An Epic Woman: A Feminist Eulogy by Molly


editMollyNov 083There were some things about my grandmother that I didn’t find out until after she died. For example, in 1974, she co-organized a “Women’s Exchange”  in Fresno, California with the theme: Stop the World…We Want to Get On. How much I would have liked to talk to her about that! While I didn’t know about the fair, I do know that she was successful with her vision of getting on this brightly spinning world. My grandma was a woman who was hiking in the Channel Islands one month before receiving a diagnosis of aggressive pancreatic cancer. She was incredible.

After reading Grace Yia-Hei Kao’s recent post about giving a eulogy at her grandmother’s funeral, my thoughts turned to my grandmother’s memorial services this past spring. What, if any, are the components of a feminist eulogy? Grace wonders. In reading this, I reflected on the components of the services I prepared and participated in for my grandmother and I believe they fit the bill. In a pleasingly feminist move in itself, I was asked by my extended family to serve as the priestess at my grandmother’s “committal” service (in which her ashes were interred in the above-ground burial chamber that received my grandfather’s body in 1989).

It was deeply important to me to have multiple voices represented during the small, family-only, service and I enlisted all the grandchildren present, as well as her step-grandchildren, in an adapted responsive reading based on Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”. I chose it precisely because it spoke to the irrepressible, adventuresome spirit of my grandmother. It was a lot of pressure to be responsible for the family ceremony for the interment of her ashes. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted it to be what she deserved. I wanted it to “speak” to every person there. I wanted it to be worthy of her. I hope it was enoughAs I collected grandchildren stories for my later speech for her Celebration of Life luncheon following the committal service, I also noticed something: grandmothers are often stereotyped (or perhaps “reduced to”?) an “all loving,” unconditionally accepting, cookie-baking, nurturing figure. Something I would never have said about my grandmother in life, or in eulogy, was, “I always knew she loved me.” Or, “she always approved of me.” My grandma was of the philosophy that approval had to be earned and distributed with judicious caution. She was also not very physically or emotionally demonstrative. And, yet, in the rich, vibrant, living, tapestry of being that she left behind her, in the words of her grandchildren, and in my own deep groundswell of memory and experience, I saw a wide thread of consistent love and presence that I’d never really noticed when she lived. She may not have given a large amount of hugs, but she certainly sewed a lot of quilts for us, and when I went to her home in California before her memorial service, I saw very clearly how her love of us was woven through her own days: the mosaic tiled picture in her living room that I made for her 15 years ago, the drawings from my children in her sewing room, the tiny doll I made for her lovingly standing with her other dolls, her mousepad with my children’s pictures on it, her knitting bag with my own childhood face looking back at me.

However, this is what I would say about her, and what I did say about her: my grandma lived her life and was a vibrant example to all of us of how to live well and wisely one’s wild and precious life. I valued most about her all the interesting things she did. She was active and busy. She was always doing stuff. And, it was cool stuff and she was a cool person and I loved her and learned from her precisely because she was so busy and interesting all the dang time. I come from a long line of busy women with lots of interests and abilities. Maybe that is just fine.

We called my grandma Mamoo, and I referred to her committal service and Celebration of Life events as her Mamoorials and traveled from Missouri to California in May of this year to attend them. Before she died, Mamoo got certain details all planned out with my aunt. She wanted a specific banquet center for a celebration of life luncheon with chicken salad, no traditional funeral. She wanted the theme music from Out of Africa played, and she wanted chocolate chip ice cream bon bons. After the committal service, we went to Tornino’s banquet center for her Celebration of Life. People came and came and came through the doors of the banquet center. We exceeded the capacity of the banquet room and emergency additional food had to be prepared. She didn’t want a “funeral service” type of feeling and it wasn’t. The slideshow of her life played, the theme music played, and we ate chicken salad and visited with distant relatives and friends. My aunt spoke, and my grandma’s stepson read a poem written by my step-grandpa called, “My Lyla, My Lyla.” It was heart-rending, and I suddenly realized I might have made a huge mistake in saying I’d be the last speaker. My grandma’s stepdaughter spoke. My uncle spoke. And, then it was my turn.

I was speaking on behalf of all the grandkids, each had sent me a favorite Mamoo memory to share. There were 260 people there, a much larger group than I’ve spoken before in the past. I failed to see the handy Kleenex on the podium and wiped my nose repeatedly with my hand instead. People afterward told me they’d never experienced anything like what I’d said at a memorial service before and that they hoped someone would do the same for them someday. Perhaps it was a feminist eulogy, and I offer in now in both memory and possibly inspiration.

I started with my experience on the day she died, explaining:

It amazing to think about all the ways her presence is woven through my days even though she lived 2000 miles away–the sweater I put on every morning is one she knit for me, her quilts are on my kids’ bedroom walls and on all our beds, magazine subscriptions she gifts us with are in the car and bathroom…we’re connected in many ways and I don’t know what life will look like without her in it. She did so much and I learned from that and we always, always had stories to swap—she never, ever “stagnated,” her life was always unfolding in new ways that she could tell us about. I’ve always admired and respected her and been proud of her for all of her accomplishments and activities. I am also so impressed with how she managed to be such a part of our lives from such a distance…

Then, I shared the memories from each grandchild. While there were no memories of cookies, my cousin shared a fabulously representative memory of this sprightly grandmother: “when she went out to a flood control basin and caught me eleven newly metamorphosed toads for my eleventh birthday, as a surprise present. She put all of them in a terrarium…” Another granddaughter shared about her trip to New York City with my grandma, including going to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Yet another wrote this: “I will always remember her as being strong, independent, dependable. In my eyes, she was someone who could do anything she wanted, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was always there supporting and encouraging me in everything I was doing. I love the stories she used to tell us, about the adventures she had been on and the life she had lived.” My brother contributed his memory of Mamoo taking him to Washington DC, and my sister also wrote about her (different) trip to Washington DC, Colonial Williamsburg, and Philadelphia as well. My youngest sister had this to say: “I remember her enthusiasm–whether it was listening to my ideas on sweaters, skirts, dresses, doll clothes she should make for me, or watching me put on a random performance, or feeding her pretend or actual food concoctions, she was game. Not to mention her enthusiasm for education, volunteering, and traveling. She did everything 100%.”

I closed the grandchildren section with the memory shared by her great-grandsons (my children): Mamoo was really epic.

And she was.

I then read aloud part of the text of the last card I sent to her, writing it desperately at the kitchen table and running it to the mailbox in hopes it would make it to her hands in time. I chose a card with a bridge over a bamboo garden, hoping to communicate to her that no matter that she was now immobilized in bed, she was still traveling…

I’ve always been proud of you—your smart, creative, adventuresome self. Best. Grandma. Ever. You’ve been a beautiful example to us of how to live, both in the practical sense in terms of being frugal and in the more esoteric sense of how to be of service to the community, to take risks, to be productive, and to age gracefully and with a neverending zest for new experiences. We’re grateful to you also for your generosity over the years, particularly for the gift of my college education and the debt-free legacy that left for us and our children. I don’t know that I can ever explain in full what a potent gift that was—one that lasts our lifetime…

And, finally, I closed my speech with the poem I wrote for her in my woods on the day we thought was her last. It was what I’d wanted to share in my card, but that didn’t come out in time:

Last Words

img497

Riding an elephant in Africa.

We learned from you
we loved with you
we heard you
we saw you
we hugged you
and held you
we mourned with you
we mourned for you
we have been dazzled by your radiance
inspired by your adventures
and touched by your generosity.

Three generations of people
sat in your lap as children
were covered by your quilts
and zipped into your sweaters
you carried each of us on your hip
and held us each in your heart

July 2013 035

Celebration of Life memorial card.

We respect you
we cherish you
we appreciate you
we’ve learned so much from you
we’ve laughed with you
and lived with you
and traveled with you

and now
we open up our hands
we open up our hearts
and we let you go.
Be free.
Continue your travels
on the currents of time and space…

Go in peace
go in love
and go knowing that you have left behind
something beautiful
something marvelous
something that matters
The fabric of a life well-lived
the hearth of a family well-tended
the heart of a community strengthened
and a never-ending chain of generations
unbroken.

June 3, 1979

Holding her first granddaughter (me) in 1979.

You’re our Mamoo
You’re our grandmother
and we say goodbye
and thank you.

Sink deeply
and gently
into the arms and lap
of time
the great mother of us all

She holds you now.
We let go.

Molly is a certified birth educator, writer, and activist who lives with her husband and children in central Missouri. She is a breastfeeding counselor, a professor of human services, and doctoral student in women’s spirituality at Ocean Seminary College. She is ordained as a Priestess with Global Goddess. Molly blogs about birth, motherhood, and women’s issues at http://talkbirth.meabout thealogy, ecopsychology, and the Goddess at http://goddesspriestess.com, and creates goddess art and jewelry at http://etsy.com/shop/BrigidsGrove.

For another description of my grandma’s Mamoorials, the text for the responsive reading version of Song of the Open Road, and more photos see this past post on my personal blog.

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Categories: Aging, Ancestors, Death and Dying, Family, Feminism, Grief, Loss, Love, Women and Work

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17 replies

  1. Blessed be. Blessed are the generations of life. Blessed are the givers of life.

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  2. That was beautiful. I am blessed to have both of my Grandmothers still living. They are amazing women and I can’t begin to imagine how we will do them justice when they pass on. Love to you and your family. You are lucky to have had such an amazing woman in your life.

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  3. Beautiful. Blessings to our grandmothers, and may we all grow up to be grandmothers who’ve lived interesting and useful lives, too.

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    • Thanks! That was one of my realizations after her death: I come from a long line of busy and interesting women. I have a tendency to critique my own “do, do, do” mentality, but I have a noble lineage of doers and maybe that is just FINE. :)

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  4. Thank you for inspiration for aspiration!

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  5. Hi Molly —

    Thank you for a beautiful evocation (again) of your grandmother. I wish I had had a long conversation with her.

    Having read both your eulogy and Grace’s, I’m left wondering if we define feminism in terms of doing instead of being. I think I do, and I wonder if that doesn’t get me in trouble sometimes. I hear you acknowledging and affirming your own lineage of “doing,” and that seems to be a good thing. I’m not calling that personal affirmation into question, but our collective understanding of feminism. Anybody have any thoughts on this? Are we still trying to overcome the stereotype of the passive female? Or is this connected to our need for feminist activism? And what is a feminist “being” anyway? Being feminist in the moment? Embodying the Goddess?

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    • Excellent questions, Nancy, and something I actually turned over a LOT while I was writing this and in thinking about my grandmother because I could see that happening.

      How DO we define a feminist mode of “being” (or any kind of “be-ing” for that matter)? Being, how someone IS and how we know who we are, often eludes definitional capture, which is exactly why we describe others in terms of doing. What IS “being” anyway? Often, I actually find the idea of “just BE” or “be-ing” or the like crowds up my head with yet another admonition of something I’m supposed to DO to be “correct” and adequately self-helped. I’ve also noted that it feels damaging to me to associate “doing” or activity as a “masculine” trait and “being” (or passivity/receptivity) as “feminine.” I also know that in feminism or otherwise it often takes “doers” to get good work done–suffragists, for example! (our activist lineage you reference too)

      In regular life, however, rather than theory or self-help books, I find we *see someone’s being through the doing*–and that can be feminist aligned or otherwise, for sure!

      Returning to my grandma as my example, through her doing, I saw her being. In the quilts she made, I saw her love and attention. This in a real sense was her *language of being.* And, because she DID, one of those very quilts is still there on my bed and I sleep under it every night, even though her being is no longer here with us (or is it still here, because it is still communicated through the *works* she left behind her?). Her name is signed with a clear, confident stroke on my bedspread in her own hand and it covers me as I sleep. It was through her travels, that we saw her spirit of adventure. It was through the works of her hands that we saw her creativity. It was through her words and conversations and the books she read that we saw her intelligence. If she hadn’t been willing to DO those things, could we have actually seen who she WAS? Brilliant, irrepressible, adventurous, determined…

      (Actions speak louder than words!)

      Of course, balance is also important. “Doing” self-care also matters. In self-care practices, I think we encounter being in a feminist sense (maybe??). I maintain my daily woodspractice of sitting in the woods each day–there, I can just BE at last! Or, can I? Since the moment of being requires doing to get there–I had to get up, leave the house, go to the woods, walk up onto the rock and sit there, paying attention, feeling the air, thinking my poems, hearing the birds, watching the sunset. That is still doing, in its way. And, I like it.

      Ah ha! So, might a feminist-aligned distinction also be found in doing for others vs. doing for/with oneself, perhaps? (I think my grandma actually got this one down really–I easily see both of these in her life)

      I’ve actually struggled quite a bit in my own life with self-recrimination over not being able to “just BE,” “better.” And, it is in *that* sense that I recognized the “noble legacy” of coming from a lone line of busy, do-ing women. (I touched on this in a series of posts on my primary blog, actually: http://talkbirth.me/2013/10/28/blogging-busyness-and-life-part-1/)

      So, while our works or our “doings” may be how we are *valued* and that is kind of bad/patriarchal–but these opportunities are also how we show people that we value them too (feminist). HOW we “do” matters and it in THAT that we can find a feminist connection. In showing up, in *doing* that memorial service and doing that speech through my tears, I showed the room my own being and how we are/were connected. That was what I could DO for my family and for my grandma. Prepare a service that was loving and respectful and that honored her and who she was, at least to us—and through that, other people could see who she was too. She wrote her own obituary and picked out her own picture for it and chose the menu for her own memorial luncheon. That is *doing* too, yes, but it also epitomizes her way of *being*–I don’t know that the two can be separated or unwound from the the other. And, that *active* quality of *doing life,* was then, who she WAS in being. It is circular (and that’s pretty goddessy in itself!).

      How can we describe someone without describing things they *did* to evidence that? To demonstrate that? I’m not sure. I think without being able to describe the *doings* of others, we end up with exactly the platitudes and caricatures that I find most decidedly unfeminist. I.e. “She was always loving and caring and supported me 100%.” I find THAT type of memorial statement hollow and nearly meaningless in the vagueness as well as very self-centered (I.e. Only defined in relationship to how “she made me feel.”) How do we actually KNOW that she was those things, how did we SEE that from or with her, or—all too often—-is that just what we think people are supposed to say about grandmas and we find we never knew who she was at all? (Because all we looked for or tried to feel was a stereotype of “she was always loving and nurturing” and forgot about, or never paid attention to, her laughing on the back of an elephant in Africa?)

      I sense more to write about here… ;-D

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      • Thanks, Molly, for your reply. As soon as I posted my comment, I thought to myself that I had just bifurcated being and doing into a binary that really doesn’t exist. So I’m glad to see how you reknit them in this response. And I think your reply here answers some of Grace’s original questions, so thanks for that as well.

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