I started writing this in earnest within hours of my
mother’s passing. But I had started sorting my ideas for it
while she was still alive, when the possibility of her
recovery was looking more and more dim. It crossed my
mind a few times to write something and read it to her, to
do her the honor of a living eulogy. I’m sure she would
have a lot of notes for me, as she always did when I had
her proofread one of my school essays. I most certainly
would not be the writer, much less the person, I am today
were it not for her tireless, demanding mentorship.
In the last month or so, I was talking to my mother
about the outpouring of flowers, gifts, and get-well notes
she’d been receiving from her legions of friends — work
friends, Zumba friends, book club friends, high school
friends. She had summoned some strength to get up from
bed, and was sitting in her red chair — looking regal with
aplomb and confidence. I asked her how she was feeling,
in general and about all these tributes. She said, “I should
have been dead a long time ago. I’m going to live forever.”
She was half-right: She had defied death so many times in
her life, she was, as even we were, convinced that she
would live forever.
In her teens, she overcame challenges to her health
that brought her to the brink of death. On 9/11 she
escaped with her life and the lives of many of her
colleagues from the 121st floor of the World Trade Center
South Tower. At 63 years old, she was diagnosed with and
underwent surgery for ovarian cancer. Her surgeons
removed over one-hundred tumors, and when the
operation ended, my father says the look on the doctor’s
face was like that of someone who had just witnessed a
She received chemotherapy regularly for the next six-
and-a-half years, while she continued working at Aon,
driving the two-and-a-half hours to and from the hospital
each way for treatment.
The pandemic did not daunt her. In her last year, she
continued going into Columbia Presbyterian Hospital every
week for chemotherapy and other operations, without
catching COVID, despite plenty of tempting opportunities
to do so. So, yes, I will be the first to forgive anyone for
thinking she was immortal, if you will forgive me.
But she wasn’t, as no one is. At least not in the way
we would hope. And I think that, no matter how impressive
mom’s talent for beating the odds was (and it was nothing
if not impressive), by taking for granted that she would
never die, it was easy also to take for granted the
immense person she was while she was living. I am most
certainly partly guilty of doing just that.
It wasn’t until this past year that I was able to truly
appreciate all that she had done, and all that she was
capable of doing, as a homemaker, a provider, a mother,
and a woman — in the thirty years I was lucky enough to
call her all those.
The pandemic had, like it did everyone else’s,
rearranged my life. A year ago, I was driven back by
circumstances, or possibly Fate, from another country to
my parents’ house, where I spent almost every day in
quarantine with my mother. It was during this time that I
assumed the role of one of her caregivers, along with my
sister and my father.
It was not an easy transition for me, or any of us.
There was a lot to do, and Mom had set the bar impossibly
high. The three of us worked together not only to care for
mom’s health, but also to coordinate the duties that she
had done almost single-handedly for almost her entire life
as a mother and wife, no disrespect meant to my father, or
to the three excellent caregivers my sister and I had
growing up. The fact remains: Mom was a one-woman
show, and an astonishing one at that.
She was no stranger to hard work. Born into a poor
family in Flatbush, Brooklyn, she worked for her survival
and her liberation. She worked at a grocery store in her
teens. She worked to pay her way through Brooklyn
college. She worked to pay her way through her MBA, and
then she worked her way through New York Law School,
graduating third in her class. She worked to afford her own
apartment, then an apartment with my father, then
apartments with me, and and then my sister, then a house
in Westchester, then a house in New Fairfield. She worked
to support her brother Paul financially throughout his entire
adult life. She worked to put both my sister and me
through college. She continued to work to guarantee that
we would not be left wanting after her passing.
And after she worked a full day, she would come
home and cook dinner for the family, or clean the house —
often both. She scheduled and coordinated our extra-
curricular activities, our family vacations. She kept track of
family birthdays and events, of quarterly tax deadlines and
bills, or our doctors appointments. She planned birthdays,
our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, graduation parties. She was on
the phone with secretaries, teachers, and administrators,
meting out just punishment and brokering much needed
And while she was doing all that, she was also caring
for the emotional wellbeing of my sister and me, ensuring
our development as well-rounded and well-equipped
individuals. If we had wanted to try out a new sport, she
enrolled us in it; dance lessons, she got us fitted for our
shoes; painting, she furnished us with the brushes and the
teachers; acting, she found the theater, and packed the
houses with our family and friends. There was nothing,
nothing that was denied us. We were spoiled in her love
and embarrassed with inexhaustible riches.
But it was more than that, too. These material gifts
were but a manifestation of her immaterial, unconditional
love — the making good on a promise she had made to
herself to do everything she could to ensure our enduring
Even as an adult, wherever I happened to be in the
world, I could depend that every day, or God forbid every
other day, I’d get a message from her asking: “You OK?”
Depending on my response, or my non-response, I’d get a
follow-up phone call. It was more of a formality, really,
because Mom knew, always, whether we were doing OK
or whether something was wrong, and it was futile trying to
hide anything from her. If we had had a bad day at school,
she knew. A rough day at work, she knew. A rejection
letter, she knew. A broken heart, this she especially knew.
It was an uncanny power she had, a mother’s intuition that
gave me as much comfort as it gave her agita and
sleepless nights. But that was her nature; and in a world
that can sometimes be very cruel and unforgiving, she
sacrificed her own peace of mind for the sake of ours.
But, I want to pause here for just a moment to
recognize that, without belittling my mother’s memory at
all, when speaking of mothers generally, Ellen was not
alone in possessing these qualities — there is no lack on
this Earth of hard-working, back-breaking, indefatigably
devoted mothers. And there never has been, ever since
the first woman dared to go where no man had gone
before, to sacrifice her personal happiness so that she
may acquire the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the better to
instruct her progeny. The world has had ample time to
appreciate the superhuman power belonging to the
Mother, and not just appreciate, but honor, respect, and
compensate her accordingly for the outsized burden she
carries in the family, as in society. It has had ample time,
and yet the world has failed her. It demands that she take
on more responsibilities than is her share, and then
penalizes her for it; it expects her to be all things to all
people, and pays her less than any of them; it celebrates
her for being able to bring children into the world one
minute, then gives her walking papers for being pregnant
As a mother, mine was exemplary, but she was by no
means the only one. And her untimely death, and the fate
she suffered that led to it, she by no means suffered alone.
As the son of a lawyer, probably one of the best in New
York, you’ll permit me to submit my evidence on this point:
The Society of Gynecologic Oncology released a
study a few years ago that shed light on a depressing, but
not surprising fact. And I quote:
“In comparison to the funding and survival rate of
many other cancer types, funding for ovarian, cervical, and
uterine cancer does not align with their survival rates.
“Results of the analysis showed that uterine cancer
ranked among the lowest cancer types in annual National
Cancer Institute funding. [Moreover] 2014 saw decreases
in funding from peak levels of 18.5% for ovarian cancer
and 18.8% for uterine cancer compared with only 9.9%
decrease for breast, 7.1% for testicular, 6.3% for
leukemias, and 5.7% for kidney and renal pelvis cancers.”
From what I read the study didn’t comment one way
or the other why these discrepancies occurred, and why
they seemed to disfavor women; but I’ll let you connect the
The pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on
mothers — all mothers, but in particular mothers of color
— who were already forced to the edge of precarity
before. When they were not fulfilling their roles as
essential workers, as doctors, nurses, teachers,
pharmacists, grocery store checkout clerks, they were
homeschooling their children, preparing meals for their
families, disinfecting their homes of germs, boiling their
unfiltered water, providing mutual aid for their neighbors,
rallying entire communities to the ballot boxes. And thanks
be to God they did!
But nobody asked them to do it: they just did. Nobody
paid them any more to do it: they just did.
Before I called mothers “superhuman.” That was a
mistake. They are not superhuman. They are all too
human. They represent one of the highest manifestations
of human potential under the sun, and to idolize or
mythologize them is to do them a grave disservice; it is we
who are inhuman for not affording them all the praise,
resources, freedom, and rights that are their due.
My mother was not a superhero, she did not arrive
here from some far-off planet, she was not developed in a
laboratory, nor did she emerge, mutated, from a lake of
nuclear waste. She was, like all her sisters in motherhood,
flesh and blood, heart and soul.
That said, for someone who was but a mere mortal,
my mother was possessed of not insubstantial
If you were to ask her, as I did many years ago, if she
believed in God, she wouldn’t give you a straight answer.
If she didn’t believe in God, she believed in “energy” —
some kind of kinetic ether coursing through the cosmos at
all times, connecting all things, past, present, and future,
to each other. Many a family quarrel was instigated by
mom’s reasoning that “something can’t come from
nothing” — that something being the universe as we know
it, and the nothing… not really nothing at all.
I don’t know if there is a God, the God of Abraham
and of Moses. But I have come to believe in the energy, or
connectedness, my mother was so certain existed, in no
small part because of her example. She experienced too
many otherwise inexplicable phenomena for it to not exist.
There are too many to list at this time, but a few readily
come to mind.
The first I’m sure most of you have already heard —
likely many times. On the morning of 9/11, my mother had
arrived at her office early, and her first order of business
for the day was to notify my babysitter Jenny that she had
packed a lamb chop lunch for me, and that she was
concerned I might choke on it (as I had the night before).
This prescience proved life-saving. Mom’s office phone
was situated in front of a window looking out onto the
North Tower, which had just been struck by the first plane
and was pluming black smoke. My mother hung up the
phone, and ran for the stairwell, wrangling a number of her
colleagues with her.
Then, at some point in their descent, my mother —
who was wearing heels, and beginning to feel fatigued —
sensed a presence, a hand touch her shoulder. It was, she
swears, the ghost of her father Ruby giving her strength to
push on down the many flights of stairs before her. And
she did. In fact, she pushed on all the way from Battery
Park to her dentist’s office on 58th street on foot.
A decade and a half later, my parents had moved
from Westchester to Riverdale in the Bronx, along with all
the furniture from the old house. My mother had brought
out of storage a porcelain lamp that belonged to her
mother, Sylvie, had it refurbished to its original luster, and
placed it in the foyer — nowhere near, and this is
important, any windows or drafts.
One day, while the apartment was completely empty,
my grandmother’s lamp fell and shattered. When she
came home, my mother found the shards on the floor, and
read it as an augury cast by her mother from beyond the
grave. Shortly after she called her doctor and demanded
an examination of her abdomen. Shortly after that she was
diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Mom was absolutely certain she wielded otherworldly
powers, so much so that she often jokingly referred to
herself as a witch. When you add up all the weird
coincidences of which she was the vector, however, you
start to wonder if she really was joking.
Which is why I don’t think it was just a crush on
Patrick Swayze that made Ghost one of my mom’s favorite
movies. In my family, my mother was notorious for never
being able to watch the same film twice — probably
because her memory was so exceptional, she had no
patience for redundancy. Ghost, however, was remarkable
for having the unique ability to sustain my mother’s
interest for repeat viewings. It was one of the films we
watched as a family in the final days. It just so happened
to be screening on cable. Of course it did.
But there was another film that I introduced my
mother to this past year that much to my surprise also
resonated with her (it being a foreign film, five hours long).
It was Fanny and Alexander, a miniseries by Ingmar
Bergman from the early 1982, set in early 20th century
In the film, Fanny and Alexander Ekdahl are children
who lose their actor father while he’s rehearsing as the
Ghost in a community theater production of Hamlet. On
his deathbed, the father tells his family, “There is nothing
to fear. Nothing can keep me from you now. I will be closer
to you than I ever was in life.”
And indeed, Fanny and Alexander’s father does
return as a ghost, not so much to intercede on their behalf,
but to alert them to his presence, and, in some instances,
express his concern for their wellbeing.
These slight, but by no means insignificant hauntings
are more than enough to give comfort, or offer fair warning
of trouble to come. I have a feeling mom liked these films
so much because she knew they were partly true, and
because she intended on doing something similar in her
afterlife, whenever we’re in need of direction, or an
encouraging word. I have a feeling, because I know from
experience that she already had, while alive, extended her
hand across expanses of many thousands of miles, to
place it on my shoulder.
But for those who do not consider themselves
superstitious in this way, or believing in an afterlife, these
notions might cut no ice. And so I’ll offer an alternative
theory put forward by a pre-eminent rationalist, a 17th
century Jewish philosopher, and one of the greatest minds
of all time — Baruch Spinoza. Although “Jewish
philosopher” might be a misnomer, considering Spinoza
was expelled from the Jewish community for his heterodox
views regarding God and the universe. My apologies,
However, I invoke him here because, whether or not
my mother knew it (and, considering her impatience with
quote-unquote philosophy, I don’t think she did) I believe
she unwittingly shared — or would have shared — many
of his views. I mentioned that my mother believed in an
omnipresent energy pulsing through all of existence.
Similarly, Spinoza believed that there was one thing, and
one thing only that existed and that that one thing
contained within itself everything else: people, animals,
plants, rocks and stones, streams, ideas and memories.
He called this one thing God, but others would recognize it
just as well by another name: Nature, with a capital N.
In Spinoza’s view, everything is connected by virtue of
its being part and parcel of God, part and parcel of Nature.
Inseparable, inalienable, necessary. This goes for things of
the material world, as well as things of the mind; for the
good, as well as for the bad. I’ll quote again from Fanny
and Alexander, this time from one of the few Jewish
characters in the film, an old, wise antiques dealer named
Isak Jacobi. He says, probably paraphrasing Spinoza,
that, “Everything is alive. And everything is God, or God’s
intention. Not only the good things, but the cruelest and
My mother’s passing certainly belongs in the latter
category, as does her suffering, and the suffering of all
those afflicted with her or any cancer. But her life was, and
the memory of her life remains, squarely, eternally in the
former category. Her memory is alive, it is “animated,” as
Spinoza would say, and, also per Spinoza, it is forever
contained in God, in Nature. And so long as the flame of
her memory is kept alight in the hearts and minds of her
loved ones, it can never escape.
I believe there are many ways we can do that — keep
the fire of her memory burning. Again I turn to Spinoza,
who said that, “The free person thinks least of all of death,
and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.”
By focusing our attention away from her death, and onto
her life, we inscribe the memory of her on the pantheon of
our collective history.
But I think there’s yet another way.
My mother, for those of you lucky enough to
experience, threw some fantastic parties. In Westchester,
she threw a Yom Kippur breakfast that tested the very
limits of our little house’s infrastructure. At their apartment
in Riverdale, my parents threw Fourth of July parties that
outshined the fireworks. And at their beloved home in New
Fairfield, my mother planned and hosted hundreds of
people for a Christmas-Chanukah hybrid party three years
in a row. One of their new friends found it incredible that
two people so new to town could be the masterminds
behind the biggest party he’d ever attended. And this guy’s
Perhaps the thing my mother loved being — next to a
mother and wife — was a host. She had a genius and a
passion for bringing people together (Gentile and Jew
alike) and for giving them joy. And if not joy, per se, she
sure as hell gave them a lot of free booze, and that stands
She wanted to see people happy — it gave her such
satisfaction. It was almost an admonition coming from her
— that we, my sister, father, and I — should be happy,
above all else. I believe that goes the same for everybody
she held dear, too.
I’ll quote once more from Fanny and Alexander, this
time from the character Gustav Adolph, a restaurateur and
bon vivant. In the last few minutes of the film, the Ekdahl
family has already experienced several losses and
tragedies, but also the birth of two children, the reopening
of their family theater, and renewed prosperity. It’s at this
time, at a family gathering, that Gustav Adolph gives a
toast. While we were watching it, I saw my mother
implicitly agree with everything he said in this speech; I
remembered her saying variations of it, in her own words,
all her life. It ends with these words:
“Therefore let us be happy while we are happy. Let us
be kind, generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary
and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world.”
I believe that the greatest honor that could be
rendered to my mother’s memory is to do just that, and so
I implore you as much as I implore myself:
Let us be happy while we are happy.
Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good.
And let us not be shameful at all to take pleasure in
this little world.
For this little world is contained in God.
This little world is God.
And it is all we have.
Ellen Ruth Perle of New Fairfield passed away on Sunday, March 7, 2021 in her 69th year after a six year battle with ovarian cancer.
Links to charitable donations in Ellen's memory will be posted soon, please check back in the future.
Covid sensitive services will be held outdoors on
Wednesday, March 10, 2021 at 1:15 PM at the
Kensico / Sharon Gardens Cemetery
273 Lakeview Ave
Valhalla NY 10595
For additional details, please call or text Tom Garben at 914 - 874 - 7318
Pleasant Manor Funeral Home at 914 - 747 - 1821
For assistance on information on how to get to Sharon Gardens / Kensico Cemetery from New York City or other area's please call the funeral home at the above number.
The best way by train from New York City is the Harlem Line on the Metro North from Grand Central Station to the Valhalla train stop which is approximately 1/2 mile from Sharon Gardens / Kensico Cemetery. A local cab company is Hawthorne Taxi and Car Service and their contact number is 914 - 703 - 7999. (a suggestion is to find out when the train will arrive in Valhalla and call when you leave Manhattan so that they are waiting your arrival)
Please see below a few charities of choice to donate to in memory of Ellen.
Northern Plains Reservation Aid
National Multiple Sclerosis Society
Fight against animal cruelty
Animal Legal Defense Fund
Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue
Ironwood Pig Sanctuary
Northeast Animal Shelter
Little Longears Miniature Donkey Rescue
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Ellen Ruth Perle, please visit our floral store.