The Light of My Life: A Tribute To My Mom on Her One Hundredth Birthday

Phyllis Eugenia Cahen Sokolow 1920–1982

Today my Mom would have turned 100. She was the light of my life.

Born Phyllis Eugenia Cahen in 1920, she was a vibrant woman with a big smile, full of life and boundless energy. She grew up in the five towns area of Long Island, New York, descended from German Jewish immigrants who came to these shores in the 1840’s and 1850’s. She told stories of the strong independent women in her family: Her grandmother Jennie, who lost her husband at a young age and “rolled up her sleeves” to raise four kids as a single mom; her great aunt Rachel, who married Nate Salsbury, business partner to Buffalo Bill Cody in the Wild West Show; Rachel’s daughter, Rebecca (Beck) who was best friends with the great painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

She talked about her brother Jimmie, who died fighting fascism.

Mom (on right) with her brother Jimmie and his wife Frances

Mom supported the war effort during World War II, working at Bell Laboratories, and married my dad in 1943 while he was enlisted in the Army. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in education and later got her master’s degree from New York University. She taught remedial reading and braille in the New York City public schools. She marched for Civil Rights and against the war in Vietnam. She knew which side she was on.

Mom was always active. She loved tennis and ice skating and bike riding and Central Park and dogs and classical music and Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. And she passed that all on to me. She showed me Niagara Falls and the Adirondacks and Yosemite. She arranged a summer long camping trip for me to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and let me plan another summer in the Canadian Rockies and the Northwest. She gave me independence — perhaps too much.

As a child, Mom traced her ancestry back to the 1600’s and collected it all in a book she called My Ancestors. Years later, I used that as the starting point for my own travels back in time.

Mom raised three children, my older brother and sister and me, and she filled us with love and stories of times gone by. She loved to cook, using recipes, many from her mom, typed (by manual typewriter) on index cards that are still among my most precious possessions. I still make some of her dishes, but not very well.

Back row: Mom and Dad; Front row: my brother and sister and me, 1981

We lost Mom suddenly in 1982, a few days before my 23rd birthday. I’ve thought about her every day since. Our family has never quite recovered, but we learned to survive and to cherish the happy memories.

Life is precious and far too short. Enjoy each day and hug those you love. Every day.

Happy birthday Mom!

Attorney, writer and activist living in Northern Virginia