Bertha Kainen 1917-2009

Spoken At Her Memorial Service


My earliest memory, now a dreamy memory of a memory – is a rhythm, a sing-song, tonal, comforting sound. I think it was my mother singing to me as I slept in her arms. She couldn’t carry a tune if her life depended on it, so that’s how I know it was she, more rhythm-speaking than singing, as one does reciting poetry. A sing-song sound that floated me, like the sea.

My mother had a great love of art and music, and, for no apparent reason, a fabulous French accent. It was so good, even in high school, that she alone, among all her classmates, was allowed a French pen pal of the opposite sex (remember, it was the 1930’s). She leafed through all the pictures, picked out the handsomest boy, and they corresponded for almost 30 years, until, on our first trip to Europe in 1960, she and I met that pen pal, Jean Simon, who was by then a retired French Navy admiral, and his beautiful family. It was summer, and the Simons vacationed from their home in Brest, to a farm in the Breton woods. I had never tasted such food, seen such ancient stone houses, or gone out in the morning to fetch the day's water in a big pail from a spring nearby. Jean Simon had three enchanting teenage daughters, (the two eldest carried the water), and after a few days’ visit, as we drove away in his Peugeot, and I waved out the back window to the three, gorgeous, homespun, unspoiled girls, I realized, with a pang of heartache, that I loved them all, and I would surely never see them again.

My mother was as sweet and unspoiled as those Simon girls. I look at old pictures of her – especially her wedding photo - and I know in a heartbeat why my father fell in love with her. Even into her old age, she carried an unblemished, upwardly aspiring hope to do good in the world, and, above all, to tell the truth. You could see that in her face.

Now, yes, Death reached into the end of her life and put a chill on her long, Indian summer of optimism, with aches and pains and dizziness, but those of us who knew her will quickly forget that momentary disillusionment, and remember that if any one thing besides kindness that characterized Bertha Kainen, it was her celebration of the truth, and that extended not just to her professional conscientiousness in fact-checking stories and words, but to people – the truth in them.

She was quick to raise the ordinary to extraordinary; not just a beautiful child, but an exceptionally beautiful child; not just a nice young man, an exceptionally, remarkably, nice young man. Despite her sharp instinct for discerning personal integrity, one might easily have mistaken her for a pushover or gullible, because she seemed to find that special, that exceptional truth, in so many people she met, enthusiastically, even gleefully accepting them into her personal hall of fame. An old friend, when I told him how highly she had spoken of him, quipped: "Well, Dan, you know how hard it is to make an impression on your mother…"

I tried to tell her more than once, to no avail, that she was pretty impressive herself. True to her nature, she did not really believe me, but no words will ever express how large an impression she left on me, and no love I will ever experience, will not have its foundation in her love of me. There is nowhere so deep in me that she cannot be found.

Of course this is all so much fancy talk. Trying to find some meaning in the loss of a mother. Good luck to me on that. I am just trying to say to her, so exceptionally inadequately: "I'll always love you."