Saturday, October 8, 2016

Audience and Purpose in Real-Life Writing: My Mom's Eulogy

My talented niece Meredith who delivered the eulogy (front row, first from the left) with my mom and dad and most of their grandchildren three years ago at their 50th anniversary celebration. (My oldest daughter was on her honeymoon.) 
Sometimes we choose what to write, and sometimes we have no choice, but we always write with audience and purpose in mind. It’s what I tell my students, so I’d better practice it myself. And the more articulately, metacognitively transparent I can be with students about how, when, and why I write in the real world, the more effective a teacher of writing I can be. So, here’s a bit of a reflection on some real-world writing I did recently: a eulogy for my mom’s memorial service.

I volunteered for this job with an outer eagerness but a bit of inner trepidation. I did it because my sister had been with my parents, doing the hard work and making the hard decisions, through most of the weeks of my mom’s final illness. My brother had flown in once for a week, and with his medical expertise, was in contact with the doctors on the case. And here I was, flying in two days before the memorial service. The least I could do was offer my purported expertise as a teacher of writing and a weekly blogger.   

I started rehearsing on the trans-Pacific airplane flight, writing most of last week’s post, which was more of a personal reflection, to process my own thoughts. But now I’d have to write something that would speak for all of our family, to several communities of people from four different churches and two Christian schools who had known my mom for 35 years. To celebrate her life in a way that would acknowledge our grief, but not feed or manipulate it.

I knew I’d never be able to actually stand up and deliver the speech. Thankfully, my niece, Meredith Harbman, volunteered for that job. So I’d have to write in her voice. That was a first for me—ghostwriting. 

And I’d have to find out what the family wanted to share. So the night before the memorial service, when most of us were gathered around my parents’ dining room table for supper, I posed the question: “What do you remember about Grandma?”

That night I put together what I’d heard (talking to a young cousin or two who had not spoken up at the dinner table), and the next day I sent it off to Meredith, who added her own memories.

The memorial service was truly wonderful. Mom would have loved being there as a packed sanctuary belted out hymns in four-part harmony—the best congregational singing I’ve heard in years. Representatives from three different churches delivered eulogies. And for the family, Meredith did an admirable job of rallying all of her years of speech competition to put on her actress face and deliver our eulogy with a verve honoring to Mom’s life that I never would have been able to muster. So here’s to family, to Mom, to doing one’s part in the community that rallies. And, if you care to read on, here’s the eulogy I pulled together, with my family’s memories and Meredith’s additions:

Grandma played many roles throughout her life: teacher, pastor’s wife, pianist, Sunday school teacher, hostess whose table always had room for more, mom, grandma, confidant, and advisor. In all of them, her joy, common sense, and love for people and for God were always evident.

I’d like to begin with a bit of family lore—a story from before Grandma and Grandpa had any children, but which seems to have set the tone for their joint ministry for all the years to come. One afternoon a family with several children came to visit. As afternoon became evening and nobody made any sign to leave, Grandma decided she’d better offer the family dinner. As it turned out, Grandpa had already issued the invitation but forgotten to tell Grandma. 

It was the beginning of a long tradition of always being prepared to feed anyone who happened along. Sunday lunch could be just the five Warrens, or it could include any number of visitors and others who had no particular plans. If there was concern about the amount of food available, word got whispered along: “Family hold-back meal!” That meant the family should go easy on the roast and mashed potatoes until it became apparent there would be enough to go around. (They could always have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich later.)

Uncle Michael’s first memory of Grandma is from the summer of 1984 when he was dating Aunt Kim and flew from Tennessee to California to visit her. Grandma asked him, “Would you like to set the table?” and Uncle Michael answered the literal question honestly: “No, I wouldn’t like to.” Grandma, always the teacher, told him the proper response was, “Yes, I’d love to.”

Aunt Kim will always treasure the hour Skype dates she has had for years every Saturday afternoon with her mom—all the way from Japan. They talked about everything from books to teaching to following Jesus.

My dad remembers the night he visited to request permission to ask my mom to marry him. Grandpa quizzed him at length on his commitment to the Reformed faith and on why he wanted to marry Mom. Grandpa was still wrapping up a few questions, but when Grandma came in with the Martinelli’s, he knew he was in. He tells people he was adopted twice: once into the family of God and once into the Warren family, because he never felt like an in-law, but always a son.

The grandkids remember Grandma in the kitchen—making lemonade, Josh’s favorite breakfast casserole, Christmas cookies. Josh remembers Grandma getting him to help her clean closets when Grandma and Grandpa lived with us for a year while Dad was on active duty. She had one job for him after another, and when he finally got away, he told Mom breathlessly, “Grandma works REALLY HARD!” 

She did. But she also took the time to play. Time at Grandma’s was characterized by tide pool field trips, miniature golf outings, and Disneyland visits. Games like Bananagrams, Clue, and Boggle were also favorites, along with the jigsaw puzzle that was always in process. Trevor notes, “She always kept up with what I was doing—asked about my basketball game or whatever I was doing.” Aubrey remembers that she always seemed to know just what a grandchild needed at any given time—like after our first unaccompanied air plane flight at ages 6, 8, and 11, when Grandma and Grandpa somehow managed to meet my siblings and me at the gate in Phoenix with stuffed animals in arm.

Mom remembers Grandma playing with me at the park once when I was very small, and I kept asking her the same question over and over, and Grandma kept patiently answering it, over and over. Finally my mom apologized to Grandma and said, “You don’t have to keep answering her.” “Oh, yes, I do,” replied Grandma without a trace of frustration. “If you don’t listen to them when they’re little, they won’t talk to you when they’re big.”

I remember one mealtime with the fuzzy memory of early childhood, when I was told to set the table and dropped a plate in my eagerness. I was crushed, but Grandma scooped up the pieces and told me “It’s just a thing, Meredith. It doesn’t matter.” I remember a lot of things about Grandma, but mostly I remember always wanting to call her whenever something newsworthy happened in my life. I called her the first time a guy asked me out and after I finished a half-marathon. I said “I love you, Grandma” at the end of every phone call, and I will never forget the tenderness in her voice with her faithful response, “I love you too, Meredith.” 

We’ve all learned a lot from Grandma. We’ve felt loved and listened to. We’ve been fed, comforted, and encouraged. For some of us, she’s done the Chiquita Banana dance to make us smile for the camera. She’s taught us by her words and by her example. And, as Aunt Michelle noted, we’ve all been fervently and faithfully prayed for.

Just a few weeks ago, when Grandma was in the hospital, my mom was reading the Bible to her. She was reading from 1 John, and she came to chapter 2 verse 17 and read, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Grandma stopped my mom and said, “Don’t let anyone say I’m passing away. The world and its desires are passing away. But I’m going to live forever!”

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