I’ve not written in ages. I’m sorry about that. It’s been a very rough couple of months and for a while all I wanted to do was sleep.
In June I went to the States to help my siblings move my mother out of her apartment and into assisted living. While I was there, my dog Morgan suddenly fell prey to a neurological disease. He was dead within 24 hours. Four days later, Mom passed away. Although she had been ill for some time, her death was sudden and shocking. Because she died during 4th of July weekend, various of the nephews and nieces were home and we were all with her at the end — my brother via an open phone line from California.
My mother was an amazing and wonderful person and I thought maybe you’d like to know a little something about her. This is what I shared at her funeral.
About eight years ago, Mom asked me to write her obituary. I don’t think she was being morbid or particularly planning ahead. I think she was just interested in what I might have to say. I carried around her CV for years, asked her probing questions about her childhood and thought a lot about how to capture her life in 500 words. But I couldn’t do it. Until this week when I did do it.
I think the reason it was so difficult – besides the obvious reluctance anyone might have envisioning the passing of a beloved parent – was that I couldn’t really believe that Mom would ever stop being. When she was 13 years old, my mother went swimming in Lake Nemabhin in Wisconsin with two friends. It was an overcast day but not raining. Out of nowhere came a lightning bolt, which hit the three girls, killing one of them – Lois – and knocking the other two – my mom and her friend Fern – unconscious. Fortunately, my grandfather and another man were nearby and were able to carry them to safety before they drowned. We heard this story many times when we were small (it’s the reason no Raymond will go in swimming if there is rain in the forecast) and it always seemed quite amazing to us that our mother had been saved when her friend had not. It made her seem almost magical. Another reason that I delayed writing the obituary was my fervent belief that there was still plenty of time. After all, Mom came from a very durable family: my grandmother died at 102; my great-grandmother at 103.
We’ve received many wonderful messages in the week since Mom died. People remember her as kind, loving and loyal. We certainly remember her that way. Lisa once said that she had never once heard Mom say anything negative about anyone. That was Mom. Never critical, never sarcastic. How many people can you say that about? And people were drawn to her generous, non-judgmental nature. When I was growing up, the kitchen at 605 Winsford Road was the place where all of our friends gathered to recap the evening’s activities, make endless grilled cheese sandwiches, play cards and generally just hang out. Mom had a special way of making everybody feel welcome without being intrusive, especially important when we reached our teenage years.
Mom did all the things that great mothers and grandmothers do. Endless readings of ‘Are You My Mother?’ and ‘Goodnight Moon.’ Marathon Christmas cookie baking sessions. Countless arts and crafts projects. When David was 11, he was confined to bed for several months with what the doctors at the time thought was rheumatic fever. For some reason, he became obsessed with roller derby. Mom patiently watched game after game with him and, when he was up to it, took him to see the Roller Derby Gals when they came to Philly. Mom helped Doug and Lisa set up every place they ever lived in. This included painting their first apartment on Pine Street and landscaping their first house in Berwyn, which entailed planting eight large azalea bushes in the pouring rain. When Lisa caught chicken pox from Peter, who was a toddler, she moved into my parents’ house with him and baby Alex and Mom nursed all three of them back to health. She slept over and did the night feedings when Elizabeth was overwhelmed by newborn twin babies. Of a somewhat less serious nature – although it did feel like life and death to me at the time – I was invited to the senior prom during my freshman year in college and it was a pretty big deal. Mom and I discussed my prom dress options at length and I concluded that I had nothing to wear and that it was going to be a disaster. The next day, Mom showed up at my dorm room unannounced, with an armful of dresses for me to try on. I was to choose my favourite and she would return the rest to the store.
Mom’s gentleness and generosity belied her determination and persistence, traits that were very evident in her approach to her many community activities. Trained as a nurse, when her old boss at Presbyterian Hospital called her up, she was happy to volunteer at the Free Clinic run by the Young Great Society in Mantua, at the time one of the most crime-ridden areas in Philadelphia. Dave and Elizabeth were still quite small and remember spending time in the waiting room on days when they didn’t have school. Not everyone thought that this was how a Main Line housewife and her small children should be spending their time and there was some critical talk but that did not even slow her down. We all remember proudly going to peace rallies and Earth Day marches with our mother as little kids. Later, Mom was determined to pursue her BA, which she did, first at Villanova, later transferring to Rosemont College. She had four kids at home when she started school and we could get pretty whiny about the time she was spending with her study group – Dad too – but she persevered. We were all immensely proud when she graduated magna cum laude in 1979, the same year I graduated from Princeton.
As Chair of the Ludington Library Board of Trustees, she led a campaign to raise about US$ 2 million for a new 9 000-square foot library addition. I was living at home at the time and worked with her on the campaign. I remember her making call after call, and taking meeting after meeting, bound and determined to reach the fundraising goal, which she in fact surpassed. A Shipley Board Member for many years, Mom chaired the committee that oversaw the construction of the West Middle School, which opened in 1993. Fascinated by genealogy, Mom was a long-time member and an officer of the Colonial Dames of America. She received the Colonial Dames’ National Roll of Honour Award in recognition of her services. Mom served as a Trustee of the McLean Contributionship for decades, attending her last Board meeting just ten days before her death, when she could barely walk. She was very involved in the community life at Dunwoody, even after the death of our father in 2014.
My mother was heartbroken when Dad died. They were married for 61 years and shared an incredible bond. We all spent months begging her to visit me in Rome, thinking the distraction would do her good. I wanted her to come for at least three months; she finally agreed to three weeks. It was a challenging trip. Mom was already having problems with her breathing and had to travel with oxygen. The first week she sat on my couch reading ‘On Being Mortal,’ Atul Gawande’s book about living with serious illness and approaching death. It’s a wonderful and important book but not really the thing for a recent widow to be reading. I tried to tempt Mom with all kinds of beautiful food and museum visits and trips to hill towns but she really wasn’t interested. She missed her husband and her cat Phebe. Finally, I introduced her to the mother of a close friend, a long-time widow. They sat on the terrace and talked for hours at a time. That seems to have helped a lot and we went on to have a lovely visit, exploring Italian gardens and villages with a couple of dogs and her new friend Cristina in tow.
Mom was profoundly dedicated to her family and to her community and I like to think that, despite her sadness, she could have found new projects and causes to adopt if it had not been for the litany of terrible illnesses that interrupted her life. But it was a long life and a good life. She will be profoundly missed.
As far as Morgan is concerned, anyone who has ever read this blog knows how totally devoted I was to that little rascal. He was the love of my life. But don’t tell that to Phryne, the puppy I picked up at the pound in mid-August, unable to be without a dog for more than six weeks. Phryne is lovely: obedient and sweet, calm and loving — the opposite of Morgan actually. He was a challenge. But I miss him every day.