Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Eulogy for My Grandmother

On Saturday, June 18, 2011, one day after what would have been my grandmother's 100th birthday, we celebrated her life with an event at the Woodstock Community Center. It was a very special day, with music, readings, and spoken tributes. One of her friends, who is a former professional opera singer, led us all in singing Happy Birthday. Some Native American musicians played music (Mescal was interested in Native American culture her entire life). Family members played "The Ashokan Farewell" and other instrumental arrangements. A New Orleans-style jazz band, called the Saints of Swing, began the event with a rousing musical procession, and after all the speeches were over they led a procession of guests down to The Colony for the reception.

New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey was the first speaker, and his tribute to her was very thoughtful and engaging. Mescal had been a political activist for the last four decades of her life -- she even served one term on the Woodstock Town Council in the early 1980s. She meant a lot to a lot of people, and really made her mark on the community.

The Woodstock Town Council decided to name the Woodstock Community Center after my grandmother because of the instrumental role she had played in acquiring the building for the community while she was on the council. She would have been proud but also embarrassed by the generous gesture in her honor.

Six months after her death, in January 2011, I still miss her all the time. Below is the text of my own comments delivered at the memorial event:

Hello, I’m Mescal’s granddaughter, Beth. I knew Mescal for 46 years – almost 47. I learned so much from my grandmother. I have so many wonderful memories of Mescal, but I will try to keep my remarks brief. Mescal was born in a world without television, or cell phones; the radio and the telephone were not used nearly as much as they are today. There were movie theaters in the world, but not in the rural community where she grew up. She had a fairly solitary childhood; except for her sister and cousins, there were no other children close by, except for the summer boarders at her grandparents’ boarding house. She read a lot, and was very close to her father, Fred Toms, and to her maternal grandfather, Mathias Burgher. Even at age 99, she would talk fondly of both of them, and her memories of her childhood were as vivid as if they had happened yesterday. She always told us stories of growing up in that far-off distant world, trying to teach us modern kids what it was like to live without electricity, or indoor plumbing; and to give us an appreciation for how hard her grandmother had worked to do things we take for granted, like doing laundry.

Despite – or maybe because of – growing up in this small community, Mescal was curious about the rest of the world. When I was around 15 or 16 years old she took me to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery for a kirtan – a ceremony of meditation and chanting. Afterwards we stayed to have a meal with the monks. It was a simple evening, really, but to me it meant and still means a lot. It was an experience of learning about people whose views and beliefs were different from ours, through the very simple act of watching and learning and absorbing the moment. It was an experience of accepting and respecting them, without judging their beliefs, AND of being accepted and respected by them. Mescal didn’t take me there as some kind of pedagogical exercise, or at least I didn’t experience it that way. Instead it was something that SHE wanted to do, and she was generous enough to include me. She went because she was curious, and I was curious too. I’ve always loved her curiosity and her sense of adventure. And it made me feel really good to be included in her life and the activities that she cared about. I often didn’t feel like her granddaughter; I felt like her friend.

Another important memory for me was that, as a young teenager, I was often brought along with my grandmother as she delivered Meals on Wheels. Mescal was one of the founders of this organization in the Woodstock area, and she worked hard as one of the volunteers who brought hot, healthy meals to shut-ins. I would accompany her to the kitchen in the Dutch Reformed Church where I met the people who prepared the meals. As we made our rounds, I met the people who received the meals. As a young person growing up, I only knew of my grandmother as someone who cared very much about helping other people. She believed in serving others, and she taught me this by her example.

She always wrote letters to the newspapers, and letters to her elected representatives, about the social issues that concerned her the most, both locally and nationally. She didn’t just talk about the issues she cared about, she acted on them.

Throughout my life, Mescal was an inspiration to me, and a role model. I was always SO proud of her, and proud to be related to such a remarkable lady. The letters she wrote to me were so interesting and impassioned that I would share them with my friends – her thoughts on universal health care, and other political issues. She was outspoken, opinionated, and passionate about the causes she believed in. She was also quite frank and open when talking about her political views, her religious views, and even sexuality and the body. She didn’t refrain from talking about a subject for fear of embarrassment or of offending someone. More than anything else, she wanted to have lively conversations and exchanges with people about things and ideas that really MATTERED.

Most of all she wanted to make the world a better place. When I was staying with her here in Woodstock last summer I noticed she was wearing a pair of pants that had lots of holes and tears in them; I wanted to buy her a new pair, but she wouldn’t let me. I wanted to sew up the seams where they were coming apart, but she said no, “it doesn’t matter.” What was important to her was instead giving the money to some organization that needed it because of all the good work they did in helping people. She didn’t believe in spending money on herself needlessly.

I want to stop and acknowledge, too, the unfailing support of her children and their spouses and partners, which helped facilitate Mescal’s generosity in the world. She was so grateful for your love and devotion. You always made sure she was taken care of, and that she had what she needed. She felt that she was not a good mother, and I believe it was very humbling for her to experience the love and generosity from you all that she didn’t feel she deserved. Through this, I think, she experienced grace, and she was always, in my view, living in a state of gratitude.

I always wanted to be just like my grandmother. Sometimes I think I am like her, at least personality-wise – with all of her flaws – but at other times I realize I don’t even come close to the generosity and the unselfishness that were so key to who she was. But I will keep trying to learn from her example. And when I am 99, I will still remember her like it was yesterday.

Mescal Hornbeck

My dearly beloved grandmother, Mescal Hornbeck, died on January 19, 2011, at the age of 99-1/2. I was very close to her, and her death was a major loss for me. I had seen her only about three weeks before she died, and she was in good health. Her death (from congestive heart failure) came as a shock to me, because somewhere in the back of my mind I really believed she would live forever. I was fortunate to spend two months with her in the summer of 2010, along with my son, Eli, and to have seen her frequently during 2010. I miss her so much.

One gesture of mourning that I made was to cut off my hair after she died. Sometimes Hindus shave their heads in mourning for a close family member, such as a parent or spouse. I did not go quite that far, but did cut it pretty short, as short as I could stand to. After not having cut it at all for 5 years, this was a radical change.

What was the point of cutting of my hair? It was a number of things. For one, it represents for me the major loss of one of the most important people in my life. For another, it represents my transformation. I can no longer in any way think of myself as a child, because I have no more living grandparents. At age 47, of course, and being a parent, I stopped being a child quite a long time ago, but something about having that amazing matriarch -- the wizened elder, the sage --made me feel like I was in some sense still sitting at her feet, at least figuratively. Now I am one generation older; the elders in my family are my parents and their generation.

I do feel that 47 is fairly old, but my grandmother was still more than twice my age. Therefore she was always right -- though she would listen to other people's point of view, at least most of the time. She was cantankerous and difficult to get along with sometimes, but she was also an amazing individual who made quite a contribution to the world.

We held a "celebration of her life" on June 18, in Woodstock, New York, where she had lived for the past 40 years. It was the day after what would have been her 100th birthday. This was a remarkable experience for me, and I will be reflecting on it for quite some time. Maybe some of my reflections will make it onto this blog, but most of them will remain private. Grieving is not really something you can do publicly, I have found.