All in the Family

Mental Illness and Caregiving Across the Generations

A Mentor and More

Having lost my mother to suicide when I was 21, I hungered for guidance

Elaine Brody
Even before I learned that Elaine Brody had died, I’d been thinking about her.   

Just days before her death, I reminisced about Elaine with my husband and friends as we walked through Rittenhouse Square, passing by the high rise in which she had once lived. I remembered how impressed I was the first time I visited that apartment and saw the exquisite art collection Elaine and her husband had amassed. It made me realize the importance of art and culture in everyday life.

When I first met Elaine in 1984, she was nearly the age I am now. She had recruited me to work at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center. I’d respected her work for years and was honored to have the privilege of working with her. Now, as I am in the process of recruiting a new scholar to work with me, I’m acutely aware of the circularity of life.   

Though Elaine was 91 on her last birthday, when I read the e-mail telling of her death, the air left the room. My eyes filled with tears as memories of Elaine flooded over me.

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I recalled being dazzled by her sophistication and self-assurance as she won major accolades from our profession, secretly wondering whether I would ever be as renowned as she. 

I remembered how patiently she’d helped me write and rewrite a manuscript.

I thought about the confidence she’d had in me, asking me to testify before a state legislature debating the family medical leave bill when she was unable to attend.

I reflected about how, for Elaine, family came first. Her secretary knew meetings could always be interrupted should Elaine’s elderly mother call. I loved those interruptions because Elaine always came back to the meeting with an amusing anecdote about her mother’s antics. One December morning, with a grant deadline looming, Elaine spent three hours standing in line at the Wanamaker’s department store so she could buy Cabbage Patch dolls for her four beloved granddaughters.  

But Elaine was more than just a mentor to me.  

Having lost my mother to suicide when I was 21, I hungered for the wisdom and guidance a strong woman could offer. Elaine had stepped up and answered that call.

When I began dating my husband and knew we had a future together, I introduced him to Elaine, even before having him meet my father. That evening, Elaine and her husband had held hands as the four of us strolled to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Would my marriage be as comfortable and loving as hers?

I had treasured the houndstooth jacket Elaine gave me when it became too snug on her and I’d considered buying Ferragamo shoes, like the ones Elaine wore– at least until I realized how expensive they were.

Then rebelliousness set in and I began setting limits for Elaine that she didn’t like. She wanted to help me shop for my wedding dress. I politely declined. She wanted to tell me what to study. I listened and then studied what suited me.

We drifted apart. I figured she was mad at me.

A few years ago, I organized a symposium in San Diego at the Gerontological Society’s annual meeting to honor Elaine for her contributions to the field. At that meeting, I talked about how much Elaine had influenced my career and how much I appreciated her support. I jokingly apologized for not taking her shopping for my wedding dress.

As I spoke, I watched Elaine. She listened attentively, just as she had so many years ago. She jotted notes. I realized that the bond I’d had with her years earlier had not weakened. She’d simply allowed me to grow up and become the scientist I was destined to be. 

When it was her turn to talk, Elaine thanked me for organizing the meeting. She told me how much she valued my work. She commented on how the work she’d done over the course of her career had made life better for very old people.

And then she told me what I should study next.

Good-bye Elaine, and thank you for everything. I will miss you terribly.

Rachel Pruchno, Ph.D. is Endowed Chair and Professor of Medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. Her memoir Surrounded by Madnessis available at online bookstores.

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