Alicia Volpin Lee ~ September 5, 1930 - July 2, 2017

Simply put, my mother was my greatest teacher. She taught me many things. But most importantly, she taught me how to cook and how to love, which for her were one in the same. Mother taught me, and many others, how to cook with passion and precision. Especially important to her, I learned how to be a shipwreck cook. While thankfully I have never been in a ship wreck, I did manage to throw together a dinner for four people in my sister’s kitchen last week with absolutely no plan, no recipes, and with no trip to the grocery in that house for more than four weeks. Mother taught me that.

Sitting around a table of food flawlessly prepared by Mother with family, friends, or business associates of Dad’s, was a daily occurrence in our house. In retrospect, I suppose it made every day feel like a special occasion, though for me it was just what home was like. Everything and anything good in our house happened in the kitchen. All of my childhood friends spent time in the kitchen with mom and got cooking lessons. I remember Mom joking that if she ever built another house, she would have fold out bleachers installed in the kitchen wall. It was where everyone wanted to be, watching Alicia in her element.

It wasn’t that food was love. It was that food touched by her hands became love. My sisters and I have, without thought or effort, carried this way of being and loving through food into our own homes, and so have our children, and I suspect so will our children’s children. It was where Mother was most herself in the world, and no doubt where I will feel her with me and around me the most as well.

Anyone who knew Alicia knew she was a forced to be reckoned with. Anyone who knows me, knows I did a lot of reckoning over the years around my mother. And thank God I did, for the past two and a half years there was a different kind of reckoning to be done. The kind where I was called to become my mother’s mother. My sister Donna and I, side by side, hand in hand, tear by tear, difficult moment by joyful moment tended to my Mother’s every need. Need was a very dirty word for Alicia only superseded by the word ‘help’.

The past two and a half years we difficult to be sure, there were moments of complete and total overwhelm, there was day after day of dropping whatever was on my plate and tending to mom’s needs. There were hours and hours and hours on the phone with my sisters discussing every last detail, working to figure out next steps and what was best for Mother. With Wendy miles away in Las Vegas, the bulk of the heavy lifting was for Donna and me to manage. And manage we did. With the task at hand, the superhero of my life, my sister Donna and I became even closer than ever. Hard to believe. Thank you Mother, for yet another unimaginable gift in a classroom no one would ever have signed up for.

And then there was Dad. All Mother wanted those last two weeks was to be near Daddy, to hold hands, and to lay her head on his shoulder. Married for 68 years, Dad was Mother’s primary caregiver for the bulk of the past two and a half years. No matter what happened, he was there for her like the supreme champ he is. You’re a rock-star Daddy.

More than anything, Mother seemed to want me to be independent. This was incredibly important to her. And she most definitely got her wish. As circumstances would have it, timing being impossible to predict, I was the sister who spent the last moments with Mother. Up into the wee hours of the morning, Daddy sleeping in the other room, I spent last twenty hours by her side. I watched her every facial expression, listened to every breath, and tended to her every need. It was a sacred honor, a privilege, and oddly fitting given her desire for me to be independent. She was teaching me up until her very last breath. It was beautiful and peaceful and twenty hours I will forever be grateful for.

One of the things my Dad wanted most in the world was for Mother and me to be close. Daddy you got that wish didn’t you? The last morning that Dad was able to check on mother, as he had come to do morning after morning, he saw me right at mother’s side.

Lessons from Mother were not the kind you skipped and sang through. She was not the kind of teacher you joyfully brought an apple. Hers was a tough class room. And now with the lessons done, and the final exams passed, I am a far better version of myself having had the experience. Every step of the way Mother was most definitely teaching me love, though it often didn’t feel like it. One thing is for certain, I am a teacher of love because Alicia was my mother.