I spent my 19th birthday in a way that I wouldn’t want anyone, anywhere, at any age to have to spend a birthday.
It all started a few days earlier. When I woke up at 6 a.m. on July 12, 2013, I had no idea that my life had already changed forever. I headed off to work the breakfast/lunch shift in the dining room at Parkside Village Senior Living Community, which lasted from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and which, despite the early wake-up call, was actually my favorite shift to work. I remember the old folks had liver and onions for lunch that day, which they all happily ate and which I pretended to be excited about when I told them that it was the special of the day.
I left right away when my shift was over, excited to get home because my mom and I were planning to go shopping for supplies for my birthday party the next day. I was excited when I opened the door to my house, but almost immediately I knew that something was off.
The first thing I heard when I walked in the door was my mom talking on the phone…and crying. Any decent person would probably agree that seeing your mom cry is absolutely heartbreaking, but I decided to stay where I was instead of going over to her right away, interrupting her when she was trying to talk on the phone and obviously very upset. I wasn’t even sure if she’d heard me come in. From where I was standing, I could tell that the muffled voice on the other end of the phone belonged to my grandmother. At this point I had a sneaking suspicion what all this was about, but I didn’t want to believe it. I pushed the thought from my head, stayed where I was, and listened a little bit more. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.
That was when my mom started asking things like, “Do you know if she pushed her life alert button?” and then, even worse, “Has anyone been in contact with the funeral home yet?”
At that point, I knew my initial gut feeling had been right, but that didn’t prepare me for hearing it out loud. My mom finally got off the phone when she realized I was home and told me that my great-grandmother, the woman I’m named after and who has been one of my biggest inspirations in life, had passed away.
After crying together for a long time, we picked ourselves up off the couch to go and wander around Target choosing party supplies in a trance, trying to reassure ourselves by telling each other that she would have wanted us to have the party; she wouldn’t have wanted us to be moping around the house and crying. I had my party as scheduled, but I still couldn’t stop thinking about her.
Because she passed away four days before my actual birthday, I had a feeling that I would be ringing in my nineteenth year at a funeral mass. Sure enough, on July 16, that’s just what I did. It didn’t even feel like my birthday, and that was the last thing on my mind for most of the day. After mass, though, we went to the luncheon – which my little cousin, who was 3 at the time and didn’t really understand the concept of death, thought was a birthday party for me. (We let her go with it. I even got serenaded with Happy Birthday.)
It’s been a year now and the world still doesn’t seem to be the same without the presence of Rita “Magie” Morgenstern. In the 96 years that she spent here on earth, she was not the type of person that you could easily forget. Born on April 1, 1917 as the second child and only daughter of Peter Ross and Ella Klein Ross, she lived unapologetically, working as hard as she could at whatever she did. She dropped out of high school in the 1930s to go to work and help support her family during the Depression, and although she never got a diploma, she is without a doubt one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. Her family was not very well off financially when she was growing up, and she didn’t have a whole lot of nice things – but despite this, she managed to be a living, breathing, one-hundred-percent German example of elegance and class for her whole life.
She married my great-grandfather in 1938. Their first child, my maternal grandmother, was born two days after the Pearl Harbor tragedy. My great-grandfather had a good job in banking and the family was comparably better off than Magie’s had been when she was growing up, but even though she was able to afford more nice things than ever before in her life, she was never a show-off. Up until the day she died, she lived very frugally, never purchasing anything she couldn’t afford and avoiding the temptation to spend money on frivolous things that would only bring short-term happiness.
At the time of her death, she was a widow, which might not be surprising for a woman her age. My great-grandfather died of a heart attack in the 1970s when he was only in his mid fifties. From that point on, Magie lived independently for over 40 years, doing everything for herself for as long as she could. In her nineties, she became legally blind and agreed to have caretakers come in several times a week to help her around the house, but she refused to move into an assisted living facility or anything like that. But she didn’t let her age and deteriorating physical ability stop her from doing what she could. She even planned her own funeral mass a few months before her death: all the readings, all the songs, everything that took place was exactly as she had planned.
I’ll be 20 on Wednesday and even though I still miss her like crazy, I think it’s amazing that I was able to have one of my great-grandparents around for most of my life up until this point. Magie stayed with my parents and helped take care of me for a week after I was born. She went to my dance recitals, choir concerts, and came to watch me cheer when I was a kid. She went shopping for my junior prom dress with me (and even generously paid for it), she was at my high school graduation, and she was the first person I called (after my parents) when I found out that I had been accepted into my dream study abroad program in Leipzig, Germany during my first year of college. Thinking back on all the milestones of my life, she’s been present for, or involved in, a good majority of them.
I try to live my life in a way that would make her proud (I am, after all, named after her). Still, it’s crazy to think that someone who was here for 96 years can just be gone in an instant. As I write this on Friday, July 11, it’s unbelievable to think that at this time last year, I had no idea that she would be gone so soon.
When I saw her at the end of March 2013 for a combination Easter celebration/joint birthday party for her and my mom (whose birthday is the day before hers), I had no idea that that was the last time I’d ever see her in person. If I’d known then what I knew now, I would have given her an even bigger hug at the end of the day and let her know just how much she meant to me.
When I sent her a postcard from Leipzig in May 2013, I didn’t know that she had less than two months left. I wrote to her about how I’d had a kind of tea with her name on it (her last name, Morgenstern, means “morning star” in German, so it makes a good name for a tea) and told her I hoped to see her soon after I got back to the U.S. I called her almost right away when I returned and told her all about my trip, but it wasn’t until after she passed away that I realized my wish fell short. I found the postcard when we were cleaning out her apartment (it wasn’t that hard to find – she still had it sitting out right where she could see it) and started crying when I realized that I never would “see her soon” when I got home. If I’d known that then, I would have made sure to go up and visit her one more time.
But the past is what it is, and all the regrets in the world won’t give you the power to change it. What you can do is learn from it. Let people know you love them and care about them while you still can. There’s a saying that’s something along the lines of “nobody knows when the last goodbye is,” and as scary as it sounds, it couldn’t be more true.
I’ll always love Magie and I’ll never forget the impact she had on my life. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for her. I can’t bring her back, but I can (and do) do my best to emulate her selflessness, her grace, her humility and her class. I only hope that she would be proud.
Love, Lindsey Rita.