In Memory of Leni Epstein
Written by Jonathan Epstein
I am sorry to share that my mother, Leni Epstein, passed away on Monday night. Dad and I felt it so important to share this news with you – So many of you had close relationships with her, and she was grateful to have you in her extended family. Mom passed away peacefully. Our last visits with her were joyous, and we are fortunate that she had wonderful hospice care. She was so loved.
Leni Epstein was a warrior. Born in 1938, her most marked traits were determination, persistence, resilience, hard work, loyalty…with a nice dash of humor mixed in. She grew up in Queens, New York. She fell in love with Dad (after telling another girl who liked Dad to back off). She followed him to Italy and married him in 1957 while he was serving in the US Army in Verona. When they returned to NYC, she had my brother Jeffrey in 1959 when she was 21. She then had my sister Susan in 1962. They moved to Charleston, South Carolina and then on to Jacksonville, Florida. She supported my father’s work and raised two children as he became one of the greatest salesmen in the women’s apparel industry. I surprised everyone when I showed up in 1975, clearly an “accident”. When my brother returned from summer camp, Mom and Dad told him that they had a surprise. He thought he was getting a car! Instead, he found out his mom was pregnant! Three months later they relocated Dad’s business to Birmingham, Alabama which is where Mom lived the longest – 33 years. One of the funniest things about my Mom is that she lived in NYC for 24 years and in the American South for 58 years. Yet, she never lost the New York accent!
When I was 9, Mom went back to work. She opened a gift shop with two friends, and ever-entrepreneurial, she also started a party planning company and a clothing line…all at the same time. My mom was a force of nature. She never stopped working, volunteering or raising money for charity. One of her favorite charitable efforts was working through our synagogue and area churches to collect food from grocery stores and restaurants to feed the hungry when they lived in Birmingham. She was also very involved in many Jewish charities such as ORT, our Jewish Day School, and Jewish Federation. Whatever Mom chose to do, it was always a 100% effort. I have almost no recollection of my Mom sitting down on our couch. I remember her working, taking care of our family, or in bed. There was no middle ground.
At no time was this more true than when she and Dad shifted careers and launched Celebrated Experiences. It was 1990, and they were in their early 50s (I was 15). If I thought Mom had an intense work ethic before, that was simply training for the Celebrated phase of her life. She would start her days around 4:30am, and she would “chase” down hotel confirmations. Even back in the early 90s, Mom knew how critical it was that our travel advisor clients have their client’s confirmations early in their day, a practice that we still deliver today. She would assist travel advisors until about 6pm and then go upstairs to cook the most delicious dinners. Dad always said that he felt fortunate to dine in many of the world’s best restaurants (many at our Celebrated Hotels), but no meal was better than returning home to his wife’s cooking!
During slower times of the year, Mom would join Dad on the road in the UK & Ireland on inspection tours. Other than celebrations with family, I believe those visits were the happiest times of her life. She loved hugging her friends from each hotel’s Reservations and Sales Teams as she spent so much time communicating with them when she was in the office (first by phone, then fax, and eventually over email). Hotel and guide friends were family to her.
In 2006, after persuasion from Mom and Dad, I joined the business. I only had the chance to work beside Mom for three years as she became sick with bladder cancer in late 2008. But those years were special, and I learned so much from her! I loved the way she valued and treated everyone, how she exuded gratitude when the phone would ring with a request from a travel advisor (no request too small), how meticulous and obsessed she was with the details (always catching Dad’s mistakes…and mine too!), and how she mentored new staff. One of the kindest messages I have received is from Ashleigh who started working at Celebrated just after me. She shared how grateful she was that Mom was a mentor to her. We were fortunate to have my Mom as a role model to our Celebrated Family.
My Mom had 9 lives. She almost drowned in the 70s (Dad saved her). She beat breast cancer in the 90s. She then defeated bladder cancer 14 years later, and for the past 10 years she was a brave warrior against dementia and Alzheimer’s. We could make her smile and pull her back from the fog of memory loss by playing music by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or some of Motown’s best bands. She also loved to dance. She and Dad were quite a pair both on the dance floor and in life. While she never had a problem with Dad leading, she also never had a problem with offering many corrections!
Leni Epstein was not just a Mom to me and my siblings, she was the Mother of Celebrated Experiences. Some people hide from challenges. My Mom chased after them…with a stick. She was so proud of her work at Celebrated and watching the company grow from just her and Dad in the basement of their house to the company we are today. One of her happiest moments was when she learned we were curating a hotel Collection in Italy. I will never forget how her face shined when she learned this news and all of the questions that she asked. Mom’s passion for England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Italy is something that she will carry with her into her next chapter. Her love affair with Dad and our industry is so evident from the above picture that friends from Brownell Travel shared with me. It is from one of their company meetings. Look how happy they were at a “work event”! Yes, it was work, but that is one of the many things that makes our industry so special. We are so fortunate to attend “work events” and be so surrounded by clients and partners we love.
Over the course of her life, my Mom had many personal, professional, and health challenges. She fought them all with toughness and grit – often with a smile. I must proudly admit that I see Mom’s best qualities in so many of you, our Travel Advisor clients. That brings me and my father so much joy.
On my last visit with Mom, we talked about the COVID-19 pandemic. With grace and confidence, she said, “You will all be ok. This too shall pass.” Mom knew that we were all in this together, and together we would fight our way through.
For those of you who knew her and supported her over her 20-years working at Celebrated Experiences, thank you. She never stopped asking about you even if she could not always remember your names. To those who did not have the chance to work with my Mom, please know that she was so grateful to you for supporting her Celebrated Family. You meant so much to her.
Thank you for your warmth and kindness, and I hope my Mom’s memory will inspire you to persevere and be a champion for yourself and those you love.
– Jonathan Epstein, CEO