Selma Potter died on November 20 in Scarborough, Maine. She was 101 years old, a fact that in her final years she would describe, shaking her head, as both “unbelievable” and “ridiculous.” To her family and friends, every year was a blessing.
Selma was born on August 6, 1921, in Montreal Canada. On that day, her parents Gertrude and Abraham Glassberg welcomed twins, Selma and Jack. The Glassbergs were immigrants to Canada from small towns in the then Russian Empire – Abraham from what is now Ukraine, and Gertrude from what is now Lithuania. Like many Jewish families at the time, her parents had emigrated to escape discrimination and brutal violence; in her father’s hometown, anti-Jewish pogroms had killed or expelled every Jewish person by 1920.
Selma’s father was a textile merchant, and her mother took care of their six children. They lived in Montreal’s mixing-pot Outremont neighborhood, where Selma had a happy childhood surrounded by her siblings and many friends, including Marge Lazarovitz, who would remain one of her closest friends until her passing in 2018. Years later, Selma delighted in taking her US-born children and grandchildren back to Montreal – to visit “Aunt Marge,” to see other members of her extended family, and to visit St-Viateur Bagel shop for the famous “Montreal bagels” of her childhood.
In the summer of 1938, while vacationing with her family in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, Selma met Arnold Potter, a young man from nearby Portland. Arnold was also a first-generation child of Russian Jewish immigrants. They met around the ping pong table at the Lafayette Hotel, a kosher hotel where many Montreal relatives and friends stayed. Arnold and Selma enjoyed the Big Band jazz groups that played on the Old Orchard Beach Pier. On September 14, 1941, they were married at a hotel in Montreal. She had just turned 20.
Selma’s life was upended by the Second World War. In 1940, after Canada joined the allied fight against Nazi Germany, her twin brother Jack enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Arnold also enlisted — in the US Air Force. For training, Arnold was sent to Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama. Selma drove with him from Maine to Montgomery, where she lived with him for several months, later remembering the segregated facilities and cockroaches in their accommodations. When Arnold deployed to the Mediterranean to fly missions over Italy, she took their young son to Montreal.
On March 3, 1943, Selma’s brother Jack was killed when piloting an allied air mission over Germany. He was 21 years old. Losing Jack was the greatest tragedy of her life. Though Jack’s body was not recovered, the Canadian military memorialized him with a gravestone outside of Hamburg, Germany. Several years later, in his honor, she and Arnold named their daughter Jacqueline.
After the war, Selma and Arnold settled in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Interested in modern design, they wrote to renowned Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer and asked him to design a house for their family. To their delight, he agreed to do it. They would live and raise their children in that glass and steel house until the mid-1960s. In Cape Elizabeth and elsewhere, Selma made friends easily – in the local garden club, while skiing at Pleasant Mountain, playing bridge, and briefly even trying out golf for its social aspect. Friendship and community were an essential part of her life, whether with neighbors or her friends in the Jewish community in Portland. Throughout her children’s lives, their friends became her friends.
Selma loved participating in athletic activities. She took her children, as young as five years old (and later her grandchildren) to learn to ski at Mount Cranmore in New Hampshire. She played tennis, and later did yoga. She enjoyed white-water rafting, sailing the Maine coast, and canoeing at midnight in Scarborough marsh. On Friday nights in the early 1960s, while her husband worked at Potter’s Furniture, the family store in Biddeford, she piled her three children into a two-seat Corvette convertible for bowling at the Big Twenty and fried clams at the beach. After her husband retired, they skied with a group of younger friends in New England, in the western US, and in the Italian Alps.
Selma was an elegant, warm person, who maintained an easygoing attitude that her family often marveled at. She was the perfect company: calm, easy to be around, never meddlesome or stressed out. She was always ready with conversation, wanting to connect with people and make them feel comfortable. As a mother, she created a home where her children’s friends were welcome. When her son Harry was in junior high, his friends often told him “You have the best mother we know.” Harry also remembers driving away from her sister Freda's house in Montreal, when Freda yelled, "Don't stay so long next time!" Harry asked, "Mom, did you hear what she said?!" Mom simply looked straight ahead and replied "She meant, ‘Don't wait so long between visits!’"
Selma was the consummate host of family dinners at her Oakhill condo in Scarborough, where she served fabulous food – rotisserie chicken, meatloaf, steamed broccoli, honey cake – and loved to laugh and listen to jazz records over dinner, to play cards and enjoy a small glass of white wine. Her granddaughter Carrie remembers sneaking into her closet there to marvel at how glamorous she was – her clothes, her makeup, the stylish colors and art in her apartment. Effortlessly, and perhaps unwittingly, she became the Jewish matriarch – Bubbe to all – for the families of her children’s friends, known for her loving embrace and understated composure, her applesauce, meatballs, and matzo ball soup at Jewish holidays. She was also known to take her grandsons Sam and Dan out for grilled cheese and ice cream sundaes at Friendly’s, or later in life for a cocktail at the Black Point Inn.
Her granddaughter Julie remembers swimming at Old Orchard Beach as a child and complaining to her about the freezing cold water. “Bubbe would say ‘Don't worry, dear. Soon you’ll be numb and then you will be fine.’” (When the water was warmer, she would say, “Now, that’s delicious.”) Throughout her life, Selma’s happiest place was beside a beach – whether at Old Orchard, where for several summers she hosted her family at a Pine Point rental, at Kettle Cove, or on Longboat Key, Florida, where she spent winters on her own in the years after Arnold’s passing in 2005. In Florida, she played in a bridge league, attended concerts, made new friends, and carved out a solo life for herself in her mid-80s, after sixty-three years of marriage. She loved hosting her grandchildren and sometimes their boy- or girlfriends there; taking them out to classy spots like The Bijou Cafe, sitting at the bar and ordering lamb chops and a glass of water ‘ice cold.’ In those years, she also joined her children’s family trips to Central America, Europe, and the Caribbean, and traveled to Greece and Turkey with her niece Susan and nephew Misha.
Selma’s long life allowed her to get to know her great-grandchildren – sharing with them holiday meals, card games, and lots of laughs – always as a calming presence in their lives. In the final months of her life, she welcomed her fifth great-grandchild, and visited her over facetime.
In August 2021, surrounded by three generations of family and friends at her daughter Jackie’s home in Portland, she celebrated her 100th birthday. After a series of tributes, she took the floor without skipping a beat. She was, she said, truly lucky to have had such dear friends, who had made her life so rich and meaningful.
She is survived by her children, Jackie and Harry Potter, their spouses Bill Black and Betty Waxman, her granddaughters Julie and Carrie Potter, their spouses Vincenzo Bertoli and Colin Smith, her grandsons Samuel and Daniel Black, their partners Zohra Ahmed and Caitlin Pow, and her great grandchildren Olivia, Luciano, Ross, Miles, and Yasmin.
Her family thanks everyone who gave her joy in life, including the nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals who cared for her in recent years, especially those at Piper Shores in Scarborough.
There will be a gathering at a later date to celebrate Selma’s life.
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