—at her funeral, February 6, 2013
In the past two weeks, I’ve learned a lot about my mother. Some of it I’ve learned by being with her and asking a few last questions, and seeing once again how her optimistic nature stands up to difficulties. More recently it has come from you, her friends, the people who gave her such a good reason for living. I heard about the threads she left to tie on her quilts so that others could share in the process of giving them away; the quilting lessons she didn’t get a chance to give; the welcomes she gave to one newcomer or another. I’ve talked to people who didn’t know she was a quilter, didn’t realize she was from the South, had never met Fred, and quite a few who didn’t know she was almost ninety years old. To each she was a slightly different person. The common thread running through all of them is that Hope loved life very much.
When Fred died, we didn’t know how she would take the loss. She had friends who were in mourning for months and even years. But after one of them came to visit, a few days after Fred’s funeral, she told me that she didn’t understand how some people could become paralyzed when a person close to them dies. In part she believed that her separation from Fred was just temporary, and that she would be catching up to him before long. But also, we found out, she still had things to do.
In 1994, as Hope was getting ready for heart surgery, she had been distracted as nurses tried to explain the changes they’d like to see in her diet and her exercise routine after the surgery. The nurses were saying what they needed to say, but that didn’t mean that Hope was in the mood for listening. “I like your hat,” she said as the surgeon, a woman half her age, began to talk.
“There is the risk that things will not go as planned,” she explained. “There is the risk that there will be more damage than anticipated, that repair will not be routine, that other circumstances might prevent full recovery.” Hope finally focused on the surgeon, who then said, “There is the risk that you will not survive the surgery.”
For what seemed like the first time since she was admitted, she finally connected the risk with the consequences, bearing down on the serious nature of her condition and the procedure she had just consented to. Her eyes narrowed, she glared at the surgeon, and said, “I can’t die now. I have five quilts started.”
If there was ever a reason to use the word “ferocious” and “quilter” in the same sentence, it would be to describe Hope’s little hobby. It took over the basement. It occupied the other life she started each day after dinner, and kept her busy till the wee hours of the morning. She could not finish one quilt without having the urge to start another. Sometimes the motivation came while shopping. “I found this piece of fabric last week and really liked the color.” Other times it came when thinking about someone. “I thought she could really use something bright.” In any case, there was rarely a time when she was only working on one quilt at a time. At some point during each visit, she would ask, “Want to see some quilts?” And then:
These are covers for guild quilts, which we’ll give away.
I made this for Jan, but I haven’t given it to her yet. I kind of like it.
This one’s for Norma.
Do you like these colors?—Good, because I was thinking of giving it to you.
A few days ago Jan held up Hope’s hand as she slept, and showed me the fingers that had only recently retired. “All those stitches…” she said. There’s no way to even guess how many, because nobody knows how many quilts she actually made—but there are enough that a fair number of us will be sleeping under them for years to come.
Those who knew her knew that surprising things could come out of her mouth, things that sometimes surprised even her. Standing in line at a fabric store, she watched a customer give the cashier a hard time while he was checking out. When it was Hope’s turn in line, the cashier was still fuming. “I can’t believe what a jerk that guy was.”
She always claims that she has no idea where the urge to say what came next came from, but there it was, already out of her mouth before she had a chance to catch it. She turned to the cashier, shook her head, and said, “I know. He’s my brother.”
As she told the story, the cashier’s face turned various colors from pink to purple as Hope pleaded—“It was a joke, it was a joke.” She remembered it as the meanest thing she ever said, but also as being pretty funny, even though she was the only one in line who thought so. Some of my own favorite memories of her center around our perfect agreement about what was funny and what was not, something that others didn’t always pick up on. We were in perfect agreement the evening that Fred slid off the icy road that led up to our driveway, and in trying to get to the house, Hope and I fell to our hands and knees, repeatedly sliding down the hill in our good clothes. We both agreed that this was funny. What made it funnier, hilarious, really, was the edge in my father’s voice as he tried his best to inform us that it was not funny. The harder he tried to convince us, the harder we laughed, to the point where we could not have stood up, even on dry ground. Laughing harder did nothing to convince Fred that it was funny—for my mom and me, once something was funny, it was funny.
Some things really shouldn’t be funny, but then there’s that little twist at the end. The Oldsmobile station wagon, left out of gear by my father, rolling down the driveway until it backed up into Yatsko’s horse field and stopped, the wheels turning down hill all by themselves as it started to roll again, crossed the street, plunged over a bank and crashed into a tree. All not very funny. Hope and I tried to comfort him as the tow truck hauled the car up the bank. It really could have happened to anyone. Nobody got hurt. It was only a car. For Hope and I, it stayed perfectly not funny until the tow truck pulled the balance point of the car over the edge of the bank, thumping the rear down to the ground and popping the front up to reveal the branch sticking out of the hood like a flag. I don’t remember which one of us broke first. but you’ll know by now that the humor was not shared equally among the three of us.
Hope’s world view was centered around the personal, and quickly extended to the relationships she had with others. To her, other people mattered, even more than ideas or issues or politics or philosophy. It is those connections that we are all thinking about today—and not to diminish any of your memories, but the most important of those connections was to my father.
It’s still hard to believe, but the way she always told it, Hope used to be a very shy girl. But when she met my father, he told her that she was wonderful, and for some reason, she believed him and she bloomed. She described Fred as a gift. In him she found a devoted admirer who seemed to her to be perfect. So it’s not surprising that the way she saw Fred was the way she saw and imagined love. It was only after he was gone and she had to examine the consequences of life without that love, that she came to see that it was not Fred who was perfect or Fred who made her love perfect—it was the other way around, that it was her love that made him perfect in her eyes, and his love that made her perfect in his. And at the end of her life she had the clarity to understand that although not everyone needed or wanted or was lucky enough to find a Fred, that we all want and need and deserve love, even if it is only to help make us a little more perfect.
She liked to do many things, and she was never hard to entertain. One of her favorite things to do was to just get in the car and drive around. So whenever I visited, we would pack a lunch and try to get lost, looking at leaves in the fall or blossoms in the spring, noting the changes since last time, if we’d been there before, or whatever was interesting about a place that was new to us. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she would say. “Old people don’t like to do this, so I don’t have anyone to go with.” The odd thing is that although I could see that she was old, I never thought about her that way. She tried not to let her age get in her way—which is why I have a piece of video of her last spring, at Mingo, one of her favorite places, riding a see-saw with my sister, and still photos of her at the observatory there in September, even though cloud cover moved in on the way there. For Hope, there was always the chance it would clear up.
What we learned about her in her last days was that life was still important to her, and that she would hang on to it as long as she possibly could. “I’m ready to go, but not quite yet,” she seemed to be saying as she guided us from high points to low.
During one of the close calls on Friday, it seemed that she was at the end. We asked if she was in pain. “No,” she shook her head. Are you comfortable? “Yes,” she nodded. Then I asked if she could think of anthing else she needed. She thought for a second, then said, “I think we need one last joke.”
We all thought that was funny, and it was enough to give Hope one more day.