Before you read the brief remarks I offered at my grandmother’s memorial service, here are a few things you should know.
First, my grandfather left her for another woman in 1962. She was 36 years old, with three kids (ages 15, 14, and 8) but no marketable skills or work experience. Her second husband died of cancer. Her third husband (well… they weren’t technically married) died suddenly while we were all on family vacation together in Colorado (this explains why I’m not eager to visit hot springs anywhere). Her oldest son died about twelve years ago from complications of multiple sclerosis. She herself was a cancer survivor. Oh, and she was one of the main founders of this organization: http://samaritanhouse.org/.
The obituary says that my grandma died on Halloween, but really she died the day before. Here’s what I said at her memorial service:
When I was growing up, all the girls I knew had little squeaks of sneezes—sneezes that were so small and petite that they were almost inverted, held in the nose somehow and willed back up into their heads. I guessed this was how girls were supposed to sneeze—so quietly that the sneeze wasn’t a sneeze so much as it was an apology for itself.
Now. My grandmother didn’t sneeze that way. She sneezed loud. She sneezed so that you knew it. Her sneeze even came with a preamble, an announcement that a sneeze was coming. I respected her sneeze. So when I was around six or seven, I decided that I wanted to sneeze like she did.
I honestly don’t remember how long I went around imitating Grandma’s sneeze—probably not long. Probably some number of people told me to quiet it down. Just so you know: I never have done those small, inverted, squeaky sneezes that collapse on themselves. (Honestly, I’m afraid I’d hurt myself somehow if I tried.) I don’t sneeze like my grandmother did, either—mine is a simple, no-nonsense, basic sneeze.
e.e. cummings writes: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
When I was a little girl, I didn’t know about the hardships my grandmother had faced, or the challenges she had overcome. I didn’t appreciate until much later how hard she must have fought—every day—to be fully, unapologetically herself in this world.
During the time that I knew her: in her defense of gay rights, in her work to create communities of compassion for people dying of AIDS, in her religious and political views freely (and loudly!) expressed here in Fort Worth, Texas—she stayed true to her sense of what was right, even when it was hard, and her views were unpopular.
To have Margie for a grandmother was a gift. She showed me that a woman could be strong and determined—and at the same time, caring, joyful, and—I’m gonna say it: sexy. My grandma was sexy. Her colors were bold. Her laugh was big. Her heart was open and hopeful.
My grandmother taught me through the example of her life that how we are in this world is a choice. We can see pain, suffering, and injustice in the world and we can—if we’re privileged enough—ignore it. Or we can follow her lead and name the pain, call out the suffering, and work to correct the injustice.
We can be wronged, experience betrayal, and suffer great personal losses—and we can quietly let ourselves be defeated. Or we can follow my grandma’s lead and carry on—with strength, courage, and joy, along with the wounds and scars of life.
We can wear neutral colors and sneeze quietly. Or we can choose to be colorful and vibrant—with a sneeze that announces itself to the world.
I was very fond of my grandma. I miss her. In honor of her memory, I invite all of us, going forward, to choose more boldly and more joyfully, with maybe a splash of color and a side of sassy.
To you, Grandma. L’chaim! To life.
One last thing to know: my grandmother’s Christmas cactus offered its first blossom of the season on the day of her memorial service.
Thanks for everything, Grandma. Love you always.