Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lee Kershner 1928-2016

                                                       Lee Kershner, circa 1956 

Mother never did anything the conventional way.

Born Gloria Lee Pritchard, she decided as a girl she hated her first name and went by Lee. When she was twelve, she decided while on a swing she would have one boy and one girl and name them Vlae and Tempra--and she did. I believe my first name is unique.

As a teenager, she fearlessly roamed the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago until late at night. At seventeen, she was an usher at a major production of "Porgy and Bess", which of course had an all-black cast. She developed a crush on one of the actors. She was told she was putting him in danger in an era when interracial relationships could get a black man killed. When she wouldn't stop talking with him, she was fired.

She dropped out of high school to marry an artist of Serbian descent, shocking her rather proper family, which was of English-Scotch origin by way of central Illinois farm country.

A few years later, she fell in love with my father, a window-display designer she had met while working at a department store. (Both my parents were quite talented at design, a trait lost on me). She divorced her husband to marry him. My father, dazzled, told me she had been as beautiful as Jackie Kennedy and as intelligent as Simone de Beauvoir, to which I might add, as willful as Katherine Hepburn.

Mother--we didn't call her Mom as adults--taught me to read when I was just two. As she tells the story, she was reading at a summer resort in the Indiana Dunes, when I came up and pointed in the book and said "What's dat?"

"That's an O," she said.

"Dat's another O," I said, pointing. By summer's end, I knew all the letters.  I could read the comics in the Chicago Tribune by the time I was four and of course was far above grade level when I got to school in the wind-sculpted Indiana Dunes, where we had moved full-time. There wasn't much choice other than to read--we weren't allowed to watch much TV.

Concerned about the quality of schools, my parents moved to the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, which had a society that put pressure on people to act in certain upwardly mobile ways. They reacted differently to those expectations, and their marriage was never the same.

Both my parents told me that God didn't exist, but we still celebrated both Jewish and Christian holidays, the one with Dad's side, the other with Mom's. We never invited both sides over at the same time. Mixed marriages and atheists were both unusual in the suburbs back then. My fifth-grade teacher became so disturbed when I said I didn't have a religion that she telephoned Mother for an explanation.

In the early 1960s, with two young children, Mother went back to work, first as a secretary at Northwestern University business school. I had one of the few moms at Ravinia School who worked. Next, she and my father started a gift shop in Highland Park, William & Lee Ltd., which offered the first turquoise jewelry sold in the area. Later, she became executive secretary (and de facto leader) of the Chicago Farmers Association, satisfying her passion for the preservation of rural America.

In 1966, we rented a gentleman's farm in Half Day (which doesn't exist legally anymore), on the banks of the Des Plaines River. My sister had a horse, I had a motorbike and canoe. We had a pool. We couldn't really afford it, but that was living!

My parents were intelligent people, devoted to making sure their children got the secure childhoods and paid-for college educations they didn't. However, their personalities were volatile and they got into huge, scary fights, fueled by alcohol. They divorced in the early 1980s, but continued to see each other socially until my father died in 1997. Neither remarried. It was a true love-hate relationship.

In retirement in Las Cruces, N.M., Mother got involved in land use and immigration issues, supporting the expansion of parks and the Mexican American community. Her politics turned around twice: She went from near-communist in her youth to a pro-Reagan member of the Republican women's club in Lake Forest, Ill., to a supporter of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (even though she opposed same-sex marriage).

She always dressed well, kept her weight, and was expert in the arts of makeup. About ten years ago, when she and her Aunt Tee were walking together in Las Vegas, a young woman came up and said "I won't mind getting old if I can look as good as you two."

Late in life, she took up genealogy. She could trace her family back to the Mayflower, and had ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War. Her great-grandfather Tandy Pritchard, believed to be one-quarter Choctaw, fought for the Union at Vicksburg.

The last time I visited, in early January, Mother, who had stayed at 110 pounds for sixty years, was losing weight and knew something was wrong. A couple weeks later, she was diagnosed with cancer  She had talked for many years about how she would not get into a situation where her mind or body deserted her. She had squirreled away some narcotics, and told us she was going to end her life.

My sister and I urged her to at least get a proper prognosis to see if treatment would help, but she rejected the idea and told us not to come visit. A few days later, she took her life, alone, at age 87. It seemed as though she almost welcomed the cancer as it gave her impetus to ensure she would never become dependent on anyone.

I think it's better to give a likely-fatal disease a good fight for awhile, if only to make loved ones feel better. But ask me again when the time comes.

She was one of a kind. Along with many people in Illinois, New Mexico, and elsewhere whose lives she touched, I'll miss her.

                         Clockwise from top: William, Lee, Tempra, Vlae, Christmas 1962 

I love this photo from when Polaroids were the hot new technology. It seemed like magic--I ran over to the camera and waited 60 seconds for the image to be developed!

Here is her obituary in the Las Cruces Sun-News. With a few additions, it's just as she wrote it and gives a sense of how she thought. You can also sign the guest book. 

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