom tied for the coolest job – he was a CBS network news director and audio engineer and the other guy was a documentary filmmaker.

Tom was well known at his high school. He ran for student council every year against the guy who always won. So Tom’s campaign speeches were more of a stand-up comedy act, the comic relief. They were apparently greatly enjoyed and appreciated by the other students, so lots of people came up to Tom with big hugs and cheerful greetings. I was very proud of Tom, especially when he got up to introduce the three videos he created for the reunion. These were the centerpieces of the dinner presentations.

By the time we left, I knew lots of people by name and we had promised to get together again with the ones who live a reasonable car ride away. I really felt like I made new friends and Tom got to renew friendships from long ago.

Tom and Stewie

We left the reunion happy and wired – until our car died before we even got out of Schenectady. Luckily we broke down right at a service station on the NY State Thruway so it only took AAA a half hour to get a tow truck to us. We rode the 2 ½ hours home in the back of a truck with zero suspension. It felt like we were driving over cobblestones for the entire ride. We got home at 3 AM but even this unpleasant finale didn’t dampen our positive feelings about the weekend we spent in a time capsule. We captured time in a bottle and loved every minute of it!

Tom and me at the dinner

WE MADE IT – Marilyn Armstrong

The first thought I had this morning was “The phone is ringing. Answer the phone.”

Getting to the phone from bed is a stretch and a twist. I could make it easier if I moved my Disney “Someday my Prince will come” lamp. But this would also make it more difficult to turn the lamp on and off. Since I use my lamp more often than I answer my phone, the phone stays put.

Regardless, answering a ringing phone from a dead sleep is one of my more acrobatic moves. Most times, when it rings early in the day, it is either a telemarketer or a doctor’s office reminding me about an appointment. This time, it was a friend from whom I was glad to hear.

“Hey, Rob!” I said. You’ve got to love Caller ID.

“I’m alive,” he said. He sounded great. Considering he had just had two heart valves replaced during the previous week, that’s not such a small thing. I was amazed, delighted and impressed he sounded so perky and clear-headed.

Rob goes way back into the early teenage years of my life. We met at the college radio station. He was 13. I was 17. I felt very superior since I was obviously four years more mature than he was.

He always had a baby face, full of freckles. He still does, though the hair has become mixed with gray. Our lives have continued to intersect throughout the decades. When he was 14, he got cancer. He was treated. Went into remission. Decided to skip college because he figured he was going to die young.

Not.

He taught himself computer programming and morphed into a software developer. He learned to fly. Bought a small plane. I got to fly it too, even though it was a pretend flight as “co-pilot.”

It was fun, scary, and made me realize I love to fly. As a passenger. No piloting for me, unless I can grow my own wings.

He went to live in Brussels. I went to live in Jerusalem. Both of us came back and got married. My first husband — with whom we were all friends because he ran the college radio station where we met died following a mismanaged mitral valve replacement. I was married to Garry by then, having met Garry at that same radio station.

No exaggeration. Everything started there.

First dawn of spring 2017

So you can see why everyone in our crowd is more than normally nervous about heart valve replacements, even though Jeff’s death was at least partly his fault though I think more the result of an arrogant doctor who failed to take fundamental precautions during post-operative care.

Hearing from Rob was heartening. He had two valves replaced, the mitral and the aortic. He had previously, some years back, had a coronary bypass, so he was a little cranky this surgery. He takes exceptionally good care of himself — and his wife, Mira, would personally fight back death with her bare hands. I wouldn’t mess with her.

We had talked several times about surgeons, hospitals, mechanical versus tissue valves. I explained why I preferred tissue. No blood thinners and with all the other medical issues I’ve got, who needs to deal with potential bleeding issues too? Rob is not exactly free of other medical problems, either. He’s got his original cancer lurking. He will never run out of things to worry about.

Nonetheless, he sounded terrific. Alert. Alive. He had made it. If you live around here and you need serious heart surgery, I highly recommend Beth Israel. They are terrific. If there’s such a thing as a great hospital experience, you will have it there. I don’t say this lightly, having been resident in pretty much every one of Boston’s highly-regarded facilities.

It was deeply reassuring to not lose another friend. Given how small our “herd” has become, we try to grow closer. Because now, we really know time isn’t forever.

We are a strange herd of oddballs — musicians, writers, artists, mathematicians and more. Long may we live.

YESTERDAY WHEN MY WORLD WAS YOUNG – Garry Armstrong

No, I didn’t pick the wrong day to give up sniffing glue!

If you write, professionally or just for fun, you’ll probably understand.  I’m trying to set down the words that have been conga dancing in my brain as I just showered and shaved. I probably shouldn’t have shaved because my fingers kept poking my brain in rhythmic harmony.

It’s the end of a truly bad week for Marilyn and me. We’re sharing a bug that includes migraine headaches, queasy stomachs and bodies lurching from one room to another.

Our Vineyard house

It’s the capper to a week where Marilyn has been battling the insurance company to pay for repairs to our house battered by the spate of recent storms and very vulnerable to the next storm on the horizon.  You’ll be shocked to hear that the Insurance Company is stonewalling us, oblivious to damage documented by one of their investigators and tone-deaf to our meager social security and pensions that cannot pay for the repairs.

As we assess the latest debate by the Democratic Presidential wannabees and aren’t as excited about a viable candidate to oppose the guy now squatting in the White House, we are staring at each other, two seventy-something wunderkinds, wondering how quickly we slid from the top of our game to “seniors.”

What happened to the world of youth, energy, and expectations?

Back deck Vineyard house. Did a lot of drinking back there. Eating. And reading. It used to have a huge rope hammock.

My bathroom conga line of memories, with bongoes banging on my brains, was back in the ’70s and ’80s. I was living in Boston, in my prime as a TV reporter with earnings that promised to rise with no end in sight. Life was a  pulsating 24-hour trip that kept recycling.

Work and play blended seamlessly. Everyone was young with boundless energy. I slept little, worked hard, and played harder. I paid little attention to health or finances. My pockets were always full.

I had a tendency to forget life wasn’t like that for most other people.

Those days of wine and roses were most obvious during my Martha’s Vineyard summers. There were more than 20 magical summers with other media friends who shared a house. We had the kind of life you thought only existed in F. Scott Fitzgerald novels.

The wine never stopped flowing. My box of unpaid credit card bills, growing in volume, sat ignored as I plied myself with more of that feel-good liquid.

Best of all, the summer Sundays. I was usually up with the roosters. A tall bloody Mary and the Sunday papers to peruse slowly. The sports section came first. Baseball box scores studied with the scrutiny of a lifetime fan whose life revolved around the fate of the Boston Red Sox.

Looking down on the Sound

The Bloody Mary intake accelerated as I looked at the stats of Yaz, Rice, Lynn, Pudge, Dewey, and the other Fenway bats.  I would always need to strengthen the drinks to pace myself — absorbing the gaudy numbers of the sons of Teddy Ballgame.

The numbers were always robust during the New England summers when home runs battered the old cathedral of baseball. The bloody Marys now had me dreaming that this would be the year the Sox would finally defeat those damn Yankees.

I gave little attention to the Sox pitching which was wise. Even with the alcoholic bliss. I thought that fall we’d hold the lead and not succumb to the chill of autumn and the Yankees’ superior pitching. I always ignored the suggestion of friends to eat a little something to balance out the alcohol which had been replaced by Cape Codders. Then, as sunset crept across the Vineyard, moving on to a sturdy rum with just a dash of coke.

All was blissful as someone started the barbecue in the backyard which faced Nantucket Sound.

We rarely talked about work. Our TV jobs were in another world where the less fortunate continued to toil while we played. As twilight faded into warm evenings, we would sit on the back porch, staring at Nantucket Sound. There was a mutual agreement: “We were living the dream.”

Vineyard art

I gave little thought to my future. Life was now. In the moment. If you worked in TV news, there was always a collective fear someone would call, demanding we leave our reverie and cover some breaking news – murder, fire, weather, or another politician’s dirty laundry uncovered.

We often ignored the phone. That was the world before computers and cell phones made it impossible to hide. Now and then, we did ponder a future. Maybe a communal home on the Vineyard for our lives in retirement.  Those idle thoughts were lost in the pungent haze that floated above the back porch. In my mind, I could see a vague future. Lots of free time, good health, and no money worries.

I figured I’d always look the way I seemed to look for so many years. No worries. I’d always be “the kid.” I smiled to myself. Another rum with a hint of coke and I was ready for dreams about a world I figured would always be good to us.

Things promised to get only better when Marilyn came back into my life, solidifying our relationship that began in college when LBJ was president. Marriage began a new chapter in my life. Little did I envision how the future would change life’s trajectory.

All the things I’d ignored awaited us. I had a lot of maturing to do as reality began to check-in. There would be the termination of a job I thought would go on forever. The joys and nightmares of homeownership in a misty mid-region valley. A plethora of health issues that almost took Marilyn’s life.

A wakeup call for me about my own health issues, finding recovery and the backbone to be a dependable spouse. Facing survival in a world I never thought I’d see.

POSTSCRIPT: I finally put a cork in the bottle on December 7th, 2004. I’ll always be grateful to Marilyn and my family for the support, patience, and encouragement as life seemed to be going down the drain for me.

Now, I celebrate those olden days with raspberry lime rickey and lemonade mixed with ginger ale. All current problems notwithstanding, I’m a lucky guy. And I’ve still got a working liver!

AN EARLY VISIT – Garry Armstrong

It is the best of times. It is the worst of times.

That lends itself to our professional sports teams and our current financial dilemma. Our Boston Red Sox are almost officially eliminated from postseason play. The lamentations about the Bosox lengthy hangover from last year’s World Championship are filling up bars across Massachusetts. But sorrow is mixed with elation for the Brady Bunch aka the New England Patriots’ who opened THEIR world championship defense with a sound thumping of the Pittsburgh Steelers, always a worthy adversary.

Sports is our Rx as we try to deal with an insurance company that refuses to do the right thing. It’s an insurance company that’s had our very loyal business for 40 plus years and paid nary a cent to us. Our home has been battered by recent storms and two sides of the house could cave with the next storm. A storm due within hours. It’s a major league headache for Marilyn and me who, coincidentally, are battling a bug that leaves us wondering — who did we antagonize?

The house and health problems have prompted us to cancel two planned trips we’ve looked forward to with enthusiasm. It’s a bummer. We’re not feeling very sociable these days.  It reminds me of that old Kingston Trio song, “The Merry Minuet” about international social discord with the refrain “… and, we don’t like anybody very much.”

That’s the cue for today’s happening. The welcome sign outside our home has drawn precious few visitors — family or good friends — in the 19 years we’ve lived in picturesque Uxbridge. We almost feel like Lepers.

I was startled when Marilyn awakened me with news this morning that we had company coming — in FORTY minutes! I felt like yesterday’s garbage as I got my act together. Company?  We NEVER have company. Why TODAY? Gee Whiz!

Turns out that our visitors were one of the two families we had to cancel on because of our problems.

Garry and Karin MacMillan

Karin and her business associate lit up our house with amiable good cheer. Karin actually is a good friend of my “Baby Brother,” the noted Dr. Anton Armstrong, head of the illustrious St. Olaf’s Choir.

We’ve been swapping emails for weeks so Karin was up to speed on our problems. Despite our visit cancellation, Karin was determined to meet us and spread some cheer.

It was like sitting with old friends. We rambled on with cross conversations. I, as usual, held court with stories of my celebrity encounters. Our visitors didn’t seem bored so I kept jabbering with one eye on my watch and finally gave myself the hook — time to shut up and let the others share stories.

We laughed a lot. I was the target of some of the laughter but it was just fine. It was good to laugh, taking my mind off the headache, queasy stomach and other gifts from the stubborn bug. I was surprised about how much family stuff we shared. That’s a good indicator of relaxation with newly made friends. It doesn’t happen often with us.

We emphasized our gratitude for the visit. As mentioned, we don’t receive many social calls. You wonder if you’re a leper after extending invitations and no one shows up.

It’s been a special day. One of the last warm, sunny and perfectly golden days of summer. Our front yard has been manicured. It’ll never look better even with the furry kids staking out their territory. If we had smell-o-vision, you’d really appreciate how nice our yard looks.

It can’t obliterate our concern about the sides of the house which are in danger with the next storm on the horizon. An Insurance investigator recently documented the damage but bluntly told us not to expect much from the insurance company. We’ve reached out for help but everything is in limbo right now.  We feel very, very vulnerable. Senior citizens, surviving on social security and puny retirement funds.

For a few hours, on this day, we could laugh and relax – thanks to the kindness of strangers who now are definitely friends.

TINKER BELLE – Marilyn Armstrong

Can you set a price on love? Can you set a number to it? Can you calculate it by the cost of health care, toys, dog food? Grooming?

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Tinker Belle was a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, also called PBGVs or Petites. They are medium-sized, shaggy rabbit hounds from the Vendée region of France. During the past 25 years, they’ve also gotten very popular as pets, though they are definitely not a dog for just anyone. They are much smarter than they have any right to be, hilariously funny (and the more you laugh, the funnier they become), noisy, and extremely busy or as we used to put it, always looking for trouble.

Even in such rarafied company, Tinker Belle was special. From the day we brought her home, she wasn’t like any other puppy I’d ever met. She was incredibly smart. As a rule, hounds are smart, but she was special.

Housebreaking? We showed her the doggy door. She was housebroken. She could open any door, undo any latch that didn’t need a key, unhook any gate and close the gate after her. She could (did) open jars of peanut butter without leaving a fang mark to note her passing. All you’d find was a perfectly clean empty jar that had previously been unopened. It looked new. New and empty.

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She was sensitive and easily hurt. Probably born to be a therapy dog, she knew who was in pain, knew who was sick. She knew where you hurt. She was the only dog who would never step on a healing incision but would cuddle close to you, look at you with her dark, soft eyes and tell you everything would be fine.

She never hurt a living thing, not human or anything else … except for small varmints she hunted in the yard. She was, after all, a hound and a hunter at that, born to track, point and if necessary, kill prey.

She was the smartest of our five dogs, the smartest dog of any dog I’ve known. Not just a little bit smarter than normal. A huge amount smarter. When you looked into Tinker’s eyes, it wasn’t like looking into the eyes of a dog. She was a human in a dog suit.

She knew. We called her Tinker the Thinker because she planned and remembered. She held grudges. More about that. Yet she was Omega (the bottom) in the pack. We thought it was her choice. She wasn’t up to leadership responsibilities.

The other dogs knew her worth, so despite her low status in the tribe, when they needed a solution to a problem, they all came to her. When needed, other dogs would tap into her expertise in gate opening, package disassembly, cabinet burglary, trash can raiding and other canine criminal activities. Throughout her life, she housebroke each new puppy. A couple of hours with Tinker and the job was done. It was remarkable. Almost spooky. She then mothered them until they betrayed her by growing up and playing with other dogs.

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When Griffin, our big male Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen came to live with us a few months after Tinker’s arrival, they became The Couple. Inseparable. In love. They ate together, played together, slept together, sang together. About a year later, we briefly had a little Norwich Terrier pup and Griffin (what a dog!) abandoned Tinker to go slobbering after Sally.

Tinker’s heart was broken. She became depressed, would not play anymore with humans or other dogs. For the next 10 years, Tinker refused to so much as look at Griffin. Worse, she apparently blamed us, her humans, for having brought another girl into the house. In retribution for our crimes, Tinker began a Reign of Terror.

Tinker took to destroying everything she could get her fangs on when she was three. She’d done a modest amount of puppy chewing, but nothing extraordinary. She was more thief than a chewer. She would steal your stuff and hide it. Shoes, toys, towels, stuffed animals. After Griffin betrayed her with that stupid little bitch — Sally was indeed the polar opposite of Tinker being the dumbest dog I’ve ever known and ill-tempered to boot — Tinker was no longer a playful thief.

She was out to get us.

Nothing was safe. She had a particular passion for destroying expensive electronic devices. Cell phones, remote controls, portable DVD players, computers. If she could get a fang to them, she killed them. She would do more damage in under a minute than I thought possible. For Garry and I, it meant we couldn’t leave the room together unless we put everything away where Tinker couldn’t get it. Tinker would strike quickly and was deadly.

Kaitlin’s toys were safe if Kaity was currently paying a lot of attention to Tinker. If not, she was punished with the beheading of any doll Tinker could find. She didn’t bother with limbs but always went straight for the head. She gutted stuffed things with grim efficiency.

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During one memorable intermission, Garry and I went to the kitchen to grab something to drink and she dismembered our remote controls. We were gone, by the clock, about two minutes. The kitchen is adjacent to the living room, so she managed to do this with us not 10 feet away. It cost me a couple of hundred dollars to replace them.

She pulled off the backs, tore out the batteries (but never ate them), then ripped out the wiring and boards. She didn’t waste any time, either. If she had the leisure, she’d also tear out the keys and generally mangle the cases, but if time was limited, she went straight to the guts of the thing. She was good.

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For 10 years, we lived under siege. If you didn’t want your device Tinkerized, you couldn’t leave it exposed, not for a minute.

Yet we loved Tinker and for the last year of her life, after Divot passed and we brought Bonnie home, Tinker became a real dog again. Under the influence of Bonnie, the friendliest, happiest, most charming Scottie on earth, Tinker came out of her sullens and played with Bonnie. She ran around the yard and played tag, joined the chorus when the other dogs pointed their muzzles at the sky and sang.

Hounds have such beautiful voices and Tinker’s was the most beautiful of all. When she sang, nature sang with her. I suppose this is a matter of taste, but for those of us who love hounds, you know what I mean. Singing is a social function for canines. When a pack sings, it isn’t an alert. It’s a chorus. They are really truly singing together. Each dog has a part, joining in, then pausing and rejoining at the right moment. Tinker was a baritone, the deepest and loudest of the canine voices and Bonnie is a coloratura soprano, very musical, but light.

Tinker died of cancer at age 12. She had shown no symptoms except a slight slowing down and a very minimally reduced appetite. One day, she collapsed. She was riddled with cancer. How in the world she had so effectively hidden her illness is mind-boggling, but she did. A couple of weeks later, Griffin had a massive stroke and died. They were almost exactly the same age and I don’t believe for a minute that the timing of their passing was mere coincidence.

The house was so quiet with the two hounds gone. We didn’t have to hide everything anymore, though it took us months to realize it was safe, that I could leave my laptop out at night and no dog would bother it. After the two hounds passed, the pack did not sing for half a year. One day, mourning ended and they started to sing again, with our little dachshund leading the chorus.

They sing twice a day, early in the morning (get up Mom) and in the evening (pause that show, time for the chorus).

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What was Tinker’s true cost?

We paid $700 for her when she was a puppy. Who knows how much her medical care cost over the years? That’s such a basic part of the contract between dogs and their keepers. They love us, we care for them. Other damages? Thousands of dollars in electronic gear, furniture, shoes, books, DVDs, videotapes, dolls, stuffies and who knows what else.

But she paid us back\. When I was terribly ill, Tinker never left my side. When I was back from surgery, missing another piece of me, Tinker was there, never placing a paw where it would hurt me. How does it add up?

How much was the love worth?

MY GRANDMOTHER’S EARLY YEARS – By Ellin Curley

My Grandmother, Sarah, grew up in Minsk, Russia. Her father was one of the very few Jews there who were allowed to do business with the Russian Gentiles. Therefore he was relatively well off. Grandma remembers her mother taking baths in milk. Her mother was an aloof, Grande Dame and was treated like a queen by her family.

In order to stay in the good graces of the Christian Russians he dealt with, her father adopted their pro-Czarist beliefs. My grandmother, from early on, was an active socialist and anti-Czarist. She often clashed with her father over politics. The tension with her dad came to a head when Grandma took her mother and sister to a socialist rally with her. The rally was a set-up and was raided by the Czar’s troops. The troops crashed through the crowd killing and beating as many people as they could. Grandma was saved by a dead body falling on her and hiding her from the troops.

Grandma and her family in Russia. She is the little girl in the front between her parents

Grandma and her family made it home safely. But her father was livid that Grandma had exposed his beloved wife and favorite daughter (grandma’s sister) to such danger. It was decided that Grandma should move to America, and take her younger brother, Abe, with her.

Grandma and Abe had first class tickets on the ship to America. But Abe lost the tickets and last minute steerage tickets had to be procured. Grandma was not happy with her hapless brother. When they arrived in New York City, they were taken in by relatives who lived in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the Jewish section of the city. They were penniless.

To earn money, Grandma worked in a sweatshop, similar to and down the street from the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That factory caught fire in 1911 and trapped and killed 146 garment workers, mostly young, immigrant women. It was the worst industrial disaster in city history. So many lives were lost because doors had been locked and exits blocked to keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing. The tragedy spurred the passage of safety laws for factories. It also spurred the birth of the labor movement and the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

Sarah and her brother Abe

Grandma knew some of the girls who were killed in the fire. She became active in the pro-union movement. In later years, she would take my mother, even as a child, to union rallies and to speeches by socialist and union leaders.

Grandma met a first cousin of hers, named Abe, who had also recently immigrated from Russia. They were actually half first cousins because Grandma and Abe’s mothers shared a father but had different mothers. They married after a short courtship.

After my mom was born, Grandma took in sewing to make extra money until Grandpa could earn enough money to support the family. When my mom was still a young child, my grandfather, a hypochondriac, spent all the family money on fake cures and treatments. He also went to stay in special treatment “spas”, for long periods. During this time, Grandma took in boarders as well as sewing to make ends meet.

At one point she fell in love with a wonderful, socialist teacher who was boarding with her. But she refused to leave grandpa to go with this man. Her marriage to grandpa was adversarial and volatile. They had no interests in common and one was a socialist and the other was a Republican. Not a good relationship. But divorce was not acceptable in those days so grandma stayed.

When all their money ran out, Grandma and Mom had to move in with relatives. They had to go from one relative to another, sharing beds with different family members until Grandpa came back and started to make money again.

Grandma and Grandpa with my mom when she was about two

From that point on, Grandma was financially comfortable but never happy in her marriage. She was a devoted mother and grandmother. Her parents immigrated to America and settled in Stamford, CT. Her father became a respected rabbi and teacher there. Grandma was a devoted daughter as well till her parents’ deaths.

Grandma was also active in pro-Israel organizations and was a founder of the Women’s League For Israel. She was also on the board of many other Jewish charitable organizations.

Grandma was a huge influence in my life. She encouraged me to fight for justice, freedom and equality whenever and however I could. She never lost her passion for liberal causes and passed that on to me. Thank you, Grandma!