Thursday, November 26, 2009


This was the eulogy I delivered at my mother's funeral almost nine years ago.

In all of the 21 years that I knew him, my dad only told three jokes. And right now, I can only remember two. One was a corny story about a great Indian chief who had died, and had the punch line, "No, squaw bury Shortcake." The other was about a guy in a bar, a spittoon, and a fifty-cent bet.

Three jokes told over and over again, always as if for the first time. I'd roll my eyes a little, but I never objected or interrupted. I actually still tell the two that I remember.

My mom also had a favorite saying, "History is just a great big circle, and the same things keep happening over and over again." My reply was always just as reliable, "Yeah, ma, and history isn't the only thing that repeats itself."

I'm struck by the little sayings and gestures that I associate with my parents when I was a kid. These rituals were a big part of the bond between us, perhaps especially since we were seldom very demonstrative of our affection. It wasn't that we didn't care - it's just maybe that we were more comfortable this way, using gestures and symbols instead of being more direct.

I can recall many images of how we played out connections, and at least one of them will probably seem a little weird to you. We were a household of smokers - pretty typical through the 50's, 60's, and into the 70's, though you'd be hard-pressed to find seven smokers here in a group like this these days, let alone seven smokers among five siblings and two parents.

I'm the youngest, so I was the last to officially light up as a teenager. But, aside from plenty of second hand smoke, I got my earliest nicotine rushes when I'd pick up my mom's discarded chewing gum from a clean ashtray and pop it in my mouth.

It's not as gross as it sounds - I mean, what's cleaner than mother's spit? And it wasn't like I was picking it up off the floor.

I haven't smoked in over 20 years, but I can still taste that gum - a kind of hard and bumpy little ball, that softened up quickly. The most notable part to this little ritual was the stale, bitter taste embedded in that gum. So there you have it - my mom and I were linked, in part, by the texture of used Wrigley's spearmint, infused with the smoky flavor of old Pall Mall.

Smoking cigarettes and chewing gum are about the only vices my mother had that I can think of, unless you want to count bingo. She did have a temper if I pushed her far enough, and I tried to sometimes, but that's really just being human - for both of us.

For all of my experience, mom was pretty low-key and understated. Mom was understated, but certainly not unfeeling. She was private. She was quiet. She was humble.

I remember when one of my brother Don's college friends joined us for Sunday dinner. Mom did up her usual - roast pork with 'patate sal' and pan roasted carrots, fresh rolls, that sort of thing. She brought it to the table, and we all dug in and helped ourselves and started eating. But Don's friend just sat there, with the food on his plate in front of him. At first I thought that maybe he was going to say a prayer or something, but he probably thought that he was taking her seat. He was actually waiting for mom to sit down at the table to join us.

We had to tell him - mom didn't do that. She always waited until we were finished before she'd sit down to eat her own meal. She said that she preferred that to getting up from the table every time we needed something. Heaven forbid that we'd actually get up and get it ourselves.

But that's how it was, and she never made a big deal about it. Of course, the food was always really good. Cooking was another one of her gifts, and with her characteristic understatement, she passed off her formidable skills as just something she had to learn out of Fanny Farmer after she got married.

Here's another image - my son, Paul, and I were visiting mom at her apartment. Paul was at that shy stage of being a toddler - when coming right at him and saying something loud and assertive like "come give me a kiss!" would have sent him running in the other direction. He hung back, clinging to my leg.

Mom got up from her chair at the dining table, and went into the kitchen. She came back with a handful of fresh blueberries, and sat down again, then held her open hand on her lap, and just waited. She didn't say a word. Paul inched forward and snatched a blueberry. He took a few steps back and ate it, keeping his eyes on her. He reached for another one, but only took one step back to eat it. The next time, he stayed where he was, and he ate blueberries from my mother's hand until they were gone.

You know, mom always said, "Bring me flowers while I'm alive to enjoy them." Well, mom, I guess this won't be the first time that I don't do exactly as you asked.

December 8, 2000