Jeanette Wishna, 1943-2008
The eulogy I presented at my mother’s funeral, April 9, 2008:
On behalf of the family, I want to say how overwhelmed I am to see that so many people are here. This is an unbelievable tribute to my mother, and I know that if she were here, she would have been so flattered. But the truth is…and please don’t take this the wrong way…this is really not her thing.
I remember, a few years ago, as her 60th birthday approached, a certain cousin, who I won’t name here, called me with the incredibly well-intentioned idea of planning a surprise party for her. We talked a bit about it, even planning where we might do it and how we might deceive her to get her there. The next night, my father called, and said, “Don’t do it.” I wasn’t even sure what he meant at first. “Please, don’t do it. I’m serious…she loves you, but she will hate this.” Not the surprise, the recognition.
For my mother, being the life of the party meant planning the party for someone else. She would take more pride and joy in the effort to honor someone who she greatly respected than could ever be heaped on her by others.
Everyone here knows her resume, her long list of volunteer involvements, her gift for leadership and for helping others realize their own gifts. She was an incredible mentor to many and confidante to her closest friends and colleagues. I will let others speak to that, who know her primarily in that capacity…
But these are the images and incidents I remember from growing up in her house: Papers piled high on the kitchen table. Waking to the sound of her business-like voice on the phone. File folders piled high in the laundry room. The glow from the kitchen light, late into the night. Notebooks piled high in the back of her car. It wasn’t pretty. But as I got older, I realized that what I was witnessing was a model of selfless service.
I say selfless, because she never sacrificed me or my father for her ends. The opposite—I always felt like I was her most important project. She was at every school event, every play, every Cub Scout meeting—of course, she had to be; she was the Den mother.
The first time my parents visited me at college—my father just reminded me of this last night—she went to the alumni office on campus to ask why we didn’t have a local alumni club. Then she went to Hillel to inquire why they weren’t doing more fundraising in her area.
I could always look to my mom as my first advocate and my last line of defense.
Of course, she had her normal human quirks. She strived to be the “hip mom” when my friends and I came home from college, stocking the fridge with illicit substances like Bud Light and Zima (there was a time, about one week, when Zima was cool). On Sundays, she made me pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse, long after I was too old to think it was cool, and again when I was old enough to think it was sweet. She took smug pride in her electric blue 1968 Pontiac Le Mans convertible, knowing that every time she drove it to the grocery store, some stranger would offer to buy it. She had no patience for people who didn’t follow through, no tolerance for political or professional incompetence, no clemency for a stupid holding penalty on third down.
I never, ever heard my mother speak of “getting credit” for something, and while she was always taking on more responsibility, she never sought out honor or status. It is simply not her fault that she was eventually asked to serve as president of any and every organization she joined.
In recent years it had almost become a joke in our family. My father would have retired years earlier, but what was the point, as long as my mother was still working every day. With each passing year, there was another false alarm as each gig…the JCC, Beth Shalom, the Jewish Heritage Foundation…promised to be her last. But something else always came along. There was always another project. For better or worse, she seemed unstoppable.
To anyone who did not have the pleasure and honor of being in the room with her the last two weeks of her life, it all seems like it ended very quickly. And it did. But on the night that we learned from the doctor that our fight would now require a different, final effort, my mother told me, “I’m not done taking care of you.” And in those last days, as her health declined almost by the hour, she gave me amazing and unexpected gifts… She gave me the time and the space I needed to come to terms with my new reality, the gift of purpose, and the permission I needed not to worry about anything else. I learned care-giving skills that I will apply in one way or another to the rest of my life. She gave me a new, unbreakable bond with my father. Most of all, I was given the chance to begin to repay, in some small way, all that my mother and father have given me. And I knew that my mother would never leave until she knew I was ready to handle it, and until I knew that she was also ready.
A couple of nights ago, I was with her when she woke up in the middle of the night. By this point, her disease had left her mostly confused and disoriented. But she seemed coherent—very frustrated, but very clear. And she looked at me and she was almost crying, and she said, “Victor…I wish…I wish I had a new project. I need a new project.”
It could be easy to see this last unsettled episode as the regret of someone who wasn’t ready to go, someone who had too much still to do here, someone who was so used to being in control trying one last time in vain to regain it.
But my mother, especially over the last several years, fell in love with Jewish learning, and so she would know that in Judaism, little energy is given to speculating about what happens after this life. In Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers, it says, “Better one hour in good deeds in this world than all the life in the world to come. And better one hour of tranquility of spirit in the world to come than all the life of this world.” So only someone who realizes that it is the deeds we do here that matter more could ever be prepared to reach that tranquility of spirit. Only someone who goes toward the next world in protest deserves to find rest when they get there.
Which is not to say, Mom, that you are resting. I know you are out there, looking for your next project. Or, as your cousin Paul put it, “She’s organizing the angels.”
So Mom, until the day comes when you will ultimately take care of me again, I will miss you terribly and feel your absence. [And I am so sorry that this hasn’t been funnier—this is what happens when you are not here to edit my stuff… I know it was probably too fast, too—I remember, for my bar mitzvah speech, how you wrote “SLOW!!” in red ink at the top of each notecard…]
So yes, I will miss you terribly and feel your absence. But we will always have your love, and your deeds—those you left with us, but more importantly, all those you left undone. As tough as it is, the void you leave in this life, that we can now aspire to fill with our own deeds, is your greatest gift of all.
Her obituary, as it appeared in the Kansas City Star, April 8, 2008:
Jeanette Wishna, of Overland Park, passed away peacefully at home, after a brief illness, on April 7, 2008, at the age of 64.
Jeanette’s husband of 35 years, Sheldon Wishna, and her son, Victor, were by her side. She is also fondly remembered by her aunts, Rosalyn Lerner, Frances Lerner, Helen Levy, and by her numerous cousins, extended family, and dear friends.
The daughter of the late Ruth and Harry Lerner, Jeanette was born May 12, 1943, in Kansas City, Mo. She graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School, and received a B.A. in Economics from Wellesley College. In 1965, she joined the Washington, D.C., staff of Congressman Robert Ellsworth. When Ellsworth became the manager of Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, she worked as his special assistant. Following Nixon’s election, Jeanette joined the White House staff until Ellsworth was appointed U.S. Ambassador to NATO. At this time, she met Sheldon and they were married in 1972. Two years later, Jeanette returned with her husband to her hometown of Kansas City.
Over the next three-plus decades, she served in a variety of community leadership positions. She was chairman of B’nai B’rith Women’s Midwest Region and a member of its national executive board. She served as president of the Kansas City Wellesley Alumnae Club; president of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City; president of the Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation; president of Congregation Beth Shalom; president of the Jewish Heritage Foundation, and chairman of its grants committee. She served on the boards of the Jewish Heritage Foundation, the Jewish Community Campus, the Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Federation, and Menorah Medical Center. At the time of her passing, she was chairman of the Congregation Beth Shalom Foundation.
Her lifelong loves included her family, her husband and her son, her friends, her community, animals, sports—particularly the Kansas City Chiefs—theatre, and politics. She was a passionate proponent of Jewish learning and dedicated herself to the Jewish imperative to perform charity and acts of loving-kindness. Jeanette had a gift for leadership, and for inspiring others to realize their own leadership abilities. She was always available to family, friends, and colleagues for advice, support, and encouragement, and will be remembered and cherished for her love, humor, strength, intelligence, initiative, and commitment. She was dearly loved and will be terribly missed by many, but will live on in their hearts and memories, and through the good acts of those who follow the example set by her life of service.
A funeral service in memory of Jeanette will be held on Wednesday, April 9, at 1 p.m., at Congregation Beth Shalom, 9400 Wornall Road, Kansas City, Missouri. Interment will follow at Mount Carmel Cemetery. Contributions in memory of Jeanette may be made to Congregation Beth Shalom, or the charitable organization of your choice.