Born with an unmistakably kind neshamah, my mother, Mary Bader Schwager, knew no other way than to lead by her heart, to imagine, and then provide the love and support she hadn’t received as a child. Her mother died giving birth to her. Her grandmother, who raised her, died when she was 11. After that, when she was up for grabs, there were no takers, at least not willing ones. An aunt and uncle finally consented, but their cruelties are too many, and still too painful, to list. Yet when this uncle grew sick, it was my mother who willingly took care of him, and then later, his widow.

Although lessons about kindness wereWhen she was up for grabs, there were no takers few in her life, perhaps the kindness my mother developed comes in part from the legacy of our Jewish ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. Even while she was not well-versed in Judaism, my mother succeeded in excavating the essence of a Jewish soul: chesed, which is often translated as “lovingkindness.” It involves giving fully the compassion and love that we believe is in our genetic DNA, inherited from our Jewish foremothers and forefathers.

My mother hadn’t ever learned the verses in Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” which state that kindness (along with prayer and study) is one of the three pillars upon which the world rests.

Nonetheless, through the acts of unselfish goodness and kindness that she personified, she later became my inspiration for my return to a Torah-observant lifestyle, where I found a home for her values.

Selfless giving defined so much of who my mother was, and what she did. She made her family the center of her universe. I still remember her walking my brother and me to elementary school one morning in bad weather. The rain that day was torrential, and her oversized umbrella failed to protect us from the pelting drops that flew from every direction. Tossed by the wind, we turned around to see a mangy black-and-brown dog following us. My brother and I pleaded with her to take it home. Despite her congenitally bent back, she willingly swooped up the sopping wet, deserted animal and carried her for half a mile. The transformed dog was cleaned and fed by the time we came home.

My mother would often collect for various charitable organizations, but she was never interested in lunching with the ladies, a common social activity in the 1960s and ’70s. A woman ahead of her time, she began giving painting classes in her basement, which soon grew into a lucrative business. Because my mother was naturally shy, I encouraged her to join art leagues and exhibit her increasingly beautiful paintings. When she won awards for her paintings, I felt at least as proud as she, having been her source of encouragement. (It took me many more years—and becoming familiar with Torah values—to realize that family roles are not a one-way street; that it is indeed a mitzvah for children to help their parents in every way possible.)

My mother's art.
My mother's art.

Throughout the years, my mother and father’s relationship grew closer. His love helped her blossom and provided the acceptance and security she had always sought. Although I don’t believe she knew the concept of an Eshet Chayil: “A Woman of Valor,” she embodied it. Like our foremother Rachel—and like many loving and kind Jewish mothers—she sacrificed her own needs so that her family would thrive.

Three years after my parents retired to Florida, the happiness they shared came to an abrupt end. My father was diagnosed with Stage 3 esophageal cancer. During that time, my mom said that she could handle anything, as long as my dad survived. She literally left his side only to shop for food—primarily the fresh fruits and vegetables that she juiced for him several times daily in an attempt to promote healing.

Despite having undergone aggressive therapies, in 1992, four years after his diagnosis, his oncologist discovered a new, insidious colony of cancer that was deemed inoperable and untreatable. Upon hearing the news, my mother bent in half. Up through her throat and out through her lips came a deep howl, a primal cry—the almost inhuman cry that arises from deep pain: from layers of loss piled upon loss.

After the death of her husband, her best friend and lifetime companion, I began to worry. Would it all cause her to crumble? I called nightly and visited, but the going was often tough.

But my worries about my mom’s “sinking” over the long haul were unwarranted. She sought out and joined a bereavement group. There, she met a woman who had planned to go to Latvia to teach English to underprivileged school children. To consciously distance herself from her deep sense of loneliness, she joined this new friend in her travels. Never mind that my mother had never taught before or traveled abroad with anyone but my father. Each trial created a new opportunity; each day, a new victory.

Like our Matriarch Sarah, who acted on her own with great wisdom, my mother was not only beautiful but strong, embracing her own finely-tuned intuition and capabilities, and thriving in her own right.

In the absence of her beloved husband, she further dedicated her life to performing acts of kindness. She both spearheaded and led bereavement groups where the number of attendants increased exponentially each week. Amid widows and widowers, my mother triumphed the cause of community service, as well as the opportunity to discover and create a new identity, to follow their unique dreams and talents.

In time, the scoliosis that myShe continued to devote herself to others mother had been born with became crippling, and she was forced to move to an independent-living facility. While there, unsurprisingly, she continued to devote herself to others in her new community. Each holiday season, she made nearly 50 different necklaces and bracelets for the kitchen help, mostly high school and college kids with financial struggles. She continued to serve as a confidante to countless widows and widowers, using, by this time, some 20 years of insight and struggles, defeats and victories.

Through her talks with her personal G‑d and her constant introspection, she had created a new fabric out of the broken shards of her own life. It took many years for my mother to nurture a belief in a loving G‑d, but that she did.

During visits and phone calls, I became accustomed to asking my mother about her day. “Living is like heaven,” she answered with her usual indomitable spirit. Even though, by this time, she had contracted vascular dementia.

My mother passed away in my arms almost two years ago. At age 91, she had lived a long, full life—leaving love and kindness in her wake, a reflection that continues to inspire me. Hers is a legacy I take great pride in passing along in my own way so that her memory will continue to be a blessing not only for me, but for others.