Courageous Love: Bernice Melov
June 12, 1919 – December 18, 2010
This morning, my mother’s life came to a peaceful end at her residence at Spring Arbor of the Outer Banks in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. She had lived six months into her 92nd year, thereby living during all or part of eleven decades of American and world history. She spent a lifetime learning, teaching and nurturing based on her life experiences and what she witnessed during those decades.
Many of you have told me during the past few years of my mother’s gradual decline that I was a devoted and good son. If I’ve been such, it was because my mother was an amazing woman. Some of you may not know what I have to say about my mother, some of you do but would certainly not eschew the value of hearing it again.
Irene Bernice Webber Melov, known throughout her life as Bernice, was a first generation American, one of two daughters of immigrants from the Jewish Pale of Settlement, that ever-shifting border zone between Russia and Poland. Her parents left poverty and religious persecution to seek the freedom and promise of the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. She learned from them to love and honor their country of choice and her country of birth. As Bernice Webber, she saw first-hand, the hostility, discrimination, and other challenges with which her immigrant parents had to cope as strangers in a new land. From this experience she learned, taught, and nurtured in me and others a fierce pride in our nation and an undying commitment to the dignity and nobility of all of those who came here from elsewhere no matter the circumstances of their arrival, their religious or spiritual beliefs, or their native tongue.
As a young bride during World War II, Bernice Melov witnessed the inequity and iniquity of racial segregation in New Orleans where my father served as a white officer for an African-American regiment. She saw first-hand the degrading treatment of African-American citizens and soldiers on the streets and streetcars of New Orleans and she forever after recoiled at and called out either overt or covert racism. She learned, taught, and nurtured in me and others a never-ending dedication to the proposition that all people are created equal and that justice delayed is justice denied.
As a young teacher, first in Boston and then in Brooklyn, New York, she witnessed women who had to give up their teaching positions when they married or when they became pregnant after marriage. She lived first-hand the pernicious policies that told women that they were not as valued and competent as men or, worse yet, that they may have been as competent or better but that positions first had to be made available to men because they were the family breadwinners. She learned, taught, and nurtured in me and others a quiet but unflinching feminism that focused on ensuring that everyone be judged on the basis of their skills and abilities, not their gender.
In the 1950’s when I was a small child, she witnessed first-hand the clandestine world and the terror of a young woman facing the need to end a pregnancy. She learned, taught, and nurtured in me and others both a respect for life and an undying respect for the right of each woman to make her own decision about bringing another life into this world without being subjected to the judgment of others who may think and decide differently.
In the mid-1970’s she experienced the trauma of divorce following nearly 33 years of marriage. She really never fully recovered from the shock, but through her first-hand experience of such a loss she learned, taught, and nurtured in others an obligation to support any people in a loving, caring, and committed relationship regardless of who those people may be.
Finally, but definitely not least, as the mother of a gay son, Bernice Melov became a warrior for equality. Many, many years before the world had heard of Mama Grizzlies, my mother was a fierce defender of this “Cub”. When asked by a family friend, at my request, when I was in my late 20’s if she knew that I was gay, my mom said: “…of course and what difference would that ever make?” She lived for 23 years in the home that I have shared with my partner, Al for nearly 36 years now and, with that experience under her belt, she became a devoted advocate of what some maliciously call the “gay agenda” — that her son and millions more like him must be treated with the respect, dignity and equality guaranteed to all other citizens of the United States. Throughout her 70’s and into her early 80’s she witnessed, learned, taught and mentored as a national office volunteer for Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and in her late 80’s, literally until the day she celebrated her 90th birthday, she volunteered weekly at Equality Maryland. She was recognized as Equality Maryland Office Volunteer of the Year during the year in which she turned 89. At ages 87, 88, and 89 she testified before the judiciary committees of both houses of the Maryland Assembly in favor of civil marriage equality. Her words in 2007 about her understanding of marriage equality left few dry eyes among the public attending the hearing. She said about Al and me and so many others in Maryland and elsewhere:
“When my son or his partner is sick do they care less for each other than they would if they were a man and a woman? When one was hospitalized did the other worry less than he would have if they were a man and a woman? When one, decades from now, dies before the other will the survivor grieve any less copiously than he would if his beloved was a woman? The answer to these questions is as plain as anything I have seen or known in the nine decades I have been privileged to witness. It is as plain as the basic respect that we owe to one another if we hope to continue to live in a civil society. Let religious communities determine whether to accept or reject same-sex marriage as a religious blessing or sacrament within their churches, synagogues, temples, shrines or mosques. Do not, however, sully the Constitution of Maryland by putting up for a vote the right to equal justice under the law.”
My mother was disappointed that civil marriage equality would not become a reality in Maryland or in the United States at large during her lifetime. It was not for want of loving effort and righteous indignation on her part.
My mother taught me to accept and respect myself for whom and what I am. She also taught me to accept, respect and celebrate differences in others. She did so by teaching me to value differences by always simultaneously seeing similarities and our common humanity. She took these simple precepts and quietly taught them, not only to me, but to anyone who would listen and pay attention. And, she taught me to live a life in which I would model and teach these principles.
So, for those of you who have congratulated me on being such a good son, you can see that whatever I have done was to honor an awesome mother. My mother was not a great person in the nonsense of the celebrity-riddled world in which we now live. She was however, a great spirit, a decent, good, loving, caring, constant presence and teacher in my life and that of so many others. This spirit and the life’s lessons that she learned and taught will be with me as long as I live.
I would ask you or anyone with whom you may share this (and I encourage you to share it as widely as you deem appropriate) to live your lives as a memorial to Bernice Melov. Be fierce in advocating for and protecting the right of each and every one of us to respect, human dignity, and equal justice under the law. Seize the joy in your lives and bring joy to others. In so doing, you will help me to honor my mother and perhaps, you will, as she assuredly did, change a small corner of the world for the better.
Lifted up by: Steve Melov