I gave my first eulogy at a funeral this weekend. It was at the request of my mother, at the funeral of her mother. I was honored and flattered, but very much aware it was for a purpose. Eloquence was needed in the absence of other lovelier things. Dexterity was needed to maneuver between the thorns and roses of our family and its history. Words? I have plenty of. Wisdom? For this? There is no ink in that well from which to draw.
They should have chosen someone else, someone who is okay with murky middles or half-truths, someone who could hang a smile on their face like drapes over windows. Drapes keep their shape and are lovely regardless the weather outside and lovely regardless the storms inside. They should have chosen someone who saw less, heard less, and knew less. They should have chosen a friend not a family member. Friends were invited in when things were “just so.” Family was there for how it “just was.”
My grandmother was a beautiful lady with impeccable style, class, and charm. I did finally find the words to honor her, but a few of them I found were in Peggy Noonan’s handwriting. I remember years ago, reading her eulogy of former first lady, Barbara Bush. Noonan described Barbara Bush as Greenwich granite… “She is a strong woman, not ego-driven but protective of kith and kin. Those merry eyes, the warmth, the ability to get the help cracking in a jolly way and then not so jolly. A lack of pretension, a breeziness, but underneath she is Greenwich granite, one of the women who settled the hard gray shores of the East and summoned roses from the rocks.” I always loved that. I remember thinking when I read that line, that I wanted to be like that one day. Strong, determined, capable enough to command a room or a laugh. That was exactly what I admired most in my grandmother and admire in my mother still. They are granite, though less gray shores of Greenwich and more high plains of the Panhandle. And breezy? Maybe in a Texas home but not in Texas hair. My grandmother was the same shade of Revlon’s Mocha Polka coral lipstick and Fanciful Rinse’s Bashful Blonde for at least forty years. All held together with enough Aqua-Net to rival the emissions of the CCP. She wasn’t a breeze, Sugar. She was a gale.
Geography and weather aside, the rock was a gem. This could not be a truer description for Lillian, or Mimi the Great as she became known when the grands had kids and mom was promoted to Mimi herself. One of the kids shows I had seen had an Aunt named Alice the Great and just knew that our family needed a “Great” also. I remember the first time I called her Mimi the Great, (Mimi TG when the kids became teens.) She bristled at it. But every time I said it that day I could see her soften. From dismissive waves of her hands and requests to stop, to a smirk, a smile, and finally even a giggle as she accepted her new name.
Like granite– she very much had the markings of an explosive past, high pressure, and hot temperatures that spilled out and over the edges before cooling and becoming hard. Very hard. She was a child of the depression and the daughter of German immigrants. Hard work was her native tongue. Even when she was young, she was industrious, clever, and pretty enough for it to be both a positive and a negative. I can absolutely understand why success and security mattered a great deal.
Lillian married a young man after WWII, a fellow German who was equally charismatic and hard-working. But he was hard living as well. And that made for a beautiful, childhood home that was hard for my mother to love. My grandmother found herself alone at 49, made a widow by alcoholism and suicide. Bankrupted by her husband, her good name ruined by the man who gave it to her. My mom remembers her family’s successful German restaurant being auctioned off, the accounts emptied, faulted loans, liens, and IRS agents coming for it all. Sweet Mimi, I understand why success and security were the only things that mattered at all after that.
I understand that your life required a grit that seemed abrasive to others. I understand that your survival required guts that could not be weak or leaky, and eyes that could not be wet or weepy. I understand how it seemed your only choice was to die right beside him or spend every waking hour, working to live. I can understand how seeing the beautiful things you worked so hard for carried away left wounds that would not heal until treasures were returned or replaced. I can understand all of it for a season. But a lifetime?
Sometimes pain erupts like magma and runs in ruins down every face and facet of your world. The slow cool, the deeper cool, the hardening of all the things. Intrusive, extrusive… changes that began on the surface determine to see their completion to the very core–persisting until everything is set in stone, with cracks that will never be filled. The only signs of life are the remains of things that live no more– fragile creatures that were caught up in the chaos are now fossils from the tumult. My mother may have left her impression in the hard places, but she also left home before petrification. A grace my family still gives thanks for.
Did you know that the pressure of burial can often cause rocks to melt? It can. But does not always.
What do you say when the only true things are hard things and the things that would best be said, are not true?