Edith Hollander Furstenberg 1910 – 2015

February 4, 2015

My mother died this week a few months before her 105th birthday.  That she was so old suggests who she was.

We have said for years that what kept her alive was overwhelming cheeriness and her determination to live; but others, most people, frequently said to me, “You must have great genes.”

And indeed my mother’s parents lived late too.   But my brother the sociologist told us, as we gathered last weekend in my mother’s apartment, that genes account for no more than three percent of longevity.  The rest, he said, is the way we live and luck.

So apart from luck my mother deserves the credit for her long life.  Playing tennis until she couldn’t.  Driving until she shouldn’t – and then for a few more years.  Surrounding herself with friends and after they died with comparative strangers whom she made friends.  Most of all gathering about herself her children and grandchildren at least one of whom visited every few days.  Not to mention nieces and nephews and the children of old friends not still around.

She had quite a following.

My mother simply loved living and for the people who saw her that was infectious.


She was in great shape at her 100th birthday and we celebrated it at my sister’s home.  We gathered – her six children, spouses, twelve grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren – to toast her and roast each other.  Most of all to eat the foods we prepared for the event.

We are an eating family, some including me might say excessively so, and like most Jewish (and Italian and Iranian and Korean et al), we celebrate birthdays and holidays and most other days with food.

As a family in the 1950s when we were living in the family’s home we ate dinner together; we even ate breakfast together.  Can you imagine that?

Although our food was influenced by my father’s having been born in Sweden (herring and knaeckebrot for breakfast), my mother made the food decisions.

She came from a wealthy German-Jewish family and her mother didn’t cook.  Her mother had a cook.  The family’s meals were prepared by Miss Hen (one generation out of Slavery) followed by Bobbelee who started working for my grandparents when she was 15 years old. (She lied about her age.)

My mother may never have turned on a stove until the War.

But in 1942 my father, a Public Health Service captain, was assigned to Florida and my mother had to learn to cook.  Happily she had an aptitude.

Remember:  There were no frozen dinners then.  Convenience foods (if indeed they are foods at all) came after the War.

Certainly people didn’t go to restaurants to eat.  Fast food hadn’t been invented and food was hard to come by.

Our family dinners were simple — it was a time of simple food.  I have memories from the War when rationing demanded from even experienced cooks a level of ingenuity that our affluence today has made entirely unnecessary.

We didn’t have meat very much; we certainly didn’t have butter. But even without ingredients easily obtainable now we ate very well.

It was in the Fifties that my mother’s cooking flourished. She used to describe her meals as “the flower of my art.”  Scallops, pot roast, Swedish meatballs, Beef Stroganoff, always vegetables simply cooked, nearly always potatoes that my father loved, salads, and desserts. We ate well.

The dinner table was chaotic. Six children, my father trying to tell stories from his workday, my mother trying to keep our attention for my father. She was the cook; she was the mistress of ceremonies.

When the beautiful leg of lamb was served, someone (probably me) would say, “Mom, we just had lamb.”  And my mother would bolt from her chair at the foot of the table, go back into the kitchen and bring back her black and white notebook, look through it to say, “We last had lamb on March 10th.”

Dinner wasn’t always joyful. My sister Carla regularly knocked over her water glass and, in anticipation of my father’s disapproval, would begin to cry.  My brother and I would quarrel.  Sometimes the older of us hovered over the plates of the younger.  (“Have you finished, Mike?”)

But whether joyful or not, stormy or not, our dinner was a family time, the most important family time.  And although my father always dominated our family my mother was always in charge of the table.

I knew my mother for 76 years and so of course I knew her far more as an adult than as a child.   Although she had a rewarding career as a social worker she took time away from her profession to be a full-time mother.  She loved those 18 years as a full-time homemaker.

She loved her life after as a fairly senior social worker.  She loved being a wife and mother.  She loved her social life.  She simply loved living.  It is sad to lose her most of all for that reason.

Until quite recently she would say often “I know I have to die but I don’t want to.”   And so inevitably she has now been been deprived of the one thing she had left and most of all didn’t want to lose.

  1. Frances Kissling says:

    Having just sung the praises of Bread Furst’s baguette on facebook and knocked off a sesame bagel this am, reading this was special. My doctor noting my reference to baguette and butter highly recommended the multigrain,
    You were a lucky, lucky fellow to have such a wonderful mother and she such a rich life. And you write beautifully. Thanks for feeding us so well.

  2. Steven Jenkins says:

    This is the finest thing I have read in ages. You are amazing.

  3. Olga Boikess says:

    That is a lovely tribute to your mother. Her story is certainly inspiring to people like me who are trying to “age well”. Please accept my sympathies for a loss that can never really be expected. I had no idea that you had so many siblings. Best Olga

    Date: Wed, 4 Feb 2015 16:44:24 +0000 To: boikess@hotmail.com

  4. Richard Lang says:

    Thank you for this lovely remembrance. How lucky you are to have had this wonderful woman with you for so many years and how wonderful for her to have been able to enjoy her years in such a meaningful way.

  5. Mike Nash says:

    I’m sorry for your loss, Mark. She sounds like a wonderful person.

  6. Christina Sklarew says:

    Mark, I’m sorry to hear of your loss. I first met your mother when she came into the bakery, either while we were getting ready to open or for the opening-night party. I introduced myself, and she asked me what I did at the bakery. When I told her I was one of the bread bakers, she said, “Oh, then you’re one of the important people!” It was so simple, so affirming, so genuinely nice. Every time I saw her after that, I thought of those words. She seemed to me such a generous and rare person. I’m sure she’ll be missed by many.
    Christina Sklarew

  7. Merry Richon says:

    What a delightful tribute; she must have been an amazing woman!

  8. I feel I simply must send you my condolences.
    …thank you for the wonderful Memorial which I feel so privileged to have read about a lady who lived on this planet to the fullest, who gave so much of herself and how lucky you were to have been her son.

    Pauline N. Fromer
    Capestrano Italy

  9. Ann Topor says:

    Such a beautiful tribute to your mother, Mark. I enjoyed every word of it, and I’m so very sorry for your loss.

  10. Cogeco says:

    Mark Desolé pour ta mere. I know how much my mother weighs in my life and can’t imagine what that day will look like. She is 87. Every day I see her I try to memorize her face and imagine myself in a youth of my own construction. I project my younger self into non existent situations so I can better remember her. All our thoughts go to you my friend. We love you. Lyne and Dan.

    Sent from my iPad


  11. Jim O'Neill says:

    Sounds like we had very similar family lives, Mark. Weren’t we blessed! Beautiful tribute to your Mother whose life touched so many..

  12. Martha Angle says:

    Mark, Bob and I are so sorry for your loss. But how lucky you are that she was with you for 76 years, and created such a rich and wonderful tapestry of love. Hugs, dear friend.

  13. Dear Mark, my mother, Sylvia Hollander, died way too soon at 86. Thank you for your beautiful prose that brings back such wonderful memories — you wrote about my mother! Tomorrow we bury my 98 year old mother-in-law and I am so sad because she didn’t enjoy life the way our mothers did. We are truly blessed.

  14. Janet Cam says:

    What a fine life and memories you shared here. She lived long and well. I am sorry to learn of your loss. Sending you my love and support in this time of transition.

    Warmest regards,

  15. eshack@igc.org says:

    Mark,Your profile of your mother took me back to the  times  when I sat at her table.  One was Spring Break (1961?) when I was your guest, and the other was Thanksgiving of the year I worked in Baltimore (1969).  They seemed like total chaos to me, with everyone talking over each other, especially you, (“No, that’s not what I said. That’s your interpretation of what I said, which makes my point, which is, that you don’t understand the issue at hand.”)In spite of the cacophony, she was nonplussed.  Having family members to share your loss is a blessing.  The Washington Post profile was really, really nice.  You must have know about it when you were last in S.F., but did not saying anything.  That is restraint unbecoming, really unbecoming you.

  16. Jo Greengrass says:

    It must be a huge loss for you and your family and our thoughts are with you. What a special woman she must have been and I understand a little more now why you’re so special too.

  17. Laura says:

    I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. I had the pleasure of spending some time with your Mother and that memory will be with me through eternity. She was a lovely woman. I recall her tenacity and humor as well as her ability to “rein in” her children, even into their mature adult years! I know you loved her dearly Mark and she knew it too. She will be missed by everyone who had the pleasure of her company. Be well my dear friend…

  18. Holly Briwa says:

    Mark, What a lovely tribute to your mother. I remember the first time I came to visit you when you had the Breadline and then taking the train to Baltimore and even though I hadn’t met your mother, I saw her on the train, in her blue suit and grey hair – in her nineties still taking the train. I was so impressed by the sight of her. I am sorry for your loss.

  19. brought a tear to my eye! Thanks for writing this.

  20. Robin Shuster says:

    I wish I had met her. Lovely recollection.

  21. ebindc says:

    Condolences. My father-in-law was friends with her at her retirement community and was very sad to hear of her death. The two of them used to talk about when they lived in the Walbrook neighborhood of Baltimore.

  22. Megan says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for the vividly bountiful peek into the life of your family.

  23. marjob89 says:

    I loved reading about your mother and her wonderful life. Back in 1969 or 1970, I had a field work supervisor named Hollander (not sure of her first name, could have been Katherine). when I was a social work student in Baltimore. Anyway, I had the impression that the Hollander family was socially prominent. And I learned that “socially prominent” in Baltimore meant very involved in charity work, good citizenship and progressive politics.

  24. Kathy Neustadt says:

    As one of those “children of old friends not still around,” I just wanted to say that your mother was an amazing gift to the world. Not just because she was so smart, funny, and kind, but because that powerful life affirmation she possessed did make it feel, at times, like she was exempt from the laws of life & death and instead would be able to continue on like a river or a mountain, as a force of (human) nature. A force of nature, a beacon of personal energy, a core of family and community cohesion; she was all of that, and , in my heart–as in the hearts of so many others–she will always be.

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