My mother, Shirley Pollack Wachsberger, died Sunday, November 21, two months after turning one hundred years old. We buried her the day before Thanksgiving.

Tough Broad

Mom was a tough broad. That’s the term she used to describe herself when Dad died ten summers ago. It’s what she was when she overcame paralyzing personal and social pressure to give up and instead earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology when she was in her fifties because education was so important to her.

But Mom was also shy and polite to a fault. One holiday season, the story goes, Dad’s mom baked a poppyseed cake for her. Mom hated poppyseed cake but she didn’t want to hurt Grandma’s feelings so she told her how much she loved it. Grandma baked her another one every year after that until Alzheimer’s took away her recipe. Until the end, Mom always said she loved it. I don’t know if Grandma ever saw her eat a piece after the first year.

She was gorgeous. At Glenville High School, where she graduated, two fellow classmates were writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. As Mom told the story, artist Shuster invited Mom to his studio to draw her. If it hadn’t been for her shyness, Mom might have been the model for Lois Lane.

She was a community organizer, one of the pioneers who built Beachwood, the suburb on the east side of Cleveland where I grew up. She played a leading role, usually as president, both with my dad and on her own, in the Beachwood Arts Council, the PTA, the Montefiore Women’s Auxiliary, American Field Service, and other community organizations. They taught prisoners and inner-city kids to read.

Always Learning

She was a voracious reader. I would call her every Friday to welcome her to the weekend. When I asked her what she was up to, she always said, “Nothing. Just reading.”

She read everything I wrote starting with my days on the underground press, and so did Dad. Mom, in particular, was ready to hear a new viewpoint. She was outspoken and passionate and had been long before I came around.

In high school, according to family legend, she spoke out about the need to have classes that spoke to the concerns of women. The school responded by adding a cooking class. She knew it wasn’t enough.

Mom was an early reader of Ms. Magazine. She used to tell me about how the issues always arrived with the covers torn. She was sure the sexist pig mailman was ripping them. She read the magazines from cover to cover in defiance.

Meanwhile, Dad’s vote was going from Barry Goldwater in 1964 to Barry Commoner in 1980.

How Can I Rebel Properly?

During this period, my friends were all rebelling against their parents, but they loved my folks. I would say, “Yes, but,” and try to show that I had rebelled against my parents, too, but I could never say it with conviction.

I hitchhiked one year, probably 1971, to Washington, DC, to participate in a women’s rights rally. I hitchhiked with five women. On our way from Lansing, Michigan, where I lived, to DC, we spent a night on Edgewood. Mom made us all dinner, and breakfast the next morning. Then Dad drove us to the freeway. He gave me $20.

How could I rebel against them, like my friends? Do you see how they made me suffer?

Goodbye, Mom

Emily and I are grateful that we were able to see Mom the day she died. We were with her for an hour and a half, and she was awake and alert most of the time. Both of us said our last words to her. Emily thanked her for being such a great role model. I told her it was okay for her to let go. We told her that David and Carrie sent their love.

We were sad when we left. We both looked for reasons to be optimistic but neither of us expected to see Mom alive again.

Brother Bob called later that evening to say she went peacefully in her sleep. I like to think she heard my final words.

For her rich life and her dignified death, we can all be thankful

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Friends who wish may contribute to the Si and Shirley Wachsberger Scholarship Fund, c/o The Beachwood Arts Council, 25225 Fairmount Blvd., Beachwood, OH 44122.