Thursday, August 19, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part VI)

Tangled up in Blue: The Eulogy
As the years wore on, and thirteen grew more and more distant in the rearview mirror of my life, things gradually improved between Maxine and me. I learned the drill. I knew what her triggers were and made sure to avoid them at all cost. It wasn’t so much “walking on eggshells” as it was simply “treading lightly.” I got really good at it and prided myself on how far I had progressed in becoming the person who she wanted me to be. I realize that doesn’t exactly sound fair to me, but believe me, it was. I had a lot to learn, and she had a lot to teach. And while her methods were certainly out of step with what we today perceive to be appropriate, I can only look at the results to judge whether they were right or wrong.

I don’t expect anyone to understand why I’ve always cut Maxine so much slack. There are some members of my family who never did, and that’s their decision. This was mine.

I’ve often wondered what it was. Was it the fact that I’d finally done what she once told me I’d never do, and “amounted to something,” or if it was just that she just loved Michelle so much? But after I got married, my relationship with Maxine entered an entirely different stage. She always used to say that there were three qualifications I should have in choosing a potential wife. “If she can cook, sew, and drive, then she’s great catch.” Bingo, bingo, and bingo, Mom.

For the final 21 years of her life, I can honestly say there was never a disparaging word between Maxine and me. She completely approved of my choice for a life partner (and why the hell not?), and several times in the course of mentioning Michelle would wink at me and say, “Ya did good, kid, ya did good.” I reveled in her approval.

By late spring of the year 2000, Maxine had been in and out of the hospital with a series of health issues. Months earlier she had undergone her second knee replacement. Soon thereafter doctors detected a benign tumor that was successfully removed. While recovering from that surgery, she began to experience setbacks. She suffered a staph infection, but appeared to be on the road to overcoming it. She had been carrying a lot of weight for many years, but at nearly 80 years of age she had always been extremely vivacious and healthy. I had spoken to her on the phone during the time she was apparently on the mend, and we had spoken about them possibly coming to visit us that summer, once she got back on her feet.

Michelle’s parents came to spend Memorial Day weekend with us that year. Michelle’s Mom was having some back problems at the time and we had just purchased a new mattress, so we decided to let her parents sleep in our bedroom while we slept in our old bed in the guest room.

At 7:00 AM on Sunday, May 28, 2000, I was awakened by a phone call. Being the rock-hard sleeper that I am, and being in the unfamiliar surroundings of the guest bedroom, it took a few seconds for me to get my bearings. The message on the other end of the line almost convinced me that it was all just a bad dream. Maxine had passed away from complications of a viral infection that had overtaken her during her recovery. It was sudden and unexpected. The thought had crossed my mind that it could happen, but I never thought it would.

I immediately made flight arrangements and joined my Dad and brothers in California the following day, Monday. My younger brother Alex, who had delivered David’s eulogy six years earlier came to me and said, “AJ, Dad asked me if I would give Mom’s eulogy, but I just don’t think I can do it. Could you?” I looked him in the eye and said, “You would have had to fight me for it, pal. I want to do it. I had planned to do it.” He smiled with relief, “Thanks. I know you’ll do a great job.” Alex gave me some notes he’d already written down of the facts of Maxine’s life, which helped tremendously. That night I sat in bed and began to write, pooling all of the emotions that were locked away in my heart — the horrors and the happiness; the pats on the back and the slaps in the face. I sobbed and wrote. I wrote and sobbed. I could feel my chest rise higher with every sentence. This was where I finally let go of it all, and saw the true result of her role in so significantly forging my sensibilities; in making me the person I’ve become.

Everyone in my immediate family knew how harshly Maxine had treated me in the beginning — everyone except my Dad; he’d find out much later. It was better (for me) that way. I’m sure that some of those who knew the truth wondered, years later, what my true feelings were — whether or not I resented her for it. This was my opportunity to proclaim that I had indeed risen above it, once and for all.

On Thursday June 1, 2000, Maxine was laid to rest, in a grave flanked by her late husband, my Uncle Matt, and the plot reserved for my Dad, which in turn is beside the place where my Mother, Annie, is also buried.

In a small chapel called the Church of Our fathers at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cypress, California, her memorial service was held. The following is the eulogy I delivered to honor her. Again, please understand that I’ve removed and changed the names of those whose privacy I want to respect.

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Maxine was many things to many people.

To her parents, she became their second eldest child, coming into the world on September 19, 1921 in Piqua, Ohio (which she fondly referred to as "PEE-qwaah").

To her siblings, she was a stable and loving influence.

She was a supportive and loving wife to two different men and served as the glue that bonded these two families into one.

She was "Mom" to her children, Kay, Lee and Janice, as well as to her stepsons, Jack, David, Kenny, AJ and Alex.

She was "Ganna," "Meemaw," and "Grandma" to thirteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Growing up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, before he actually had one, she was her Daddy's "little boy," eagerly assisting him in his trade as a plumber during the difficult days of the Great Depression, when work not only meant making ends meet, but survival itself. During that trying time she would gain the tools that served her, as well as those whose lives she touched for the rest of her days.

That service began on Valentine's day, 1941 when she married, a handsome, blue-eyed man named Matt, a co-worker with her at the Guide Lamp plant in Anderson, Indiana. They'd only met three months earlier, but as she would later say, "He was the cutest thing I'd ever seen...and we knew it was right."

And so it was.

Maxine and Matt moved to Long Beach, California in 1948 following the birth of Kay. Lee and Janice followed soon thereafter and life was good. The family thrived on outdoor activities, particularly those camping trips to their beloved King's Canyon National Park.

She and Matt shared active roles as members of the First Baptist Church of Long Beach. It seemed as though she had everything that she had ever wanted. But then Maxine's life took a sharp left turn.

Matt began to show signs of an aggressive strain of Alzheimer's Disease in the early 1960's. At the same time however, back in Anderson, Matt's sister, Annie, just one year her junior, was showing the same effects of that frightening and mysterious disease. Since so little was known about Alzheimer's at that time, both Maxine and Annie's husband, PD struggled to find answers. So they turned to each other for moral support and to compare notes.

The two had been acquaintances during their days at Anderson High School and through their spouse’s family ties. They began to support each other through phone calls, letters and family visits.

Alzheimer's eventually claimed Matt in 1967 and Annie the following year. Maxine and PD's supportive friendship matured into love soon thereafter. They adopted the popular Frank Sinatra tune, "Strangers in the Night" as the theme of their relationship, and were married on May 17, 1969.

At the moment that Maxine said, "I do" for the second time, she simultaneously became a wife, a mother and a grandmother. After raising three children of her own, she was now faced with the task of raising three more, which she did, with the same sense of principle and values with which she was raised.

So strong was her mothering instinct, that following the death of her mother, Maxine sent for her handicapped youngest sister, Nancy Jo, to come and live with her and PD in California, which she did until her death in 1983. During that time, Nancy even referred to Maxine as "Mom."

Maxine and PD's years together were filled with happy times. They were traveling companions on numerous trips to visit family in Indiana and Oregon. Their travels also included an extensive trip to the Holy Land, a Caribbean cruise and trips to Hawaii, where they also celebrated their 20th Wedding Anniversary in 1989.

You know, we had a saying back in the 70's: "Everything's Relative." In other words, whatever is meaningful to one person may not be so to another, and vice-versa. To me (being that everything's relative), that phrase always meant something a little different: "When you find beauty in something, appreciate it...not for what someone says it is, but because of what it is to you."

Maxine was many things to many people. But to me, she was not only my Mom, but also the author of my work ethic, and my sense of duty and principle. She is my conscience, and I am very proud of that fact.

When I strive to go the extra mile to do a job to the best of my ability, it's because that's what she taught me to do, and because that's what she did.

When I try to explain to my teenagers, "It's the PRINCIPLE of the thing!" it's because that's what she taught me, and because it is (darn it!).

And when I sit back and survey the results of an afternoon of "sweat equity" in my yard, at my workbench, or after a home-improvement project, I see her, because she taught me the value of hard work, and because she lived it.

She was strong, confident, irrepressible, and she lived a full and satisfying life. Just who she was may very well depend on whom you ask, but one thing is certain: if there are holes in the floor of Heaven, she's definitely looking down on us — and smiling.

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Next: They say that “clothes make the man,” but dude…my MOMs made the clothes!
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