My mother Ursula died two weeks ago at age 97. What follows is an adaptation of the remarks I delivered at her memorial service.
Ursula often said that she outlived all of her friends other than Helga. This not unreasonably troubled my mom, but as I often reminded her it beat the most likely alternative.
The approach of death tends to bring out faith among closet believers, but my mom did not have much time for organized religion. She was not in the least anti-religious; she was just anti-zealot of any stripe. This was one of her finer points as a human being – she was very tolerant and welcomed difference before it was woke to do so. She was delighted that my best friend in elementary school, Matthew, was black but she had a true German embrace of decorum and custom.
Ursula was born in September 1921 in Hamburg to a sturdy family who could have walked out of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. She could until last week tell you the name of the local butcher they frequented and the course she rowed on the inner Alster. She had an amazing memory and a remarkable gift for languages as I will describe later .
Had Herr Hitler not broken-up this decorous childhood, Ursula would no doubt still be living in Germany and I would not be at all. Rather tragically for her but fortunately for me, the family escaped to Cleveland in late ’37. While grateful to be safe, my mother, rather like the Queen whom she resembled in later years, was not amused by the Ohioan intelligentsia. Undoubtedly this forced migration at an early age contributed as much as her German heritage to her desire for custom and routine. More about this too later.
As soon as she could, Ursula split Cleveland and moved to a West Village apartment she was ultimately to share with her life-long friend Helga. My mother LOVED New York. Not just as one among many great cities, but above all others. She loved the pace, the glamour, the architecture, and the museums, theatres and opera halls. Years later, when I told her that Cleveland had greatly improved she would have none of it.
After a couple of other jobs, Ursula eventually became my father’s secretary in the textile machinery import business my father Walter started from scratch after the War. When Walter, Sr. had the good business sense to expand to Brazil which was rapidly industrializing in the mid-1950s he asked my mother to move with him to Sao Paulo As the family story goes, Ursula replied that she would only move as his wife, and my father, recognizing the value of a smart, multilingual secretary, said “I do.”
I showed up in 1959 as somewhat of a mistake – a status that I have successfully strived to maintain all these years. While I was still young, 14, when my father died, I recall that our Manhattan apartment was sort of a cross between the UN and Katz’s Deli. My mother used to complain about the Eastern European emigrants and hangers-on who had a tendency to show up at 11:00 AM Sundays expecting to be well fed; however, she was surrounded by a whirl of company and languages that I know she enjoyed.
Later, after my father died, Ursula’s social life contracted to bridge, international cinema and a handful of friends, of whom only Helga survives. She did not complain but reassembled a borrowed posse of staff at her beloved beach in Cannes and an assortment of favored doormen, supers, waiters and concierges around the world.
My mother was a creature of habit. Not like “I enjoy going regularly to my favorite restaurant,” but more “I want to eat there every single night.” As Steve likes to observe, I have certainly inherited some of this DNA, but not like Ursula! Every year from when my father died in 1973 until her broken hip in 2015, my mother stayed for two months every summer in the same French resort town, in the same hotel and in the very same room!
A word about Ursula’s remarkable gift for language. She spoke her native German, and English and French and Spanish and Portuguese FLUENTLY, and could hold her own in Russian, Polish and Hebrew – which she set about learning “for fun” in her 80s. I used to, rather uncharitably, tell her than she had nothing to say in 10 languages, but this was, of course, very unfair, as she had a lot to say, often repeatedly. It frustrated Ursula greatly that she could not understand Finnish since other languages came to her so easily. Whereas, I am happy to take a relaxing mental snooze while my Finnish wife Maarit speaks her inscrutable language to her parents, it frustrated my mother no end.
This brings me to Maarit. My wife routinely asks me to mention her in my talks or blog posts which, like my appearance at the 2019 Consensus Blockchain conference, involves major oratory gymnastics. Not so here. I can confidently tell you that the single best thing I ever did for my mother in my life was to marry Maarit. She was not only incredible at the end of Ursula’s life; she was incredible day-to-day over their 33 years together.
I will end this remembrance of my mother with a relatively recent episode that captured both her playful spirit and her secret for a long healthy life. Four summers ago, Ursula broke her hip in a fall in the street in France and thereafter her cherished independence but also her loneliness ended. After excellent orthopedic surgery my mother was admitted to a rehab facility behind the town of Antibes to regain mobility. I, of course, was only too happy to volunteer to stay for the month of September to perfect my tennis, skiing and cycling, not to mention rosé drinking. My friend Joe, being the mate he is, spent a week with me. On one of my daily, but admittedly brief, visits to Ursula at the Maison de Re-education, Joe and I smuggled a bottle of good vodka and three shot glasses into the otherwise dry rehab facility. This permitted my mother to maintain her nightly custom of a full shot of vodka before dinner — a potion to which she ascribed miraculous medicinal powers. This episode may have been the second nicest thing I ever did for my mom, as even in her last days on earth she was telling this story to the nursing staff in the hospital.
A life well-lived.