‘When I die, Hallelujah by and by,
‘I’ll fly away.’
‘Hey, Dad, the parking lot is already filling up.’
People started arriving an hour before the funeral.
A gentle mist fell on the country church as we filed in. Friends had already taken the back pews. The family then entered in order — the deceased’s children first, followed by grandchildren, and then more distant relatives.
After a few hymns and introductory readings, your editor took the pulpit.
A remarkable person
‘Thank you all for coming to say goodbye to my mother,’ we began.
‘It’s very nice to see the church with so many people in it. Usually, when young people die, their friends and family fill up the church. But when old people die, they’ve often been forgotten for many years. Their friends and family have already died…and so there is often only a handful of people who remember them and show up for the funeral.
‘It’s great to see that my mother — Mamianne — can still draw a crowd. And I think I know why. She was a very special person. A remarkable person.
‘A friend in Argentina comes from a prominent family. His great-grandfather made a lot of money and ran for president. Since then, the whole family lived off of his wealth and reputation for four generations. It still is…though it has become much more difficult. Even in a family, other people’s money runs out.
‘In our family, the great person is not one of wealth, power, or public reputation, but one little old lady who was penniless. She owned nothing. She didn’t have any interest in money, politics, sports, celebrities, or anything else in public life. She didn’t even read the paper.
‘She was completely unmoved by intellectual, material, or social achievements, or worldly success of any sort.
‘Of course, this made it difficult for us, her children. Children always want to earn the respect of their parents. But there was nothing we could do that would impress her.
‘I could have been elected president of the United States or won the Nobel Prize. She wouldn’t care. She would only care if I had been nice to the taxi driver on the way to the ceremony.’
What would Mamianne do?
‘In our family,’ we continued, ‘my mother is a point of reference for several generations…represented by many of the people in this church today. We look to her for a legacy not of wealth and social standing…but for guidance, inspiration, and stability.
‘We look to her not to help us make money…or help us with our social standing…or help with our books or our businesses. We look to her for something more important.
‘WWMD? What Would Mamianne Do? we ask ourselves. What would she think?
‘For many years, she lived with us in France. Often, we were faced with the sort of challenges that families face. And we turned to Mamianne: “You’re the oldest and the wisest… What should we do?”
‘But she was too old and too wise to offer advice. She would never even make suggestions. Only once did she even make a comment that could have been construed as advice.
‘When one of our sons…who shall remain nameless…took a BB pistol to school and shot one of his comrades, Mamianne said: “I think he may need more attention.”
‘That was it. No criticism. No punishment. No unpleasant reflections on her son or daughter-in-law…or the character of her grandson.
‘She never complained. Never raised her voice. Never said anything that suggested disapproval. You could not get her to say anything bad about anyone…no matter how hard you tried. No sarcasm. No criticism. No cynicism.’
Rich mud of the human heart
‘And we were living in France, where criticism is a revered and esteemed national pastime. Like baseball in America. Each year, the president of France tosses out the first insult.
‘Our French neighbours didn’t know what to make of my mother. They thought she was either a saint or a mental defective. But she quickly won them over, as she did everyone else, simply by being herself.
‘Years later — even today — no one asks how my book turned out…or whether we finished repainting the library…or what happened to the new business we were setting up. Instead, they ask about my mother, for whom they developed a genuine affection.
‘This was even more remarkable because my mother didn’t speak French. She had a way of communicating at a deeper, nonverbal level. She focused her whole attention on the person in front of her; she cared about that person…and nothing else.
‘She understood and sympathised with people in a way that didn’t require language. She didn’t have to talk.
‘We were always so busy in France — trying to succeed in business…trying to fix up the house…trying to fit into French life. We were often distracted from things that really mattered. She never was.
‘Mamianne was always our anchor — steady…constant…sure…solidly planted in the rich mud of the human heart. Always on hand. Always nice. Always pleasant. Never a word of complaint or criticism. Always looking on the bright side. She was unshakably nice.
‘Occasionally, I got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I once turned to her and said: “Look, if you can’t say anything nasty about someone, then don’t say anything at all!”’
‘But let me back up and give a brief outline of her life. Then I’ll wrap up by offering a few thoughts on what I think we can learn from it.
‘Mamianne was born into a prosperous merchant family in Baltimore. On her last visit with us in Baltimore, she was in a wheelchair… and I wheeled her up to see her childhood home in Bolton Hill.
‘She showed me the drugstore where she used to get ice cream. It was still open 90 years later. And she showed me the hill where she would go sledding in the winter…and the house where she grew up.
‘But mostly, she talked about the people who lived around her and what had happened to them. She remembered her neighbours from the 1920s clearly. The families. The people. She thought about them all her life.
‘She went to a special school for the gifted and talented but had no interest in academic life. And then, depression brought an end to the prosperity.
‘Two kinds of depression. My grandfather lost everything in the Great Depression — that’s why we ended up down here in his wife’s family’s farmhouse.
‘My grandmother suffered from a different kind of depression. She had begun hearing voices that no one else could hear. My mother, who was then about 18, was taking care of her. She had become self-destructive and had to be watched all the time.
‘It was about then that World War II began. And partly to get her away from the grim life at home, her father suggested that Mamianne might want to join the Women’s Army Corps. It was there that she met my father…
‘They met on New Year’s Eve. Three months later, they were ready to be married. But it was Lent, so they waited until after Easter.
‘My father was a decent man. But he had a terrible affliction that left him incapacitated. And it left us dreadfully poor. But my mother didn’t seem to care. She loved him. She loved her family. That was all there was to it.
‘No matter what problems she faced, she always described herself as “very lucky.” Of course, she was lucky, but not in a visible way. She was lucky to have such a sunny spirit and such an abiding faith. Whatever happened, she was sure it would turn out alright.’
Ghosts of the past
‘Of course, my mother had her quirks.
‘Once, taking a flight on Air France, she thought she heard English hymns being broadcast in the cabin. “Mom,” I said to her, “it is extremely unlikely that the French national airline is playing English religious music.”
‘But she was convinced that she heard it. So she asked the stewardess, who got a curious look on her face and replied: “Madame, if you hear it… it must be there.”
‘She also thought that the Bible had some errors. So she corrected parts of it. For example, she didn’t think that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son. So she rewrote that part.
‘And she believed in ghosts. She was sure that my father — who had been dead for decades — helped her find her car keys. My father was a heavy smoker; she claimed she could tell when his ghost was nearby because she could smell the cigarette smoke.
‘All of this might be regarded as crackpot behaviour. But my mother was always in touch with the spirit world. She awoke once with a start in the middle of the night. This was back in the 1960s. She said that something terrible had happened. The next day, we got a call — my cousin Fred had died in a traffic accident.
‘She had wings all her life. Last week, she flew away.’
Love thy neighbour
‘But what can we learn from this? Every life is an improvisation…and an experiment. What can we “take away” from this one?
‘I know what lesson I take from it. My mother — more than anyone I’ve ever met — was “love thy neighbour” in the flesh. She lived it. She was not interested in anything else. And never in her entire life did she ever say — or even think — anything negative about anyone.
‘She saw our faults and weaknesses clearly. She prayed that we would overcome them. But she regarded them like poison ivy or warts. They were superficial. She looked beyond them at the real person underneath; the blemishes disappeared.
‘Joan Baez once remarked that it was easier to love 10,000 people than to love just one. My mother did the hard work of loving people one by one.
‘For that, we are grateful. And we repay the gratitude by following her example as best we are able: WWMD?
‘Last night, at dinner, a wasp landed on the table. We quickly trapped it in a glass. We were going to kill it when we suddenly asked ourselves: What would Mamianne do?
‘She wouldn’t kill it. She didn’t even swat flies.
‘So we took the wasp out into the yard…and let it go. It hesitated on the rim, turning to look at us.
‘And then, it flew up…and up…
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