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Tiny Revolutions №100: In Memoriam
Some notes on a life well lived
I’ll be brief: my mom died last week. She had been in declining health for some time, so I can’t say it was unexpected, but there’s no way around the shock of losing a parent. I was lucky; I was able to make it across the country to be with her for her last two days, and almost her entire immediate family was in the room with her when she passed. If you have to leave, there are worse ways.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say about her in the future, but in the meantime, I wanted to share the eulogy I gave at her funeral last Friday.
So, here’s a thing that was amazing about my mom.
On any given day, she could go outside and almost immediately find a four leaf clover. It was uncanny. They just appeared to her. In her later years, when she had time, she started pressing them and putting them in picture frames and giving them away to friends and family, and if you’re in this room, chances are you were lucky enough to get one of them.
I wanted to begin with this anecdote because in so many ways it tells you everything you need to know about her. She did not have an easy life. But she went out and looked for the good and she found it. And then she shared her good fortune with others.
Martha was born in Ludlow, Kentucky in 1946 to an Irish Catholic family. She was the third of seven siblings who were heartbroken when their father died suddenly of a heart attack when my mom was just 11, leaving their mother to raise them on her own. That loss and the subsequent hardship were events that defined the rest of her life.
My mother adored her father, and he was never far from her thoughts. She told us stories about him all the time when we were growing up. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The next pivotal event in her life was when she met Jay Campbell through the wedding of their mutual friends Carl and Mary Jo Foster. Jay was the best man and Martha was the maid of honor, and they fell in love. They got married on Thanksgiving Day of 1968 and they barely had a few nickels to rub together, but they had love and energy to spare.
They had their first child, Jay, in 1971, followed by Sean and Patrick in quick succession. They took a brief break for a couple of years before having me, their first daughter. But then they were back off to the races again, and they had Joey, Kevin, Michael, Erin, and then finally Caitlin, the youngest, in 1986.
If you’re good at math you may have calculated that that equals about 15 years of either being pregnant or about to be pregnant, and adding a new life to care for to the fold each time. It absolutely blows my mind every time I think about it.
But somehow she did it. And not only did she do it, but she did it astonishingly well. Those were different times, you know? The 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s were the last days before the Internet and all the various conveniences we have to draw upon for child-rearing these days.
Back then there was no Instacart, no Doordash, no Google Maps, no iPad to keep a kid entertained in a pinch. There were no digital calendars or note keeping systems or automated reminders. There was just the unrelenting work of running a household. The laundry, the meals, the school lunches, the doctors appointments, the parent teacher conferences, the practices, the games, everything.
My mom did it all and mostly she did it without complaint. And yet even amidst all of it, my earliest memories are of her reading and singing and telling us bedtime stories that she made up on the spot, because, as I said earlier, she was an incredibly gifted storyteller.
She had this amazing way of turning mundane daily tasks into a form of play. She’d wake you up by singing “good morning, good morning, good morning” and she’d sing you to sleep with a few of the dozens of lullabies and nursery rhymes she had memorized.
She had a sharp sense of humor and she practically invented the clapback, answering every kid complaint with a quip or a zinger.
“That’s not fair!,” you’d say to her, and she’d hit you back with, “Life’s not fair, get used to it!” As we got older she was always on her way to something - taking a kid to school or a game or the store or whatever. “Where are you going?,” you’d say, and she’d say, “Crazy, wanna come?” And we did, because it was always fun to be along for the ride.
I’m a big fan of the writer and Zen priest Norman Fischer, who said that "Meaning comes not so much from what you understand as from the way you do whatever it is you are doing."
I love that quote because it articulates something that is both rare in a person and yet so true of my mother: and it’s that she did things with so much love and joy. It is for this reason that even though she lived a life that by any account had a high level of difficulty, she never treated it like a burden. Instead she rose to the occasion and gave it her all every single day.
And I think the fact that you’re all here is a testament to it. For all these years, our house was everyone’s house, and it’s because she was at the heart of it. Everyone was welcome and everyone had her ear. She never forgot how it felt to lose her dad when she was young, and as a result she was kind and generous to everyone she came across.
She went out of her way to help people less fortunate. On top of all of her duties at home, she made time to teach CCD here at All Saints and to volunteer for causes that were important to her. She served on a panel for Dekalb County Child and Family Services for many years to help advocate for children in the foster care system. And she gave her time and money to dozens of other causes, too.
These last few years were very hard on my mom as she navigated multiple health issues and the deaths of her beloved sisters Patty and Sara, as well as her mother, Betty, but she stayed in touch with friends and family to the very end, never forgetting a birthday or a special occasion.
She led a life that was devoted to service to others and to seeing the good in people. She taught her children to be brave and to work hard and meet people where they are. She gave us so many good things that it would be impossible to list them, and I hope we can share some stories about them later, but the one I’d like to leave you with is this.
This world rewards things like productivity and sales and conquests and goals met. But this world relies on people like my mother who keep the matters of the heart at the center of all things.
Through her life, the lives of her children and grandchildren, and her relationships with everyone she knew, she made the world a better place by being in it, and there is no powerful legacy than that.
My brothers also wrote an affectionate and entertaining obituary for this remarkable lady that showcased some of the antics and attitude from her 77 years. You can read that here.
I hope you are all keeping well out there. I also hope I’ll be in more of a frame of mind to write to you more often soon.
Thanks for being here, as ever.