Elisabeth Katz died on Friday at home in Napa, California.
At 93 last Wednesday, she had a long life. But life never seems long enough.
Forty-one years ago, the first time I was to meet Elisabeth–“Mrs. Katz” at that point–she got a migraine and dinner at the house was called off at the last minute.
I was a high school sophomore. Her son and I were in love.
Reason enough for a migraine.
Instead of dinner at their home there was Chinese food out with “Mr. Katz”, Eugene, and Jeff. Apparently I passed muster. Far as I know—and I know a lot–Elisabeth never had another migraine.
Elisabeth S. Rosenthal grew up in Fürth, Germany. She was an only child, raised by a nanny, and was especially close to her father, who owned a shoe factory. Henry Kissinger was a classmate. The family was more than comfortable. They vacationed in Switzerland, and Elisabeth acquired a taste for nice things.
The Nazis put an end to that.
“Choose what you want to do carefully,” said her father. “I can only help you once.”
Elisabeth left, alone, for England with a slip of paper, an address, in her pocket. She was seventeen, a few months too old for the Kindertransport, the program to save Jewish children from the Nazis. She was interned until the British could be sure she wasn’t a spy. Elisabeth lived as a helper to two older women until her English was good enough to enter nurses training. She thought she’d be a baby nurse, but decided that labor and delivery was more interesting.
Ever grateful to England, “they saved my life,” she drank tea every morning, and visited England as often as possible. She kept hoping even in her last weeks for one last trip. “Just one night?”
She worked at Kaiser Hospital in Vallejo for 25 years, and was married to Eugene Katz for nearly 63 years. Theirs was an immigrant success story. Eugene from poorer beginnings, also in Germany, and they built a family with two sons. Gerry died in 1993. Jeff and I were married for 35 years.
Once a mother-in-law, always a mother in law.
She rarely talked about the early struggles, was instead always interested in the here and now. She read incessantly, literary mysteries were her favorite, learned to use email, and was the proud owner of one of the very first iPads.
But mostly Elisabeth was interested in people. She could have an interesting conversation with a dinner plate. And even if she wasn’t the most polite, she was always honest. “You seem tired today,” or maybe, “The other sweater looks better on you.”
And so during one of many visits during the last weeks, I decided it was fair to bring up a sensitive topic I’d wondered about for years. At well over 90 Elisabeth had a full head of dark hair. She had one gray strand. Maybe three. Over decades as a daughter-in-law I saw and heard many intimate things—some, decidedly too intimate—but even in her sick-bed, there was no hint of Clairol.
“What is your secret for not getting gray hair?” I asked.
“No secret.” She shrugged both hands and shoulders.
“You do have a secret, you just don’t want to tell me!”
“You are being ornery old goat!”
She laughed then. She laughed and she laughed at that. It may seem an odd thing to say to someone who’s dying, but my goal was to make her laugh and I knew how to do it.
I’ll always remember her laugh.
photo by Charlie Ray