Tuesday, March 24, 2009

March 24, 2009: I plan to read this text at my Mom’s memorial service which will be held this Sunday, March 29th in Portland, Oregon. I'm excited about going up to the Northwest to honor my Mom and to have a chance to see family and friends at the service. Additionally, I’ll visit with Willem, my godson, and his parents Kris and Darius. Playing with a one and half year old will be a great counterbalance to delivering this well-deserved praise for my Mom. The rest of this blog entry is the draft of my speech.

I want to thank all of you for being here today to honor Ruth. I’m going to start by reading the last lines of Mary Oliver’s poem When Death Comes. My friend Ruthann sent me this poem at the time of my Mom’s death, and I had not read it before. The poem ends:

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

I particularly like the final line: I don't want to end up simply having visited this world. I think that Ruth did not just visit this world. She loved striding into this world: meeting people and exploring cities. I remember being with Mom one day at the Frick Museum in NY. We were in the long picture gallery standing between the two huge Turners and she said, “Isn’t this great!” It was not a question. She meant appreciating the museum, being in NY, knowing each other, traveling together, being alive. She loved having lunch on Madison Avenue and going to the opera in Paris. Travel and people invigorated her.

She lived here with a fullness that I’d like to talk about now. Two basic gifts that Ruth gave to all of us were her love and her attention. The combination felt great. I can remember talking with her dozens of times, and while I was paying attention to our conversation, I was also observing, “Wow, she really knows how to listen.” Or, “She is sending me so much love as we’re talking.” From another perspective, I received a letter of condolence and appreciation from my friend since college, Ellen, who enjoyed a decades-long friendship with my Mom.

“I am so saddened to hear of your mother's passing. To experience the loss of one's mother, especially when she has been so loving and supportive, is difficult. Such a deep, deep loss--only our mother is interested in every single detail about us and our lives--what a great gift it was to you to be able to assume her unconditional love. Your mom was so kind, so bright, cultured, and interested in so many things. Her aura was so clear, allowing, and receptive. She enjoyed other people and accepted them in a gentle non-judgmental way. When I met her at age 19, I knew immediately she was not like any other adult woman I had known. I felt instantly comfortable with her--she was so receiving in a relaxed, un-pressured way. The home she created emanated calm and beauty to me, untutored as I was to things like red Persian rugs, Mozart on the stereo, Chinese furniture, large sunny windows looking out onto a garden. She created in that house an interior of great soul and that environment felt so nourishing and lovely.”

She goes on to say, “Your mother was a true Hestia woman, and the first I had ever met. Hestia women are shaped by the archetype of the goddess of the hearth. They are the heart of the home, creating a safe and warm refuge from the vicissitudes of the outer world. They are the ones who put flowers on the table and around the house, light a fire on a winter's evening, put on just the right music at the right moment, cook wonderful and interesting food, and love attending to their homes, not for status or to impress anyone, but to create beauty and a harmonious background for the comfort of the ones they love.”

“Your mom was the first adult woman of my mother's generation to invite me to do something with her when she took me to hear the Portland Symphony conducted by Stravinsky. She thought it the most natural thing in the world to invite a young woman up as a house guest and attend the symphony together, but to me it was extraordinary that she would choose me over someone her own age. In doing this, she seemed to be saying: ‘You are an interesting person to me, and I enjoy your company.’"

Thank you Ellen, for those well-remembered thoughts. I hope that everyone here today felt that from Ruth, “You are an interesting person to me, and I enjoy your company.”

Like all of us on planet earth, Ruth had work to do in her life. Having known her for over 60 years, I want to talk about three of the tasks that she took on to further her growth as an individual.

First, she learned to stand up for herself. I will always cherish a big step she took back in the early 1970’s. I was visiting at the house and asked her what was new. “Well,” she answered, “I did something last weekend that I’ve never done before.” When I asked what that was, she said, “I had friends over for dinner and we started talking about the war in Vietnam. One of the people at the table insisted that we had to stay there and win. And finally, he became so obnoxious that I asked him to leave. I mean leave the table and leave dinner and leave this house. I’ve never done that before.” When I praised her for standing up for what she believed, she replied, “It wasn’t that I disagreed with him. I could put up with that. It was that he wouldn’t tolerate any other point of view. It was his intolerance that I couldn’t stand. I didn’t want that in my home.” For a woman as gracious and kind as Ruth, it was a big stretch to also be able to stand up for her deepest values. She had to step through a lot of fear. Fear of not being nice. Fear of being punished for her beliefs. She learned to do this, and it was a big piece of work for her.

Also, Ruth’s life included some serious meditation on the meaning of her name. As a little girl she took to heart the story of Ruth traveling with Naomi to find food and a home. “Whither thou goest, I will go.” This promise to follow was acted out in Ruth’s life not with her mother-in-law, but with her husband George. The biggest test came after the end of WW II when George decided to move from California to Oregon. Ruth was initially appalled. She didn’t know anyone in Portland. All of her friends and her support system for raising a child were in the Bay Area where she’d grown up. Nevertheless, she moved with her husband. “Whither thou goest, I will go.” It was not easy. Her first house in Portland was cold, damp and home to an uncommon number of spiders. I can only imagine that she had moments when she wondered if her loyalty had betrayed her. However, she stayed and started to make friends. She traveled to the coast and discovered the beauty of the rocks and water. She explored the Columbia River Gorge and found Multnomah Falls. Along with friends, she learned to enjoy her new home by gardening. As she cultivated plants, she became more grounded, more attached. What she learned from this was that she could have a fine and rewarding life in more than one place. As years passed, she became more admiring of Oregon, and especially Portland. She flourished with each visit to the Art Museum, each play and symphony and opera.

Finally, I want to honor the defining grief of Ruth’s life, the death of her first born daughter, Patricia Ann. A few weeks after my birth Patty was diagnosed with childhood leukemia and she died shortly after that. It was a painful and miserable experience to watch her three year old daughter die. The doctor’s visits were grueling and disappointing and they resulted in a young life ended. Ruth grieved for a long time. She learned to accept the loss, but the mystery remained with her. She always felt the concurrence of Patty’s existence in another dimension. Occasionally, she spoke about it. One October 15th at dinner Mom announced, “Patty would have been 47 today. I wonder what she’d be like at 47?” Or another time, “I had a dream about Patty last night. She was just fine. She was older, but it was her.” On the occasion of this memorial service, I want to thank Patty for compelling my mother to face death and to learn to peer through death into life after. Patty was the guide who led my mother into her spiritual growth. My own sense is that Patty was right there during Ruth’s final hours and helped reassure her during the time when she left her body. After some initial re-orientation, my Mother got to ask the question that she’d been wondering for over sixty years, “Why did you leave so early?” And she was able to do this with the person most able to answer. Then, a missing piece of Ruth’s life was resolved and completed. And she understood even more.

Thank you, all of you, for being here today. Thank you for being part of Ruth’s life and for being open to receive the love that she so generously gave.

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