An unexpected eulogy

We miss you already and we will always love you, Mom. I will try to see myself as you saw me.


The eulogy I delivered at Mom’s memorial services on February 1st, 2014: First of all, I want to thank you all for your presence today. It is a great comfort to me and it was to my mother as well; you represent the communities that made her life a happy one. My name is Patrick; many of you I know and many of you I don’t. If you knew my mom, though, you have probably heard about me. What you have heard I have absolutely no idea, but my mom was a proud mother and she may have, on more than one occasion, spoken to you about something I was doing that may or may not have been interesting. I beg your indulgence; she was, she was a happy and proud mother, mother-in-law, and, in the last couple of years, grandmother.

When she was hospitalized over the holidays, neither she nor I thought that her life was near its end. But I did make sure that she knew how much I loved her. What I didn’t find the moment to tell her I will tell you now: I was enormously proud of her as well. She grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a place that my poor San Francisco-born wife thought looked eerily like a Norman Rockwell painting when she first saw it. She was a mayor’s daughter, the first girl of twelve, and so had a kind of co-parent role for many of her younger siblings. Kenosha is on the border with Illinois, not far from Chicago, and at a regional mayor’s conference, she once told me, her father and then-mayor Richard Daley worked on business while she had the responsibility for babysitting Richard Jr. – who went on to be the mayor himself. But my mom was never going to be a mayor– careers were just beginning to open up for women, and though my mom got excellent grades and a degree from an excellent school in Marquette, she didn’t quite have a profession. Part of that was by choice. She traveled the world, learning transcendental meditation and teaching it to others. She married my father at 25. My father never wanted to settle down, and could pack up and move every few months. I was born seven years later, in Santa Cruz, California. Not so long afterwards, they moved to Santa Barbara. And a few months later, to Fairfield, Iowa.
My first memory is there, and my mom is stuck in the snow. I was looking out a window. She was trying to drive a car up the hill, and several people had gone out to help push her out of the rut she was in. I think I remember the wheels spinning. I had never seen anything like it. For the next 16 years, with one short interruption, she and I lived here in Iowa. She was a creative and dedicated mother. The best way that I can describe my childhood is enchanted. My mom did not draw firm lines between imagination and reality. I lived on a farm where there were cows – and, when you think about it, how much more implausible than a cow is a dragon really? I loved gnomes, so she left little notes around the house for me to find: under the couch from the couch gnomes, under the stairs from the stair gnomes. But she encouraged me to learn too. Childhood TV was Mister Rodgers, nature documentaries, and, for reasons I’ll never fully be able to understand, repeated viewings of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the evenings she spent hours reading books to me. There were days that I would come home to find the kitchen table turned into a series of science experiments. I remember that the large magnet that would hold sewing needles would show me the power of magnetism by tying a weight to a string and a paperclip, so that the paperclip would be suspended in air by the strong sewing magnet. My life was so full of enrichment that it took me years to learn that we were not at all rich.
After the end of her marriage, my Mom spent a decade devoted to making things okay for me. We had been living in University of Iowa graduate student housing while my dad worked on his Ph.D.; in order to stay in there, in the cheapest apartments in the city, Mom enrolled one class per semester. A couple of years later, we moved across town so that I would be able to stay with the cohort of friends from my elementary school. Her job then did not pay well, but it did support her to take classes for professional advancement, and over the course of a decade during which she balanced work, school, and parenting a teenager I can describe from experiences as intermittently tolerable, she earned a degree in library science that changed her life. Finally she was able to have a professional career, and a home here at Cornell College that took full advantage of her talents. The last dozen years of her life were among the best. She found a job that used so many of her talents – not just as a librarian, but as a human being. My mom was open and accepting to new experiences and new people. Instead of worrying about her interactions with people of different backgrounds or life experiences, as some might do, she truly treasured diversity. She always wanted to learn, and wasn’t intimidated by what she didn’t know. She had a ready smile for the people who came into her life. She was one of the least judgmental people I have ever known, not because she was not discriminating, but because she directed her attention to what was good in people, and she found much to love in almost everyone. So I will say now what I never quite told her: I’m proud of what she did with her life, how hard she worked to get it, and the legacy that she will leave. She may have sprung from a Norman Rockwell painting but she developed a global outlook, and there are people all around the world that loved her and will miss her.
There was one contradiction in my mom’s personality. Although she was the kind of person who allowed you to be yourself with her, and who accepted people for who they were, she could be quite hard on herself. She had an internal voice, as I do, and as many of us do, that tells us that what we have done is not good enough. We knew that she was wonderful, but she sometimes didn’t. She knew that we were wonderful, though we sometimes do not. My mother is no longer with us, and I miss her terribly. I haven’t known many people with her extraordinary capacity for accepting us as who we are. But she is no longer with us to do that. And so we are going to have to do it for ourselves. Not that we stop trying to live with peace and care. But that when we feel the strains of self-judgment, we might stop for a moment and see us not as we see ourselves in that moment, but as she would have seen us. To focus loving attention on ourselves and others, and accept that we can be good people without being perfect. If we can do this for ourselves and for others, my mother will still be with us. I will try my best, and I ask you to try to do so as well, in memory of her.

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