Michele Bernstein was a staunch champion of the underdog

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Michele Bernstein

Michele Bernstein, of Monroe, died on March 31, 2021, at age 68. Michele was born on October 16, 1952, to Anita and Harold Bernstein.

She had recently moved to Monroe from Brownsville, Texas, to be closer to her daughter Margo and Margo’s husband Rick, her son Craig and his wife Melanie, and grandchildren Niko, Sebastian, and Genevieve.

Her son Adam, his wife Goli and grandchildren Ayla, Caspian, and Alara live in the Washington D.C. area. They were looking forward to seeing Mom more frequently now that she was within driving distance.

In a family of loud New Yorkers, she was the loudest, most opinionated, most bleeding-heart liberal there ever was. Mom taught us early about injustice. She was passionate about civil rights, racial justice, social justice, equal rights, disability rights, gay rights. She crusaded against antisemitism any chance she had. Her children grew up with a daily earful about the history of antisemitism, bigotry, white supremacy, oppression, sexism, and racism. Our Mom did not allow us any whitewashed notions about history, and she was a staunch champion of the underdog.

She was also fiercely proud of her son Adam’s and her Father, Harold Bernstein’s, military service, and the service of other members of our family. She was proud of Adam’s tours of duty and his service as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Army National Guard.

Mom collected people like she collected strays. When left to her own devices, she would fill her house with people and animals. Mom took in half the stray animals she found. Others she would feed, pay for the vet to come and spay or neuter, then release. She watched over countless strays in her neighborhoods over the years.

Growing up on Long Island, our house was permanently filled with friends and family. Many of our friends practically lived at our home, and some of them actually lived with us, when they were having a hard time and needed a soft place to land. Our house was loud and chaotic, and that’s the way she liked it. Teenagers in every room, helping themselves to food from a packed fridge. Adam and his friends playing epic board gaming sessions, Margo and her friends engrossed in gossip, Craig and his friends playing video games. All mixing together in the house, with Mom as a kind of benevolent chaperone.

Everyone called her Mom, and she loved to listen and give advice to anyone who needed it. When people were thrown out of their house or had a tough home life or felt unloved, she opened her door and made them feel welcome at ours.

Our Mom was into healthy food waaaaay before it was cool. Growing up, we were not allowed junk food or fast food, or sugar. Mom bought all her produce from farm stands, meats from the butcher, eggs, and goat milk from the farm. She taught herself to cook Cordon Bleu-style from a stack of cookbooks, and she slaved over intricate gourmet meals that would take half the day to cook. We ate like kings, but of course, as kids, we didn’t appreciate it. All we could think is, ‘what is this brown mushroom sauce? Why can’t she just make mac n cheese like all the other Moms?!’

She made us eat wheat germ on our yogurt and take ginseng and royal jelly every morning. Everyone thought she was crazy, but she was passionate about organic eating and keeping chemicals out of our meals, decades before it was in fashion.

Her parties and her spreads were extravagant and legendary. She ran a gourmet catering company briefly when we were kids, but it didn’t seem like much of a stretch from how she always cooked for guests. Every holiday had tables of food, bread, cookies, pies, always so many desserts. (We were allowed sugar on holidays. There were guests!)

She loved Harry Potter. She would re-read the entire series every year and begin on July 31st, Harry’s birthday. She loved witches, magic and herbal healing. She read the tarot and had dreams and premonitions. Whenever something happened, like pregnancy or engagement, she always said she knew it would happen before it happened. She had great ghost stories.

She loved Disney, and our lives were filled with regular trips there, where many happy childhood memories were made. Two years ago, she went with her daughter Margo and two of her grandkids, Niko and Sebastian, to Disney and Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and had the most fantastic time.

Mom had eclectic interests. She was extremely passionate about dancing. She loved it with all her heart and was itching to get out on the dance floor again. When we were children, she wanted to be an interior designer. She decided she wanted to knock down the wall between two rooms in our house, and felt like our Dad was taking too long to agree. So when he left for a business trip, she gave us kids sledgehammers and we all demoed the wall together. It was so fun and she turned it into a wonderful, big living room. Her interior design dreams never quite panned out, but she loved to decorate each home she lived in.

Mom never really had a “career” per se, but she was a yoga teacher, a massage therapist, and a Reiki master. She helped to heal many people over the years in so many ways.

She loved Judaism and was proud of being Jewish and loved to do all the holidays and participate at synagogue. She taught Hebrew school in Texas and was part of Jewish women’s organizations. She also believed in universal energy and spirit and loved learning about other religions and traditions. She had friends worldwide and delighted in taking part in their celebrations and learning about their cultures.

She volunteered throughout her whole life. She felt service was essential and instilled that in her children and grandchildren. When we were kids, she would take us to the retirement home to hang out and keep the older folks company. She would get groceries for elderly neighbors and drive them for errands. She would help with scoliosis screenings because she wanted to help find it early to be treated.

Mom talked to everyone, and she had no filter. She was so open with her life and her experiences, and she loved connecting with other people. We’d walk into a store, and she’d invariably manage to strike up a conversation with half the people in there—the person next to us in line, the cashier. An hour later, we’d drag her out of there, everyone waving goodbye to their new friend Michele.

So many people have reached out to our family since Mom passed, saying, “I can’t believe it; I JUST spoke to her.” We used to watch her on her phone and computer, texting and Facebooking non-stop, in awe, and joke that it was her full-time job. But it kind of was. Being in people’s lives was her passion. She was everyone’s cheerleader, always there, rooting everyone on. She wanted to support everyone. We would post a few new pictures, and within seconds we’d get notifications that Mom had whizzed through, “liking” or “hearting” each one. She just loved it. It was her lifeline to the world she missed and the people she loved.

Mom live-blogged her life. She put Andy Warhol to shame in her level of documentation. She was a champion Facebooker, and every new experience warranted a series of epic Facebook posts. Moving to Connecticut from Texas was branded “The Great Shlep” and was an adventure of biblical proportions. Her 2020 trip to Turkey with Adam and his family was detailed for her captive readers as if it were a magazine travelogue.

Mom was never shy about talking about her trials and tribulations. She openly shared her struggles with learning disabilities or self-esteem. She battled with depression at times. She wanted to share her life, and she did, good and bad. She spoke openly about heartbreak and loss and tried to overcome that, trying to come to terms with the difficult parts of life and move on. To hope for better days.

When she moved to her new townhouse a few months ago, she texted us updates every day. What she ate, how she was feeling, what cleaning she did that day. What she watched on TV. Who she talked to and the latest gossip. Her grandson Sebastian would call her on video chat, and the two of them would hang out for hours. He’d wander around the house with the tablet, chatting away. We would ask him, “What are you doing?” “Talking to Bubbie.” He’d hold up the tablet, and there was Mom on the other end, cooking or sewing and chatting happily with him about nothing and everything. They did this constantly, and neither ever tired of it.

Sebastian has a rare syndrome and has to go through painful weekly plasma infusions right now. The treatment really helps him, but it’s not easy for a small child to go through a treatment that requires needles in his stomach. After he completes the infusion every week, he gets a reward. Mom was baking him cranberry or blueberry cobbler for his reward, which he loved. He would always call or text her after his infusions to let her know that he did a good job and could get his reward, and she would tell him how she was so proud of him.

For the first few months after moving to Monroe, Mom lived with Margo and her family. She had such a bond with her oldest granddaughter Niko, who is like her in so many ways. Sometimes that caused them to butt heads, and we’d joke that she was fighting with a mini version of herself. But mostly, it meant that they would just luxuriate in each other’s company. The two of them, watching old movies, sipping tea, and hanging out in their PJs. Talking about anything and everything for hours. Mom giving Niko long lectures on history or culture or religion, which most of the time were totally not inappropriate for children. Niko would repeat some of these things to us afterward, and then we had to do damage control. But that’s how she rolled. Mom never filtered anything. Not when we were kids, and not when she was a Bubbie.

Niko would disappear for hours on end, and we would always find her in Mom’s room, curled up in bed together, talking. We would have to drag Niko out of her room at Midnight sometimes. They would be really quiet, hoping that we didn’t realize Niko was still up so late. Mom was like that when we were kids, too. She was a night owl and an insomniac, and when we were children, she would let Margo lay in bed with her and watch black and white movies all night. Sometimes she would even call her out of school the next day to sleep in and read.

Mom spent most of her time reading or watching movies or listening to music. She loved opera, classical, old country, and rock & roll. She read voraciously, one to two books a day, for over 50 years. She was insanely well-read, but she also had dyslexia and dyscalculia, so her spelling was atrocious. She had a fabulous vocabulary and wielded it like a weapon.

She was an Anglophile and liked to drink tea and watch Britcoms. She visited England several times and stayed with Margo when she lived in London and had Niko there. She loved gardening and getting her hands dirty with her grandkids. She spent most of the warm weather days the last year sitting in her spot under Margo’s apple trees or on the front porch, enjoying the sunshine and the birds.

She loved camping, and we went all the time when we were kids. She quilted everything by hand and made beautiful blankets for her grandchildren that they sleep with every night.

We never fought. There was definitely some yelling now and then when we were teens, but we never had arguments or disagreements outside of that. Partly because Mom insisted she was right about everything, and she was crazy stubborn, and we just didn’t want to argue. But mainly because Mom was one of those Moms that was more like a friend than a Mom. She would steal Margo’s clothes and try to get her to take hers in return. No subject was off-limits. Usually, we were the ones going, “Mom, can we maybe not talk about this?”

When we were kids, we never had many rules, but we had to do a ton of chores. She was huge on responsibility and helping out and getting an education. But there weren’t a lot of rules.

She supported Margo when she went to college at 16, Adam when he went to Law School and joined the military, Craig on every adventure he had. She loved Margo’s art. She loved reading Niko’s writing, and Adam’s writing, and Margo’s writing. She loved her son-in-law Rick’s photography. She loved watching Craig and her daughter-in-law Melanie’s live streams and was so into everything they did. Every unique creation her daughter-in-law Melanie made. Every success Craig had. Every cool cosplay outfit they wore to conventions. Everything her daughter-in-law Goli said was law to her. Her Goli was so smart, so knowledgeable. She “kvelled” over every article and news feature on Adam and all his accomplishments, over everything her grandkids did, over every picture of her grandkids, over her beautiful nieces and nephew and grand-niece and nephew. She was insanely proud of all of us. She called Rick, Goli, and Melanie her “son-in-love” and “daughters-in-love.”

Mom also perfected the sport of being underwhelmed. We would go someplace that was so perfect for her — a garden or store or restaurant and think, “oh, Mom would love this.” Then we’d take her there, all excited, thinking, oh, this will be great. And without fail, every time, there were 10 things wrong: the seating, the lighting, the food, the menu, the air. New Yorkers are pros at complaining; Mom treated it like an Olympic sport. She seemed to live by the unspoken motto “complain, or it didn’t happen.”

Mom shouldn’t have died. She was too young, too full of life. She so wanted to get out there and travel and see everyone. She had so many plans. She had so many beautiful grandkids to kiss and hold. She couldn’t wait to get better so she could race down to D.C. and see her grandchildren Ayla, Caspian and finally meet Alara. Thankfully, she was once able to see and hold her newborn granddaughter Genevieve, but the fact that her grandkids will grow up without their Bubbie is just cruel.

In the last year, after her divorce, she began a long-distance romance with Jerry, a friend from childhood that grew into a great love. She and Jerry were looking forward to starting a new life together. She was happy in this new life. She should have been here for another 20, 30 years, liking and commenting on everyone’s Facebook posts. Rooting her people on. Driving us a little bit crazy, and most importantly, making us all feel passionately loved.

If you want to honor Michele’s memory — take in a stray animal or person. Talk to a stranger and tell them TMI stories about your life and maybe make a lifelong friend. Help those around you, fight for justice, hug your family tight.

For those wishing to make a donation in her memory, she was a big supporter of the nonprofit 17q12 Foundation, the Foundation for Sebastian’s syndrome. They are working hard on learning more and raising money for research, and Mom was a huge advocate: https://www.chromo17q12.org/donate

Mom was laid to rest in West Babylon, NY, on April 5, next to her parents, who were both characters in their own right. She is survived by her sister Pam and brother-in-law George, brother Lawrence and sister-in-law Rita, her children, grandchildren, and hundreds of heart-broken friends and relatives. When it’s easier for people to gather again, we plan to have a memorial in person for all her friends and family. May Mom’s memory be a blessing to us all.

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