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How Do I Speak

A few weeks ago my father turned to me during one of our private moments in his “office” – also known as his bedroom – and asked me to speak at my mother’s funeral when the time came. I was aghast. How do you speak of one who loved you, albeit at times a bit too much? Who at the time you hadn’t even said good-bye to.

First you cry. You cry for the last year: her illness, her strength, your fear, the pain and privilege of it all. You cry for the wonderful times had and not had. And you cry for the woman you wish could sit and hold you one more time. You just cry.

Then you think. You think about her life, her lineage. You think about her namesake, Saint Jane Frances de Chantal. You think how like this Saint in the end she really was. Not a “saint” in the secular sense of the word. Meaning perfect, beyond reproach and bearer of no wrongs. But an earthly saint, imperfect in all her glory, a child of Christ, a believer, a doer and a giver.

Then you look at photos. Photos you and others sift through and chose from to share with the world. Photos of her as an innocent young girl with pigtails and a puppy. Photos of her as an all-too-wise-teen who faced polio and the death of her little sister and the crippling of her father. Photos of her with her mother, who could be hard and cold and her father who was dear and kind. Photos of her as a new wife, and mother of one, then two, then three children and finally photos of a granny. Photos of her in all these roles at the beach, the lake, the pool; at weddings, Christenings, first communions, graduations; teaching in classrooms and rocking babies; handing out stacks of Christmas presents or holding court on holidays. Photos of her beaming with cousins or tanning with friends or traveling with her beloved, standing beside fountains, mountains, memorials and front doors.

Then you just speak.

You speak of her love of art. How she played the flute at the tender age of 12 accompanying an orchestra in front of a huge audience. How she loved all music, from Country to Opera to Classical to pop. Michael Jackson, Sarah Brightman, the Rolling Stones, Mozart. Her technical savvy with radio, stereo, LP, CD, MP-3.  How she took you to museums and hung Pablo Picasso’s Madonna in your living room where your friends would giggle at the naked mother and child.

You speak of her passion for teaching. Teaching students math and computer science, decorum and appropriate classroom behavior. Teaching the polite and well-behaved and the foul-mouthed and challenging; the native English speaking and those new to the language, the elite and the not so elite. Teaching that didn’t stop once she left the classroom and sometimes morphed into unsolicited advice. Teaching that was almost always successful except when she tried to convince you not to talk so much, or train the dog not to pee on the dining room table or dig his way out of the yard.

You speak of her traditions. Traditions like Friday night visits to Aunt Petie’s house, children in tow where she would sit and sip wine poured from a gallon jug, smoke cigarettes and chat with her spinster aunt about life and family. Or Saturday night visits to her mother-in-law’s, the woman who was perhaps more supportive than her own mother. Or trips to the café counter at Bamburger’s for a clown cone after a successful trip shopping for shoes, or tights, Christmas cards or linens. Traditions like child-free jaunts to Atlantic City with her husband’s law group. Even traditions like eating as a family with proper silverware, and placemats on Christmas morning when you would rather hit the road than drag out the China. 

You speak of her impeccable style. Her cat-eyed glasses, chapel veils, and tweed suits of the 60’s. Her hats: pillbox, wide-brimmed, leopard-printed (which God only knows how that ended up in the toilet at Granny’s house one boring afternoon) or the coiled black-lace number – the one Dad thought looked an awful lot like a head of hair curlers and not a hat. Her hair pulled back in a bun or a long braid before bed, or cut short and rolled in pink foam curlers each and every night.

You speak of her cooking. Her German Christmas stolen, filled with hard-sticky candied fruit and chopped walnuts, or pecan crescents dusted in caster sugar, or the famed green Jell-O mold with layers of apricots, sour cream and celery. Her gourmet meals, complete with tiny shot-glasses of salad dressing which one time Dad drank thinking it was a before-dinner cordial. And the banter that accompanied every balanced meal: “Where is your father? Did he go to the bathroom again?” And, “Oh, I forgot the rolls” And, “No, you may not clear the table yet, I am not done, I eat slowly and I don’t care if everyone else’s kids are outside playing.”

You speak of her love of travel. Her trips to Ireland and Germany to trace family roots or Italy and Singapore just to see the sights and sip wine or visit grandchildren.

You speak of her commitment to her faith and marriage and children. Her efforts to assemble her family, nicely dressed and pressed, cowlick and smudge-free in the front pew of St. Francis church. Her dedication to teaching her children the Catholic rites of passage, including the dreaded penance and meat-free Fridays of Lent. Her prayers to St. Anthony for things lost, Saint Christopher during storms and to the Lord, beseeching him always for strength.  

You speak of her creativity. How she made her own long evening wear and your Easter clothes, matching-sister outfits and prom dresses. Her work transforming complex evidence into understandable courtroom diagrams for Dad’s famed “dump case”. Her talent fixing locks, building bookcases and assembling bikes at 3 am on Christmas morning. How she designed and oversaw the completion of many an award winning Fourth of July parade float, which you all worked on with her, endlessly cutting tissue paper squares and stuffing chicken wire frames.

You speak of her collections. Those worldly things like Royal Dalton figurines, depression-era glassware, marcasite jewelry, books and china birds. And the intangibles, things she squirrelled away inside, memories of times happy or sad, of things said or not said that she might if you were lucky or unlucky let you catch a glimpse of and store away for later so that you might piece together a portrait of this woman your mother.

You speak of her quick wit and humor, whether of her own making or not. Her well-intended, politically incorrect, “Durkin-one-liners-for-a-hundred.” “Mart, what you need is big hair.” And you try to remember the loving pronouncements that for the life of you, you cannot recall.

You speak of her love. Her fierce love. So fierce at times it wounded, its sharp, prickly tongue in your face, your space driving you mad despite the fact that you knew its good intention, its soft-kind-inner source – her heart. Her love of her children and her grandchildren – which at times could rise to unabashed bragging. Her love of her husband – long-standing, tested by fear and illness, renewed by Marriage Encounter, patience, travel and time. Her love of her students, and friends, and even the strangers in life like the little girl from the Fresh-air-Fund she welcomed into your home when you were a child, putting aside her fears of lice, and all things different.

Her dedication: to the NY Times crossword puzzle, a tricky math problem, a good mystery, and most definitely television. And to her husband’s career, so much so that she probably should have earned her own plaque when he received the highest honor bestowed on a N.J. lawyer. And to throwing a good dinner party, whisky sours and epicurean food and well-dressed tables included. And to fileting fish caught by her son on long summer days on Lake George. And to her children’s extracurricular activities:  standing in the cold cheering on the band or rising at 4am to sit beside swimming pools watching endless lap after endless lap.  And to shopping, for herself, her husband, her children, her grandchildren, her sons and daughters-in-law who she all dressed with her generosity and classic style.

And then you stop speaking.

And then the world knows a little of this special person, the woman you call Mom.

And what she meant to you and to others.

And how she lived and loved and was loved.

And how she was a saint and she was human.

And then you go on to live her legacy until you meet her again in the communion of saints.