The Very Verna

We received the call early on the morning of September 1 that my wife’s mother, Verna Schenker, had passed away at 4 A.M.; and because the call was expected, we were on the road within an hour heading to Wilmington, Delaware. Even though Verna was 96 years old and weighed less than 70 lbs., her demise was still a shock – this was a woman who seemed to be immortal and immune to the normal rigors of life. Just two months before, she had flown to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of her grandson and had danced at the reception. Less than one month before, she had spent a week at the beach with her daughter Jennifer and her family, enjoying birthday parties as she passed the 96-year mark.

Few people leave a legacy as rich as Verna did. For seven decades, she taught hundreds of students to play the piano. She herself had mastered several instruments, and she taught throughout the Wilmington School District until she retired; and then she taught from home. You cannot go anywhere in Delaware or Pennsylvania without running into someone whom she taught or someone who knows someone whom she taught.

When she married her second husband, she converted to his Jewish faith; and like the True Believer, she was a ball of energy when it came to helping the new synagogue build its membership. For decades, she was a permanent fixture at the synagogue entrance every Friday night, welcoming everyone who came through the door. The turnout at her funeral service, in the middle of a work week, is a testament to how many lives she touched and to the regard in which she was held.

She had her quirks, too; and sometimes I didn’t know whether to angrily bawl her out or to throw my head back and laugh at the sheer brazenness of her actions. When she realized that Connie and I were renewing our marriage vows in a Methodist church, she phoned the minister and politely asked him if he could refrain from mentioning the name of Jesus during the ceremony, as it might offend the Jewish friends that she was bringing.

That was Verna. The twinkle in her eyes is gone now, but she left a legacy that blankets two states and a wealth of memories that will leave us in tears of laughter and sadness for years to come. She was, as we called her, the Very Verna – in so many ways.

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