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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Birthday Memories and Blessings

Recently we celebrated my mother’s 96th birthday. Born in 1927 mom spent the first 15 years of her life in the Bronx section of New York City growing up around her extended Italian family. When she was in her teens her family moved to the Jersey shore so her father could be closer to his work at Ft. Monmouth, not far from the town of Belmar, NJ.

Mom was the only girl in a family that included her three brothers. While I never knew my maternal grandfather personally, I do know him from stories that my mother, uncles, and grandmother would share about him over the years. From what I’ve gathered, my grandfather was a renaissance man. Among his many talents, he was an engineer, an attorney, an inventor, a licensed chiropractor and physiotherapist, a cook and even to some degree a poet. To say that he doted on his only daughter is an understatement.

In the 1930s and 40s women were often considered second class citizens. Their “jobs” for the most part, if they finished high school, were to become mothers, have babies and take care of their husbands and families. If they did have the opportunity to enter the marketplace it was usually as a secretary, seamstress or factory worker.

It was against this backdrop that my grandfather taught my mother to drive and encouraged her to follow her new husband to Europe when he deployed with the U.S. Army shortly after they married. He instilled in her that regardless of her gender, she could accomplish anything she set her mind to doing.

Looking back over the years, his tutelage served her well. Mom was widowed at age 43 and never remarried. She raised my sister, brother and me as a single mom, encouraging and providing each of us with every opportunity to be successful on our own.

Even though she never finished her college studies, in her mid-40s, mom embarked on a very successful career in the financial services industry which she enjoyed for more than 30 years.

In addition to losing her husband she also endured the tragedy of watching her only daughter, my sister Ann, succumb to cancer.

Has difficult as some areas of her life have been, she’s also had the great blessing of watching her two grandchildren grow up and start families of their own which now include her six great grandchildren who, by God’s grace are in her life daily.

Today, like many who live to her age, mom has difficulty at times remembering things. I lovingly say, “she can remember a conversation she had 50 years ago like it was yesterday but can’t seem to recall what she had for breakfast this morning.”

Since it’s no longer safe for mom to live by herself, she’s been living with us for over two years now. While challenging at times for her, my wife and me, her proximity to us has given us a unique opportunity. For more than two years now, we’ve been able to help mom remember special moments from her past.

One such moment is a poem that her father penned for her on her sixteenth birthday, more than eighty years ago. While we’ve heard her recite this poem over the years, this year, knowing that her memory is fading, it was particularly uplifting when she shared the poem from memory at dinner with her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren all listening attentively.

August 6th a day of joy,

For to this world was born, no boy,

But Paula, who with laughing eyes and dancing feet,

Gives to the world, a treat.

While heartfelt and beautiful in its simplicity, this poem has remained in my mother’s heart for over eighty years.

A true blessing from her father to her and her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

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