For Proust, it was a madeleine that triggered an avalanche of involuntary memory.
For me, tonight, it was hearing Jennifer Clark’s voice at the end of her phone call with Dunreith.
A bit congested and drenched in fatigue, her voice nevertheless instantly brought forward more than 15 years of friendship.
We’ve known each other since we were colleagues at Facing History.
I had just left teaching, while Jennifer was already more than half a decade removed from a twenty-year teaching career that took her from Japan to Boston to Cambridge.
Open, intelligent, gracious and always willing to experiment with new materials and themes, she was always one of my favorite colleagues. Together with Ries Vanderpol, a Dutch Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist and philanthropist, we designed and carried out a seminar around the theme of resilience that still informs and guides me today.
Yet, as much as I came to value Jennifer as a colleague, I appreciated her even more as a friend.
She has many positive qualities-honesty, a sense of occasion and style, and an ability to wade into others’ pain and be there without judgment are just three of them-and her strength and pride are two of the ones I admire most.
Growing up in humble circumstances in a tough Detroit neighborhood, Jennifer always had an outsized sense of responsibility and a willingness to stand up for herself. She’d joke when we were at Facing History about daring people to knock a chip off her shoulder when she was coming up in Detroit, but you could see the grit behind her smile.
Her courage allowed her to take risks that few other colleagues with whom I worked would even consider attempting.
Her guts helped her, with her husband Al, raise their son Jordan to be a man of integrity who believes in his dreams and to encourage him to meet his birth mother and other siblings.
This is a very hard and scary thing to do, but Jennifer never hesitated because she knew it was the right thing for her boy.
Jennifer’s strength helped her go back again and again to Detroit to see and care for her mother, Jerry Jones, who raised her into the woman she has become, but whose mind in recent years has started to fail. She has two brothers, but I believe they all knew that Jennifer would be the one to help Ms. Jones live through her final days.
This is what is happening now.
Last fall, Jennifer went out to her home town to bring her mom to Massachusetts.
The church in which she came up and which her mother had attended for more than a half-century all came out to say goodbye to Ms. Jones.
They members and pastor held the party so that Jennifer’s mother and family knew that she was being sent off with love. Even though she would not be there physically, her spirit would always be part of the congregation, and G-d would be watching over her wherever she was.
Caring for an ailing parent in the same community is difficult enough. Moving someone whose grip on what we understand as cognition is tenuous to a new environment and state is even harder.
I could hear the strain in her normally exuberant voice as she talked about her mother having a tough day.
But she’s doing it without a hint of quitting because that’s who she is.
When we first met I didn’t think much about seeing parents through their final days or helping children make their way in a brutally tough economy and deeply uncertain era.
They’re not glamorous, and, at times, they’re not a lot of fun.
But they are among some of the most important things we ever do in life, and how we do them matters.
Thanks to Jennifer, I have someone from whom I can learn to approach this territory when I come to it with the same resolve and humanity that she is showing now.
We talked briefly, but long enough to stir the memories of our shared experiences that have been leavened with a decade-and-a-half of life that has only deepened my appreciation of the many gifts she has brought to me and to our family.