In Memory of Carla Cohen - Comments by Aaron Cohen


3 years ago, during the Presidential Election of 2008, a once revered job title of my parents’ generation was rediscovered: community organizer. I’m glad Mom lived to see that.  She was one of this city’s visionary community architects.

 

Frequently, she and I ruminated about the importance of community. We would brainstorm ideas for indoor playgrounds, independent movie theaters, adult education facilities and various incarnations of food bazaars.   During these conversations, I learned to appreciate thread of community organization that weaved through my mother’s personal and professional life.

 

One trip to Holly Street told you Mom was no Felix Unger when it came to organization.  Our house was a Category 5 hurricane and FEMA never arrived.  But she had a Ruthian-sized ability to create community.  SDA, HUD, Work Seekers, Tifereth Israel, The Climate Action Project, and Politics and Prose attest to her master planning credentials.  Community fascinated mom.  How it could be built and sustained.  She knew the ingredients and wanted to share her recipes.

 

Communities begin with people.   This year, Dad, Eve and I learned that it takes an enormous village to care for somebody with a terminal illness.  During this trying year, dozens of you helped us care for Mom.  From the beginning, her friends from birth to her final days – the famous playpen buddies -- Betsy and Carol were with Mom nearly every week.  Carol’s husband ensured Mom received the finest medical care that our country had to offer.  Camp buddy Helen stayed with Dad more nights than we can remember. Beryl, Beth, Carol, Louise, Ann Shields,  Ann Rigby, Bonnie and Liz lifted Mom’s spirits in her final months.   Mom’s nieces and nephews, and her legendarily resilient mother Deedee frequently visited her these past several months.   Her siblings, Michael, Anne, Ellie and Frank made her the happiest and made her laugh summer and fall.  Mom’s oldest brother Mark cared for her with a tenderness and persistence.  In the trenches, Mark is your guy.  Particularly if you have a freezer that stores homemade ice cream. 

 

When Mark wasn’t feeding Mom, members of her Politics and Prose family delivered food for months.   She provided them with a special place to work.  They cared for her as if she were more mother than boss.   She gave you so much, and you gave back more than any of us could imagine.  You helped us survive this very difficult year. We are very grateful.   Mom’s friendships and work formed the foundation of our never-ending conversation about community.  As Dad, Eve, and I talked I realized that I was writing the Carla Manifesto.

 

Mom instilled in Eve and I that nothing is worth doing in life if you don’t bring 100% of yourself every day” We always had homemade Halloween costumes or the best cookies at the bake sale.    All of Mom’s dabbling in crafts, prodigious baking, and even her 2 decade career in city planning occurred long before she found her true calling. The best communities grow from their founders’ passion.

 

In the early 80s in a period of remarkable reinvention -- Mom dropped everything she knew to open a bookstore. She would build a community by sharing her love of books and ideas.  Her college friend Beryl told me, “Your mother found the perfect job for her.  At P&P, she had permission and in fact was encouraged to tell everybody what to read.”   Liz Hersh said, “Carla either wanted to know what you were reading or tell you what she was reading.  So why not open a bookstore?”   

 

Now, people questioned the wisdom of her vision.  Crown Books, Nobody reads, How will you make a living they said.  Mom’s vision never wavered.   She believed that community and bookstore were synonymous.   Until her death,  a community bookstore remained her greatest passion.

 

People, Passion, and Place.  Physical spaces were of great interest during our childhood.  Mom would schlep Eve and I to the most creative playgrounds or funkiest amusement parks.  Why pull over to stay at that convenient hotel with central air conditioning and a big swimming pool when we could visit some off-the-beaten-trail known only to the 19 others readers of an obscure already out of print guide to Concord, New Hampshire.  No matter where we were in America our family had to bear witness to the great experiments in urban revitalization.  Chicago, New York, Baltimore of course.  But who knew Portland, Maine was undergoing a city-wide transformation?  Moreover, what children knew the term “urban renewal” before their bar mitzvahs?

 

Speaking of bar mitzvahs, it was 30 years ago last March that I stood at this very microphone listening to our Rabbi say a few words about the bar mitzvah boy.  As I stand here now, I can see my mother’s enormous smile beaming up from the very seats where my family sits this morning.   Rabbi Abramowitz peered down at me that day and after concluding his standard material about this historic occasion, and  planted in Israel, and my Soviet twinning certificate he added a personal editorial.  “Aaron, you are a force to be reckoned with.”  Mom loved this.  Of course, she was the true and unique force to be reckoned with  -- and I do it mean with complete and total admiration.  Well almost. 

 

Mom and Dad raised Eve and me in this synagogue among this membership forming lifelong friendships with people who shared their interests, values and challenges.  Deeply influenced by  Tifereth Israel, she understood the value of physical place in organizing community.  She nurtured the friendships born from  the shared intellectual passions of this membership.  Through these years in the 70s and 80s my mother began to see that many people needed more than churches and synagogues in order to congregate.  She believed Washingtonians craved a space for intellectual renewal.  But how to go about it?

 

This was the birth of Politics and Prose – the life’s work of two women.  Mom’s one and only business partner and special friend Barbara Meade spoke eloquently about their success when they recently accepted as “lifetime achievement award” from fellow booksellers.  Theirs was a beautiful union.  Generous with each other, their staff, and customers, the result of their partnership is that superb bookstore.  P and P is the 21st century standard for a community institution in Washington and a towering influence on booksellers worldwide.  These women shepherded a renaissance of intellectual life in Washington that will continue for generations to come.  Barbara, she could never have done it without you.   Dad, Eve, and I thank you so much for helping Mom realize her dream.   Our family will work hard to find the right people to build on your legacy.  We promised Mom that. 

 

Many experienced the power of Mom’s friendship.  Known to be a voracious reader, she also collected friendships with colleagues, neighbors, and customers.  The depth of feeling conveyed by so many of you in your calls and letters strengthened Mom’s resolve to live. She needed to see you, talk with you and touch you.  She fed off your love even as she struggled to eat.

 

The Carla Manifesto would be incomplete if I neglected to say a few words about food.   Food was Holly Street.  Food was staff meetings.  Food was holidays. Food was going on vacation and planning the next meal while eating the current one. Food was only baking, never, ever buying birthday cakes or holiday cookies.  Food was love. Food was Mom and me.

 

25 years ago, I was readying to return to college after Thanksgiving..  Rain poured down outside.  My father paced worrying about getting me to Union Station.  The drive was 20 minutes and we only had 3 hours to go. Enter the force to be reckoned with wearing boots and soaking poncho.  She marched past Dad and headed straight for the kitchen.

 

Mom, what are you doing here?

 

I needed to come home and make you Turkey sandwiches.

 

Hmm.  That’s a Good point.  You did need to do that.

 

Oh Come on Carla, he could have made his own…

 

David

 

Yeah Dad.  Why are you getting involved in this?  Mom can I have some French toast before I go.

 

Carla I’m going to pull the car around back.

 

Crisco dumped in pan for challah French toast.  How many sandwiches Air?

 

Well is there enough turkey Mom?  Did you make enough?  I don’t want to deprive you and Dad…

 

 I’ll make you 4.

 

Mom, did you make me cream cheese brownies too?

 

Of course, I already packed those in two layers of tin foil so they’ll stay fresh.

 

Dad returns:  Carla, where is the car?  I want to take yours because its safer on a wet road.

 

You’ll have to use the Mazda.  I left the Buick on 16th street.

 

What do you mean you 16th Street?

 

Well, I had a fenderbender?

 

You did?

 

Where’s the car?

 

It’s, totaled.

 

Totaled?

 

Yes, as in it can’t be driven totaled.

 

Ohmygod, Are you alright?, How did you get here? 

 

I’m fine grumpher. The police came.   They gave me a lift up here.

 

Mom, why didn’t you stay with the car? 

 

Don’t be silly.   I told the police I had to make your turkey sandwiches.

 

That is why food is love.  Love from the force to be reckoned with.  Car accidents, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com could not deter her.

 

People, Passion, Place, Partnership and finally love.  And there was no love greater than Mom and Dad’s.   On vacations, they  lay side by side on a hotel room double bed with a large stack of books resting on the night table silently reading while holding hands.   They didn’t need to talk, but they did.  My parents talked all the time. They modeled marriage for Eve and me: Enjoy each other’s lives, interests, friends, and families. 

 

This past summer, I kept asking Mom – Why was your marriage so good?  She said,” Oh Aaron it’s such hard work.  We were lucky.”  I asked her what that meant, and she looked at me with those still twinkling eyes unable to find the words to describe the power of this love.  I know it’s hard to believe, but when it came to their relationship, Mom was speechless.

 

For the past 10 months, Love fueled my father’s steadfast commitment to Mom’s well-being.  Dad, all of us, most of all Eve, Richard, Nina, and I marvel at your capacity for care giving. Your grace and compassion inspire.  People who love you surround you.  Remember, it will take a community to survive Mom’s loss.  We stand at the ready.  You have far more to give as a father, grandfather, mentor, teacher, and friend. 

 

Mom loved all of us especially Eve and me.  Like many families, we grew up close, drifted, reconciled and evolved.   Sometimes Mom’s capacity for love could overwhelm those closest to her.   I can think of a colleague, sibling, close friend or even a son who periodically requested space, but not this year.  This year Mom’s magnetic power drew us back to her.  We maximized our time.  Down to the very last day, we held her hand.  We wept as she declined and finally we mourn her loss.

 

My mother’s monumental capacity for love and friendship might seem impossible to replace.   We must honor her by supporting and nurturing the things she cared about most.  That’s you the people --from her 100-year-old mother to her grandchildren -- Ry and Georgia.   My wife Nina frequently reminds me that love is all that matters.  Please honor my mother’s memory:  Support your local communities and love the people in your life with an enthusiasm worthy of the Carla Manifesto.