Yesterday I went to a funeral. A friend’s mother. She was 88, frail, with dementia. It’s a bitter pill we have to swallow, aging, but, as the cliché goes, it’s better than the alternative – although perhaps less so towards the end. As is the way now, there was a slide show of her life. She was gorgeous – model gorgeous and very fond of dancing – when Sydney still had dance halls. So hard to pay tribute to a life in half an hour. My own mother died at 85, frail, with dementia. She was gorgeous – model gorgeous – with a gap between her front teeth like Lauren Hutton. When she died I would fall asleep clutching her wedding ring and when my father died three years later, I had his wedding ring fused with hers so I have something visible to hold the invisible.
Most eulogies are a timeline of someone’s life – facts, figures – the skeleton of our years here. It was a torment deciding what to write about my mother because those final words circle the universe forever and I didn’t want to talk about the skeleton, I wanted to talk about the flesh and bones. So, once more for you mum because love never ends.
” The danger in writing a eulogy, especially for someone like mum who had such a long life and whom you so love, is that you feel you need to cover everything in their lives to somehow “do them justice” and it can’t be done – not even if you had hours to say what is supposed to be said in these 5 or 10 minutes so I thought to myself, how would I respond if a stranger asked me to describe my mother and only gave me one sentence in which to do it”.
And the amazing thing is, I didn’t even hesitate. I would simply say, “She was a good woman”. At face value, you might think it a rather old-fashioned, almost mediocre description but sometimes it is the small, common words that we use all the time – and not always with much thought – that carry the most meaning.
So, here are some definitions from the dictionary for that one seemingly simple word and when you hear them, you will appreciate why it is such a fitting tribute to my mum:
Of high or superior quality Worthy of respect, honourable, admirable
Attractive Competent, skilled
Reliable Genuine, true
Pleasant, agreeable Of moral excellence, upright
Loyal, sympathetic Dependable
Warm-hearted, considerate Kind, gentle, gracious
Now before I make her sound too saintly, I must say, she did have a temper but children tend to bring that out in you. I know this will come as a shock to some of you but I have been known to be a little stubborn and headstrong and for a few years of my life, I thought my name had been changed to “asina”. For those of you without the benefit of Italian, it means “donkey” or “mule”.
My husband’s favourite memory of my mother is her rather brutally honest observation to him before we got married: “Daniela’s wonderful as long as she gets her own way and when she doesn’t, she turns into a viper”. I guess she thought that forewarned was forearmed.
She laughed, loudly and often. She had a dry, wicked sense of humour. She sang as she did the housework. She hated cooking. She loved my father faithfully and unwaveringly for over 52 years and had that love returned. She was, the most amazing mother, and in her honour, I would like to read a poem entitled, “A Mother’s Love”
A mother’s love determines how We love ourselves and others.
There is no sky we’ll ever see Not lit by that first love.
Stripped of love, the universe Would drive us mad with pain;
But we are born into a world That greets our cries with joy.
How much I owe you for the kiss That told me who I was!
The greatest gift–a love of life– Lay laughing in your eyes.
Because of you my world still has The soft grace of your smile;
And every wind of fortune bears The scent of your caress. ”
One day, someone will be talking like this about our lives – make sure you give them a wealth of material to work with.
wisdom: the ability or result of an ability to think and act utilizing knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight
In a little under three months I’ll be 56 and whilst not exactly hurtling towards 60, 50 is becoming a decidedly more distant spot in the rear vision mirror! Along with ‘laugh lines’ and greying hair, the most common cliché you hear about aging is that it brings wisdom. Just look at popular culture – Gandalf, Obi-Wan – and for those of a certain vintage, Mr Miyagi. (The fact they are all men is a little troubling and perhaps fodder for future discussion.) Wise women, in general, seem to always be portrayed as kindly grandmothers or old crones. (Also somewhat troubling!) Well my wisdom tells me there are probably a bazillion people out there who are just as clueless in their 60s or 70s as they were in their 20s! I think the assumption is that with age comes experience and that if you have any internal dialogue or self-awareness whatsoever, your past experience and experiences will have some kind of impact on your future actions. Experience, not time, is what changes you, informs your choices, feeds your fears, encourages you to take chances, isolates you, frees you, compels you to choose certain paths.
According to my mother, my grandmother was a very stern, non-demonstrative woman. She just got on with the business of farming and raising five children, one of whom had Down Syndrome. Of course it couldn’t have been easy but I wonder how much was character and how much could have been her experience with her own mother? My husband’s mother, likewise unaffectionate, lost her father at 11. Did that experience influence the way she interacted with her own children? In my mother’s case, she told me she made a conscious decision to become the opposite of her own mother and succeeded in spades, becoming the most loving, attentive parent a child could ever wish for. Hopefully, I am honouring her memory by raising my son the same way in the hope he will do the same when he becomes a dad….which, fingers crossed, will happen before they wheel me into Shady Pines!
Friends of mine recently had a baby. Beautiful, healthy baby girl. They chose a name for her that means “bright and shining”. They also happened to have bought my childhood home so she will begin her life in the same bedroom in which I began mine. I wonder what those walls would tell her if they could speak. What would they remember about the girl who came before? Would they even mention that, at 5, she should have been a big sister to a little boy named Robert? Probably not. I don’t even remember my mother being pregnant.
What I do remember is my father never wanting to talk about him. Never wanting me to even say his name. Mum was OK but I never really asked about it, initially because I was too young then, as a teenager, because your focus becomes so steadfastly on yourself, you know, no-one else matters, least of all your parents. Fast forward to working and living a life and the whole thing drops off your radar completely… until the universe says ‘not so fast’ and slaps you so hard your knees buckle. I must have been in my 20s when my mother, whose friend’s husband had recently died, asked me whether I wouldn’t mind driving them both to the cemetery for a quick visit. One thing I did know about Robert was that he was buried in the same cemetery. I had come across the site record in the drawer where my parents kept their passports, paid bills and other paperwork. They had never taken me to his grave and I don’t believe they had ever been back since the day he was buried – July 18, 1963 – at 6 weeks old, four days before my 5th birthday.
I rifled through the draw, found the card and took it with me, purely out of curiosity. In retrospect, it was quite ridiculous how blithe and blasé I was – how totally unprepared I was for any kind of emotional reaction….the possibility never even crossed my mind. Me, who even at that age, cried at commercials. I don’t know what I expected but what I found was an overgrown patch of ground, unidentifiable as a grave and a grief so profound I struggle to describe it. But I understand now why some cultures wail. Even after 30 years, I can still see myself, just standing there, trying to control great, heaving, choking sobs so my mother wouldn’t hear. Bereft. It’s not a word you hear very often but it’s how I felt. The irony is, that tiny strip of unkempt earth brought my brother back to life, finally made him real to me and every so often, something random happens and I think, “What would my life have looked like had he still been around?”.
Times and attitudes were different then and I’m sure no-one thought to take a picture of a little sick baby, so I have nothing of him but his name. Except that’s not really true. My father chose to remember my brother in silence. That day in the cemetery was the beginning of my realization that there is no “standard” for expressing happiness or sadness. There are only our expectations. One of the reasons Lindy Chamberlain was judged so harshly was her stoicism in the face of her daughter’s death and the television cameras. Why wasn’t she crying, breaking down, showing her grief in public? She must be guilty. That’s not how a mother behaves.
When it comes to life and how we deal with it, there is no “one size fits all” and recognising that seems the most basic wisdom of all.
“Wisdom is the daughter of experience.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci