We have all experienced the loss of an important relatives.
Yet, from time to time we might lose someone who has lived such an incredible life that we feel that we want to share portions of their life story with others.
Such is the case with my aunt, Alice Bowdon, who passed away last weekend at age 82, at her home in New Smyrna, Florida.
In her memory, I am posting a portion of the eulogy I wrote for her, which I'll deliver tomorrow in New Smyrna.
May she rest in peace.
12/30/10 Sanibel Island, FL
My father, Marvin Glasser, knew Alice Bowdon since the early 1950s, when he courted, and eventually married her sister, Ellen.
Though they never resided in the same city, Marvin got to know Alice quite well; attending Alice's wedding, and being a dutiful brother in law, spending considerable time with her over the years, during her regular visits to Chicago, or, on occasion, when the families would meet elsewhere for special occasions.
Several times during the year prior to his death, which occurred over seven years ago, Dad told me about his desire to take on a certain project – to write the story of Alice's life.
“It's fascinating, Mike," he would tell me. “Think about it. How her parents had difficulty diagnosing and then coping with her disability; how she and her sister endured their parents' divorce; how they fled from Nazi Germany and settled in Santiago, Chile, and how they then immigrated to the United States to settle with her father.
And that's only the first third of the book!"
Unfortunately, Dad died before authoring his sister in law's life story. Yet, I, agreed that she lead a remarkable life – the type of material that can inspire a best selling novel, or perhaps a major motion picture. Think about it: Sandra Bullock as a youthful Alice Bowdon; Tom Hanks as her husband Sonny. And, of course, Brad Pitt and Leonard DeCaprio vying for the role of Michael, Alice's debonair youngest grand nephew.
The truth is, I grew up always knowing that my family has an incredible history – both on my mother and father's side.
And no one has a more central role in the story than Alice Bowdon.
Our family's odyssey began at some point during or after the first world war when a prominent German Jewish family arranged for their daughter, Lisalotte to attend a special camp, to relieve her from war stressed Frankfurt. To curb their daughter's anxiety, they asked friends if their young teenage son could visit her at the camp. It was there that this serious and ambitious young man, Rudi Meyer, met the privileged and cultured young woman, and within a few years they got married – Rudi, in his early 20s; Lisalotte, in her late teens.
In June, 1927, Lisa and Rudi had their first child, a daughter named Ilse. Unaware that problems during delivery had disabled the child, the young parents grew concerned when they noticed that the child was not developing physically in the same way as other children. At that time, the medical community had yet to diagnose the ailment which we know today as “cerebral palsey."
In a 1979 letter to me, Alice's mother, Lisalotte, described her ordeal:
"Well, when I got my first baby - Aunt Alice - the first great trouble came in my life. This always-smiling baby could not learn to stand on her feet and to walk. My goodness, we visited all big and famous German doctors, and Oma Sarry, we have been horribly sad though every doctor told us "this little child is very clever and we are convinced that you will have much love and sunshine from her. And really it was the truth."
Within eighteen months, Lisa gave birth to their second daughter, an energetic and capable girl named Ellen. Lisa's letter describes the incredible impact that Ellen had on Alice, aiding Alice's development.
“But believe me, my sweet little Ellen, she not knowing what she did, but beginning to start to walk around and to go up after she fell on her little tuches. Alice did the same and learned from her a lot, what we never could express ourselves."
Instilling a "can do" spirit within this young toddler became a family project. Her Aunt Rose, her father's sister, ten years older than Alice, recollects how she often assumed the role as senior "mentor," taking the time to "show & tell" Alice just how to crawl backwards down that imposing set of stairs without any fear at all. Rose, who always had a special bond with her niece, credits Alice's "I can do anything" attitude to hearken back to such early simple lessons of "absolutely...I can".
As Alice learned to cope with her disability, another tragedy struck. Her parents, Lisa and Rudi were unable to handle the challenges of married life, and one day her mother, Lisa, left her husband and her home to start a new life with a prominent local businessman who had an important position with a large German retailer.
In the ensuing year when Rudi and Lisalotte arranged their divorce, Rudi placed Alice and Ellen in a special foster home. Once Lisalotte married her new husband, she reclaimed their children and established a new home in Aachen, Germany.
But that new arrangement was short lived, for another series of tragic events unfolded – the advent of Nazism and the persecution of German Jews.
By the late 1930s, Alice's father had already emigrated to the United States and he was making diligent efforts to relocate his family. Though he ultimately was able to arrange for the emigration of his parents and his sister, he was incapable of getting entry visas for his children. To this day we wonder if it was Alice's handicap that caused the United States government from accepting Alice and Ellen – by this time, demand for entry into the United States from German Jews far exceeded the quotas offered by the US government. Yet, as the stranglehold that Hitler placed on European Jews increased, the situation grew more dire. Luckily, Lisalotte's parents, who had already established residency in Santiago Chile, arranged for them to obtain exit visas to emigrate to Chile.
Within a day of the horrific event within Germany called Kristalnacht, Alice, Ellen, their mother and stepfather left their possessions behind and managed to board a train, which took them to Paris, where they stayed with their Uncle Max, and then, from a northern port, boarded a steamship which transported them across the Atlantic, out of harm's way.
My mother frequently described their magical five week voyage, about stopping in Cuba, riding through the locks of the Panama Canal, and stops in Guatemala, Equador and Peru, until they finally arrived in their new home in Santiago Chile.
As children, about to enter their teen years, Alice and Ellen had already experienced a lifetime's worth of challenges and hardship.
Alice and Ellen always described their years in Chile as a wonderful time in their life, though the challenges that they faced must have been immense. Lisa and Alfred had to start over, leaving their wealth and financial security behind, and opening a woman's fashion store, sporting European fashions; Rudi sent money down from Chicago to furnish the girls with the best education possible. Imagine, young German Jewish girls, having to learn Spanish, the language of their new home, as well as English, the language used in the British School that they attended.
Months before Alice's 18th birthday, the girls learned that they were soon to experience another huge change in their life. With Rudi having attained his American citizenship, the girls, too, could attain their American citizenship so long as they girls touched American soil before they reached the age of 18. After what must have been a tearful good bye with their mother, who remained in Chile, the daughters stepped onto their first airplane, and commenced a several day journey with stops and plane changes in Peru, Venezuela, British Honduras, and, finally, a landing in Miami Florida where they joyously reunited with their proud father, Rudi, and his new wife, Trude. Given that they were still German, they were not able to fly over the Panama Canal.
In a tape recording that of Alice, which I gathered only a year ago, Alice described her horror upon arriving, by train, in Chicago. “The train ride took 52 hours. How disappointed we were to learn that the entire United States was not like Miami. We moved into Rudi's apartment on the north side, where the weather was not always so warm, and on windy days we could detect that horrible smell that came from Chicago's stockyards."
Once in Chicago, Rudi enrolled his daughters in a Lakeview High School, where the despite the changes, they both excelled.
Upon graduating from High School, Rudi then presented Alice with her brand new challenge, one that must have completely changed her – one that further defined the independent spirit that graced this woman through adulthood.
Alice always expected that she would follow her younger sister throughout life – that wherever Ellen was to go to college, Alice would follow. Ever a stern and strict presence in her life, her father Rudi shocked Alice when he told her that it was now time for her confront life on her own, without the companionship of her sister Ellen. Rudi and Alice made arrangements for Alice to obtain a teaching degree at Eastern Kentucky University.
Thus, Alice confronted a new life, with new challenges. Shortly after completing college, Alice began a successful and heroic career as an educator, finding a position as a teacher in residence at a school for cerebral palsey children in Peapack New Jersey, called Matheny School, a wonderful environment that she would call home for the ensuing 25 years.
While at Matheny, Alice touched many lives, though of course, her most enduring and lasting relationship was with a dashing young man who must have dazzled her with his trademark good humor, athletic prowess and good looks, Eugene “Sonny" Bowdon, a man whom she soon married and who has been the source of her strength, stability and happiness through the rest of her life – over 50 years – until her death last week.
While attending Matheny, Alice and Sonny developed another key relationship, with a young cerebral palsey boy named Richard, whose parents placed him at the school when he was young. Richard was the source of tremendous pride and love for Alice and Sonny, and they always viewed him as their own son. Alice and Sonny's impact on Richard must have been profound, for Richard went on to get married and have a son of his own. Richard and Richard's family photos always graced Alice and Sonny's apartment. Her love and pride for him endured. Alice's presence will always live on through the many people whose lives she touched, none more important, perhaps, than that of Richard and his family.
Alice and Sonny forged a new path in the mid 1980s when she and Sonny decided to retire from teaching and once again relocate: this time to their newfound home, the Win Sans community in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. There they began a charmed life. Alice always described her and Sonny's little paradise, where she could swim in the pool, walk or be driven on the beach and listen patiently and encouragingly as Sonny described his successes from an afternoon on the local links. During my many years visiting Alice and Sonny in New Smyrna, everyone spoke fondly about the adorable couple who lived in Win Sans Condos.
Alice deeply cared about her family. One could tell simply by visiting her and Sonny's condo, which looked to be a museum filled with images, present and past, of beloved family members from Sonny's and her families. Everyone in our blood line sported a presence, as pictures of her parents, nephews, nieces and grand nephews and nieces graced every wall, desk top and coffee table. Pictures of her mom and dad, and her sister, always sat in the most prominent location, by the side of her living room chair..
(There is more to this eulogy, but above is the part that I feel is of most interest.)