Today is the 100th birthday of my mom, Jeanette Tulman Zarchy, who passed away about two years ago. In her honor, I am republishing this eulogy I wrote for her memorial.
I want to tell you a little about our mom, whose life mirrored our nation’s history for the last century.
She was born Jeanette Dorothy Tulman on May 4, 1914. Think about that for a minute. She was born before the start of World War One, when Woodrow Wilson was president, the first of 17 presidents during her lifetime.
Jeanette was born at home at 107 Bristol Street, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood of immigrants. Her family rented, then owned and lived in the three apartments at 107 for generations, the occupants changing a bit from time to time, as these relatives moved out and those cousins moved in. At one point my great-uncle Julius Littinsky had his medical office on the ground floor. Other members of the extended family lived nearby. My great-uncle Israel Brower had a pharmacy a block away, on the corner of Bristol Street and Pitkin Avenue.
Jeanette’s family was the Fiddler on the Roof generation. They had fled oppression in their Russian-Jewish shtetl and had emigrated to Brooklyn seven years before she turned up. Her father William Tulman, for whom I was named, was a printer. Her mother, Sylvia Brower Tulman, was the oldest of six in her own family and had helped raise her younger siblings when her own mother had died very young. Sylvia, or Sluvie as the family called her, was six months pregnant on the boat my grandparents took across the Atlantic to New York, and Jeanette’s older brother Lou had nearly been born in steerage. Or so they teased him.
Education was very important to Jeanette’s family. Right off the boat, they learned English and went to school. Some became professionals: a doctor, a dentist, a couple of pharmacists, teachers. Jeanette graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School just after turning 16. What did her immigrant parents do with this young girl, in those scary early days of the Depression under Herbert Hoover? They sent her to college, to a three-year program at Maxwell Teacher Training Institute that got her a credential but no degree.
Around that time, this wonderful photograph of her [shown above] was taken, probably about age 20. Our cousin Boo wrote to us about Mom in those early days:
“So I think of your mother … and I remember my glamorous cousin who lived upstairs from us on Bristol Street. I remember an artist who painted her when she was in high school [a painting that is still in the family]. I remember when I was a ten-year-old being so impressed because your mother returned an engagement ring to some guy before your Dad.”
At 23, when FDR was in office, Jeanette married an art teacher—our dad, Harry Zarchy, whose family had also fled persecution in Eastern Europe. In 64 years together, they set a fine example in their respect for education; eternal, unconditional parental love; and, eventually, gracious aging. A few years after my sister Sue was born, they moved out of Brownsville to their first home on East 21st Street in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Eventually these descendants of the Fiddler on the Roof generation joined the middle class fleeing to the suburbs after World War II during the Eisenhower years. Our folks bought an amazing three-story, five-bedroom house in Freeport, Long Island, where Sue and I grew up and came of age. And where we laughed a lot.
When I was in junior high, Mom decided to go back to work. Her teaching credential had expired, so she took a job at Doubleday Publishing while completing her degree at Hofstra University. One of her job responsibilities was writing blurbs, descriptive paragraphs that appeared on the dust jackets of new books. We laughed at the word “blurb,” which sounded funny to our ears, like a frog sound.
After several years at Doubleday, around the time JFK was inaugurated, Jeanette, now in her mid-40’s and armed with a degree and a new teaching credential, embarked on a long career as an educator, teaching Kindergarten for 19 years in Brentwood and Lynbrook, Long Island. She loved helping these littlest school kids transform from babies to students, and often came home with hilarious stories of their antics. One time she told us that her student Hector had reported:
“My daddy comes home at night and says to my mommy, ‘Where da beer, dear?’ And my mommy says, ‘Here da beer, dear!’
“’Where da beer, dear?’
“’Here da beer, dear!’”
We chuckled for decades over that one, repeating it over and over to each other. Probably not what Hector’s parents would want his teacher to remember them by!
Jeanette retired in 1978 when Jimmy Carter was president, six years after Harry retired. Because I’ve lived in Northern California since graduate school, when my sister Sue and her family decided to move to Arizona, our folks were at a crossroads, facing a momentous decision. With both their kids out west, would Jeanette and Harry follow their lead, or would they choose to emulate most Jewish New Yorkers and retire to Florida, that muggy, damp, humid somewhat mildewed state that’s so far away they’ll never get to see their grandchildren?
Fortunately, they made the right choice. The inexorable family migration that had started in Eastern Europe and paused for 70 years—first in New York City, then the suburbs—now continued westward to the Sun Belt. The physical proximity this provided—with some of us living in the same community, and some a short flight away—has made all the difference in keeping this family close and together. And to that I say, Bravo!
In their decades in Arizona, Jeanette and Harry made new friends, outlived most of them, then joined a synagogue social group to meet new people … and she outlived many of them. After Pop died ten years ago, while W was in office, my dear wife Susan hooked Mom up with the Scottsdale senior center. Mom joined a grief and loss group and, in her 90s, made a bevy of new friends and created a new social life for herself.
I think I first realized our mom was special in ways beyond just being our mom, one day when I was about 14. We had a family friend named Shirley Fischel, who taught English in the junior high I attended. One day at the beginning of the year, I passed Shirley walking down the hall with my English teacher. Shirley gave me a big smile as I greeted my teacher.
“Oh, you have Billy in your class?” she asked my teacher. “He comes from a wonderful family!”
Now, our dad was a fascinating and talented guy, a Renaissance man who taught art in the New York City schools for 30 years while he wrote and illustrated 36 books on crafts and hobbies and the outdoors. He was an accomplished musician and photographer who could do or make or fix or discuss anything, with expertise and authority.
I assumed that Shirley would tell my teacher about Pop’s many skills and achievements, that he could tune up a car, draw a complex electronic circuit, or lecture about da Vinci’s sculpture. But what Shirley wanted to convey about my family instead were traits of character. Specifically, that Mom possessed a unique and laudable blend of sweetness, intelligence, and conscientiousness that was especially admirable because she had successfully passed it on to her children.
What were Mom’s accomplishments? If you google Harry Zarchy, you’ll find links to his many publications, even now, over 40 years since his last book was published. If you google Jeanette Zarchy, you’ll discover that she has barely penetrated the digital age, except for references to a book called Sewing: A Mother and Daughter Activity Book, by Jeanette Zarchy. But Pop actually wrote it, back in a different era when his publisher thought a woman’s byline would sell more sewing books.
Mom’s accomplishments are intangible and can’t be spotted on Google. Her resume is impressive … and long lasting: two children, five grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, loving spouses, cousins, nieces, and nephews. And friends, many friends. Her sharp mind and the twinkle in her eye have always attracted others. As she got older … and older … living on her own and able to take care of herself until just recently, she amazed and inspired those around her.
After Mom’s passing, my sister Sue and I received a note from our cousin Pearl, who said:
“I will remember Jeanette in many ways. Her love for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books is one way; eating chocolate ice cream is another; watching hummingbirds is another. Some music reminds me of her, as well.”
I also received an email from our friend John, who’s about my age, and who had met Mom on many occasions over the years. He said,
“I know that you probably now have heard many stories of how she touched peoples’ lives, but the news made me recall what I thought was the last time your Mom and I were together. I think it was Susie’s 60th birthday (when Mom was a mere stripling of 94).
“I sat down with her and we talked for quite a while. I don’t recall all the details, but I remember that I was in awe of her memory and vivacity. She remembered the last time we met, recalled details of previous conversations, wanted to know how our lives were proceeding, and talked about her life in Arizona. I on the other hand had to rely on her memory to recall the last time we met. But most importantly it made me feel good to see how much she—and all of you—have thought of us as part of your larger family. We will miss her very much.”
Of course, I already miss her terribly. I won’t miss her telling me I should lose weight—even when she’s right—as others in the family won’t miss being told they’re “too thin” (this from the pot calling the kettle black). But I will miss her telling me I am a great writer, even if, as my mommy, she had little credibility.
And I’ll miss her love of baseball and the Diamondbacks, which flourished in the years since Pop died. He was never a spectator and disliked the passivity of just watching something. Mom told me a few years ago: “I used to love going to watch the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn when I was a young woman. Then I met your father.” When I realized Mom had started reading the sports page, I knew she’d gone off the deep end.
Most of all, I will always appreciate Mom’s acceptance of our ups and downs and the momentous life changes in our family. And I am grateful that we had her for so long, from Woodrow Wilson all the way up to the Obama years.
I want to thank all of you who loved her—friends and family alike, especially everyone who invited her out, gave her rides, brought her food, called her, befriended her, listened to her, shared some of your lives with her, or appreciated and enjoyed who she was. Thanks especially to her in-home aide Julia Castillo, who helped Mom through her final weeks on this planet, and to Karen Jeselun, who helped us to find Julia and to convince our very stubborn Mom that she really did need some help—at age 97-3/4!! And a huge thank you to my wonderful sister Sue, whose Herculean efforts over the past year made it possible for Mom to live out her days in her own beloved home.
Finally, I want to leave you with a verse from an old cowboy song. Pop taught it to me when I was a kid starting to learn a few chords on the guitar. My guitar skills never advanced too far and I’m certainly not going to sing it, but here are the words:
From this valley they say you are going.
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while.
Sometimes I think that verse is about Mom, but her passing has NOT taken away the sunshine. Her bright eyes and sweet smile surround us and continue to brighten our pathway, her spirit an integral part of our being, our DNA, our legacy. And we bask in the light and joy of her well-spent life.