A Daughter’s Eulogy for Her Mother
Yesterday, I gave this eulogy for my mom, with tears. I wish she had been there to hear it.
I am wearing a dress that my mother designed and made. I couldn’t find the one that I remember as my favorite one. This one is inspired by the Mola textiles of Central America. She thought their patterns and designs were delightful.
I thought she was the most beautiful woman ever.
No one loves you like your mother. When she passes on, there is a certain sense of being adrift, unmoored, without the foundational support she has provided your whole life. While she knows you, at least your childhood you, how well do you know her? How well can we know our mothers? Our mother’s life before us is mysterious. As we get older and she gets older, we become more interested, keenly interested, in her history, her story. Because we realize that every essence of our being is infused with every essence of her being. Learning about her, we learn about us.
So, in the last few years, sensing that time was short, I probed more, feeling urgency to know what I can of her, piecing together my impression, my story, of her.
My mother was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1922 on February 6th. Her father was a physicist at the University of Wisconsin where he is known for developing radio transmissions and starting the first radio station in the nation, WHA. He died suddenly of an aneurism when my mother was just 7. She told me, just recently, how every morning she went to her father’s room to say good-morning. Clearly there was a special bond between him and her. On the morning after he died, she was not allowed into his room. She never saw him again. What a devastating loss for her – which surely had an impact all her life.
Her mother was (I am guessing) a capable, no-nonsense woman who then had to hold the family together in the Depression. She took on boarders, taught school, and probably did not have a lot of time for my mom. My mother had an older brother who must have been a bit of a surrogate father to her.
I think my mother was shy, a bit lonely … and very smart. Although she was drawn to art and more introspective and creative activities, she was encouraged to pursue science and academia. She was good at school so she just kept going to school. She kept going until she received her Ph.D. in Psychology AND Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin in 1950 – an unusual accomplishment… for a woman… in 1950.
I was always so impressed and proud that my mother had a Ph.D. A few years ago, I looked up her doctoral dissertation and brought it with me on one of my visits. I surprised her with it. Hey Mom, I found your Ph.D.! Here it is! The title is: The Use of Rating Scales for Emotional Tone of TAT Stories. She looked at me dumbfounded and burst out, “Bah! What a bore!” It was hilarious. And a reminder that our outward accomplishments are not the sum of who we are and not necessarily what make us happy.
I did read her dissertation and a follow-up article that she published. While the statistical charts and academic mumbo-jumbo are confusing to a non-statistician, the theme of her research is interesting and says a lot about what she found interesting. TAT stands for Thematic Apperception Test. It is a psychological test where vague and ambiguous pictures are shown to people and then the subject tells a story about the picture. The point of the test is that you can tell a lot about the subject by the story they tell. My mom’s research was about teasing out whether you could find an objective scale for describing the level of response and emotional tone to the stories; whether the sex of the person made a difference; whether the image on the card made a difference; and whether telling the story orally or in writing made a difference. In other words, clear away the statistics, and you realize that she was interested in people and their stories. By the way, she found that the stories women told were sadder than men’s. And stories told orally had a higher level of emotional tone than stories told in writing. Some things never change. She would have loved a storySLAM.
After Wisconsin, she began her working career with Teaching/Research positions at UNC/Chapel Hill and at Yale. After a disastrous second marriage, she relocated to Washington, DC, taking on a job as Grants Administrator with the National Institute of Mental Health, where she worked for 34 years from 1959-1993. She organized committees of scientists who met quarterly to review applications for research funding. They decided who got funded. She loved this job. It had flexible hours and kept her on top of all the latest scientific research and provided her with the opportunity to work with intelligent and like-minded scientists.
In 1960, she met my dad, through a mutual friend while playing chamber music together. Their courtship was a happy time. My father describes her as very beautiful. They were married on January 14, 1961 and they settled first Washington, DC, which is where I was born in 1962. They then moved to the house where I grew up and where my father still lives. They shared a love of music and art and acquired a personal collection of modern art they both enjoyed.
In this time of loss and reflection, I have had so many memories and family stories come washing over me. One favorite story involved an early and lifelong heroine of mine, Julia Child. My mother embraced the cultural trend toward more sophisticated food and cooking that Julia Child introduced. One of the stories they tell is that after watching Julia Child on television, I marched down to the kitchen and started banging away on the pots and pans. She encouraged my interest in food and cooking and tried many new recipes herself. She ate everything I cooked and pronounced it entirely delicious. She was my biggest fan.
Every year, my mother would buy season tickets to The Washington Ballet. They performed at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University. We would go on Saturday afternoons and we saw everything, from The Nutcracker to The Prodigal Son (with Edward Villella and Margot Fonteyn.) At intermission we would walk to the corner where there was a pharmacy and I would get a little treat. My love for theater and dance began with these Saturday afternoon outings with my mother.
She was also my tv buddy. Back in the old days, when there were only 4 channels and each program was only on at a specific time, it was an event to watch a show. On Saturday nights, when my father was playing string quartets, my mother and I would watch the full Saturday night line-up, including the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I got to stay up late to watch the Carol Burnett Show. And of course, Masterpiece Theater on Sunday nights.
But perhaps the most significant gift my mother passed on to me is a love of reading. She read out loud to me all the time when I was little. The first books I remember are the Winnie the Pooh books. She also read me the George MacDonald books, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. But my all-time favorite was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which I read over and over again. When I was old enough, I became the reader and she the listener. We read Gone with the Wind, MiddleMarch and all of Jane Austen. Books remained a bond, a point of connection between us. In the later years, when she really no longer wanted anything, I would give her books. All the books I wanted to read but seemed to have no time for any more. She taught me to appreciate language. And women. Our favorite books were books written by women with plucky heroines. I learned so much about being a woman through these wonderful books. She was the first feminist I knew. Interested in women and the stories they tell.
When I knew my mother, she had finally embraced her creative side and was a talented artist with notable expertise in fabric arts, especially knitting and needlecrafts. She designed many beautiful garments and accessories and volunteered at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. I frequently accompanied her and dutifully learned how to knit and do needlepoint, though it wasn’t until much later that I appreciated these activities and her skill at them. After she retired from the N.I.M.H., she volunteered as a docent at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She always told me that if she had not been a scientist, she would have been an artist. She loved color and was always intrigued by unusual combinations of color.
I had a couple of heart-to-heart conversations with her in the last few years, trying to ask the questions I hadn’t asked and say the things I wanted to say. I kept wondering if there was anything more she wanted to do, before she died. She always said no. She was content, finally, to just be. Perfect just as she was.
When someone you love dies, it makes you wonder what does happen in death? Where do our souls go? Why are we here? Without religious tradition and faith, these questions can be troubling, leading to existential angst. These questions can also drive an urgency to live this life with meaning. Because, what if, there is nothing after this life? Better make this one count.
I believe that we are here for those sacred moments of connection and peace. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I know where our souls go. They are part of us who live on.
Shortly after my mother died and I had returned to New York, I was remembering that she had this gardenia plant when I was quite little. She nurtured this gardenia, so proud when it bloomed. The scent of the gardenia blooms was sweet and intense, permeating the house. As this memory was rolling around in my mind, I arrived home from work where there was a box waiting for me. I opened the box and GASPED. It was a gardenia.
I feel my mother. Her body may have stopped breathing but she lives inside me. I really feel her with me, supporting me with love as I breathe in and breathe out.
During one of these later heart-to-hearts, I asked her if she believed in God. She simply said, “Too mysterious.”
I asked her if she had any regrets or and advice for Kiera, for Aidan. She acknowledged the shyness of her younger self and said, “Be more social.”
When I asked her if there was anything she wanted to tell me, she just smiled and said, “I’m so lucky.”
Mom, we’re the ones who are lucky to have had you love us so much.
I love you Mom.