My Other Mother

My first memory of her is running up the dark stairs of their Victorian home and wrapping my arms around her legs, sobbing like a kid of, well, my young age. I couldn’t have been more than five years old, and I was visiting Suzie on my own for the first time. I felt safe and had fun, but when it was time to go and a storm prevented my Mom from picking me up at the designated time, I panicked and ran into her arms. Suzie watched from the family room, probably puzzled at such excessive tears for missing my Mom from just across town. But her mother understood, and comforted me like only a seasoned mother could do. That is who Aunt Elaine will always be to me: a second mother.

A few years later, while my Dad was undergoing eye surgery and my Mom was staying at Albany Med, my brother and I had to spend the night at the Ko home. She tucked us into one of her son’s bedrooms in the attic, and once again we felt safe and cared for, comforted when a small sliver of worry hung over the slowly-ticking hours. I think she knew our latent fears, but she never let us worry or think about it too much.

A summer or two later, I rang the door to pick Suzie up to go somewhere, and Elaine answered with bags under her eyes, like she’d been crying. For the first time, I saw her as a human being. She explained that Dr. Ko had had nightmares of the war again, and had been up all night. All I had ever seen or known of her had been the jovial, unflappable matriarch. It was a glimpse of vulnerability coupled with steely strength, and I never forgot it.

She relied on that strength when Dr. Ko died in what remains one of the saddest things that has ever happened in my lifetime. In the middle of a house filled with family and friends and relatives from around the world, she held it all together, and to this day I don’t know how she didn’t crumble. We all wanted to fall apart that March, but the one person who saw everyone through it was Elaine. I remember hugging her like I did all those years ago, trying to become some small source of comfort, trying to go back to a happier time. Suzie and I grew up then, even if we didn’t want to, even if we weren’t quite ready. And still, her Mom stood, talking to others, comforting them, taking care of us, watching out for everyone.

No one was ever quite the same after that, but somehow Elaine retained her spirit and drive. In some ways I understand that she had to keep going, had to keep giving, in a valiant effort to keep from giving up. There must have been days when it seemed like too much, but she never revealed that to most of us.

Throughout all of it, she had her volunteer work. My Mom and I would marvel at how she did it. Not just at how much she loved it, but how much she physically did – all the hours of traveling, of studying, of helping. My Mom’s a pretty selfless person too, but even she was in awe of the force of nature that is Elaine Ko-Talmadge.

Recently, she received the New York State Liberty Medal, one of the highest honors presented to citizens. Nominated and presented by Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk, the award represents a lifetime of community service and volunteer work, and nobody exemplifies that more than Elaine. I honestly don’t know one other person who has given so much. I understand now that it was in her nature to give, but it was also what she needed to do to survive.

Fittingly, many of us didn’t find out about this latest honor until it was in the newspaper because she never said anything. It wasn’t her style to make a fuss over herself – and that’s what it means to be a truly charitable person. She never did it for the accolades or the praise. She did it to make a genuine difference.

Congratulations, Aunt Elaine, on a lifetime of work that has not gone unnoticed.

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