Tonight I am thinking of my dear friend, Anita Winer (May 6, 1918 – March 13, 2011.) She lived a rich and meaningful life, long both on years and on sharing and wisdom. I met her shortly after joining Temple Shalom, back in the spring of 2001. How lucky I was to have known her for ten years!
Over those years, she became a beloved friend of our family, particularly after the boys were born. She took special pleasure in their company and was unfailingly encouraging of me, as a mother and as a member of the community. She always made it a point to tell me how glad she was to see me and the boys at synagogue, even on the days when the kids had difficulty behaving well. Akiva was born within a week of Anita’s first great-grandchild, and we bonded over new-baby feelings, even as her Yael was far away. I like to think it made it easier for her to bear the distance because she could watch Akiva grow and imagine Yael’s parallel progress.
She was an avid student, attending many adult-learning sessions at synagogue and participating in weekly Torah study. Occasionally an illness or injury would keep her out for a week or two, and on her return she would always say, “I’m so glad to be here, thank G-d.” After she lost her eyesight a few years go, she still continued her full level of participation, even increasing it. She attended Me’ah, a three-year course of advanced Jewish study, graduating at the age of 91. Members of the community took turns recording the reading assignments for her so she could keep up, as well as studying alongside her to prepare for class. All who did so talked about how much their time with her enriched their learning experience. She had an active, searching mind to the very end.
Anita had the ability to crystallize important and complex moments into a few well-chosen words. Just weeks before Akiva was born, we were on retreat with some other members of the congregation. At Shabbat morning services, after the Torah reading, the Rabbi took several moments to pass the scrolls around, so that everyone present could take symbolic and spiritual ownership of the scriptures. Because my belly was huge, I was a little off balance, so Bill stood behind me when my turn came, and together the two of us held the Torah scrolls. Afterward, Anita commented movingly that she saw past and future mingle in that moment.
Anita was incredibly kind, always looking for a way to help others. The first summer I had the boys at home with no backup, she noticed that I was struggling with them one day, and offered to babysit them at her apartment while I went out for a while. She was, at the time, 91 years old and legally blind. She was extraordinarily sweet with my kids, and very resourceful. I’ve no doubt it would have been a great time for them, had I taken up her offer, but I didn’t want to bother her. Just knowing that she cared enough to offer was enough encouragement for me to keep going. Even when she was coping with serious challenges, she had a way of making me feel that my problems were important. She never belittled or dismissed my worries, even the stupid ones.
After she lost her sight, members of the community practically fell over each other for the privilege of giving her rides to and from events. We all knew that the ride would be filled with interesting conversation, reminiscences, wisdom, and kindness. I remember hearing about her childhood during the Depression, including tips about growing your own tomatoes and getting the most out of every jar of jam. I remember her recollection of how lost and rejected she felt when her daughter chose to go off the grid, after Anita and her late husband had made enormous efforts to provide their children with the economic opportunities they had lacked growing up — and how she eventually accepted her daughter’s decision and grew to respect her commitment.
Once Akiva started school, Gideon and I used to go pick up Anita and take her to visit other friends who were in nursing homes or other care facilities. I would like you to think that I am some paragon of mitzvot for doing this, but really I relied on Anita to show me the way. She knew how to keep the visit short and meaningful, making conversation and giving subtle, gracious cues when it was time to move along. When I made a misstep, she covered my tracks.
A month or so ago, I had been scheduled to drive her to a class we took together, but because Akiva was home sick from school, I had to fall back on a substitute. I called Anita to tell her to expect a different driver, and she said how much she would miss seeing me and was looking forward to the next time. She called back a few days later to see if Akiva was feeling better. We talked at some length, about taking care of our families, about the importance of community. We expressed the hope of being together at synagogue soon. I never saw her again. Her last words to me were, “All my love and good wishes go with you.”
Likewise, I’m sure.