On the evening of my mother’s memorial service, I was the only person who rose to speak of her. The sadness of that is ineffable: that no one knew her well enough, or cared enough, to speak a farewell at her passing — or perhaps that no one trusted their painful memories of Betty Jean enough to speak kindly. Truely, as my father said to me later, all those present at her memorial were there on his behalf. As she aged, Betty had retreated farther and farther from nearly all social interaction, until she lived primarily lying on her bed, reading and smoking alone, seeing no one, calling no friends or former coworkers, not knowing her neighbors, leaving the house only for doctor appointments.
In the days leading up to Mom’s memorial service, I struggled with what I could say about the woman who gave me life. I adhere always to the principal that it is wrong, at a funeral or memorial, to speak ill of the dead, partially because they are not there to defend themselves, but primarily because there are people present who are wrapped in grief and mourning, and who do not need or deserve the load of another’s unpleasant remarks about the person whom they loved.
But my mother had been a seriously mentally ill woman, challenging to live with and difficult to love. I racked my mind, but most of all my heart, for words that would say farewell calmly, and without condemnation. And finally, after much soul searching, I realized that I needed to concentrate upon the rare and precious moments when the other woman – the healthy, kind, brilliant and loving woman – peeked out from behind the tormented soul. The woman, as I thought of her, whom God had actually intended, before whatever concatenation of mental illness and painful experiences set my mother on the path to her own destruction. And from that perspective, I found words to speak my mother’s memorial.
Although speaking in public is to me absolutely terrifying, I stood before my father’s friends and our relatives on that November evening in 2010, and spoke these words of my Mother with all the kindness and understanding possible.
“As an adult, working with the Bradshaw material, I came to have some understanding of the complex woman who was my mother, and the myriad forces that drove her.
“Also as an adult, I learned that our thoughts do not choose us; we choose our thoughts.
“And so, thinking of my mother, I choose to remember her as she was on the nights when I, as a little child, sometimes could not sleep. She would lay me on the couch beside her and read me poetry. Not children’s poetry; beautiful, majestic works from books, and things she liked from magazines. Poems that were far above my head, at that time, and yet, from how well she read them, I learned the cadence and rhythm and power of the written word.
“And that is how I choose to remember my mother, Betty Jean: She read me poetry.”
It was a brief and simple speech, quickly delivered. My father wept, but no one else cried — not even I, who weep at woeful movies or sad novels or a cross word. We were all dry-eyed. No one else rose to speak, either, and sometimes that fact still haunts me. One should not go down into the darkness with so few people to genuinely mourn.
There is a ceremony used in some NeoPagan communities, called A Crossing, in which a Talking Stick is passed from person to person sitting circled in a room. Each person, taking the stick, describes a pleasant memory of the one who has gone. And if they have nothing pleasant to remember, nothing kind to say, they merely sit silent as they hold the Talking Stick.
I’ve asked that this ceremony be held for me when I leave this life. I hope that I will not have outlived all those who have known me, and that there will be more than one person to say farewell at my passing. I hope that there will be more who wish to speak than to merely stay silent as they hold my Talking Stick. I hope that those who are present will put aside remembered differences, and speak of only pleasant memories, at least for that brief ceremony.
There was no one but me to speak my mother’s Talking Stick. But I hope that was enough.
In Memory of Betty Jean Snoddy Gregory