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.

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