My mother loved people, parties, and stories.
She died in October 2014 after many years of poor health. A couple of months later, near the date of her birthday, family and friends came together to celebrate her life. We cried a little (she would have wanted that) but mostly we laughed. The din of socializing created an atmosphere she would have liked. We ate pizza, looked at old photos, reminisced.
I set up my keyboard and played a musical tribute.
The last time my mother heard me play the piano, she had just moved into an assisted living facility and was very unhappy. I thought it might help if she had some way to distinguish herself among the residents, a little local fame. So I gave an informal piano performance that included her favorite old songs. She got the chance to brag to everyone as they arrived in the room: That’s my daughter playing the piano. It helped her feel better. And she’d certainly earned that small reward for all those years of driving me to my piano lessons.
My mother never saw herself as the frail woman she appeared to the rest of us during her last decade. She was tough, a tiny dynamo, who lived life on her own terms. So my first selection at her memorial gathering was a song that captured her approach: “My Way,” a Sinatra favorite released in 1969 after Paul Anka re-wrote the French lyrics especially for Ol’ Blue Eyes.
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
But more, much more than this
I did it my way …
In recognition of my mother’s cherished Irish heritage, I played “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Danny Boy.” She was very close to her father, a dear man who died much too early at age 64. He liked to sing “Carolina Moon,” so I included that in my set list. Finally, I played a 1925 tune that my mother always got a kick out of because it features her name: “Paddelin’ Madelin’ Home.”
Then family and friends stood to tell stories and share memories. A theme emerged: My mother was feisty, frustrating, and dearly loved. Mac Davis’s “It’s Hard to Be Humble” was part of my sister’s remembrance. We passed out lyrics sheets and invited everyone to sing. Many did—with great enthusiasm. In my mind’s ear I heard my mother joining in, her alto voice roughened by years of smoking.
My daughter’s tribute at the memorial captured my mother’s personality from a granddaughter’s perspective. With her permission, I’m reprinting it below. I can’t imagine a more fitting toast.
Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.
My grandmother was a joiner. She had many hobbies and collected friends in every random place. She loved things like playing bridge, golfing, bowling. Over the years, she taught me the rules to many of these activities along with guidelines to what her version of an ideal person looked like.
One part of being a gamer is you learn to keep score, and oh did my grandmother keep score. If you were important to her at all, she had a report card filed away for you in her brain. In her last years, her once famed memory started to fail, but where she lost the ability to use a microwave, she had no trouble remembering who sent her a thank you card, or called on birthdays. Sometimes this habit of hers annoyed me and was hard for me to understand. But, what I came to grasp, and then appreciate, was that she played the game too.
She showed up for every big moment in my life. Sure, I was the only grandchild for years, but she did all the right things even after I was joined in rank. She followed me to China, saw me graduate, drove by herself to Wisconsin to dress up with me for Halloween or come to my birthday sleepovers. She remembered to send me a card and 5 dollars for every holiday, 10 if it was a big one. She contributed yearly to my college fund with savings bonds at the anniversary of my adoption. She was by far my most present grandparent, and there was never a moment that I was excused from her standard of what was right, because I belonged to her and she loved me with huge expectation.
In my mind, she won. I give her full marks and high honors. So, let’s count ourselves lucky to have ever been considered for grading, and raise a glass to our permanent records and my champion of a grandmother, who has no doubt turned those records in to God, along with her strong opinions on who deserves a little extra time in purgatory. Cheers.
© 2014 Jessa S.B. Sharkey