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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On Dolls

 

 

My two young daughters have several dolls, and I have to say, I take issue with all of them. It’s not the comb-able hair, or all the outfits and accessories, or the whippet-like and over-sexualized Barbies. I don’t approve of those either, but in the end they’re the lesser evil. It’s that their dolls don’t move.

 

There’s no knee or elbow joints. These dolls are immobile and helpless compared to boy’s action figures, that, even when I was young, could move in 500 different directions. The girl dolls can’t be configured to run, jump, kick, climb– to do, really, anything other than model clothes. Even the Dora the Explorer doll’s knees and elbows are fused and unmoving, undermining everything Dora herself stands for.

 

Worst of all, they all seem uncomfortable in their own bodies. Barbie seems almost paralyzed with the fear of embarrassing herself with an ungraceful move, her face frozen in a mock smile. She can’t even sit down properly.

 

When I was a teenager, my dad pointed out an aspect of girls fashion at that time, which was to wear over-sized sweatshirts. The girls retracted their hands into, and clenched the ends of, the sleeves from the inside. They became essentially handless, and, at that moment, appear completely unable or unwilling to do anything but stand there. It was an affected helplessness, and after he pointed it out to me, I saw it everywhere.

 

This concerns me, because, after teaching 6-9 graders for several years through a summer program, I saw many girls on the first day of class that were mortified of saying or doing anything embarrassing, to the point of simply remaining silent. The boys cavorted like a pack of dogs, oblivious. The girls looked worried that someone would stab them if they did anything unseemly. It’s that same terrified paralysis.

 

I’m on the lookout for dolls that move like my daughters move, that can scale trees, jump on trampolines, or sprint like gazelles. I don’t want my daughters growing up horrified by their own bodies, their limbs rigid and bound as the Bride of Frankenstein’s.

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Author’s note: this first appeared as part of KQED’s “Perspectives” Series. An audio version can be found here.

The Thing in the Tub

Dad is heading to the garage. CB follows him out there.

CB: What are you looking for Daddy?

Dad: I’m getting the snake for the drain in the bathtub. It’s plugged.

CB: Can I help?

Dad *grabbing the snake and heading back into the house*: This is a daddy job, honey, it’s kind of hard to turn the snake. But… in a minute, I’ll pull something out of the drain that will be TOTALLY. GROSS. You wanna see?

CB: YES! Lily, Daddy is going to show us something gross!

Lily: YEAH! *runs into bathroom*

Lauri: What? Ew, I don’t even want to know. Don’t even tell me about it. I’m going for a walk.

Dad: See, we feed the snake down through the drain… I think the plug is pretty close…

CB: MOM! Daddy’s putting the snake into the drain! You want to see?

Lauri: NO. I’m getting ready to go.

CB: Daddy, what do you think is in the EWWWWWWW!

Lily: EWWWWWWWWW!

CB: GROOOOSSSS! MOM! YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!

Lily: EWWWW! GROOOSSSS!!

Lauri: I’M LEAVING. I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW.

CB: EWWW! WHAT IS THAT?!

Lily: EWWWW!

Lauri: GOODBYE.

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Madeline

There is, hanging in the long hallway of my parent’s house, a large painting.The painting is hung high enough for my two young children not to see it. I suspect that this is intentional, though I’ve never asked. I’ve never spoken to my mother about the painting until now.She has pulmonary fibrosis, and is now on oxygen 24-7. She is an award-winning artist, and there are paintings that I have questions about, images from her art that have stayed with me over the years, and I’m looking for answers about this one.
Most of her work over the past decade has been pastels, vibrant ultraviolet landscapes that prove to me that she can see ranges of light beyond the rest of us. This painting, however, is in black and white, except for one crucial detail.
The painting is from a photo in William Stevenson’s book A Man Called Intrepid. It’s of a woman named Madeline, the first woman British WWII radiotelegraphist who transmitted from occupied France. She was caught by the Gestapo. She sits naked and emaciated, one of the Gestapo men holding her head up for the photo. There are no faces other than hers, just the legs of the men standing behind her. In the photo, she looks away, and does her best to cover herself before execution.
The painting has a secret. Up close, at eye level, you can see, in the shadows of Madeline’s eye sockets, that my mother has painted two tiny red dots. I wanted to know about those two dots. With those two tiny dots, my mother has transformed Madeline, from victim to something else, a force of vengeance. The man’s hand, holding her head, has rotted away, every man in the picture now dead and defeated. Madeline wears a halo of amputated limbs. She is victorious and unmoving, an eater of evil souls. The painting is as beautiful as it is unsettling, it reminds me of the true power that an artist has to re-forge images of despair into those of triumph, even a horrible triumph, and I love my mother even more for painting it. I imagine in her the same burning coals, the unflinching stare, as she faces the disease slowly taking her breath away.

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On Fame

It is close to bedtime. CB has her feetie pajamas on and is dancing around, singing, getting the last of her energy out. In the next room, I can hear Lauri reading Lily her bedtime story in a quiet voice, the two of them having a call-and-response to Gossie the Gosling.

CB: (in a sing-song voice) “Justin Beaver… Justin Beaver… Justin Beaver…”
Dad: “I think you mean Bieber.”
CB: “No, Beaver.”
Dad: “I’m pretty sure it’s Bieber, hon.”
CB: (pause) “No. It’s Beaver.”
Dad: (raises eyebrow) “Are you sure? I’m pretty sure on this. Justin Bieber is a famous singer. I see his name all the time.”
CB: (long stare, silence): No. Justin Beaver is a kid in my class.”
Dad: (surprised) “Really? I didn’t know that!”
CB: (smug) “Yep! And his dad is a NINJA.”

The Owl House

CB and Dad have finished evening books and are discussing additional lodgers at Newland-Neidell Manor. CB had gone to a recent pumpkin patch where they had a barn owl as part of a live animal presentation. The owl made a big impression and CB has been talking about it for days.

CB:”Daddy, I think we should build a barn owl house.”

Dad: “A barn owl house? You think? In the back yard?”

CB: “Yeah, in the tree.”

Dad: “Well, we could… You know, Tashi and Shiva are big cats, too big for a barn owl, but if the owl was big enough, it could eat Little Minxie…”

CB: “Maybe it could eat that old opossum…”

Dad: “That opossum is way too fat for an owl to eat. A baby opossum maybe, but that big guy weighs more than the owl would. Owls like mice and rats, they want stuff that’s smaller…

CB: “I know! We need to have an owl feeder.”

Dad: *nearly blows water out his nose while taking vitamin* “A barn owl feeder? So, like, it’d be filled with dead rats and mice? What, would the tails just be sticking out for the owl to grab?”

CB: “No, the heads. We could hang it next to the hummingbird feeder.”

Dad: “The owl would be like, dude, what’s the story with this free dead rat?”

CB: “Free dead rat– what’s up with that?”

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