Thursday, November 29, 2007

Remembrance of my mother

My mother died a year ago today. I share the remembrance I delivered at her memorial service. Five others gave tributes to her as well, each highlighting different qualities. They all captured a different aspect of my mother; my favorite was my uncle's.

I feel I just transcribed this, and I'm not sure who the author is. After I typed it up but before I actually delivered it, different members of my family came to me and asked that I include this or that. It was strange as not once did they suggest something that wasn't already in there. So I think my mother's spirit had something to do with what is conveyed here:

I speak on behalf of my father, brother Matthew and sisters Beatrice, Eleanor and Olivia, their spouses and for my mother’s grandchildren, Isabelle, Lucas, Austin, Jack, Curtis, Drew, Margot, Sabrina and Ava Angelina, in order to remember our mama as a grandmother and mother.

We and our father are astonished by the outpouring of love and support these last days, especially from this extraordinary place and its people, Oak Knoll. And we are moved by the presence of all of you here. Some came for all of us, some for one of us, some from nearby and some from far away, even against the adversity of some nasty weather. We deeply appreciate you. And hope that first and foremost you TAKE JOY in this celebration of our mother.

She endowed all of us with so many gifts, but I wish to highlight four –
as well as few mandates.

My mother appreciated the sacred and the mystery imbedded in the sacred. She had an awesome mind and such wisdom. She understood much, including that the peace of God passes all understanding, as the liturgy of communion reminds us. Despite the power of her brain or more likely because of, she allowed for that mystery and taught us that not knowing everything was not always a source of frustration but could be an astonishing, valuable gift.

When we were small, in the season of Lent, our parents would stir and wake each of us with a “shhhh” and we’d slip out of our beds and out of our dreams to gather on the steps of the landing for family prayer. We were not allowed to talk until we finished our prayers. We gathered in silence. No words. And so she showed us the power of sacred peace in a small, authentic way.

As we gathered around her death bed, she told Matthew she loved him best, and Beatrice that she loved her best, and Eleanor that she loved her best and Olivia that she loved her best, and of course, me the same. Didn’t make any sense, but we knew it to be true. We enjoyed some initial fake argument over who she said it to first or last and the significance of the order. But she kept saying to us all the time, in mixed up order – no logic or sense. We knew her, and we knew it to be true. Mysteriously, gloriously true.

Mom also valued magic. She loved the magic of the arts, especially the stage, literature, dance, music, most of all jazz. She was always dragging us to New York City to see a film or a concert at Lincoln Center, and we came to appreciate the transcendence of the arts in some of the same ways she did. She gave us magical birthday parties, each with a theme such as dolly sweet sixteen, a circus party, a Laura Ingalls Wilder party, a backwards party and a newspaper party, among numerous others.

And, of course, she loved planning parties for my dad - she gathered friends to “bury his youth” when he turned 30; had him woken at 11 at night for an Old Goat party to mark his 40th; a 50 hour open house designed also to deprive him of sleep for the 50th and a beautiful family weekend gathering in Vermont for his 60th.

She created magic with her family rituals: gathering for breakfast and supper, placing the red plate at our place setting to mark special occasions or accomplishments, cooking specific recipes for holidays, and requiring participation in the annual New Year’s Eve talent show and, of course, always dressing up for holiday dinners. No jeans!

The Christmas season approaches with Advent beginning tomorrow and this time of year was her favorite for she loved nothing more that the magic of Christmas, as several of her grandchildren noted on Wednesday. She and my Dad decided to marry in the Christmas season on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. My dad always said he was the innocent and we never believed him. But writing of hers found and read since Wednesday have led us to consider maybe Dad was right! These things were well hidden while she was alive. By the way, in that same scrap book we also found - a matchbox from the place they went on their first date, a list of things my father liked and disliked; and a newspaper article featuring her when she was a high school senior, 17, in which she declared women should not marry before age 26. She married my father at 19. He magically changed her mind!

When they got engaged, my father wrote his parents, Floyd and Opal, and told them about Angela and how she was a different sort of girl. She didn’t want a diamond engagement ring; she wanted them both to wear simple gold bands. For 25 years, Opal kept that letter, and on a visit east from Ohio she gave it back to her son and said – can you not now afford to buy that girl a diamond? My father listened to his mother, and my mom treasured that letter my father wrote his own mother so many decades earlier.

In this Christmas season, my mom loved the magic of Santa Claus, the magic of lights on a tree and presents under the tree, the magic of so many Christmas carols and the magic and hopeful promise of the candles on the Advent wreath which we lit every night as we awaited the Christ child every year. This time of year was her favorite, and God called her home to Him during this magical time. Though she could not speak, she nodded in agreement when one suggested to her Tuesday night that she’d be our Christmas angel. What a marvelous, magical image!

Mom loved myths. She treasured stories. She was an avid reader and enjoyed stories for themselves, but she also appreciated their power to move, to educate and to connect. She told us and made sure we knew the parable stories of Jesus. We got to know the stories of the Old Testament as we created and assembled a Jesse tree for Advent to show Jesse being the root of Christ, and how those old stories linked with the new ones of Jesus.

On our long summer drives to the Midwest to visit Dad’s family in Ohio and hers in Chicago, she’d entertain us with her own made up stories and mesmerized us - as each of us appeared as a character. We begged for more from our very own, personal storyteller.

And recently, she loved nothing more than to cuddle up with a grandchild to regal them with a story. They often asked, is it a true story, Nini? Their eyes widening with the wonder of her tales pleased her beyond measure. She called them her sugarpusses because their faces were so sweet to her.

And finally, she loved the stories of history, and so our last family gathering was in late June this past year to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday in Williamsburg , Virginia. She chose that location because she wanted to introduce history, our nation’s history, to her grandchildren in that dynamic place where the stories of our nations are so alive and so accessible.

And finally she left us with some mandates. One of her favorite movies was “I Remember Mama.” She really liked the movie and the book it was based on; it wasn’t just the title. And she wanted us to remember her and for us to make sure that her grandchildren remembered her.

She wanted us to value learning and education, particularly the principles of a Holy Child education as set forth by Cornelia Connelly.

She definitely wanted us to vote Democratic, but even she believed that most important of all was to be an engaged civic citizen. She could not abide those who did not inform themselves about current events and who did not avail themselves of the privilege to vote. And then had the gall to complain.

She allowed bickering but forbade serious arguments. I vividly remember once being annoyed with Beatrice and fiercely arguing with her in ferocious murmurs in the back of the car – angry whispers so Mom wouldn’t hear. And she grew a circle of love and respect among us.

She kept her sense of humor and a twinkle in her eye right to the end, and she’d want us to continue to laugh in our lives. She was self-deprecating and taught us not to take ourselves too seriously.

And last but not least, she passed on to each of us, both in her words and her example, the importance of love that is nurtured in families. A window in our church, Zion, in Vermont is dedicated to that love and depicts the Holy family, and she based the nurturing and safe nest she created for us on that family.

My mom was who she was because of her parents Olga and Tony – particularly her passion, her intelligence and her respect for education. She is with them now.

T.S. Elliot wrote, “In my end, is my beginning.” And also, “All shall be well, and All manner of thing shall be well.”

Her favorite poet was Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, the Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem star may lead me
To the sight of Him who Freed me.
Now beginning, and always:
Now begin, on Christmas day.

Rest in peace, dear mother. Do some more magic and be our Christmas angel all year long.

You are with God, and he is with us so we are all still together.

You are with us and will be with us. And we promise you, Mom, that your grandchildren will remember you and the family values you instilled in us. Democratic family values.

We will gather and assemble and connect and stay close with each other and remember you.

We will remember your mystery, your magic, your mythmaking and your mandates. We’ll remember our nini and we’ll remember mama.

Now we worship and thank God for her.

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