I just returned from a memorial service for Ronni's grandmother. I am in her debt for various reasons, not least of which is the fact that she taught Ronni to play piano. Grandma was 90 when she passed away last week. A longtime member, organist, and choir director at Allen Park Presbyterian Church, the service took place there. an impressively substantial building; majestic, made of stone, wood, stained glass, and echoes. Today, filled with beautiful music from Ronni and her sister Paula, as well as tears, laughter, hugs, prayers and remembrances.
here's the notes for the eulogy I shared this morning, if you're interested:
Eulogy for Grandma (Virginia Wulff)
A couple of years ago, Grandma called me up and invited me to come by the house to talk for a while. To talk about herself, her life, some of the things that were important to her, in case they ever needed to be said at a memorial service.
Not a funeral, mind you. Didn’t like the notion of a funeral. Churches and music and family and friends, all that was just fine. Better than fine. But Virginia Wulff was a no-nonsense kind of woman, and it was some of the nonsense of funerals that she had no taste for. All the weepy faces and sentimentality and sadness, the tears, and the hugging, too, I think. Maybe especially the hugging. Entirely too much hugging at funerals.
Because she’d lived a good life. Been the kind of person she wanted to be. Done pretty much everything she’d ever wanted to do. The way she wanted to do it. Married a good man, and made a good life for them together. Told me that she and Henry had never argued [story of him grumbling at her shortly before he died… “Henry, I’m not going to argue with you.” Got the sense that arguing was perhaps the worst kind of nonsense to her…]. Raised the world’s best kids. Taught the world’s best students. Heard the world’s best music. Mastered and played it, too, on the world’s best instrument, the piano.
Why spend time being sad about a life like that? Perhaps the idea that she would be missed, deeply missed just wasn’t part of her perspective. A perspective that was shaped by growing up in the Great Depression. When you didn’t have time to wallow, when you had to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and do what needed doing. Scrounging for things to sell, to trade, to get by. Making garments and selling them door to door. When you’ve got that kind of perspective, time spent dwelling on death is just nonsense when there’s living to be done.
But a memorial service, that was alright by Grandma. At a memorial service, the good she was, the good she’d known, the good she’d experienced could be acknowledged, remembered, celebrated. That made sense to her, like a good piece of music makes sense. Like good posture makes sense. Like a piano in the living room makes sense.
I was curious what it had been like to experience the changes in the world over the 90 years of her lifetime. So I asked her, thinking she would comment on the rapid advances in technology, the way the world had shrunk, the pacing of modern life. “Cell phones,” she said, with a hint of something I couldn’t quite put a finger on. Wonder or amazement? No. Disdain? No. Grandma wasn’t the sort of person to answer a question the way you wanted her too, was she? Some people march to the beat of a different drummer; Grandma had the drumsticks in her own hands, and beat the head of the drum whenever she felt like it. “Cell phones,” she continued, and now I could tell the feeling in her voice was pride. “I thought of those long before anyone ever had one.”
“And people don’t get dressed up anymore,” she said. “I miss that.” Maybe that’s why she loved taking her grandkids shopping for Christmas and birthdays. Always for nice clothes, from nice stores. And never for toys. You didn’t even think about asking for toys; they were just too much nonsense for Grandma.
She was sad that things used to be safer, and now there was so much violence that she didn’t feel safe walking the streets even in the daytime. She didn’t live in that fear, though. Trembling with fear was nonsense to Grandma. Living on her own for so many years, she knew exactly what she’d do if someone broke in. One of her favorite hymns, she noted, was “God will take care of you.” Do not be dismayed, what e’re betide, for God will take care of you. Beneath his wings of love abide, for God will take care of you. That, and “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” “If someone tried to break in,” she told me, “I’d just get down on my knees to pray. Then I’d be secure. Safe.”
But most of all, perhaps, she missed the time when pianos were part of the living room furniture. [Holler outside and students came running] Pianos made the music that captured and expressed the sense of the world. Her favorite singer was Marian Anderson, a ground breaking soprano – the first African American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera - whose best loved songs were always accompanied by piano (iTunes info…). Pianos were the place where children – often so full of nonsense – could be exposed to something that would shape their character, fill them with pride, and if they applied themselves, give them pleasure for a lifetime.
I asked Grandma how she’d like to be remembered. True to form, she had an answer ready. As her son Bryant said, she was nothing if she wasn’t honest. And her first answer was nothing if it wasn’t honest. “I’m stubborn,” she said. A trait from the Webber side of the family, she explained. A stubbornness that’s probably part of what made her so independent, what made her take pride in being able to take care of herself. And also made her come across as stoic, not very touchy feely.
She also said she wanted to be remembered as someone who didn’t take things too seriously; but at the same time, someone for whom things had to be done her way. And Grandma had a very clear idea of what her way was most of the time, didn’t she? Her chief complaint to me was how often people complained about things. Complaining was just nonsense to Grandma. One of her favorite quotes, she said, was “Taste your words before you say them.”
There’s an irony in complaining about complainers, isn’t there? Which maybe gets at that first part, the part about not taking things too seriously. Sometimes you could see Grandma’s sense of humor dancing behind her eyes, peeking out in twinkle. Sometimes it was more obvious, like an 80 year old flirting. First time she met John: “They breed them handsome in Colorado.” And if you’d ask her, “How are you doing?” she might reply, “Everyone I can.” Maybe a little nonsense never hurt anyone too badly, after all.
She wanted to be remembered as someone who was happy to be by herself, and equally as someone who enjoyed being with her family and friends. Loved family gatherings, loved taking people to the DSO, to “the Club.”
And finally, she said, I want to be remembered as someone for whom the piano was a companion. Will any of us ever look at a piano and not remember Grandma’s piano room? Will we ever hear one played well and not see the smile on her face?
The piano was surely Grandma’s gift, and each of us has much to be thankful for in the various gifts that she gave to us. Whether those gifts came from her love for us, expressed in her way, or from the things we may have learned from her about honesty, strength and independence, or from the relationships we treasure with one another that happened so often in the gathering circle of her influence, or from the nice clothes from nice stores some of us still have today. Thanks, Grandma. Thanks God. And for those of us who have the good sense to mourn loss of Virginia Wulff, even while we celebrate the gift of her life, may we take comfort from the final verse of that hymn:
No matter what may be the test,
God will take care of you;
lean, weary one, upon his breast,
God will take care of you.