A President's Reflections

For mom

Posted on April 5, 2014

My mother passed away last Wednesday morning and we had her funeral mass today, later burying her next to my father, in a beautiful spot overlooking a bucolic bend in the Charles River.  This is the eulogy I delivered and I share it here because people who came to the wake, but could not attend the service, asked me to share it, and because my mother was not a famous person and not a socially successful person in terms of staus or earnings.  But she was a remarkable person and no one who met her didn’t fall in love with her.  No one sees the passing of a 96-year-old as tragic, of course, but all of us who loved her, feel deeply her absence.

This is for her.

While sometimes called upon to make these kinds of remarks, I said to Betty Ann this week that there was no reason someone else couldn’t do it if there was interest.  I knew this would not be easy.

She said, “Are you kidding?  Knowing you did dad’s eulogy, mom would be so mad if you didn’t do hers!”

While it is tempting to think of dad teasing mom about it for the rest of eternity (and he would), I decided Betty Ann was right.  So mom, this is for you.

Our mother  left this world in as wonderful way as one could hope: in her own bed, surrounded by a huge loving family and friends, without any pain.  Father Nolan gave her such reassurance and happiness in her final days.  When she worried about her life, he reassured her that she earned her place in heaven a long time ago.  And really, if her place in heaven was in any doubt, the rest of us are in trouble.

In these last couple of days she had few moments of coherence and recognition, and in every case it was in response to hearing someone’s name whispered in her ear and she then mustered a smile or nod for them.  When her old friend Emily hugged her and announced her arrival, her eyes lit up in ways we hadn’t seen.  In other words, her last days, like all the ones before, were full of love for family and friends.

We were lucky to have her for 96 years and she was in many ways the gravitational force that linked everyone in this big, sprawling family (7 kids – for she and we count Reggie and Doug as one of ours, 16 grandchildren, 30 great grandchildren, 1 great-great-grandchild, and so, so many other “honorary” family members and friends). 

She and our dad really did treat everyone as family.  This week, I’ve heard stories about them I’d never heard before (and trust me, I thought I had heard them all).  Kids who got into trouble with their own parents found refuge with mine.  In the depression, they shared what little food they had with neighbors.  When someone was sick or dying, they were at the bedside and doing whatever it was that needed getting done.  One of my grad school friends, Kay, remembers my mother nursing her through the worst hangover of her life (with some awful mixture of milk, raw egg, and vanilla). 

Just last night, Jan told me about a friend of hers that was a battering victim and Jan told mom, she immediately said, “Well, she can’t stay there.  Tell her to come here and we’ll take care of her.”  The woman did, staying three weeks, finding refuge and healing and a path out of her ordeal. 

Mom treated everyone with the same sense of warmth, genuine curiosity, and immediate affection, whether the Vice-President of Kenya (where he and she sat at my kitchen table talking about their grandkids) or the dining hall worker serving at the very same event.  She just cared about people for who they were as people. 

On her one trip to London we had tea with famous singer Emmy Lou Harris and mom had no idea who she was or that she was famous, so she just asked her about herself and they then chatted nonstop for almost two hours and I could have fainted off my chair and I don’t think they would have noticed.  At the end, Emmy Lou turned to me and said, “I adore your mother – she reminds me so much of my own grandmother who I miss so much.”

I think that’s what everyone loved about her – she always felt like your nana (she was Nana Delphi in the family), even if you had just met her.   I was struck by the number of people who this week said to me, “She was like my mother.  Really, she was more of a mother to me than my own.”

I started writing about the various special relationships she has with this person and another.  How much she adored Bobby, her first great grandchild, or how cute she found Morgan, and how funny was Andrew, and what an amazing mother Vicky is, and how Conner is such a great big brother, and how gentle a dad is Donnie.  Then there was her Mark, who lived with her for 16 years and they were like an old couple, occasionally grumpy with each other, and incredibly attached.  Only that little woman could stand up to that big bear of a guy she so much loved.  While I know she didn’t brag much about my Emma and Hannah, I’m pretty sure she was proud of them.  I was working on that growing list when I realized something  – she adored every one of you. 

It was easy to feel like you were her favorite, because in truth, you were.  But two of you deserve special mention.  If angels sometimes visit this troubled world, Paula and Janice have been angels looking over and after my mother these last two years.  We all owe them more gratitude than we can ever repay.

I want to briefly say something about her own kids, my siblings.

They are amazing.  Gladys, with quiet grace, has been our parents’ safety net for years and years, day and night.  Donald, whose visits delighted mom, reminded her so much of dad in his quiet, even stoic, strength.  Frankie, who had in some ways the most intimate of relationships with her, enjoyed a special closeness with mom at which I could only marvel.  And Betty Ann, her rough nurse, who would not leave her side and who on the last night slept on the floor next to her bed like an old faithful dog (notice i’m not looking in her direction at this moment…).   She has been like a guardian angel.  Reggie and Doug are living links back to mom’s best friend, their mother Jeannette, and she reserved for them a special gentleness born of the pain the three of them shared at her loss and then the years of caring for them as babies.   She still teared up, all these years later, when she described letting them go.

Mom was an amazing mother, but she was amazing lucky to have my sisters and brothers to look after her.

As was true when my dad passed away, there have been in these last days a fair bit of tears, a lot of storytelling, and a lot of laughter.   In the weeks to come there will be more stories about her, lots of food, celebration, and no doubt a round or two of whiskey sours, her favorite drink. 

I know it might sound weird, but seeing her through this passage was incredibly positive and made me love my family even more, pains in the neck though we can sometimes be to each other.  I felt like I saw my mother and my father in all of them and that deep authentic sense of kindness and helping and being there for other people they displayed all week is my parents’ real legacy.

She taught us how to live, and in these last few days, she taught us how to die, and mom had a genuine wisdom I find rare in the world. She was one of the strongest persons I’ve ever known, right to the end, when she decided when it would be her time to go. 

There’s a huge hole in my world for all of us this morning, as there is for everyone in our clan, but it helps to know what wonderful family, friends, and colleagues we have in our lives.

As a friend said of his mother, “No one in the world will again love me this way.” 

I once had the opportunity to chat with Walt Peterson, the beloved ex-governor of New Hampshire and I asked him, “Walt, what do you think your legacy will be?”

He replied, “Well, I like to think it will be the good work I did as governor, but people don’t remember the things you did.  And I like to think it will be some of what I said and I think I said some pretty funny things.  But people remember how you made them feel.  I like to think they’ll remember me well.”

If that is the criterion for judging a life, then mom led a truly great life.

We’ll miss you terribly mom.


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