Witnesses to A Good Life

HER family called the event a "gathering." It is as good a way as any to describe the informal get-together they hosted to honor the life - and acknowledge the passing - of a remarkable 96-year-old woman named Lili. On a late-summer Saturday, 60 relatives, friends, and acquaintances assembled at a suburban senior center to share memories and anecdotes, laughter and tears, weaving the diverse threads of Lili's life into a colorful biographical tapestry.Lili was born in Nuremberg, Germany. After her marriage to a wealthy banker, the couple's home in Berlin became a magnet for artists, writers, and intellectuals. Lili loved music and art. She spoke four languages. She made the acquaintance of Carl Jung. So polished were her manners, so regal her bearing that strangers sometimes mistook her for a duchess. Then came World War II. To protect their children from the Nazis, Lili and her husband sent their daughter to England and their son to college in the United States. Nazis occupied the family's house, forcing Lili and her husband to live in the basement. Her parents died in a concentration camp. Her husband died in a hospital. Lili herself endured two years of forced labor in an arms factory, working 17 hours a day. Yet despite hardship and tragedy, her courage and dignity remained remarkably intact. After the war Lili began a new life in New York, initially working as a housekeeper. Later, in retirement, she moved to New England, where she was surrounded by three generations of her family. In her 80s, she enrolled in a creative-writing course. She continued to play the piano. She saw "Amadeus" 40 times. To those at the "gathering" who knew Lili only from afar - as a small, silent woman seated next to her daughter in church week after week - these biographical details came as astonishing revelations. Lili's shy smile and unassuming manner had served as a disguise, masking both the richness and the sadness of her life. Any summary of a person's life - place of birth, education, employment, marital status, children - cannot begin to convey the remarkable qualities and extraordinary experiences that shape a character and define a family. It took this "gathering" in honor of Lili to gather together the history of her times and the heroic role she played. Those who heard Lili's story for the first time found themselves looking at one another and wondering: Who else in this room has been taken for granted? What other ordinary people here have extraordinary stories to tell? In fact, are there any ordinary people? The answer lies in the eye of the beholder. The most impressive heroes may be those who are most invisible. Sometimes it is near-strangers, rather than relatives, who offer telling insights into a person's character. Earlier this summer a friend returned from her father's funeral in Indiana with a heightened sense of his lifelong generosity - the result of information gleaned in conversations with two people she had never met before. One man attending the service told her that 25 years earlier her father, Charles, a real-estate broker, had helped him look for a house that would accommodate his wife's wheelchair. After much searching, the couple found a suitable place, only to discover that the down payment was beyond their means. Saddened, they braced themselves for another search. Instead, Charles quietly made up the difference from his own pocket, enabling the couple to buy the house. Characteristically modest, Charles never bothered to mention this act of kindness to his family. Another man revealed that as a boy he often had no money to attend Saturday matinees. On many occasions, Charles, who then owned a grocery store, would give him a quarter, sending him happily off to the movies with his friends. Charles had no extraordinary experiences like Lili's, but in any "gathering" of his own he might share with her a partnership of the heart. They were two of life's givers, who saw what needed to be done and unobtrusively did it, as if such giving were the most natural act in the world. Their survivors gather not just to honor these gentle people but to be challenged - gently - to achieve such remarkable ordinariness themselves.

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