Thursday, September 26, 2013

My Unsinkable Cousin Lisa

Elizabeth Zelvin

My beloved cousin Lisa died last Sunday at the age of 93. This is my tribute to a remarkable woman.

Lisa at 24
I've never met anyone with more effervescence, more joie de vivre, than my Viennese cousin Lisa. In 1938, when the Nazis occupied and annexed Austria and most Jews in Vienna had already fled if they could, my cousin Lisa caught the proverbial last boat to New York. Her mother and father (my grandmother’s brother) had been refused visas to enter the United States, so they remained in Vienna, where they were imprisoned and eventually murdered in one of the Nazi concentration camps. Eighteen-year-old Lisa arrived determined to survive and be happy if possible, a goal she achieved over and over in a long lifetime filled with both great adversity and great joy.

At the time, the United States government did what we would now call profiling in dealing with the influx of European refugees. Hungarians, whatever their profession at home, were trained to be bakers. (I remember many Hungarian bakeries in the Fifties and subsequent decades.) Viennese were sent to massage school. So Lisa went to Florida to become a masseuse (don’t worry, not the X-rated kind), or perhaps the triage took place at some kind of refugee camp in Florida.

Lisa at 41
All the women on my mother’s side of the family are great swimmers. Lisa herself told me the story of how she met her first husband, Simon, the great love of her life. She was swimming off the beach in Fort Lauderdale, then a pretty but quiet town. Seeing her quite far from shore, he became concerned that she might be in trouble.

“Are you all right?” he called out.

She waved and yelled back, in the delicious Viennese accent she never lost in a long lifetime, “I can take care of myself!”

Lisa at 68
Some happy years followed. Lisa had plenty of chutzpah: the family was proud of her for talking her way into the chorus of the Miami Opera, which she enjoyed immensely, without any formal vocal training. But she and Simon found they were unable to have children, so they adopted first a boy, then an adorable little girl—who died of leukemia at the age of three. They were working on the adoption of another child when Simon was diagnosed with cancer. They tried everything—I remember them going to Mexico for an attempt at alternative treatment—but sadly, he died at fifty. She had barely become a widow when not one, but two babies became available for adoption, a boy and a girl. She took them both.

Lisa at 72
For the next ten years, she raised her three kids as a single mom. Then she met her second husband. Their relationship had its ups and downs. But she always said that he adored her, and for her, that was the defining factor. Lisa had her own bout of cancer when she was in her sixties, but it didn’t stop her; nor did her broken neck or her heart valve replacement when she was in her nineties. She got right back in the swimming pool, and that’s no metaphor. It might have been the ocean except that she was no longer living on the coast. Again following a tradition for the women in our family, she got a doctorate in her sixties too. Her kids called her Dr. Mom forever after. In more recent years, she had a Facebook page and loved to send jokes by email.

Lisa spent her final days in hospice at her own home and was surrounded by loving family at the end. I chuckled through my tears as I read in her son’s email that after she stopped taking medication and entered hospice, she “surprise[ed] everyone with her renewed vibrance for life…even swimming a couple times.” I wasn’t surprised to hear it—that was Lisa.


Peg said...

What a lovely tribute to an amazing sounding woman!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Peg. My late-season dip in the ocean yesterday was in her honor. And another memory surfaced this morning: me at age 12, driving with Lisa along the beach in Ft Lauderdale in her convertible with the top down, singing "Que sera sera."

JJM said...

Profile in courage, and a wonderful portrait. Thank you for sharing her with us.--Mario R.

Julia Buckley said...

Liz, what a lovely and loving tribute--I feel I know quite a bit about this remarkable woman, and I will be thinking of her long after I close this window. Thanks!