Quite some years ago, when my mother was elderly but not as elderly as she would become, she attended the funeral of a dear friend right here at St Al’s. Afterward, she remarked to the young priest who had presided what a lovely service it had been, how all its details had so thoughtfully reflected the wishes of the departed. In response, the young priest made the mistake of asking my mother whether she had made her own, y’know, plans. “No!” my mother responded. And then the padre made the further mistake of saying, “you should get on that. You don’t want to burden your children.” To which my mother shot right back, “Oh yes I do, Father! And why not? My children have been burdens to me all their lives.”
Guilty as charged! But were that we could all bear burdens so beautifully. As any child of Elizabeth Julia Veronica Murphy Durkin can tell you, she bore her seven burdens as trees bear fruit, as the kings bore gifts, as Shakespeare bears quoting, as great stories bear retelling.
My mother’s was a great story. As a girl, she – a child of the Depression – had no phone and no car, and used to help her father sift coal in the cellar. As a woman, she routinely dazzled prelates, pooh-bahs and politicians. I can’t begin to tell that story here.
What I am moved to try and do, though, is to mark the passing not only of my mother, but of a kind of mother. My mother emphatically believed that women should have the chance to run the world and everything in it. But she grew up at a time when most women did not have that chance, so even the smartest, hardest-working and most ambitious had to make their home their world, and be content with dominion over only the humans they made themselves. In the wrong circumstances, of course, the concentration of such vast personal force into so few hearts and minds could be toxic. But in the right circumstances – in our circumstances -- it was magic.
To be mothered by our mother was magic. All her brilliance, her wit, her yearning, her dreaming, her moral sense, her aesthetic sense, her optimism, her romanticism, her originality, her creativity, her infinite variety….yes, it went into her college education, which she completed, with high honors, at age 54. Yes, it went into her businesses, her legendary entertaining, her travels. But mostly, all of that – all of her -- went into us.
It went, of course, into our magnificent, much-missed father too, and in light of their almost-65 years of marriage, it seems preposterous to contemplate her life without major reference to his. In 1949, Betty Murphy pledged to love Tom Durkin until death did them part, but we all know she didn’t stop then, or ever. But Mickey has Booper now, and we don’t. So he is going have to forgive me for skipping over the myriad ways in which, as he often remarked, “no man ever had a better wife,” as I touch upon just one of the ways in which no child ever had a better mother.
Now, often when the subject is exemplary motherhood, the tone becomes one of boring beige solemnity: the sacrifices she made, the faith she instilled, the excellence she encouraged, the pain she soothed – and make no mistake, our mother did all of that, all the time, for all of us. But all my life, whenever I have been with my mother or thought of my mother or heard anyone speak of my mother, the word that has always bobbed right up to the surface like a buoy in the ocean is fun. Even words of condolence this week have included the word “fun.” “I’m so sorry you lost your mother. She was so much fun.” “Sharp as a tack, and such fun.” Even amongst ourselves: “Remember that time when Mom and Aunt Doris got the bright idea to…? That was so much fun.”
Last night, as I struggled to find some words for this morning, I found myself fighting with fun. I’d scribble out something weighty and worthy about my mother – but then my mind would stray to this or that hilarious memory and enjoy itself there for a while before I’d pull it back and scold myself like a nun at St. Cecilia’s: I can’t spend the last formal words I will ever speak on behalf of my incredibly accomplished mother describing her as some kind of party girl…even if that was her absolute favorite way to describe herself.
Then, somewhere around dawn’s early light, this dawned on me: what a good, even godly, trait it is to be fun. After all, how do we often describe life as it comes from God? How, if we are so lucky and so wise, do we see life? As a gift. What is the word for opening a gift -- for treating each day as a gift -- if not fun? And what better way to communicate to the human beings that you have brought into the world that they belong in the world; can thrive in it, and find joy and love and purpose in it, than to act as if having them with you in the world is fun?
And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, without apology, I submit to you: Elizabeth Murphy Durkin was many, many tons of fun.
She had different levels of fun.
Everyday, offhand fun:
Some mothers, if they found themselves serving dinner on a school night at 8:30 p.m., might say, “sorry it’s so late, you must be starving.” Our mother said, “pretend you’re in Spain. This is early.”
General, embrace-the-chaos fun:
Whether her station wagon was headed to Washington, D.C., the Mississippi Delta or the A&P in Verona, it was always packed with kids, who were packed in with groceries or antiques or Irish setters. Sometimes the station wagon of the moment did not have the best brakes, in which event Booper did not panic. Incorporating her general approach to life, she simply learned to swerve.
Soon after Corny got engaged, Mom had the idea of holding a tea party in honor of the prospective bride’s mother, and inviting all the ladies in her family. Not stopping at the traditional spread of finger sandwiches and scones, Booper decided that what would really set the gathering off would be for us to dress up in Edwardian garb, complete with gloves and great big hats, and greet the guests in character and voice of a tentatively-trained Eliza Doolittle: “How kiiiiiind of you to come to teeee.” Miraculously, Mary Ellen went ahead with the wedding.
Good, old-fashioned, party-hardy fun:
Some grandmothers, when they hit eighty or so, would either decline big family parties or sit demurely to the side, leaving the dance floor to the young people. Booper, somewhere around ninety, boogied so big at Teddy’s wedding she had to be hospitalized.
But again, I beg you not to take from this that my mother was more style than substance. Nor was she even best termed a person of style and substance. No: My mother’s style came from her substance.
For many years my parents hosted an annual summer picnic for people who were both visually and economically impaired. Ridiculously late on the night before one such event – maybe midnight -- my sister and I came upon our mother, ironing a huge pile of linen tablecloths. We laughed at her. We said “Mom, what are you doing? It’s just a picnic, and the guests literally can’t see.” My mother continued undeterred. Come noon, a guest was led to her table and the minute she sat down, she took a corner of cloth in her hand. “Ah,” she said, rubbing it luxuriantly between her fingers. “I knew this was going to be nice.”
Those picnics took place at 100 Rensselaer Road. My mother loved that house. Like all my siblings, I loved it too, and even now, I appreciate it, in the form of a painting that hangs on the wall in my mother’s final home in Spring Lake.
A week ago today, just after my mother left this world, my salt-watered eye happened to fall on that picture. And like a shot, it hit me: “That house was never really my home. She was.”
It has long since become the fashion in America to skimp on grieving the way a dieter skimps on gravy. Especially with a decedent of a great age, we are urged not to mourn, but to celebrate! And you might expect that, since I have just devoted a funeral oration to fun, I am going to close on such a note. I’m not. I can’t. When I fall silent, I am going to fall still. And in the stillness, I am going to feel the awful wind blow through the hole that my first friend, my primary pillar, my indelible grace, my model, my mirror, my mother blew in me by her leaving. I am going to feel the cold of that, and the wrench of that, and very often for a good while yet, I am going to cry over that.
But I am my mother’s daughter. We are our mother’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. So Mom, one day that we can’t imagine right now, we are going to find some fun, and that is where we are going to find you. From that moment on, we are going to prove you right on one of your signature points. You always said that your children were your ticket to immortality. And we are.