Monday, August 29, 2005

Rest in Peace, Ellen Marie

My mother died in her sleep, surrounded by my father, my siblings, and me, shortly after midnight on Saturday, August 20. Here's the eulogy my brother-in-law read for me at her funeral:

Ellen Marie Cummins Hernon was born on Friday, August 14th 1936. According to the plaque I had in my childhood bedroom, Friday’s child is loving and giving. That describes my mother. It’s not a good idea to make a person out to be a saint when writing her eulogy, but my mother definitely qualified as a good soul. No, she was an excellent soul. That’s not to say that she didn’t have faults, but we can talk about them later.

My mother liked people. I can’t remember a single instance when she was rude to anybody. Our kitchen in Flushing often overflowed with people of various ages, drinking instant coffee. Most of the time they were friends of mine, my sisters and brother, but they came to see our mother as much as they came to see us. Once I came home to find Mom and my brother, who was about 12 at the time, playing board games with a boy I’d known in high school but hadn’t seen in years.

My mother treasured her own friendships and enjoyed a close one with her sister, Maureen. When we were children, my mother would rattle off tales from her days at Ladycliff College until we could recite them in our sleep. The years she spent in Highland Falls were the happiest of her young life, and she made important friends there. Later on, geography and circumstances prevented her from seeing them as often as she’d like, but she continued to talk of them as if they’d just left the room.

After college, Mom became a teacher but cut short her career to raise her children. She returned to teaching many years later and made new friends who brought her great happiness. After she retired and moved to Manhattan, she became involved in the parish council of this church, which allowed her to enjoy the company of new and interesting people. Living in Manhattan also allowed Mom to meet her beloved friend and college roommate, Juliann Gill, for lunch every chance she could.

My mother’s great love was my father. One of my father’s favorite memories is of my mother walking up the aisle—all by herself—to meet him at the altar at their wedding. He had never seen a bride walk herself up the aisle before then, or since. With typical understatement, he said, “She pulled it off.”

While we were growing up, my mother had a habit of giving my father his breakfast, and then watching him walk to the bus stop from the dining room window until he was a speck in the distance. While waiting for her to scramble my egg, I found this behavior highly annoying. “Why do you do that?” I finally asked her. “Because anything could happen,” she answered. “There could be an accident, and I might never see him again.”

So, she loved in a big way, and that love extended to social causes. She was a proponent of fair trade and a passionate supporter of Amnesty International. Shortly before her illness, she marched in a peace rally in Washington. She held Native Americans in the highest regard and contributed to their causes.

Now, as I said, the woman did have a fault or two: You could always count on her to be late, for instance, which got me into trouble with teachers whenever she offered to drive me to school instead of letting me walk. She was notorious for showing up at church just behind the bride or the casket.

And, although she fiercely believed that all people were created equal, she never could understand why a person who had the benefit of a Second Grade education would use double negatives. She was forever correcting our English. And while most people would consider her highly intelligent, she could be a terrific space cadet. Lost in thought, she’d drive past exits. She’d occasionally forget to pick up one of her children. She could sit down to a meal she’d cooked and chew it for ten minutes before it dawned on her that she’d forgotten to include some important ingredient; for instance, the meat.

Here’s one of my favorite stories: When my brother was young, he developed an affinity for black light posters, the glow-in-the-dark wall hangings that proclaimed the greatness of rock bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who.

There was only one place in town where you could buy them, and that was at the head shop on Main Street. Now, the other women of our parish had mounted a campaign against this purveyor of pot-smoking paraphernalia, but that didn’t trouble our mother a bit. She and my brother set off for the head shop. A few days later, I was in a record store when a guy I went to grammar school with tapped me on the shoulder. “Terry Hernon!” he said. “I just ran into your mother in Jolly Joint!”

My mother could be howlingly funny. She had an absurd sense of humor. Very often, while setting out the tuna fish on a Friday night, she would burst into hooting laughter because something comical popped into her consciousness. But she was also wise. She liked to encourage us by saying, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” When we were tempted to do something wrong, she’d say, “Maybe nobody else will know, but you’ll know.” She insisted that the surest way to make yourself unpopular was to complain about your ailments. She died as she lived, never complaining, usually smiling, always with more concern for the other person than for herself.

Of course she was special to me; she was my mother. But I like to believe she was special to all who knew her. She wouldn’t want us to feel sorry for her, though. She would hate for anybody to be unhappy on her account. As much as we’ll miss her, this passage from Anam Cara by the Irish philosopher, John O’Donohue, offers hope:

“We do not need to grieve for the dead. Why should we grieve for them? They are now in a place where there is no more shadow, darkness, loneliness, isolation, or pain. They are home. They are with God from whom they came. They have returned to the nest of their identity within the great circle of God. God is the greatest circle of all, the largest embrace in the universe, which holds visible and invisible, temporal and eternal, as one.”

I like to think of my mother drinking coffee with the invisible, the people she loved who left the earth before she did, her mother, the aunts who helped raise her, the father who died when she was just 11 years old, the sister and brother who died before she was even born. I like to think of her having a big laugh and too much dessert for her own good with her friend, Maureen Holmes.

This is what comforts me. I hope it brings you comfort, too.

Thank you.