January 08, 2017

Eulogy for Agnes Russell

As I began to contemplate mom’s life, the first lines to a poem by Mary Oliver kept coming to me:
I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
And it struck me that mom has had more than her share of disappointment and sorrow in her 80 years.

As a young woman, fresh from nursing school and with a job and income of her own, she excitedly purchased Christmas gifts for her friends and large family.  She was heartbroken when her gifts were stolen from her car. Some folks would let something like this harden them, embitter them - yet for mom, Christmas remained her biggest joy. Regardless of our family finances or situation, Christmas was always a time for church, for family, for effusive gifting. Each December 26th I’d get a call from mom, reflecting “what a nice Christmas we had”. Mom collected angels, religious figures, and Santa Claus figurines – her home was filled with them each December. In the words of Charles Dickens, she “kept Christmas well”.

I added this extemporaneously: And looking around this church, beautifully decorated for the Christmas season, I have to believe that this is exactly how mom would want her funeral to look. Well played, mom!

In the mid-70s, our father Bill lost his job in York, PA; and after a few lean years, found work in Framingham, MA. It was with deep sorrow that mom left her friends and family in Pennsylvania for an unfamiliar New England. She made a life here, yet her heart remained rooted in Pennsylvania. Never one to spend lavishly, she purchased beautiful Amish inspired artwork for her home which brought her much comfort. And she has stayed in close touch with her family through these many years.

In 1979, her husband died. As we each aged into our 40s, we reflected on how painful and difficult it must have been for our young mother, newly widowed and raising four children alone without nearby family or old friends. She had to quickly learn how to run the household, manage money, re-enter the workplace, and take on both parental roles. She got all four of us through college, and only one of us has been arrested. (point to self)

After dad died, she could have packed up her brood and moved back to Pennsylvania to be closer to her family and old friends. But she knew that we had established lives in Massachusetts, that we had been uprooted once already, that it would be best for us kids in many ways to stay where we were. So she stayed put; sacrificing her own needs for ours, maintaining the family home until we were fledged, then moving into a condo in Framingham where she lived until recently. Mom’s residence, wherever it was, remained the place that we gathered together, the place we called home.

I know that she struggled deeply, being a single woman in a world that revolved around marriage and couples. Over time, she gathered a circle of beloved women friends, and each time a friend became widowed or single, took that person under her wing.

And finally, when her health began to fail, and took her into retirement in the mid 90s, it would have been easy to drop into sadness, into infirmity, into victimhood. But mom drew upon her nursing skills and began to manage her heath, without complaint. When her health issues began to overwhelm her at the start of 2016, she finally (and reluctantly) allowed us to help her. “Now we’re all on the same page” she said at the time, and we began to realize the cross that mom had been carrying quietly and bravely over many decades.

I know it’s a strange remembrance, this litany of disappointments, of struggle. Mary Oliver’s poem goes on to describe a life lived in bitterness.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery.
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
But that is not the life that Agnes Russell led. Though life often dealt her sorrow, she was forever looking on the bright side. That optimism was perhaps best expressed by her love of games – bridge, bingo, scratch tickets, not to mention occasional trips to the casino with her friend June, first to visit “The Donald” in Atlantic City, and later the casinos in Connecticut.  She loved to make things – quilting, knitting, crafts, cooking & baking – often for a worthy cause or for those less fortunate.

She was, first and foremost, a mother. If she had a fault, it was in loving us too deeply; in not wanting us to be hurt. We have each had to learn how to take risks; that to fully live and to fully love we must take chances, must risk being hurt. But as we made our way through the world, we did so with the confidence that mom was there to catch us and to comfort us if we were to fall.

Her favorite day of the year was Mother’s Day, when the Birthright folks would pass out carnations at church, and she always took an extra one for our brother Tom’s birth mother. Of all of us, his connection to mom has always been something very special – mother and child, yes, but also very deep and sacred friends.

The four of us shared a little “inside humor” about mom - if one of us was going through a hard time – work, relationship, money, life – we knew that child would become #1 on mom’s worry list; and the others would breathe a sigh of relief for having dropped down to 2nd, 3rd or 4th on the list. We’ve each spent some time in the #1 spot over the years.

She took keen interest in our lives – in childhood surely but also as we moved to adulthood. And that interest extended to her grandchildren – she was a grandmother who showed up for every concert, play, sporting event, graduation, and birthday. And her large heart and interest extended to the friends and classmates of each of us, as well as her grandchildren – she was everybody’s mother, everybody’s grandmother. We’ve only managed to get her four grandkids, but she had room in her heart for 40. Kevin’s young son Griffin has been the apple of her eye the last years of her life. It was so lovely to see her mothering emerge even in the midst of her illness.

Kathy’s kids – Joe, Sara, and Sean – have a funny “Nana” story. She was attending a play at Sara’s school, and at intermission went to the refreshment table where the kids were selling cookies and cupcakes. Mom had a hankering for a bagel and asked if they had any. She was forever after “Nana Bagel” in the Quirk household, and she laughed along with the joke.

And she was always looking out for the underdog – taking special time and energy with nieces, nephews, and friends who perhaps had a harder time, making a point to stay connected to relatives that had moved away from Pennsylvania. When she gave up driving, it was not her own independence that she mourned, but concern for her friends who she had been driving to events, shopping, church, and errands all these years. And to the very end of her life she was knitting blankets for newborns, concerned about the other residents at her assisted living facility, concerned that she was taking up too much of our time.

Mom has taken to reading Mother Teresa’s book in the past few years; it was always by her bedside, and she was so thrilled to see Teresa canonized this past year. So I’ll close this morning with a quote from St. Teresa of Calcutta
“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones - the ones at home.”
Love us and take care of us, mom, you most certainly did. And we so very much love you, miss you, and are grateful to have been your children.

1 comment:

Arran said...

Beautiful tribute.