[The mourners are wearing denim today, and if you knew Arleen you understand why]
There is Hasidic wisdom that says, every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique, and the foremost task of every person is to actualize his or her unique, unprecedented and never recurring potentialities, and not to repeat something that another - even the greatest - has already achieved. It is said that a short while before his death Rabbi Zusya proclaimed: “In the world to come I shall not be asked ‘Why were you not more like Moses? I will be asked why were you not more like Zusya.”
The question asked of Rabbi Zusya will not be asked of Arleen Solomon Rotchin in the afterlife. Because Arleen was undeniably, uncompromisingly, one-of-a-kind and completely Arleen.
When our father Ezra Rotchin passed away we felt it was important to eulogize him by telling his story from beginning to end. That was because dad was a man of few words and was not very good at telling his own story. Arleen was exactly the opposite. She loved telling her story, was very good at telling it, and told it to whoever would listen.
Most of you knew our mother - a woman of many facets - in your own unique way. So all we hope to do today is to fill in some gaps. To tell you about the Arleen we knew. Mom was so good at telling her story in fact, that eventually, when she was already well into the Third Act of her life, she published three books, a creative memoir and two novels, and she started a blog that told the stories and celebrated the achievements of accomplished fabulous women. Many of the women she wrote about she felt had not been sufficiently acknowledged, most of them were artists and in their later years. According to mom older woman could stay vibrant and creative, as she did. Age, she liked to say, was only important if you were a cheese.
For mom, life itself was a work of art, a constant creative act, a performance, a shining statement about who you were and what you were passionate about. And she was passionate about a lot of things.
Mom’s life had many acts, many great performances, because she was such a supremely talented, intelligent, curious and gifted individual. She excelled at virtually everything she put her mind to doing, and the list is impressive in breadth and scope.
Her early years were marked by athletic excellence. As a teenager she was a State of Florida champion golfer. Those who knew her as a camper and counsellor at Camp Hiawatha for 16 years will recall her as one of the best athletes in camp, someone who could throw a baseball harder and farther than many of the boys. Growing up on Hampstead Road we played catch with mom as often as we did with dad. Mom was also women’s champion of Cedarbrook golf club, winning the title when she was 8 months pregnant with Randy, if you can believe that. The others competitors cried foul, two against one they said.
Arleen married our father when she was 22 years old and he was 11 years older. She was an incredibly devoted, loving mother, embracing motherhood with heart, soul and youthful vigour, which explains how she was able to pump out three boys in 22 months - she always said she would have had 6 if she could have.
She kept a fastidious home that provided everything we needed. Breakfast was on the table every morning with orange juice and Flintstones vitamins, and dinner was prepared every night, often brisket, steaks on the grill or her famous shepherd’s pie. We did everything together, mom was all about the family. We enjoyed winter weekends skiing at Jay Peak, and suffice to say mom could keep up with the men, pushing herself perhaps a bit too far on one of the mountain’s steeper slopes and breaking her ankle in the deep snow. Mom had her hands full with a house full of men but didn’t back down from a challenge in those days and was seemingly capable of anything.
I could speak of the numerous memorable family vacations, the 6-week summer car trip across North America, the bi-yearly trips to Florida. Mom non-judgmentally encouraged, indulged and supported all our childhood interests and passions, from rock collecting and stamp collecting, to sports and painting. When Randy decided he wanted to attend art school in New York for university, dad was understandably bewildered and dismayed, but mom stood firmly behind Randy. How mom endured my noisy rock band practicing in our basement, is a bit of a mystery to me now, but she did it with a smile, and just shut her bedroom door. Mom understood that ultimately there was nothing more important when raising children, than to make them feel respected, wanted, and supported enough to express their passions whatever they may be. And she ensured that my brothers and I felt that completely.
Eventually mom became restless herself, which you might expect from a person with so much curiosity, intelligence and creative talent. She first tried spreading her wings by starting an advertising agency with her dear friend Rhoda Weitzman, who was probably the closest person mom ever had to a sister. Rhoda’s passing this past summer broke her heart.
A little later on mom decided she wanted to try her hand at veterinary medicine, I kid you not, and took courses to be a veterinary medical technician. She even assisted in the operating room, doing kidney transplants on dogs. I was the coolest kid in my class in grade 5 when, for show-and-tell, I brought a dog’s kidney to class in a jar of formaldehyde that mom had managed to borrow from the lab. It wasn’t my idea, it was mom’s.
The next phase of mom’s life began when she took up the camera. She studied under several teachers including the renowned photographer John Max. She explored a variety of subject matter, documenting workers in a Chabanel street garment factory, awkward children taking beginner ballet lessons, and performing animals at the Barnum and Bailey circus, among them. As with all her endeavours it did not take long for her to become accomplished with a camera, publishing a portfolio of her work in one of the country’s premiere photography magazines.
Photography led to one of the great passions of her life, her work with children. At first it was children with disabilities at Summit School and then it was Shawbridge Youth Center. She had decided that instead of exhibiting her photography, she would teach young people how to use the camera as a means of developing their own sense of self-esteem, personal responsibility, freedom and individual vision. She became a certified photo-therapist and launched her own pilot project at Shawbridge working with youth in crisis and youth under civil protection. It is not an exaggeration to say that she was instrumental in changing the lives of dozens of kids who hadn’t been given a fair chance to succeed in life. During the years she was associated with Shawbridge she also lectured at Dawson and Vanier Colleges teaching phototherapy.
Children were mom’s central passion in life, whether it was raising her own children, or giving photography workshops to kids privately in her home, or working with the kids at Summit School and Shawbridge, it was not just about teaching kids how to use a camera and develop film in a darkroom, it was more about empowering kids to develop their own personal visions and identities.
Mom was so excited when her first grandkids came along, eventually nine in total. She wasn’t your traditional chicken soup and knaidlach grandmother. Having grandchildren was for her a chance to share her exuberance, creativity and playfulness. In her Montreal home she built an art room and relished doing art projects with her grandkids. There was always a special activity with Granny, including excursions to the theatre and other events. In Florida, she had regular weekly activities planned for the grandkids, and never missed a chance, if the wind was good, to fly kites with them on the beach near her home.
The Third Act of mom’s life was characterized by another metamorphosis precipitated by the death of her father, our grandfather Sam, and a shift toward greater independence. She bought and sold and bought homes in Florida, decorating them with her impeccable taste. In her two communities; Palm Beach in the winter and Greene Avenue in the summer, her presence was felt, everyone seemed to know her on the street.
Finally, she turned to writing to exercise her agile mind, talent and desire for self-expression. She had actually always written and been a voracious reader, going back to her days as a journalism student at the university of Miami. I remember her clacking away on a typewriter, and the reams of pages she produced in large stacks in our basement on Hampstead road. Writing again, was for mom, a rediscovery of herself, and resulted in the aforementioned 3 published books.
In mom’s second novel ZOO she draws on her experience as a photographer working with children, and I’d like to read the short prologue from the book because I think her own words give a sense of not only how good a writer she was and her unique literary voice, but also it provides something of a self-portrait. In the scene, the narrator is a photographer whose lens is trained across the street at her neighbour and friend Geena as she is being taken away by the police for a fraud she is alleged to have committed:
“The past is this prologue.
I have little to say about the shooting.
I am on location at the circular driveway, snapping shots of them easing into their large shiny Mercedes. Their elegant prop.
I am a dinosaur. I don’t use a modern digital camera.
The morning light is perfect for black-and-white film.
It is hush-hush except for the clicking shutter.
They are smoking cigarettes. I find it difficult to focus. My eyes are tearing.
She is wearing a blue Versace suit. The design is faultless.
It hangs off the shadow of her frame, sagging and drooping like an old elephant’s skin.
Not exactly what Versace had in mind when he designed the collection.
She looks like a frail bird of an imaginary species.
Her eyes are filled with fear and loneliness. I will crop out the fear.
She is terrified. Bewildered.
Her pale zombie face appears synthetic, overexposed. I will burn in her skin.
She bites her bottom lip. I will dodge out the bite.
My last two frames are Geena going forward and looking back like a terrified exotic animal off to the zoo to be stripped of her freedom.
In no time they will be in Miami. She will appear before the Judge.
I cross the street, a voyeur, and wait to see what develops.
Will she be confined ... exhibited... ?”
(Zoo by Arleen Solomon Rotchin, pg. 11-12)
The prologue captures so much of mom, and especially her contradictions. She was fascinated by high fashion and the status symbols she saw exalted in Palm Beach, and was at the same time repelled by them, railing against them as fraudulent and unimportant. Be wary of what is seen, mom seems to be saying in the quote, sometimes it’s a deception. The photographer can alter the image, smooth away and hide the subject’s blemishes. The image is not reality. And those last startling lines : “Will she be confined ... exhibited ...?” Mom was of course writing about herself. Life is like a work of art, it may be beautiful, exquisitely crafted and framed, something to behold, put in a museum - exhibited. But then isn’t a museum also a house of confinement and hyper-control, a kind of jail.
We live life in metaphors, mom used to say, and we project our personal metaphors onto our subject matter, metaphors that express the contradictions we struggle with. Mom was flashy, trend-setting, an attention-getter - high-school friends and neighbours still talk about seeing mom fly around Hampstead in her Jeep Laredo with the top off - and she was sociable, an engaging conversationalist who cultivated dozens of relationships with friends. And yet she cherished her solitude and fiercely guarded her own physical space. She was a formidable presence, extroverted, opinionated and outspoken, and yet she was also an introvert, sensitive and emotionally vulnerable.
Mom was also a woman of great integrity, respect and consideration. She was never late for an appointment. She did not suffer fools lightly. And if you promised something you better deliver, her word was her bond and she expected the same from others. Many, many adjectives have been used to describe mom: quirky, edgy, cutting, clever, funny, witty, fun - it leaves us all shocked that someone so alive, so vital, could depart so quickly and unexpectedly.
Just before she went into the hospital mom told me I was her best friend. I suspect she said the same thing to Randy and Dean at different times, and may have said the same thing to many of you - mom always wanted to make people feel special and important, and they usually did, because you felt special just to be in her presence.
But I think mom and I had a special closeness. We had a kind of understanding of each other, a meeting of minds and hearts in an inexplicable DNA connection way. I got her, and she got me. I was very attached to her. Maybe too attached and she knew it. At 23 I was home from graduate school abroad and living in her house on Elm Avenue, when she politely invited me to leave. I think she said something along the lines of “Glen, you're doing nothing, it’s time to go.” Mom didn’t mince words. I didn’t like it very much at the time, found it harsh. But kicking me out undeniably jump-started my life. It motivated me to rent an apartment and find my first full time job. Mom was an independent person, with an independent style, independent tastes, independent opinions, and an independent spirit. She had the wisdom to understand that her baby needed a kick in the pants to take some independence of his own.
Mom chose the symbol of the Calla Lilly to represent her blog, her last major project. The Calla Lilly is a flower that traditionally symbolizes unique elegance and fleeting beauty. It’s also known for its resilience and ability to re-grow. Like the Calla Lilly, mom evolved and flowered over and over again throughout her life. I will close with her own words, because I think it may be the best description of mom:
“A Calla Lilly has a style that is ageless. She is busy, unconventional, edgy, independent and intriguing. She knows who she is, and what she wants to say, and doesn’t give a damn. She carries the spirit of youth into old age and never loses her enthusiasm.”
Mom never did, and the beauty of her legacy will never fade.