This long post is the first of a series in a project to honor my mother, 13 years after her death…
In September of 2001, while most of the country was reeling from the 9/11 attacks, my family was living the nightmare of my mother’s final weeks and her death on September 24th. At 63 she wasn’t young per say, but she was not “old” either. Full of life, at the height of her career, her and my father were enjoying the beginning of their well earned golden years. I was very close with my mother, we talked on the phone nearly every day, and she absolutely doted on my children. It was, for my family, a terrible tragedy.
Every September since then I inevitably hit a wall on September 24th. The struggle often begins with the onslaught of 9/11 remembrances. For me there is only one thing I remember
about that year. But come September 24th and for an indeterminate time after, I hit a wall of grief and depression. Over the years the edges have dulled, sometimes I think I’ve cleared the hurdle and can get back to a “normal” September, only to realize that it’s still dragging on me–like jogging through water.
This year though, I thought I’d try to do this differently. Maybe instead of hiding from September 24th and hoping for the best I could embrace it. Hiding is denying, not just the terrible impact of her death, but also the wonderful and unyielding impact of her life. This year, I thought, I’d try to use the date as a spring board for conscious remembrance, intentional honoring, and actual enacting of her legacy. Starting this year I will try to celebrate fall as a Season of Remembrance.
So today, September 24th, begins for me and my family the first Season of Remembrance. I invite you to join me in remembering those you may have lost by consciously actuating their legacy.
But what does that mean?
I frequently think about my mother but I haven’t spent a lot of time pondering what her legacy is.
Who was she? Not just the momentary snapshots of memory, but big picture–what do those snap shots say about her as a person? Furthermore, what would SHE want her life to mean? And how can I honor that and make sure that her legacy is alive and well?
I’ve spent several months taking all the anecdotes, the explicit lessons, what was said about her after she died, and about what she said about herself to clarify in my mind who she was and what her lasting impact has been and should be.
My mother, first and foremost, was a kind, compassionate, loving person. She started from the presumption that people were good, and individuals were worthy or respect and kindness. She believed all humans deserved dignity and respect. She taught literacy to prisoners and donated to starving children in Africa. Her softest spot though was for the helpless, the downtrodden, the vulnerable and the powerless. My father used to say children and animals could sense her kindness and gravitate towards her. It was true. If she sat down in a room full of people the children and animals would make their way to her. I think it’s because she would look the children in the eye and say hello. Think about how many people recognize the humanity and distinct, individual person-hood of children. Most of us see them as adorable appendages of their parents. But that was Eileen. Within minutes of starting a conversation with her you felt, no, you KNEW, that she recognized, respected, and rejoiced in your unique person-hood.
In conjunction with her kindness and compassion, she believed in justice. She had a strong desire for justice and consistently, though quietly, throughout her life supported causes that she believed were paramount examples of injustice in the world at that time. For her that meant primarily civil rights and the fight for women’s rights and access to abortion care. Had she lived her causes would have evolved but I am sure she would have continued to champion justice for all.
If you know my family you know that my father sort of knows everything. His intelligence is always obvious. But my mother was just as smart and just as much of a lover of learning. She was salutatorian of Franklin Regional High School, and earned a PhD at the age of 50 from Lehigh University. But she was also quiet about her intelligence and education. She would let you tell her about your latest intellectual discovery, enjoying your journey and embracing your experience with no need to chime in and assure you that she knew this also. Driving home from college she would listen to me chatter the entire 4 1/2 hour drive about my friends and classes and activities. My dad and I would engage in debate and discussion–and still do! But my mother enjoyed watching me engage in the discovery.
A kind, earnest, intellectual with a steady determined drive for justice, she nevertheless was anything but dour or humorless. Her exuberance for life was obvious to everyone who knew her. And she had a grand sense of humor that often seemed at odds with her gentle nature. I think I get my gallows humor from her and my tendency to face life by finding the humor. The very last conversation we had before she slipped into a coma was her joking about needing help to go to the bathroom. “Well shit” she said, and laughed. As if things weren’t bad enough. WE laughed–it was the last conscious interaction we had. And she had an incredible sense of adventure. Growing up it was clear that both of my parents were adventurers, but while my dad always wanted to explore grand new adventures from flying airplanes to hang gliding, my mother saw the adventure in the little things. She could find adventure in her back yard. One year we made butterfly nets out of hangers, broom handles and netting and we went out and caught butterflies (….and killed them, but whatever. It was the 70s). And then we bought butterfly books and learned about the different types of butterflies, butterflies v. moths, migratory patterns and chrysalis! Adventures in nerdland!
She embraced life and appreciated the glory in everything from the mundane to the spectacular. She lived her life with joy. We talked almost every day her day could be made simply because the Ursinus College cafeteria served chocolate chip cookies or potato chips, even though she could only eat a small handful of chips or one cookie because of a stomach weakened by cancer surgery.
She loved music and dancing and was an Anglophile and always wanted to travel to Moscow where she might use the one sentence she remembered from college Russian: “Vera please close the door.”
She was sensible and steady. Slow and steady wins the race was her motto.
And brave. Goddamn that woman was brave.
My beloved mother, my best friend, was also a tremendous human. I admired her so much. She was loved by so many people I consider myself lucky to have been her daughter. Yet I also feel obligated to make sure her legacy is realized. What does that look like? I’ve gotten so excited to honor her through action. So I have been really contemplating what it would look like to consciously enact the lessons I’ve learned from her.
I think it looks like taking her compassion and kindness and her sense of justice and supporting causes that help humanity, particularly the vulnerable.
I think it looks like taking her sense of justice and supporting causes that advance the equality and protect the rights of marginalized groups.
I think it looks like taking her intelligence and love of learning to 1. support others, especially her grandchildren, in their quest for knowledge and 2. embrace my inner nerd and learn about something that interests me.
I think it looks like taking her sense of adventure in the mundane and remember to find the adventure in every day, and to share that with the people around me.
I think it looks like living my life with purposeful joy, and facing up to the things that scare me, the things that slow me down or inhibit me, and refusing to be stopped.
So maybe, if you know me, you are coming to the same conclusion that is dawning on me at this point…
I’ve been living her legacy without really acknowledging it. BAM! Wow. I guess that is what a legacy is after all, something that persists after you are gone. And her wonderful, funny, vibrant spirit persists in almost everything that I do. And it will persist after I’m gone in my kids, I can already see it taking shape.
At this point I could just settle for the family dinner in which we light food on fire and laugh and celebrate her life and ours. But I’m going to continue on the month of remembrance, as a way to share her legacy with my kids and with the world.
Living Eileen’s Legacy…
Over the next month–or whatever, maybe 3 months, maybe few weeks–she wasn’t a stickler for that kind of thing either–I am going to post some anecdotes and tributes to her along with ways in which I am choosing to live her legacy. They will include:
Building and firing a model rocket with Riley, going on an adventure, completing a mission for the Secret Agent L project, (she would have gotten a kick out of it!), organizing another On the Spot, donating money, volunteering for, or raising awareness for Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and other women’s organizations, baking bread, setting food on fire, going dancing, learning something, and possibly engagement in other causes.
The big one though–and I will post more about this soon–will be helping homeless teens, particularly those in the LGBTQ community–did you know that an alarming number of LGBTQ youth are homeless, many because of family rejection? This project has Eileen written all over it.
I invite you to follow these posts and support some of these causes. But even more I challenge you to find ways to live her legacy, because it’s a good one.
Or if you would like to honor the memory and live the legacy of those you’ve lost, I invite you to do that. I’d like to hear about it if you do and if you want to share your story I’d be happy to share it.
Be kind, because she would have insisted.
Be brave, because she always was.
Do something, because time is short.