8 Jun 2015

Remembering Arlene Lanson


Why did someone who made such a small footprint on the world leave such a gaping hole in my heart?

I recently spoke at an event in Lexington, in honor of the passing of elderly woman in the community. A friend of hers spoke about the deceased, leaving myself and the entire audience deeply moved. What struck me most about what she said was how we all feel that are lives are rather mundane and ordinary, and that the significance of our lives is much more profound than we imagine.

Here is a transcription of her speech:

Sarah asked me to say a few words about Arlene Lanson. I said “no”. But Sarah persisted.

The reason I said no was that it’s hard to speak about a relationship that is so personal and emotional. It’s hard not to cry.

It’s also hard to speak about Arlene Lanson for another reason. Usually, when you have to speak about someone, it is to tell about all their accomplishments–what extraordinary things they have done, and how their deeds reflect who they are as a person.

But what about Arlene Lanson? I didn’t know Arlene that way. I knew more about what she did not do than what she did do. She was that lady who never got married. She was that lady who never had children. Yes, she liked to paint, she liked to cook, she liked to swim. But she was no Mary Cassatt. She was no Julia Childs. She was no Mark Spitz.

So in trying to think about what to say, I found myself naming all the things Arlene was not. That’s not very nice!

But really, Arlene was the personification of the understatement. She left a very small footprint on the world. She did not strike us as extraordinary in her deeds. She was just like the rest of us…pretty normal.

So how is it that we are here today, dedicating this event to her memory? We don’t do this for everyone. And at a very personal level, how is it that she has left such an extraordinary, gaping hole in my heart and in my world?

This is not the first time I have grappled with this question in regard to Arlene Lanson. I was heartbroken when she died. But I really didn’t know why her death hit me so hard.

It wasn’t like I don’t know what it is to lose someone. My first husband, my mother, my father, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and my own sister Arlene just two months before Arlene Lanson died. As a psychiatrist, I even treat people with unresolved grief issues.

But still, I couldn’t get Arlene Lanson out of my head. She is there still. I think about her all the time. I keep wanting to pick up the phone and call her. Every Sunday I want to get into the car and go visit her. I miss Arlene, and I still cry.

It turns out I’m not the only one. My kids say the same thing. Some of them drove to visit her in the Fall River rehab when they were here for Pesach. They felt that close to her. My son Judah drove all the way from Crown Heights to attend her funeral.

The day before her funeral, I was worried that there wouldn’t be a minyan. But it turned out that there were actually two minyanim there! One group was from our community. The other group was from her other community in New Bedford. I got to meet some of those people. It was clear that all those people loved her too.

So what do I say about Arlene Lanson? It isn’t about her extraordinary deeds. It’s not about her legacy of accomplishments. But then, what does it say about a person when they leave such a small footprint on the world but such a gaping hole in our hearts?

Yesterday, my 14 year old daughter Rachel Lise and I took a long Shabbos walk. Talking about Arlene today was on my mind. So I asked her what she thought I should say. She said, “just think of something you remember about her.”

All I could think of was how she used to tuck her napkin under her chin when she’d sit down to eat. She was very methodical about the whole thing. She was not a gobbler. Unlike a lot of us, she didn’t take her food for granted.  She’d consider carefully what she wanted to eat, pile her plate up with food, and sit down at the table, even if no one else was eating with her.

I can remember so many motzei Shabbos evenings after a long summer Shabbos day. She’d go to my refrigerator and take out the Shabbos leftovers, make herself a plate of food, warm it up, and take it to the dining room table. I’d find her sitting alone in the dark. I would turn on the light for her, but she said “no” I don’t need the light. I like it this way.

Arlene would sit up very proper, and methodically she would take her napkin, and tuck it neatly under her chin. I always wondered if that was what everyone in her family did. I never asked her. All she told me about mealtime at her house growing up was that it was a scramble to get something to eat. She had to compete with her two older brothers before the food was all gone.

She treated her food with respect. She took her time, and seemed to think about every bite. It was like she had a certain relationship with food that no one else was privy to. While the rest of us would gobble down our meal as if we couldn’t wait to get to more important things, Arlene Lanson took her time. She seemed to cherish every bite as if she were having an intimate conversation with a dear old friend. Every time.

I did not think this was enough to commemorate Arlene Lanson. So I asked Rachel Lise what she remembered. She reminded me that Arlene was always up for just about anything. Not like most people. When you ask most people, “do you want to do this? Do you want to go there?” you often get a “knee-jerk no” along with an excuse as to why not.

Not with Arlene. Whatever suggestion we made, she was ready to do. She would try anything within reason, from a big, long walk that made her huff and puff, to being the audience for Rachel Lise’s phantom ballet performances in our living room, to pretending to be the coach at Rachel Lise’s speed skating races across our living room floor.

Rachel Lise and I kept on talking. We came up with the word courage….how much courage it took for Arlene to show up at Shul every Shabbos morning, whether here or in her New Bedford community. How much courage it took her to socialize with all the wives and mothers there even though she was neither. It is not an easy thing for most single women to do. And how brave she was to just take off to Israel with me for 6 weeks. She loved Israel, and she said this would be her last trip. She was right.

How brave she was in Israel! She walked all over Jerusalem with me. She forced herself to climb up all the hills she would never dream of tackling at home, and up the 6 floors to my daughter’s apartment every Shabbos! This is a woman who wouldn’t walk from my house to this Chabad center without stopping to catch her breath. And I live only three houses down the street!

How brave she was to up and leave her home and friends in Lexington to move back to New Bedford to take care of her elderly mother. To live alone so many years afterward. To walk herself over to the local senior center right after she had a stroke. To drive an hour and a half each way every time she came up to visit us. To go through cancer surgery. To bravely face her own imminent mortality.

I remember the feeling I had…maybe we all did…when she dropped all that weight after her surgery. Those of us who have been in this community for a long time remember the Arlene Lanson of years ago. She was the biggest lady here. Then, as if overnight, she became this little tiny lady. It was like we had rooted for her and she actually made it! We were elated. We were so proud of her, even knowing that her weight loss was unintentional!

Arlene Lanson became someone whose life we got to share in a very intimate way, a very deep way. We could feel her cautious optimism when she recovered. We could feel when she started to give up hope of recovery. We could feel her timidity and her strength. We knew her loneliness, like a thirst we could not quench.

Arlene Lanson never really “invited” us in. She certainly never “forced” us in. She cautiously “let” us in. It took time.

When I first met her, I have to admit, it was hard to see past her size. It was painful…I couldn’t help but wonder how someone could do that to themselves…as politically incorrect as that may sound. Her outer appearance was like a barrier between us and the Arlene Lanson inside.

Once, she showed me a picture of herself taken when she was in her early 20’s. She was a knockout… beautiful face, beautiful figure. I’ve often wondered if she showed that picture to me just so that I could see the Arlene Lanson she really was, the Arlene Lanson inside. As if to say, “see, I wasn’t always like this. I had a life.” What happened? We will never know. But seeing that picture did help to know her a little better.

Other things about her made it hard to know Arlene. She was so quiet. Not that she lacked for words. She simply did not try to compete when anyone else was talking. She would sit at our Shabbos table and get in a word here and there. But most of the time, her little voice was drowned out by all the other voices around the table. She politely wait her turn. But if I wasn’t vigilant, she would go unnoticed. Even when she did start to say something, as soon as someone would interrupt her she would yield the floor.

Every now and then, though, she would manage to get a word in. And when she did, the whole table would crack up. Her humor and her timing were great. She’d pipe up with these little quips, totally unexpected. Little anecdotes that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Once we were talking about the good old days—the 70’s. My kids love to hear stories about those days. They like to think of me as some erstwhile hippie flower child. Really, I was always just a nerd. But that’s OK. Let them think what they will. It’s like a time capsule for them. Ancient history.

Anyway, one Shabbos afternoon we were sitting around the table after lunch and somehow we got around to talking about those days. My kids asked me what I did during the Viet Nam war. So I decided to tell them about my big adventure going on the March on Washington back in 1969. Well, Arlene Lanson pipes up, “I got tear- gassed at that rally!”

The whole family broke out into peals of laughter. Imagine our polite, quiet, apolitical, little Arlene Lanson at an anti-war demonstration getting tear-gassed! But that wasn’t the funniest part.

“Yeah,” she said, “I was there with a friend…on vacation!”

There were were half a million anti Vietnam War protesters in DC that weekend. And big bands, names like Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dillon, singing anti-war songs. And then there was little Arlene Lanson who just happened to be there and happened to pick just that time to go sight seeing!

In the end, Arlene was bedridden for two months. She couldn’t walk at all. She was totally dependent on the nursing staff to take care of her. They got her out of bed and into a wheelchair only once to attend a little concert at the rehab. She loved every minute of it.

Arlene’s stroke affected her sweet little voice. It left her sounding irrascible and impatient even when she wasn’t feeling like that. But even so, she managed to touch the hearts of her caretakers. There was something about Arlene Lanson that just got under your skin. The only sign she ever showed of feeling sorry for herself was a picture she painted at the rehab. It was a picture of the beach, like the one near her house in New Bedford where she would go for walks with her little dog “Sweetie”. She loved the summer time, the ocean, and the beach. The painting spoke a thousand words. It was her best painting ever. It made you feel the longing to be there on that beach, strolling along on the sand with Sweetie, breathing in the ocean air and feeling the breeze. You longed to be there, and not here. Not here where you were tied in by sheets in this hospital bed with open half cans of soda and yogurts all around you, unable to move, unable to walk, unable to breathe.

On paper, Arlene Lanson’s resume is not so impressive. She is just any one of us. An ordinary person. A person who could fade into the woodwork. A person who was such an easy guest because she took care of herself and didn’t asked for anything. She left the smallest footprint on the world.

But the gaping hole that she left…that hole is extraordinary. I can’t really explain it. But there was something about Arlene. She took up very little physical space even at her biggest. It wasn’t her extraordinary deeds. It wasn’t the legacy she left behind. It wasn’t physical at all. I guess you call it spiritual, although I am out of my league to say so. A spiritual hole. A spiritual legacy. An emptiness her living spirit filled.

That, I think, is what defined her, what made her extraordinary. It was a certain unique ability she had to make space for someone else. To put herself aside when any one else in her place would have been so demanding.

This was not ordinary at all. It was extroardinary.

And because she could make space for someone else, she was able to allow two souls, hers and ours, to touch each other, so to speak…our two souls to come together, and to unite as one.

Here is a poem she wrote about Arlene’s passing:

What’s it like to know that you won’t live to see another day? To die with secrets buried deep inside you?

Whatever you have held inside, No longer will you have to hide

The things you want no one to know besides you?


What’s it like to finally know you have no better place to go, And no one in the world that has to mind you?

To leave no heir nor legacy,

No will, to feel completely free

To have no guilt for those you’ve left behind you?


No memories of times we spent, of all the places that we went, Of basking in the summer sun above you?

Of delicacies that we shared,

And jealousies we both unbared, Witholding only that which said I love you.


It wasn’t I who saved your life. G-d was behind the surgeon’s knife. I only prayed you’d last a little longer,

I forced you up and down those hills

I made you walk against your will

If only you could get a little stronger.


Was it because you just gave up when once you saw your little pup

A-lying still beneath the bed you slept in? You just weren’t ready to admit

That she was old and very sick,

Just swept her up into the chair you wept in.


You buried her beneath the ground and that was when you suddenly found

That it was just no longer worthwhile living, No one to really care about,

No one with whom to scream and shout, And no one at the other end of giving.


You hid inside your lonely house and locked the door and shutters tight

And then lay down without a soul around you

You called out only once or twice

Through chattering teeth as cold as ice

You said the winter snow had nearly drowned you


By springtime you were almost gone, no more to bask in summer’s sun, No more to walk the parks of your fair city,

The beaches no more to entice, Though visions of your Paradise

You painted, but you asked for no one’s pity.


Then in a flash, you breathed your last, alone and silently you passed

Just like when you were sitting there among us. The passion no one ever knew,

The gentle grace I saw in you,


The beauty that you always sheltered from us.


You’re hidden now beneath the trees, while all along beside the sea

Your gentle soul is looking all around you, At people that you knew back when

The same ones who never again

Would get the chance to hurt you or confound you.


A shadow of a person to the ones who never really knew

The depths of your incredible devotion, The woman whom they thought they saw Was not the real you at all

But only rare extremes of your emotion.


So quietly you walked right in, and quieter left where you had been, We hardly knew you’d ever even been there.

You left no mark, you left no heir, No one whose interest was to share

The life which all alone was yours to care for.


It isn’t long since your demise., my mind’s eye sees your bright blue eyes, In silence I can hear you speaking to me,

I want to say, “Come home with me,” We’ll have some soup, we’ll drink our tea,

If but your soul were able to live through me!


The sadness that I feel today, so deep it just won’t go away, Surprised myself at just how much I miss you.

Did I not do enough for you, Did I as well abandon you,

Forget you, or neglect you, or dismiss you?


You made it easy to lose touch, you never really asked for much, You often said, “no thank you” in your sorrow.

We spoke again on your last day, I told you I was on my way,

“Too late”, you said. “OK, I’ll call tomorrow.”


And now I stand by your graveside, and truth be told, I could have tried, I never really took much time to see you.

I know you wanted us to come, You wanted to see every one,

Who tried to get what it was like to be you.


The birds aren’t singing loud of spring as cheerily they used to sing, Their music harmonizes with my sadness,

The ocean’s breathing gasps for air

In waves of sorrow hard to bare,

The wind is blowing little gusts of madness.


Now there is no more to be done, another day, another one, No more to celebrate and no more dancing.


No more to change the past and yet

We must try never to forget

The lady whom we knew as Arlene Lanson.

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