Elaine Jean Brooks Elbein, 86 yrs old, nurse, entrepreneur, and the self-described “matriarch” of the small and tight-knit Elbein family, died on May 22, 2019 after cardiac arrest. The Memorial Service will be on June 5 at 4 PM at Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston. The community is welcome. Two of Elaine’s passion were pet rescue and social justice – in keeping with those values, memorial gifts can be made to American Jewish World Service (www.ajws.org) or Barrio Dogs (www.barriodogs.org).
Elaine Elbein grew up in a century of tumult, triumph, and occasional horrors. She was born in Maldin, Massachusetts on July 11, 1932 to Michael Zitowitz Brooks z”l and Rose Dworman z”l, into a rich and tightly woven Ashkenazi Jewish world. Her father Michael was a hard-working serial entrepreneur who was always looking for the angle and the opportunity. Her mother Rose was a nurse and later realtor. They both had wicked senses of humor and welcomed a good belly-laugh. Michael and Rose worked together at their home and plant in Worcester, where they ran a dairy and later a Squirt bottling plant. In response to anti-immigrant sentiment, they changed their last name from Zitowitz to Brooks after the birth of their first child Harriet z”ll (1928). Later children, Marvin z”l (1930), Blossom z”l (1931), and Elaine (1932) were born as Brooks. Rose and Michael’s marriage was tempestuous, ending in divorce while Elaine was still in high school, though they remained tightly connected for their entire lives.
Elaine came from a family of talented musicians, where she pursued the cello. Her mother and siblings played piano, clarinet, violin. She played in her high school symphony and later in the Boston Youth Symphony. Her cello teacher and muse, noted cellist Bedrich Vaska, ignited her lifetime love of music, which she shared with her children and grandchildren.
Elaine met her future husband and beshert Alan David Elbein, z”l, in Junior High, where she initially fixed him up with her friends. Forbidden by her mother Rose to marry before her elder sister Harriet, they eloped on June 27, 1953, and later that year formally married at Worcester’s Temple Emanu El on September 13. They remained in Worcester while Alan completed his BS at Clark University and Elaine worked as a nurse at Hahnemann Hospital. With great joy they celebrated the birth of their first son Steven Conrad Elbein on June 21, 1954 in Worcester.
Pursuing Alan’s academic aspirations in 1955, they drove across country to Tucson, Arizona, with one-year old Steven in tow, as Alan began his Masters program at University of Arizona. Although Elaine was terrified of scorpions, she was hopeful about their future out West. Never having been away from the Northeast, they longed for a verdant environment and quickly planned a trip to Saguaro National Park, in the quest to picnic under the shade of large old-growth trees. They arrived to find, with great disappointment, a barren desert environment of rock and cactus.
While Alan worked on his Masters degree, Elaine was a nurse at St Mary’s Hospital, where she became very fond of one of her patients, the elderly painter and nun, Sister Rufinia, of the order Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondeletat. When Elaine was offered one of her paintings by the daughter of a deceased physician, she brought it to Sister Rufinia for a thorough scrubbing. This forest scene became one of Elaine’s most prized possessions.
Their second son, Bradley Martin Elbein, was born in Tucson on January 3, 1956, just as Alan was completing his Masters degree. She was happy to say goodbye to the desert and move to Indiana as Alan pursued his doctorate at Purdue University. Elaine delivered their third son, Richard Craig Elbein, on March 11, 1958, as Alan was completing his PhD in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Thinking back on the many places they lived, Elaine would later tell her grandson Saul “We did not think then about plans like young people do today. We just lived our lives.” For nearly 50 years she followed Alan’s rising academic and research career: UC Berkeley, University of Michigan; Rice University; UT Health Science Center San Antonio; University of Arkansas Medical School; supporting him and hosting a wide international circle of scientists and intellectuals at their homes.
Elaine had a lust for life and was always drawn to the new: a new dish, the latest i-phone, a new person, and, for much of her life, a new place to live or country to visit. Over their 57 year marriage, she and Alan traveled the world: China in the 1990’s, when it was just opening to Western travel; Soviet Russia and Poland when they were still behind the Iron Curtain; Israel and Egypt; Latin America; all across Europe. Among her fondest memories was the year they lived in Basel, Switzerland where she and Alan explored the Alps by moped; she particularly enjoyed telling the story of towing Alan and his moped back to Basel with only a bungee cord.
Though she never lost her Yankee accent, and despite an eight year sojourn in Little Rock, Arkansas, Elaine always felt most at home in Texas. She loved the bright colors and Tejano friendliness of San Antonio, the stark beauty of the Hill Country, and the cultural and culinary melting pot of Houston.
Elaine’s favorite place in Texas, and perhaps in the world, was Wimberley. For decades she would spend long weekends, holidays, or the entire summer, at their five acre retreat above the Blanco River near downtown Wimberley. She could be found at the Wimberley Café, sharing tables with strangers who, held in her calm, piercing eyes, would invariably begin to tell their life stories.
One of the constants and joys of her life were her dogs. At times her household included a rotating cast of up to five rescued dogs. “Any dog in the neighborhood,” a family saying had it, “knew it had a home at the Elbeins.” Despite growing up in an age when science still thought of animals as little more than furry machines, she saw them as more like people, with unique cares, needs, and personalities. She saw no clear difference between animals and people, not because she thought little of the latter but because she thought so much of the former.
In 2004, missing Texas, she was ready to return to her adopted state to build the life she wanted while she still had time, though Alan was still happily working in Little Rock. Elaine found a solution as unique as she was — she would move her household to Houston and he would continue working in Little Rock. She helped him set up a house in Little Rock; he helped her set up in Houston. For the next five years they split their time between those cities. Following Alan’s death in 2009 and Steven’s in 2010, she took on the leadership of the surviving family.
“I am the matriarch of this family,” she would sometimes tell her sons and grandchildren, neither fully serious nor fully joking, with the twinkle in her eye. And over the last decade of her life, after Alan’s death, she stepped into that new role: by turns guiding, nudging, managing, questioning. She rekindled an estranged relationship with her sister, Dr. Blossom Brooks, who also lived at The Medallion Jewish Assisted Living Residence. The two sisters could sometimes be seen sitting on the sofa at The Medallion talking about how things had been. Elaine reveled in the incredible talents and successes of her journalist grandsons Saul and Asher, and the tenacity and practicality of her granddaughter Micaela.
Elaine struggled through numerous health challenges. She had quadruple bypass surgery (in amused competition, she was disappointed, and Alan relieved, that she did not exceed his quintuple bypass), three cardiac stents, double knee replacements (at the same time!), hip replacement, and a shunt for normal pressure hydrocephalus (an ailment she shared with her father and sister Blossom). Through it all she remained optimistic, though she did comment “these replacement parts are not that great.”
She is survived by her beloved constant canine companion Boychick, sons Bradley (wife Rivka, grandsons Saul & Asher) and Richard (husband Jerry Peperone), daughter-in-law Helene Fisher Elbein (grandchildren Micaela & Aaron). But also her community at The Medallion, her mahjong & bridge group, her Einstein breakfast friends, and thousands of people across the world who, even if only for a few minutes, one day of their lives, met a woman with twinkling eyes who spoke with them a while but looked into their soul.