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Thank you all for being here to honor the most amazing, classy, sassy woman I have the luck to call my Gram.
My mom asked me two things just hours after my grandmother went home to God.
- Can you write the eulogy?
- And 2…do you think you can get a Porta-Potty for the service?
I said yes to both.
I don’t think anyone of us can make living life look as good as Phyllis made it look. And she didn’t even have Instagram! Gram was everywhere, so fully involved in what she was doing. Aggressively recruiting us to sell tickets for the Kiwanis steak dinner, hiding in the hostas on sunny days, crouched down, picking weeds. Of course, guilt would set in as I was sunbathing on the deck, and soon I’d be crouched down—wearing nothing but a string bikini– pulling weeds and hoping I didn’t step in dog poop with my bare feet. Or walking this property that I have known for all 41 years of my life, identifying everything that grew. She’d ask me what something was, or ‘what did I think it was’ and I would tell her.
Then she would say, “Honey, are you sure?”
“I was sure until she asked me that question.”
You all know my Gram had a thing for plants. And for QVC. The combination of those two loves…was like…paint thinner and a wild candle. One day I saw the UPS man in town while I was getting a coffee. He smirked a little.
“Was just at Phyllis’s house,” he’d said. “She ordered a few bulbs.”
“So that’s why she called me,” I thought to myself.
I drove to this very house, to see what kind of trouble she had gotten herself into. When I pulled up she was here, half-hidden in the wild geraniums that smelled like pee.
“Oh, honey, I’m so glad you’re here. My dahlias came. They’re on the porch.”
When I saw all those boxes on her porch…
“Holy crap, Gram.” Was all I could muster.
“Isn’t it wonderful,” she said, handing me a trowel. “I’ll make us some fluff sandwiches while we work.”
So, if anyone of y’all is stepping on a flower right now, I hope you’re right with the church!
I grew up in this house. And to try and pick one single thing, or a few singular things to say about my Gram would be like unraveling a piece of fabric. She is so threaded into our lives, there’s no way to unravel her. Because we’d be unraveling ourselves.
Oh, yes, fabric. So, my Gram…I’m sorry it’s just really hard for me to start calling her Phyllis…I can feel the glare from upstairs!
Fabric. Gram used to make all the clothes for her kids growing up. Or most of them. I do remember her sewing machine set up in the middle of the kitchen, at the ready for quick fixes, hems, damage control, or to lengthen my Ma’s slutty skirts. Gram made my Uncle David a green polyester leisure suit that he actually wore because ‘it was the 70s, Nicky, of course I wore it.’ She also made dresses for her girls—My Ma Boni (actually you all call her Boni, but her given name is Bonita, so, there you go), Susan, Alice, and Patti–which, somehow resurfaced when I became old enough to wear them. The collars on these dresses were so big that a good gust of wind on the playground could lead to complete blindness. I complained often that I looked like a founding father, a pilgrim. And I was so, so grateful when I grew out of the dresses and graduated to era-appropriate attire.
Also, I thought you should know that Big Bird yellow calico corduroy is an actual thing. I’ve seen it. I’ve worn it…and now I’m in therapy.
My Gram was born in 1929 (Sorry Gram, but they know how old you are), during this country’s greatest depression. At the dawn of a war. So this blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl came into the toughest world imaginable. Barefoot, but so ready. Gram told me stories about her life in Maine, about watching their horse be let out to pasture, wild as a wolf, mane flying.
“I loved to watch that horse,” she said. “So free. He was so free.” As a young girl. I visited her childhood town many times with her. It was comforting, hearing her talk to her father, my great Grampa Coro, over black coffee. Just easy talk. I was about 12 when it dawned on me that my Gram was someone’s daughter. Just like me. She was someone’s little girl. And that made her even more wonderful in my eyes. And precious. Someone loved her, and raised her up, and set her free.
When I was just barely 23, I had finished my first year of graduate school at Yale. I was about three weeks away from leaving the country for a 3-month intensive language study in Beijing. Gram gave me a card with $100 in it, and wished me luck. The card said, “I’m so proud of you.”
About a week later, I visited her. I was sweating, and sick to my stomach.
“I’m not going to China,” I said. “I’m pregnant. I came to give you your 100 bucks back.”
She pushed the envelope back at me. “Oh honey, keep it, now you’re really going to need it.”
She never said anything about not being proud of me anymore.
And that’s just how she was. At all times, in all things, she was there. In her no- nonsense way, that felt kinder and more reassuring than any hug I have ever known. Because she was not defined by what she did or what she had, she was always and ever, truly herself, and so generous with that self.
We used to joke that if we asked her to cut off her arm for any one of us, she would.
“Of course you can have my arm, honey,” she would say. “But I have to be to work by 4.”
And, my god, could that woman dress up for work. All of you who knew Phyllis probably heard the sound of her high heels clacking against a wooden floor long before you even saw her approaching. She had a shoe ‘problem’ that she tried to offload on any one of us at any given time. She tried on multiple occasions to give me some of her high heels, because the real F-bomb in this house was ‘flats,’ which to her, belonged in the same category as bowling shoes and wrinkle-free blouses.
“Honey, I’m getting rid of a few pairs of heels, go see if you want any of them.”
“Gram, I can’t fit into your shoes.”
“What size do you wear?”
She would ask me this with deep concern on her face.
She looked at me as if I had just told her I had a horn growing out of my back.
“Well, I guess you’re not getting any of my shoes then,” she said. When she offered up the shoes to my daughter, her great granddaughter, I told her that she wore a size 9. Gram almost fainted.
“How did all you girls end up with such big feet?” Her concern was genuine. All these gunboat footed women…what was the world actually coming to?
Mind you, this is the same woman, who about a decade ago, when the cardiologist who was reading her EKG had asked her when she had had a heart attack, she had that same look of genuine surprise on her face and said, “What heart attack?!”
Not today, Satan. Not today.
Now comes the hard part.
I was talking with my Uncle David a few days ago, trying to get this thing right. And he said, “She always got us where we needed to be, but she could never stay for the actual thing, whatever it was, because she always had to be somewhere else.”
That’s what happens when you have six kids. Just a few weeks ago, when Gram was in the hospital, we were all visiting in literal gaggles. Our family is so big that we took over the entire waiting room, sometimes spilling out into the hallway.
“Why are there so many people here,” she asked me. She was actually annoyed.
“Because you had six kids, Gram, and they all had kids. That’s kind of how it works.”
“Sure,” she said. “Blame me.”
Oh, I absolutely blame her. I blame her for the amazing life she gave to all of us, each one, individually, without fail. I blame her for loving flowers and for giving us huge Thanksgiving meals and for making us all as tough as we needed to be, and for loving us. For loving us so much and being so keyed in to what we were all feeling all the time, that even on her last night on this earth, she told us to turn off the lights and get going.
“Go home,” she would always say. “Go home. And take care of each other.”
Today, obviously, is a tough day. Mom was our hero. I confess I am a momma’s boy. It is hard not to be. What do you say about someone who played such a large role in your life? Words won’t do it. I know the best thing will be to honor her by how we live the rest of our lives.
As we talked among ourselves as siblings we came to the conclusion that mom made every one of us feel like we were her favorite. I, of course, wondered how she kept it a secret from everyone else that I was actually her favorite. She spread herself around so that whoever needed her the most she was there for them and she did so seemingly without effort.
She made choices, hard choices with few regrets. She bought and sold property, helped out with college, helped pay for cars and insurances, and horses and broken refrigerators and braces, and did I mention horses, all the while working– it seems– always two jobs. Bookkeeper and waitress, somewhere.
Up until very recently she would say, “build a bridge and get over it”, whenever she was tempted to complain or whenever one of us would complain too much. (The last year or so this saying had been replaced by “I’m not complaining but explaining”) How could you argue with her? When our dad’s first two restaurants failed and they moved a half dozen times, what did she do? She built a bridge and got over it. When he died at 41 from cancer leaving her with six kids without an easy one in the batch, she built a bridge and got over it. When she was pink- slipped from her job shortly after his death and had to double up on waitressing, she built a bridge and got over it. When money was tight, and it very often was, she just worked harder, built a bridge and got over it. And speaking of money, who could get more out of a dollar than mom? Wow. Her only vices were shoes, and QVC, whose stock dropped dramatically at the news of her passing. When Hawk took ill and went into a nursing home and then when he passed and she was alone again, she built a bridge and got over it. She joined Kiwanis, collected soda can tabs for Camp Sunshine, and worked the refreshment trailer for fund raisers. Later in life when given the diagnosis of the autoimmune disease CREST, she built a bridge and got over it. After she broke her hip 18 months ago she refused to be beaten, she built a bridge and got over it. That was mom — that was Phyllis. Grit and determination.
Two things really stand out for me the last days of mom’s life. One was a meeting we; myself, Boni and Susan, had with the Nurse Social Worker from Hospice. At the end of the meeting in which I think through tear stained eyes we all glared at her and maybe freaked her out a little, she remarked that we all got our blue eyes from our mom. It reminded me how amazing my mother’s eyes were and how they jumped out at you even through her glasses. That was mom — that was Phyllis. A second thing that stands out to me happened just a few days earlier. She and I had a tough conversation about money. She said in exasperation, “I wanted to leave something to my kids” meaning of course, money. She tried so hard to make that happen. She left us with no debt or regrets and in reality she left us with something that’s so much greater for us. She left mom, Phyllis, as part of us. We are who we are because of her. So as you drive by Watson Automotive and Auto Sales on Route 7 and ask where my brother got business sense? The answer is “that was mom — that was Phyllis. As you see my sister Boni and her husband Stan with all her kids and grandkids and more grandkids gathered together and wonder why she has such a strong sense of family, “that was mom — that was Phyllis.” As you notice my sister Susan displaying compassion for others and reaching out to help, please know that was mom — that was Phyllis. As you look at the plants that my sister Alice plants and the green thumb she obviously has and the love and joy she brings to it, please remember, “that was mom — that was Phyllis.” As my sister Patti adds to her life dogs and horses and animals wherever she is, don’t forget “that was mom — that was Phyllis.” And if perchance I should change the world even just a little bit chasing my dreams, always be aware that “that was mom — that was Phyllis.” If all of us seem so optimistic, maybe always believing the glass is half full not half empty, shake your head and know “that was mom — that was Phyllis.” And should you come across any of us and you speak with us and we look at you with those penetrating powerful blue eyes that are a part of us, know for sure “that was mom — that was Phyllis.”
Mom loved it here more than anywhere else. Aside from a few hospital stays over the last 30 years, she was almost always here. She loved the beauty of the flowers she had planted and the flower boxes. She loved the sound of the ponds and little fountains she had made. She loved her wood stove and her fireplace and the front porch and the back porch and the pool and the horse and the dog. Oh the dog, he was her best friend — and the big pine tree and it’s shade and, of course, the comfort and security of being in a place she’d known for over 50 years That’s why she came home for the last days of her life. When the options were presented to her she asked for a little time to make her decision. A few hours later she said to me, ‘I want to go home.” So we made it happen. Make no mistake, it was her decision. She always sought to live life on her own terms. That was mom — that was Phyllis.
Today our mom is truly home. Our homestead is special, but heaven is spectacular. Flowers and ponds have their beauty, but they can’t compare with the place mom is now. She is in the shade of the tree of life, beside the river of life which is bright as crystal flowing from the throne of God. After she drew her last shallow breaths of earthly air, her next sensations were the smells of the celestial city. She awoke in the presence of God. She has been united with family and friends who have gone on before. Her sufferings are no more. They have been replaced with a joy and contentment never matched here on Earth even here at 194 Main Street. CREST is healed, so too, is the wound on her leg that wouldn’t go away for over three and a half years. Healed also are her broken hips and the broken heart that sometimes comes with living on this Earth for 89 years with two husbands and eight kids.
Best of all she has seen Jesus, her Lord and Savior, and He has wiped every tear from her beautiful blue eyes. Today, if she could come back, even to her beloved home, she wouldn’t. She knows we are in good hands and that her work on Earth is done. Besides, now she gets to wear shoes and dance and …. you get the picture. If she could, I know she’d stop by Heaven’s gift shop and buy a bell or two and grab a post card to send to each us. On them she’d write not a goodbye letter but a simple familiar greeting. It would say “This place is beautiful, wish you were here, take care of each other, see you soon, love Mom.”
Our journey is not by sight but by faith. God’s promises are true and real and can be trusted. So, trust them we will. We will write our remembrances of her and ring her bells in her honor waiting for the day when OUR faith becomes sight….