I cannot find any words to express who my mother was better than my “Brother from Another Mother” Kevin used at my mom’s memorial service.
His words brought the entire chapel to tears, not from sadness but from the realization that he had captured the essence of Vera Mae Lee in his thoughtful tribute.
Memories of Vera Mae Lee (Edited Version)
Feb. 14, 2013
I feel so privileged to be able to share a few memories today about my dear neighbor and friend, Vera Mae Lee. Vera and her family moved next door to my families’ home when I was 4 years old – 46 years ago.
I was fortunate to have grown up, playing with Cheryl and Karen, rumbling through Vera and Bill’s home and yard, and having countless lunches in Vera’s kitchen. I think all who knew Vera, knew how good a cook she was.
When I was a sophomore in college, my parents called me home one weekend and told me that they had both been diagnosed with terminal cancers on consecutive days earlier that week. Despite our best efforts, both my mom and dad succumbed to their cancers just months apart.
As a 20 year old single person, I knew the first holiday season after losing my parents would be emotionally brutal. It just so happens that my birthday also falls between Christmas and New Years. On New Years Eve, my 21st birthday, I had lunch with Vera. Just her and me — talking about my parents, but also about how wonderful life was. She knew how to look for the positives in any situation.
Vera’s support never ebbed. Each year, I got a reminder that she was thinking of me…because every year on my birthday, Vera baked me another homemade lemon pound cake. Vera never forgot my birthday…not even one.
I now have two daughters — and getting a homemade birthday cake has become a 30-year family tradition. Every Dec. 31, my daughters wake up and ask “Dad, when is Mrs. Lee going to call you to tell you when you can pick up your cake?” You see, my entire family has grown to love those cakes as much as I do.
After having had a taste of one of those cakes several years ago, my wife Myrna looked at me, smiled and said, “The only thing that comes out of Vera’s kitchen is perfection.” As usual, my wife was right. Vera knew just how much lemon flavoring to add, and just the right amount of sugar to use. She baked her cakes just long enough that they retained the ideal degree of moisture.
But creating “perfection” requires more than culinary skills. There were a few special ingredients that Vera added to her cakes. Less tangible ingredients perhaps then flour, eggs and milk, but even more important to the substance of what she was baking. To each cake, Vera added a few teaspoons of her heart, a few dashes of compassion, a cup or two of support, a few smiles, several warm hugs and always more neighborly love than any traditional recipe called for. Carefully mixed together and baked at the right temperature, those ingredients truly made…perfection.
As I got older, I realized that those birthday cakes were a metaphor for all that is good about humanity. Each of those cakes gave me the comfort of knowing that I have a life-long friend looking in on me, the comfort of knowing that someone is thinking about my well being, and the security of knowing that I had a friend I could always depend on for support. Those were the confections that I truly craved…that satisfied my emotional appetite, that nourished my soul and that warmed my heart. Vera was a tremendous human being.
Vera fought her disease hard and valiantly — and each time I saw her, no matter how poorly she felt nor how much weight she’d lost, she managed to smile and to talk about how she needed to get back on her feet because she had so many things to do. As you might guess, most of those things involved helping others.
Myrna, our children and I, will always be inspired by the size of Vera’s heart, by her character, by her courage, by her optimism, by her graciousness and especially, by her thoughtfulness. I have always believed that the true measure of our lives is the positive impact that we have on others. To Vera, life was always much greater than her own concerns. She strove to brighten the world each day.
I know I am a better, and more thoughtful person, because Vera was my neighbor and my friend.
And now I must continue the tradition, to not only keep my mother’s memory alive but as a tradition for Kevin and I to share with our children. So today, I made Kevin a cake.