Eulogy for Carol Newland

 

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In the early 1970s, the Academy-award winning costume designer Edith Head toured the country giving talks on her career and the nature of fashion.  One cold winter evening in Marion Ohio, she gave a lecture to a women’s group. Looking around the room, she commented that, even though it was winter, there was no reason to dress in winter colors. She asked the audience to see what everyone was wearing, pointing out all of the dark blues, blacks and grays.  Then she stopped at one young woman.  She said “Except you” and asked her to stand up.  The woman was gorgeous, she had waist-length auburn red hair, sky-blue eyes, alabaster skin, and a bright, colorful outfit that she had designed and sewn herself.  Ms. Head nodded approvingly. “You. You look great.”

This, of course, is my mom. She was born and grew up in southern California, the daughter of Mary and Audrey Hargrove, the third of four children, sisters Margaret and Nancy and her younger brother Tim.   Family has always been important to her and she has maintained connections with her many nieces, nephews, and cousins.  Her sister Nancy has been a life-long best friend and travel companion.   Mom met my father David when both were still teenagers, and the deep love the two had from their earliest days together are visible in the photos from this time.

I met my mom in 1969.  She was giving birth to me, and I was probably throwing up on her, a habit that I continued to do for the next two years. My sister was born with the same skill set in 1971.  From that time forward, it’s been the four of us, a tight-knit family unit traveling the country on moves and family vacations.

Anyone who knew my mom well would, I think, agree with me when I say that she was an incredibly complex and private person.  You might not talk to her for weeks and then a care package would show up, letting you know that she had been thinking of you the whole time.  It was often tough to talk to her on the phone, the best time to have a deep conversation with her would be after 9 pm, in person, while she was working on her art, after everyone else went to bed. None of us knew the same woman, even my sister and I sometimes conclude that we grew up with different moms, both loving us incredibly and teaching us different life skills.  I’ve come to think that my dad taught me how to be in the world, but my mom taught me how to survive it.  My sister noted the other day that our dad gave her a garden decoration that said “My Father Taught Me How to Fly”, to which my sister added, “this is true, but mom taught me how to take off and land.”

The eulogy I give today, then, is written by a son who loved his mother very much, who felt loved by her, and who has spent his entire life marveling at all of the complexities and mysteries of the woman who raised him. When I think of my mom, I see her as I did at six– tall, beautiful, regal as a thunderstorm, who had little patience for laziness, idleness, or helplessness, but a great deal of tolerance for creativity, resourcefulness, and self-reliance. It was a tremendous gift to me to see her as a grandmother to my girls, a role she embraced so naturally and gracefully that it left me stunned and grateful. As an adult, I had never seen her much around babies and young children, and she was so gentle and patient with them, with such ease and practice, that I understood that she learned how to do that raising us. I may be too old to remember those early years of my childhood, but to know that this was how I was raised brings me comfort and joy. I have more than a few pictures of both my girls up late, covered in paint, learning from grandma.

My mom had a dark streak in her, she loved horror movies and frequently made my dad sit through them.  When I was a young boy, I wanted to be a werewolf for Halloween.  Mom did me up, fur, fangs, black nose, blood on my mouth, claws, the whole deal.  When I saw it in the mirror, I said “too scary!” and made her take the blood off as she rolled her eyes. I looked again and said “too scary!” so we took the teeth and the claws off.  When I got to the first door, they opened it up and the first thing they said was “Look! A puppy!” Mom’s still probably laughing at that one.

Her sense of humor was equally as dark, and I’d like to give two examples.  Several years ago, I showed her an internet photo of a raccoon that had been thumped by the highway.  Someone had put a little party hat on it, and in an outstretched paw they had put a balloon that said “get well soon”.  It’s probably the hardest I’d ever seen her laugh.

When I was about sixteen, one Halloween my mom had dressed up as a ghost bride.  She had picked up an old wedding dress, and literally went outside and rolled around in the dirt.  She wove twigs and leaves into her hair, and then painted her face white, with black circles around her eyes. Now, like every sixteen year old boy, I was hungry.  I went into the kitchen to make a sandwich.  Unbeknownst to me, my mom slipped into the living room and stood still in the back corner, waiting, staring at me. I came out, the sandwich halfway up to my mouth, when I saw her.  I’m pretty sure the mustard stain never came out of the carpet. In a sense, my mom’s household authority was always absolute, because she could be scarier, and more creative, than any of us.

I want to spend a big chunk of my time here to talk about my mother the artist.  As I said earlier, she was a wonderful mother, but we understood that deep down inside she self-identified as an artist.  Motherhood was a phase of her life, art was the purpose. An artist by education, she was a painter, sculptor, and weaver, spinning and dying her own wool and showing her work around the country.  She was accepted several times into the American Craft Council’s annual show, a very competitive event that I remember going to as a young boy. She continued to enter shows for as long as her health allowed.

I believe that my mother saw the world differently than other people.  And by different I mean physically different, like she could see colors and structures we could not see with the naked eye.  Much of her early sketches are organic pieces that look a great deal like cell structure and tissue.  Her weaving later expanded on these connections, woven neurons connected by wool synapses. For a period of time much of her work incorporated bone, feather, skin, and fur. What I consider the pinnacle of this time of her weaving career is here with us today, a hooded coat sewn of hand-dyed and spun emerald and blue wool, into which she wove the entirety of a peacock’s plumage.

Wallace Stevens has a famous poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, in which he takes the image of a blackbird in winter’s snow, and turns it over and over, looking at it from different angles, approaching the image different ways to try to get a sense of what he was seeing and what it meant, or could mean.  I feel my mom’s early work was a lot like this, taking these organic forms, pulling them apart to understand them and to make sense of what she was seeing, some hidden pattern in the construction of the world.

Her later pastel work seems like it was drawn by someone who could see in a broader color range than what we can, as if mom could see in both the ultra violet and infra-red ranges, and was again trying to get down what she could. Towards the end of his career, Leonardo’s DaVinci’s arthritis got so bad that he could no longer hold a paintbrush.  This liberated him from having to produce any monumental paintings, and he devoted much of his time to drawing events nearly impossible to capture with pen and ink—how water flows, the current of the winds, natural forces themselves invisible to the naked eye but whose effects surround us. I feel that much of my mom’s pastel work is this—capturing what she could see, in the way that she saw it, sights that probably eluded the rest of us. I was talking to my sister about this the other day, and noted that, if I had a regret, it was that I should have spent more time asking her what it was she saw, and less time asking her what was for dinner.

She opened her own French reweaving business and for decades she repaired many expensive and unique pieces of clothing, historic costumes, and uniforms, sometimes dying and spinning wool to match fabrics no longer available. This business was quite successful, and my mom was frugal with money.  In talking with my dad the other day, he described to me an aspect of my mom that I was too young to see while growing up, that my mother was staunchly committed to financial independence, that she believed from an early age that women should have their own bank accounts, their own sources of income, their own savings, their own credit cards.  While this is widely accepted today, this was not the case when she was in her 20s in the Midwest and it raised eyebrows.  Throughout her life she has mentored women in establishing their own financial independence and identity, teaching others to think for themselves and act in their own best interests.  She has been a friend and mentor to many women over the years, and this teaching will likely be one of the greatest contributions she has made to the world.

I want to close with a couple of brief thoughts about her health, a subject she would not want me to spend much time on and something she would not want herself to be identified by.  My mom was in pain much of her life, she commented to me that she had spent nearly a third of her life preparing for surgery, in surgery, or recovering from it.  When arthritis made her professional work difficult, she retired, and gave herself over to pastel painting, as the pastel crayons could fit comfortably in her hands. These years were prolific, her work showed around northern California, winning several awards. When pulmonary fibrosis took away her ability to draw, she read. When she was too tired to read, she held her granddaughters in her arms. When she became too tired for that, she held their hands. When, finally, even that was too much, she slipped away, with her family around her.

My mom was a creature of nature, she was only barely domesticated. My dad married a wild fox, and he accepted that she was up at nights and had sleeping, eating, and social patterns different than anyone else.  She had to create, every aspect of her life was a creative endeavor, it was who she was.  I’ve come to look at it like this: strongly radioactive material degrades the container that holds it. That creative life force in her was always seeking to break out of the physical form that contained it.  She spent much of her life at war with her own body. We are all here today, because that creative life force eventually won, and is now free to explore the universe. She leaves a family grieving her loss but always marveling at her life, a wondrous, ferociously creative work of art.

The Dread Pirate Bloodyfoot

“Daddy, look at my foot.”

It was bed time, we were getting things wrapped up, CB had had her last snack—a spoonful of sour cream—then her last last snack—a bowl of yogurt—then her last last last snack—a clementine followed by two more, followed by her last last last last snack—a cup of warm milk. She was holding her belly, laying across my lap, and sticking one foot in the air in the low light of the bed lamp.

I looked at CB’s foot, which had a spot of blood on it. My eyebrows shot up.

“Woah, how’d that happen?

“I dunno. Can I have a bandaid?”

“Sure, hold on, let me look at it first.” I dabbed it and saw that it was a very thin cut. “That looks like a paper cut.” I got up and went for the band aid.

“Yeah, I think I got it on the Flat Stanley book I was reading. My foot kind of bumped into it.”

“We should call you Bloodyfoot the Pirate.”

“Bloodyfoot is not a good name for a pirate. Bloodyhand is, though.”

“Why”

“Because a hand is easier to clean up and it would heal better.”

“Huh. I didn’t know that went into the whole decision-making process. Here, let me see that.”

“Give me the bandaid, I want to put it on.”

“Ok, I think this one will fit.”

She opened the bandaid and dressed her wound. She stuck the foot back in the air to inspect it.

“You did a good job there. What about Bloodytoe the Pirate?”

She was quiet for a moment, wiggling her toe, her little jaw working back and forth as she pondered this suggestion.

“YES.”

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Big Girl Books

It’s time. For parents of a certain generation, mine certainly and perhaps the one before me, and of a certain mindset, it’s a benchmark we hope might come. Ours was last week. I worked it with the appropriate drama when I saw she was ready.

Dad: “Ok, let’s see, we finished the last Never Girls book. What do you want to read next?”

CB: “I want one of your books, from the office.”

Dad: ”Those are pretty big books, boo. Most of them are for work, I don’t think you’d like them. How about Magic Treehouse?”

CB: “No, those books are for babies, I want big girl book, I want one of your books.”

Dad: “Are you sure? I don’t think there’s anything in there but really grown up books.”

CB: “PLEASE DADDY! I want one of YOUR books.”

Dad: *rubbing scruffy beard, leans back in chair, regards CB* “Well… There is… one book…”

CB: “WHAT? What is it?”

Dad: “I dunno CB, it’s a REALLY big girl book. And there are scary parts in it. It has witches and monsters.”

CB: “Really? How scary? I think I’ll be ok. Please?”

Dad: “It has four kids in it that get in a lot of trouble. But it has a big lion that helps them out. There’s no pictures though, like I’m saying it’s not for little girls. Are you sure you are ready?”

CB: “I’m a big girl, I’m ready.”

Dad: *rubs beard a few more seconds, pondering* “Ok. We’ll give it a try. But if it gets too scary, you just tell me and we’ll stop reading it, ok?”

CB: “Ok!”*starts to squirm around*

I go and get the book and sit down in the reading chair. CB climbs into my lap.

Dad: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air raids…”

Ether

A few times a year, I get a phone call or a visit that, in the world of fiction, would be the start of a novel. Invariably, I don’t take the bait. Novels are filled with people suffering for the purpose of furthering the plot along.

I’m not that kind of archaeologist.

I received a call yesterday, from a woman, wanting me to go with her and her sister, to an exhumation of her mother. Their mother had died when she was quite young, as did their father.  She and her sister had, finally, after all these years, decided to place the ashes of their father with her mother.

I asked, then, why she needed me? The cemetery where her mother was buried was going to do the exhumation. She didn’t need an archaeologist.

She said that, it was her belief and that of her sister, that when they opened that grave, they would not find her mother. They would find someone else.

This is first call. At this point in the conversation, I usually try to end it.  You may accuse me of a lack of curiosity, which is fair enough. But these exchanges typically only get crazier as they continue, and once you’ve crossed this line, there’s no going back. They assume you are interested and want to help. They call you for years. I have several of these people that I hear from about every six months or so, whether I answer the phone or not. They are the type of people to leave long messages.

I suggested to her, then, what she probably wanted was the police.

She stated that the body was buried on government property, that the government had hidden the reasons why the mother had died, and that she and her sister had spent their lifetimes piecing together the story of their mother and father, and that the time had come not just to bury the father, but to exhume whomever was in that grave, get a DNA sample and perform an autopsy. The father had left behind a mountain of encoded evidence for the two girls in the form of notes, diaries, and music.

Second call.  I’m rubbing my temple at this point.

I reiterate that she doesn’t need an archaeologist here, she needs to get permission from the government to do the autopsy. She needed to contact an estate lawyer to find out what rights she had in this situation, and get a court order if she felt there was foul play.

She countered that it seemed unlikely that the government would allow this, since they were complicit in the foul play. Furthermore, based on the trail left behind from her father, she and her sister believed that the body in that grave was several centuries old, and was actually someone I had heard of. She said that if she told me who it was, I would think she was crazy. She needed an archaeologist to confirm the antiquity of the skeleton and any associated grave goods.

Third and final call.  I wish her the best of luck, to contact the estate lawyer, and accepted her invitation to contact me when the lawyer advises her.  I have no idea what rights one has in such situations, but I imagine they are interesting.

Over several years in this business, I have encountered this more than once– parents or grandparents leaving behind clues or messages to some cryptic tragedy, or secret wealth, or unimagined ancestral lineage. Most of the descendants are interested, this portion of their family history becomes a hobby. They sit on the porch with glasses of whiskey and talk in low voices with close kin, hypothesizing the possible truths behind what they think they know. But every once in awhile, when the tragedy cuts close to the bone, when the mystery is spun hard enough, intricate enough, real enough, the sons and daughters are consumed.  They’re lost, their life courses spun out into the ether, following paths created by people with no understanding of what they’ve left behind.

Tooth and Nail

Lauri is at an ATM. There’s an elderly gentlemen at the machine next to her. She nods and asks how he’s doing. He smiles and says “Excellent. I married well.” Lauri cracks up at this and says “Me too. Do you have any children?” The man nods. “Four daughters.” Lauri raises her eyebrows. “Wow. We have two daughters. Do you have any advice?” The man nods again. Without missing a beat, he says “There is no God.”

**

It’s time to brush CB’s teeth. Normally, she fights me tooth and nail, but tonight, she is relaxed, pondering. I get ready to brush her teeth, her sitting in my lap in the armchair near her bed. She puts her hand up to stop me. “No, hold on.” She reaches in her mouth and pulls out a sliver of something white. CB asks “Do you know what that was?” “Fingernail,” I reply. “How did you know?” “I’m a dad, I know these things.” A smile creeps across her face as she rolls it around in her finger and then puts it back in her mouth. “Well, you were WRONG. It’s a TOENAIL.”

**

I’m at the farmer’s market with LA and CB. CB has climbed a fir tree in the park, she’s probably 20 ft. up. She’s 6. I shouldn’t let her do this, but I do, and I can’t really tell you why other than I’m a father and for some reason this instinctively feels like an important thing I should let her do. LA is running around the base of the tree. I catch her and scoop her up, her giggling and squirming. I feel a THUMP on my hat. CB shouts down from the top of the tree. “Dad, did you feel something land on your hat?” I frown. “Yeah, what was it?” I can hear CB start to cackle. “SPIT!” The cackle spreads to the nearby farmer’s behind their booths.

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On the Writing in Wet Sand

CB and I are wrapping it up for the evening. She’s on top of her little bed house, peering over the railing. It’s the night before Halloween, and she’s nervous. This whole last month she’s been back in bed with us, waking up frightened in the early hours. Getting her to sleep takes longer than it did, and she chats as she tries to calm herself down.

“How do you kill a zombie Daddy?”

“There’s no such thing, sweetie.”

“Yeah, but how do you kill one?”

I look up from my Sudoku puzzle. “Well, in the movies, they chop its head off.”

“Why?”

“Because the body needs the brain to function. Even in zombies”

“Why?”

“Because the brain sends messages to the body that tells it what to do. If the brain is gone, the body doesn’t know what to do.”

“Is it easy to chop their heads off?”

“Honey, you never have to worry about it. I’ve been to many places, and seen many things, and I have never seen a zombie, nor do I know anyone that has.”

“But what if you have to chop their head off?”

“Sweetie, that’s just in the movies. Don’t worry about it.”

“But how do they know in the movies? How do they know it would really work? How do they know?”

**

We’re all at the beach. I’ve just come back from a run, and it’s slowly getting to be time for us to head home. The girls and I play tag with the waves, LA holding my hand, CB, running next to us. I lift Lily up when a bigger wave comes in and drag her toes through the water. She’s laughing. I look next to me and see that CB has been knocked down and is riding the surf to shore. She’s a good swimmer, but this is the first time that a wave has pushed her over like this, the first time she has gotten a taste, herself, of the power of the ocean, even in a foot or so of water. There’s a look of panic on her face. I head over behind her, in case she doesn’t get her footing, and am in position to catch her if she gets dragged back out, LA in my other arm. The wave recedes, she has clung tenaciously to the sand, long wet streaks where she was pulled back towards the ocean, a mix of fear and victory on her face. For now, she’s had enough.

LA plods through the sand to throw her little cold, wet body on her mother. CB stays along the edge of the waves now, drawing in the sand with a stick. She begins to write “I love…” but the wave sweeps up and takes it away. She scowls. “Why does it do that?”

“That’s how waves and sand are, boo. Nothing you put in them lasts very long. You write what you want to and then it goes away.”

CB chews on her lip. She goes further upslope to edge of damp sand and makes a long rectangle. “Guess what this is for?” she says with a bright smile. I make an exaggerated questioning shrug of the shoulders and watch her. “I…love…you…Dada” she prints it out nice and clear, her handwriting rapidly becoming better than mine. She shakes her stick, flinging wet sand, then trots off to see her sister and mother. I’m patting my pockets to see if I have my phone for a photo. I don’t. A wave sweeps up, over the writing, clearing most of it.

If I was a different writer, a different father perhaps, I would tell you that the wave washed it all away except for the word “love”, that it left me with a jovial feeling that all was right in the world and that everything would be ok. What was left, though, was “Dada”, the water sweeping the “I love you” to wherever the ocean keeps such messages, the sea playing a different game with me than with CB, a grown-up game. I frowned and stared out at the waves. I bent down and re-wrote the word “love”, and walked over to join my family.

A Tale of Ribaldry

Lily has just finished her ice cream popsicle and has found her herself in fine form. Her sister is lounging on the trampoline looking up into the old oak, everyone has full bellies from dinner, and the sun is setting. Lily has decided to share a story and regale me with a tale of ribaldry. To be honest, I really don’t have any idea what the story is about, other than it involves a rabbit, a dragon, possibly a puppy, and poopie, boobie, bobo, and ‘stinky’. Rather than try to reconstruct the story, I simply give you photos of her telling the story, and I think you will be probably get the gist of it. Some tales transcend language. 

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