It was a sad day in our house the day Ruth Bader Ginsberg died. It actually started out OK as it happened to be my birthday. But anyone who has experienced a quarantine birthday knows that the novelty has pretty much worn off. Every other year we would’ve had a hearty barbeque in the backyard with a handful of friends and their kids over to swim and hang out. This year, of course, didn’t look like that but it was still nice to have a quiet day at home with just the family. And then, just before dinnertime, we learned that RBG died. I think it hit me a little harder because not only was she a brilliant jurist, steadfast advocate for equal rights and an incomparably progressive American icon… but because she always reminded me a bit of my mom.
It’s always a little emotional to celebrate a birthday when the woman responsible for your birth is no longer around so losing RBG that day, too, felt like a double whammy. My mother went to law school later in life. She had already worked as a dental hygienist- a field she never particularly enjoyed but had been a predetermined destiny given her father and older brother were both already dentists. It was always a source of irritation that she was never encouraged to be a dentist solely because women were supposed to be the cheerful sidekicks in the world of medical professionals and cleaning teeth wasn’t what she really wanted to do. So, after about a decade of being unhappy, she made the choice to enroll in Loyola Law School. There, she thrived both mentally, socially and emotionally. She graduated at the top of her class, met and married my father and then had me and my brother all in short succession. My parents opened a private practice together while my mom also taught at Pepperdine Law School. It was while at Pepperdine that my folks befriended a visiting professor and Supreme Court Justice: Antonin Scalia.
Legend has it the dean told Scalia that he should befriend Jeff and Roberta Lee because being new in town, he could use some fun friends to show him the ropes. I remember being in high school and having the Scalia family over for a backyard barbeque and watching the adults roar with laughter. Given they were at opposite ends of the ideology spectrum, it might have been surprising to see them all getting along with such unbridled enthusiasm. And that’s what analysts said of the friendship between Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, too. They could be polar opposites when it came to their belief systems but when they got together it was just two great buddies having a lot of laughs. I imagine that mid-1980’s Lee/Scalia barbeque made quite the impression as a few months later, my parents were traveling to Washington D.C. with friends and Justice Scalia invited the whole group to go to the Supreme Court, watch the proceedings in session and then have a visit back in his chambers. My parents disagreed with him politically but always talked about that day and what a thoughtful, generous and funny person he was and I think they were quite proud to call him a friend.
The similarities between Ruth Bader Ginsberg and my mom don’t end with finding friends in strange places. After closing their practice, my mom stopped being an attorney and became a family law court commissioner for LA Superior Court. Her bench may not have been as imposing as the Supreme Court’s but she felt incredibly humbled by the work and had reverence for protecting the rights of children and parents, suffering in the turmoil of messy divorce and custody pursuits.
Both RBG and my mom were huge fans of the opera. Nothing thrilled my mom more than when my brother became a professional opera singer. She traveled all over the world watching him sing on stage. When he retired from performing and got an administrative job at LA Opera, she was only too happy to relieve him of his complimentary house seats every time he offered. And like RBG, my mother was also Jewish. I don’t know how religious or devout Ginsberg was but my mom’s Jewish identity was more food and culturally based more than attending services with any regularity. When it came to religion, my mom liked to describe herself as “a culinary Jew,” and this was always most evident on the Jewish holidays. Which made RBG’s death on Rosh Hoshana all the more poignant. Had it have happened years ago, we probably all would’ve been at my mom’s having dinner together as the High Holy Days were synonymous with roast chicken, chala (and the ever present uproarious laughter) over at Bubbie’s house.
My mom has been gone for four years now. It’s so strange to think she died during the 2016 election and never got to witness the outcome or division that has followed since. Ruth Bader Ginsberg won’t see the results of the election coming up. I can only imagine that these two highly respected ladies of the law would agree on one very important thing: that it’s incumbent upon each and every one of us to vote next month. No matter which way you lean, whether you’re happy with this administration or wish for a change, you need to get out there and make your voice heard. Send in your ballot nice and early so it’s counted (remember to sign it and use proper postage!) or put on a mask and brave the lines in person. This is each of our democracy and we owe it to our forefathers, essential workers, Supreme Court Justices and, yes, even our moms to get out there and vote on November 3rd . There may be a void felt over the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg but I imagine she wouldn’t want Americans to mourn for too long. A more enduring legacy that aligns better with who she was while alive is to honor her memory in death. Please vote.