Happy: A Quest for Life After Death

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Eulogy


This is the eulogy I gave at my mother's funeral in August.

* * *

My mother was born in 1944 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where her father was finishing a Ph.D. in dairy science. Her family soon moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where she spent many of her growing-up years learning to ice skate, taking ballet and piano lessons, and navigating life as the second oldest of six children, four of them girls.

Her sisters agree that she was the best of the lot of them, and her sister Janell says she is the only one without a mean streak, although she then proceeded to tell me about the time that my mom and her sister Stephanie hid all the Christmas presents in the trunk of the car, so when everyone woke up, there were no presents under the tree. She must have had a little bit of a mean streak.

Her family moved to Tucson, Arizona, when she was 12, where she loved playing tennis, writing for and editing her high school newspaper, and working in student government. She was selected to attend a journalism convention in New York City, a trip that she talked about for the rest of her life. She had breakfast at Tiffany’s, rode the subway, saw the Rockettes at Radio City Hall and caught a Broadway show. She wrote in her personal history, “The show was honestly worth the ticket -- $8.35.”

My mom attended the University of Arizona and then Utah State University, where she graduated – with honors – with degrees in journalism and political science in 1966. She wrote a column for the school newspaper, the Utah Statesman, called “Smithereens,” was a student senator, and as a senior was named Woman of the Year.

After graduation, she spent a year working at the Salt Lake Tribune, where she was the first woman ever to work on the copy desk.

She was stunningly beautiful. She was beautiful the day she died, and if you’ve seen the pictures of her in her 20s, you’ll think you’ve discovered the next supermodel (if only she had ankles). As her sisters say, she was the complete package.

This is a letter of recommendation written for her when she applied for a job in the office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives that says it all:

… she is highly qualified, would make you an excellent assistant. Each year we pick the outstanding journalism student from USU to serve on our staff as a summer intern. Sheryl was our pick this summer and she also won the Utah State Press Association journalism scholarship.

We all learned to love Sheryl during the three to four months she was with us. Her wit, grace and charm went well with her very capable work. An excellent writer and photographer, she dug into her job with a minimum of direction. …

[this is my favorite part]

She’s a pretty girl, too, and would add to your office decorations. Tall and statuesque, she has a dark complexion that is striking. We would have used her as our Peach Queen entry if she had lived in Box Elder County.

She was offered the job (are you surprised?).

She didn’t take the job, though. She had met my dad while a student at USU and they were married in 1967 in the LDS temple in Logan, Utah.

She spent the first years of her married life in Utah, where three of her children were born. We lived for brief periods in Virginia and then Anchorage, Alaska, where she made lasting friendships and wrote a guide book called Anchorage Altogether. We moved to Sherwood in 1975, where my youngest sister, her fourth child, was born. She continued to write, and her publications include Beautiful America books like The Mormons, guest columns in The Oregonian, and articles in The Ensign and the Exponent II.

My mom was a talented writer, but maybe she should have been a dentist. She would give us money if we would let her pull out our loose teeth. I knew she was not doing well a couple of weeks ago when I pointed out my six-year-old’s loose tooth to her, and she didn’t offer to pull it.

My mom was also a gifted teacher. Although she never taught full time, she used her talents almost constantly in her church service. She taught children’s classes, young women’s classes, women’s classes, and Sunday School classes, but I think she loved teaching the scriptures best. She taught a daily early morning scripture study class for teenagers for at least five years. My younger sister remembers spending evenings with mom at the dining room table, doing homework while my mom immersed herself in the scriptures, preparing for her seminary class the next day. She loved her students, and they loved her, going so far as to spend their weekend nights at my parents’ house to hang out. As Jeff, one of her favorite students, said, “She was one of us.”

Perhaps her greatest gift was her genuine interest in people. One of my friends wrote me a card this week saying, “I only met your mom a few times, but she made me feel like a friend.” She did that for everyone. My mom made fast friends wherever she went, because she genuinely cared about people, and was more interested in how they were doing than in how she was doing. My mom helped to carry the burdens of many people.

My mom was accomplished in many other ways as well, but her greatest accomplishments in her eyes were her children. She was devoted to us. She loved to laugh and have fun. We played spoons, Uno, fruit basket upset, Clue on her beloved Franklin Mint Clue board, and even had an occasional food fight, some of which she started. She liked to keep us on our toes, doing things like sneaking broccoli into our filled pancakes. She scheduled regular individual meetings with each of us, called “one on ones” where we talked about problems, set goals, and planned special individual outings.

She taught us to play the piano, to work, to stand up straight, and to say “may I” instead of “can I.” She taught us to make good choices and she wanted us to stay close to the Lord, but she loved us even when we didn’t. When we left home, we all had inflated egos because she told us we were each “the best in the world” at something (I was the best writer, SJ was the most creative).

Her job as a parent was not over when we left the house. My mom loved to visit her children, helping to take care of new babies, babysitting grandkids while we went on trips, and helping us do projects around our homes. Over the last several years, her heart’s desire was to help me and my family as my husband fought his battle with cancer. This is an email she wrote shortly after my husband Mat passed away earlier this year.

… I’ve spent a month in Boston in January-February, was with her [meaning me] when Mat died. It was the best and worst month of my life. My kids have all spent a week with her after the funeral, and I’ll be returning in two weeks. This is so very, very difficult to be a continent apart.

One of the greatest gifts I could have been given was to have my mom with me as my husband was dying, and I find it to be no small miracle that the symptoms of her own cancer did not surface until shortly after Mat’s funeral.

My mom was wonderful, but I didn’t always think she was perfect. I sometimes wished that she were more inclined to make big moves or really shake things up. She worked at Intel for at least 20 years as a contract analyst, and although she loved the people she worked with, it wasn’t the best use of her talents. She often talked about other things she would have liked to do more – she earned a teaching license so she could be a teacher – but in the end she never made the move. If you wanted to start a revolution, she was not your gal.

Instead of being loud, hers was a subtle kind of courage. She took the circumstances she was given, and over years of persistent effort, through thousands of small acts, she made them beautiful. At the end of her life, she had beautiful children (if I do say so myself), a beautiful marriage, a beautiful home, and many, many beautiful friendships. With more inclination to make big moves, she might have been the New York bureau chief for the Associated Press. Instead, she blessed the lives of hundreds and hundreds of people through regular, conscientious, enduring effort.

I’m glad she had that kind of courage. New York bureau chiefs can be replaced, but her legacy is forever.