Elizabeth Lehman died Sept. 23. She was 96 years old.
Normally, the exact date of a person’s death isn’t crucial to a life story. But for Lehman, of Cape May Point, that ending date matters, the oldest of her three children says.
“Summertime was her favorite,” says Judy Ballinger, 67, of West Reading, Pa. “She hated summer to end, and mourned” when it did.
So this daughter doesn’t see it as pure coincidence that her mother died on the first full day of fall this year.
She bases that partly on the fact that just days before she died, Lehman had an extensive medical evaluation that found her strong, Ballinger says.
So when Lehman died that Sunday, “The doctor was so apologetic — he just didn’t think that would happen. I said, ‘Doctor, I think she knew when she wanted to go, and she went. Summer was over, and that was it.’”
There’s more to Ballinger’s theory. Since long before Lehman moved to the Point full time in 1993, she had loved Saint Peter's By-The-Sea Episcopal Church there.
“She really wanted her funeral at St. Peter's By-The-Sea. And St. Peter's closes for the season” — the year’s last services were set for Sept. 30, Ballinger adds. “So if she hadn't gotten it in now, she would’ve had to wait until May.”
Of course, Lehman lived for 96 years, and her end is hardly the only notable thing about her.
“Elizabeth was a very, very smart person, and very different,” says Sally Sachs, a 30-year Point resident who liked to see Lehman walking by to swim in the ocean — when she was into her late 80s. Sachs, who’s now in her 80s, says Lehman was an inspiration to her, and to others.
“People like that — you look up to them,” Sachs adds.
John Reilly, 55, a part-time resident of the Point, knew Lehman for 30 years. He recalls her swimming long distances in the ocean.
“And when she finished, she would sit on this specific rock ... and talk about everything from dolphins to butterflies. ... She loved wildlife, she loved birds, she just admired the beauty that surrounds Cape May Point,” Reilly says.
But she knew the world beyond her little town. Elizabeth Austermuhl grew up in Camden and Wildwood Crest, and after she married Raymond Lehman, they moved to Washington, D.C. Elizabeth worked 20 years for the Smithsonian Institution and traveled extensively, to such exotic locations as Yemen, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia.
Still, she truly loved Cape May Point, and she got to celebrate her 96th birthday in July, on a platform overlooking the beach. She shared ice cream and laughs with family down to her great-grandchildren. But her time outside was limited in recent years.
She lived on her terms. And her family is happy to believe that she died that way, too.
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