Eulogized on November 12, 2018
As you know, my mother Helen Kirschner was born in 1936. The second of three children, she worked in her youth as a telephone operator for AT & T. She got married and gave birth to five children. She later found work at a local elementary school and played the organ at her church. Eventually she retired, enjoyed spending time with her family and friends, and then ultimately, she died.
But what you probably don’t know, was what seemed like just an ordinary life was, in fact, an extraordinary story of love, laughter and music. It’s a story that could rival any show on Broadway. Also, what many of you probably didn’t know was that each of us here today played an important role, an unforgettable character in one of the greatest shows ever. That show was titled “Helen Kirschner: The Musical”.
Upon meeting my mother, you could certainly say she was a truly unique character. She was the ultimate leading lady, displaying the quirky charm of Sweet Charity’s namesake ingenue, presenting the fierce tenacity of Gypsy’s Mama Rose, and possessing the artistic passion of The Phantom of the Opera’s Angel of Music, Christine. She was a triple threat to be sure. Or more succinctly, she was “one singular sensation”.
“Helen Kirschner: The Musical” told the story of a woman who touched the lives of everyone she met. In the beginning of the show, like a scene right out of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, Helen left the comfort of her rural homestead to make her way in the world, armed with an infectious smile, twinkling blue eyes, a kind heart, and a deep love for music.
The young fetching catholic school girl soon crossed paths with a rough and ready guy from over the river. With his hair greased back, and his cigarette pack rolled up in the t-shirt sleeve, they appeared to be total opposites. And just like Danny and Sandy from Grease, Helen and my father, John, spent those summer nights at the shore, proclaiming to one another “You’re the One That I Want.”
Soon after the marriage, the children arrived. My mother gathered us around her piano, and much like Julie Andrews’ Maria from The Sound of Music, she too taught my siblings and I to love music, as well as “Do-Re-Me”. Time went on, and each of us five children developed our own musical gifts. Channeling Shirley Jones, Mom was the leader of our rag-tag, South Jersey-based Partridge Family-like band. Oldest son Johnny banged the drums, sister Pasty blew trumpet, middle son Danny headbanged on both the drums, younger brother Ray wailed on the clarinet, and yours truly, little Leo tickled the ivories of the piano. Father would tap his toes, and bounce the tooth pick dangling from his teeth to the music created by us, the music inspired by our mother.
When we were old enough, Helen returned to work, this time as a cafeteria staff member at the local elementary school. And as sure as she served pizza every Friday, she proudly became a caring and comforting presence for literally thousands of local school children for over 25 years. Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, none of her students ever broke out into a splashy chorus of “Food, Glorious Food” in the cafeteria like those dancing orphans in Oliver. She played organ at her local church, as well as providing piano accompaniment for the student choruses and ensembles preforming in annual Spring and Winter school concerts for many years. She was scoring the soundtrack for other as well as for us.
Like in Fiddler on The Roof's "Sunrise, Sunset", swiftly flowed the days and years in our home. The five of us moved out, but we returned with significant others, and more importantly, grandkids. Each took their turn climbing up onto the wooden bench with Mom at her piano in the parlor, each waiting for their own solo.
Every Christmas became another opportunity for Helen to put on a showstopping production number worthy of Jerry Herman’s Mame. Mom had candles in the windows, and carols at the spinet.
But in every musical, Act I ends with an unexpected plot twist. The untimely passing of our father threw Mom’s life in turmoil and uncertainty. She left the family home she built with our Dad and resolved herself to journey on. The Unsinkable Molly Brown had nothing on my mother.
Act 2 of “Helen Kirschner: The Musical” found our leading lady gaining strength and support from not only her family, but from her long-time close friends as well. A cast of crazy, comical supporting characters, many of them part of a Red Hat Society or the local Community Choir stood by her, all of them as wacky and endearing as any character found in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man”.
In her retirement, Helen travelled across country to visit with her brother and sister. She sailed to Alaska and hosted many excursions to the bright lights of Broadway… possibly to check up on the competition. Holiday dinners with her children, school concerts and events with the grandkids, high energy fun with the great-grand toddlers continued. And there were those trips to the casinos, where she tried her hand at beat ol’ Lady Luck like so many of the Guys and Dolls did in Frank Loesser’s tuneful classic.
But in her second act, there was still heartbreak and sorrow for Helen to endure. The tragic and unexpected loss of a son and later, a grandson. Soon, she experienced further loss as her dear friends and companions departed from her story and her life.
Content with the joy and music she had brought to each and every one of us, Mom felt it was time to bring the curtain down. Like all the great theatre divas, she was in total command of her performance. As the final months and weeks, days and hours passed, her family and friends came by and waited by her stage door expecting to witness her curtain call. But she kept us all waiting. She wasn’t quite ready yet. She had one more joke to deliver, one more tale to tell. She had one more song to sing.
But today, our mother and leading lady Helen Kirschner has at last decided to take her final bow. And in every great musical, the cast and company gather on stage for the last song of the night. That’s what we are all here to do.
You didn’t know was that you were a part of the cast of the long running, highly entertainment, emotionally moving show called “Helen Kirschner: The Musical”. But Mom knew. While most all of us here missed opening night, we should all celebrate the fact that we were all present for closing night. And just like all the other great musicals on the Great White Way, we will always have the cast album. My mother’s soundtrack was filled with the melodies of kindness, of family, of loss and of good times. We can listen to it anytime we want, for her soundtrack is forever stored in our memory and in our hearts.
We should be thankful that we were able to experience her music and her love. For those were her greatest gifts. And as Les Misérables reminds us of the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God.
It was an extraordinary privilege to part of her story, to sing her songs, to bask in her gentle light. For my family and I, “Helen Kirschner: The Musical” was indeed the greatest show on Earth.