There 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 enough. As 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:
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
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
we open up our hands
we open up our hearts
and we let you go.
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 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
You’re our Mamoo
You’re our grandmother
and we say goodbye
and thank you.
into the arms and lap
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.me, about 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.