Some people touch your life for one moment and disappear the next.
Megan Siobhan Brennan
Jac gave the eulogy on May 12, 2017
Thank you for joining us today. I think that, if Megan were here today, she would say, “Mom, this is so weird – to have all of these people, from the different compartments of my life (and Meg definitely did have compartments of her life, gathered together at Ripley House.” For me, though, I’m deeply grateful to every one of you for being here.
My name is Jac Brennan and I’m Meg’s mom, Casey’s Lollipop. I want to welcome you and, although many of you undoubtedly are a little puzzled about why we are having a memorial service in a gymnasium, I know that Megan would have loved this unconventional choice. We originally planned on a smaller space in a different place, but we soon realized that this would not be a small service because Meg had more friends and more family than we knew.
Meg was part of lots of families — of the Brennan family, the Roach family, the Vara family, the May family, the Dees family, the Weiss family, and then all the extra families like the faire family, the church family, the biker family, the recovery family, and the industry family, especially Taco Deli. And friends – so many friends.
Meg knew that she was treasured by all of these families. If she had had to narrow her many families down to one person, though, that person would be Casey. So Casey – these words, from That’s Me Loving You, are for you.
Casey, when you see a shimmering star, that’s your mom, winking at you. When you see a drifting cloud, that’s your mom, thinking of you. When you see the waves of the ocean, that’s your mom, waving at you. When you hear the clap of thunder, Casey, that’s your mom, raving about you. That mosquito buzzing around? That’s your mom, bugging you. That butterfly that’s so close? That’s your mom, hugging you. The bright sun? That’s your mom, beaming at you. The pouring rain, Casey, is your mom, missing you. And that feeling you always have in your heart, that’s your mom, loving you.
When Megan was six-years-old, the same age as Casey is now, her youngest brother, Tyler, died. Tyler was a baby and Megan loved him so much. He died while she was at school. When she got home that afternoon, her first question was, “Where’s Tyler?” We sat down with her and explained to her that Tyler died. She took in what we were saying. She sighed the sigh of an exasperated six-year-old, looked at us like we didn’t know anything, and said, “No. No. No, he isn’t. Tyler is not dead.” And she stood up and began a search that lasted nearly half an hour. She called out his name – “Tyler! Tyler? Where are you?” She left no corner, no closet, no shelf, no under-the-bed unsearched. We explained it all to her again. She stopped searching, but she still said over and over that he was not dead. I think that she thought that, if she said it often enough, and loud enough, it would become true. It was days before she finally took a deep breath and said, “Tyler really did die.”
Seventeen days ago, when I was told that our Megan was dead, I reacted in much the same way that Meg had. My mind kept saying, “No. She isn’t. No. No. No. No. Megan. Where are you?” Meg’s siblings, and so many others of you who are here, have said so often in these last 17 days that this just doesn’t seem real, that is doesn’t seem possible, that it just can’t be true. And like six-year-old Megan did, we’ve all had to take that deep breath, and admit to ourselves that she really did die.
Tom and I first met our daughter when she was only four days old. Meg’s birthmother made the brave decision to place Megan for adoption. While all of the legalities were being taken care of so that Megan could be adopted, she was placed in a foster home. We were fostering babies and children at that time, and we had already adopted Paul, one of the babies we had fostered.
We were friends with lots of other foster families and, as it happened, there was a big picnic for foster families the day after Megan was placed in her foster home with Paula and Rob Spear. I did not know, on the day I met her, that she would be my daughter.
Megan grew up with eight siblings: Danny, Kendra, Colin, Sean, Kelsey, Paul, Brigid, and Tyler. I had Danny, Kendra, Colin, and Sean by birth. Then Tom and I adopted Paul. Paul really introduced us to the disability community and disability advocacy. We told the agency that we wanted to adopt a girl with disabilities. They said that they did not get many babies with disabilities and that it might be a couple of years. We said we’d wait.
Two days later, they called us and asked if we wanted to adopt the little girl that the Spears were fostering. She was six months old by then and I knew her a little because of the time I’d spent socially with her foster mom. I also knew that she already had an adoptive family and that the adoption was set to take place within the next few days. As it turned out, the adoptive couple had changed their mind about adopting her, and that’s why the agency asked us. We were thrilled.
Since Paula and I were friends, we started the transition process right away. Paula started calling her Megan, which was the name we chose for her. Paula brought her over for visits so that she’d get to know her new brothers and sister. It took about three weeks to get all the paperwork completed. On December 15, 1988, which became known as Megan’s “Gotcha” Day, we had a ceremony and reception at the agency. The agency placed mostly newborns for adoption and their Guild made Christmas stockings and placed the baby inside the stocking to present her to the new parents. At nearly seven months old, only Megan’s legs would fit into the stocking, but she loved to hear that story. The thing I remember most about Megan as a baby was the sound of her husky laugh. As she got older, her laugh changed, especially in pitch, but it always was an unusual, infectious, magical laugh.
Meg had Moebius Syndrome. Tom and I didn’t know that terminology when she was born, but we knew from the start that she was missing a facial nerve. She could not put her lips together completely so there were sounds that she couldn’t make like pah, bah, and mah. She just substituted the closest sound. So peanut was deanut, bye bye was die die, and mama was nana.
When Meg was 5, she had what, at that time, was cutting edge surgery. For people with Moebius, there was a more common surgery, often called “smile surgery.” It was a little like a facelift that pulled the corners of the mouth upward to create a smile. But that’s the not the surgery Meg had. Only one side of Meg’s face was affected by Moebius. The doctors took an artery, a nerve, and a vein from Meg’s leg, and a muscle from her abdomen, and they put them into the affected side of her face. Then they attached all of that to unaffected side of her face. The idea was that, after the surgery, whatever one side of her face did, the other side would do, too. It wasn’t a cosmetic procedure. It was an animation procedure. And it worked. The first word she said when she woke up after her surgery was, “Mama.” With two Ms. It was the most beautiful word I ever heard.
When I was watching the video of Meg that my daughter, Kendra, put together that we showed before the service (and we’ll show it again afterward), it was so easy to see the difference that the surgery made. The surgery helped her speech and her functionality, like being able to put her lips together, which helped with drinking and eating.
Still, she had a little scarring and her mouth did not look typical. She endured a whole lot of teasing and taunting and even some bullying about her face. Although she was academically smart, she did not love school, especially from about 4th grade on, because of the teasing. The small scars from the surgery grew – but not on the outside. The outside physical scars became inside emotional scars that hurt her for a very long time.
In 7th grade, after a very rough 6th grade year, we ended up homeschooling Meg. By 8th grade, we had moved into a new district and she started at Jackson Middle School, where both my father and I had been students. She loved school again. A few weeks after school started, the counselor asked for a meeting with us. James and I prepared for the worst. But they just wanted to tell us that Meg was so smart and academically advanced that they wanted to find more advanced work for her to do. We had never been called to the school for a meeting like that about Megan before. Meg also played on the soccer team and ran track. Actually, “run” is a little bit of an exaggeration, but she and her best friend, Marlene, walked around the track a lot. Slowly.
Then came high school and Megan struggled socially, although not academically during this time. She started getting into trouble, not so much at school, but definitely when she wasn’t at school. She started sneaking out at night. And she was really good at it. I’ll never forget the phone ringing in the middle of the night one time. A police officer introduced himself and said that he had found Megan Brennan hitchhiking out in Channelview. I said, “No. Megan Brennan is sound asleep in her room.” He said, “I’ll hold while you go check on that.”
That was just one of many such episodes with Megan in her teen years. Everybody who knew her during her teens will have their own stories of her escapades. I’ve heard, and told, a lot of them in the last two weeks. I don’t want to gloss over them because I don’t want to make her out to be a saint. Meg wouldn’t like that. Or maybe she would. But it would be dishonest. Megan was really troubled during that time.
This is probably a good time to mention that Megan — actually, every one of my kids – is lucky enough to have had the holy trinity of father figures: Lonnie, Tom, and James, who are now also SodaPop, Grandpa, and Popsicle. Megan was supported by every one of them in extraordinary ways, during the best times, during the worst times, and really, during all the times of her life.
When she was 17, Meg dropped out of high school to join the army. She wanted to serve her country and do something important. We hoped the army would help her get off the path she was on. As it ended up, it did not help and she wasn’t in the army for long before she was medically discharged. She returned to Houston and got her GED, a job and an apartment, but her old demons were still there. Eventually, she lost her job, became homeless, and engaged in criminal activity.
In 2008, she went to prison for 15 months. It was awful. It was also one of the best things that ever happened to her. She got clean and she found God. When she got out, she was required to stay in Austin for a time. She fell in love with the city and never left.
In 2010, she really changed her path and became a new person. She got a job and a place to live and a church. She started taking college courses, in the hopes of becoming a nurse. She met Jeremy and fell in love. The life of their love was Casey Patrick, who was born on February 23, 2011. He instantly became the center of her universe. She was a really good mother from the start. I can’t express how proud I was of her in that role. Megan made some bad decisions before she had Casey, but after that, all of her decisions centered on him. She finally found her purpose and her focus.
Meg and Jeremy married and later got divorced. Although it was bittersweet, it was not bitter. At the end, maybe they weren’t a great married couple, but they made sure that they were a great divorced couple. They got along. They focused on Casey. They worked together. They were both involved in Casey’s everyday life. And on April 25, the day Meg died, when she was late to pick up Casey from Jeremy, Jeremy instinctively knew that something was wrong. The messages and texts he sent during that time, when he was waiting for her and it looked like he might even be late to work because she was late, were not angry or accusing, because Megan was never late without letting him know. Even his last text to her, at nearly 9:00 that night, before any of us knew about her death, was, “Are you safe?” Megan and Jeremy were connected together, and parented together, in an amazing way.
A lot of Meg’s friends told me, during the last couple of weeks, about what a good mom Meg was. They described how she simply lit up when she talked about Casey. A regular customer at TacoDeli took the time to write this: I was so sorry to hear of Meg’s passing–I only know her from where she worked, but she was just the nicest, most exuberant person. She always stopped by to make my baby laugh–and she would talk about her son with such obvious joy. Another friend said: Meg was always making sure Casey had what he needed. It was clear he was the light of her life.
She was never as proud of anything or anyone as she was of her little son. Sometimes she would tell me a story about something Casey had done and she would be giggling so hard that she couldn’t get the words out. She wanted so much to give Casey everything and to be the best mother she could be. She sought advice from many moms she admired on every part of mothering. Casey also has Moebius Syndrome. Meg knew what he needed in terms of early speech therapy. She knew what he would need in the future as things became more difficult for him because of the attitudes of others. She was glad that she would be there to understand and to help.
Casey has a wonderful dad and fantastic grandparents in Anna and Ron. He has a Lollipop, a Popsicle, a SodaPop, and a Grandpa and lots of loving aunts, uncles, and cousins. We will all help Jeremy raise Casey and we will all be involved in Casey’s life. We will, each of us, try to keep Meg’s memory alive for him. Casey will always be surrounded with love. So much love. And still, my heart aches every time I think about Meg not being part of Casey’s every day. No one can take the place of a mom.
This last year was the most joyful year for Meg in many ways. Casey was happy and doing well in school. He was healthy and so was she. Meg found a job that she truly loved, where she adored the people and the schedule and the customers and the work itself. She was making enough money that she could indulge herself a little. She had gotten really involved in faire life, spending lots of time with Renfest and Sherwood folks, where she felt valued, appreciated, respected, and beautiful. And where she had so much fun. In that sort of fantasy place, she could drop all pretense and be herself. She had gotten her motorcycle license and taken a motorcycle safety course. And just during the two weeks before she died, she got two of her favorite, most longed-for things: a spectacular new tattoo and a motorcycle. She was really, truly, wildly happy.
And then came April 25. Meg was off work that day. Usually, she had to be at work very early so she would take Casey to Jeremy so that he could get Casey to school. But she was off that day. The night before, she took Casey to McDonald’s. And that morning, she got to spend some extra time with him, which turned out to be more important than they knew, since it was their last morning together. After she took Casey to school, she had a couple of text conversations and ran a couple of errands. She met her friend, Chloe, for lunch at Einstein Bagels, where they had once worked together. Chloe told me this about their lunch that day, which was Meg’s last meal: Meg spoke of how happy she was and how things were looking right. She was healthy and so happy. She lit up the way she always does when talks about Casey. I wish I had known her longer, but I could not be happier to have known her for the time I did. She was well loved.”
In the last 17 days, we have been so buoyed, so saved, by the knowledge that Megan was well-loved. So many of her friends have reached out to me and said so many lovely things. Here are some examples:
Meg was always that shining light whenever I saw her. She will be so missed by so many.
Meg was a strong person through and through, from character, personality and presence. She was a beautiful person with a huge heart. Caring and kind to all.
Meg was quick with a smile, and brightened any room she went into.
Her bright sun-shiny energy, her love for chasing all of life’s riches and her endless lion-like strength are so deeply missed.
Go now my friend, as you lived while you were here, with a blazing fiery ball of bright happiness, ever onward. I love you.
Meg had the Soul of a lovely bird that would never be caged and her voice always rang through our Trees with the laughter of the child that was inside of her … always. She flew away from us on her loved iron horse that she cherished sooo much.
Meg was a weird, wonderful, fearless woman who will be missed.
She was the toughest, most loving, fiercest woman I’ve ever known.
Meg made a difference in my life and her contagious light will continue on through me.
She was incredibly honest, kind and loved with her whole heart.
Your daughter brought so much light with her wherever she went. She was always a breath of fresh air. She was always smiling. Meg could lift the spirits of a room just by being in it.
Megan was a great person. Always so open to everyone no matter who they were. Always willing to give people a chance and interested in hearing what was going on in others lives. She was so happy to see me. She made people feel welcome. I saw that over and over. When someone came through the door she was the first one to go up to them and say hello and welcome them.
And there were so many more words of pure comfort for us during this time. Thank you all for your texts, emails, cards, food, flowers, visits, and donations to the Take Care of Casey fund. These were a life raft to our family.
Back to April 25. After her late lunch with Chloe, she had a meeting and she told Jeremy that she would meet him and Casey at her apartment between 4:30 and 4:45. She was coming home to her son. She wasn’t far away when, as she was on a flyover, the wind was gusting at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. She began to struggle with the bike. She was wearing her helmet. She was wearing a protective jacket. She was not speeding. No other vehicles were close to her.
The closest driver was six car links behind her. He told police that Megan was struggling with the wind and finally drifted to the right, despite her best efforts, against the guardrail. Her bike struck the guardrail and, because of the low height of the guardrail, Meg was thrown over the side of the wall, where she plunged 108 feet to her death. The fall took less than three seconds. Her motorcycle kept going along the wall for 3000 feet.
Megan must have been terrified as she struggled to keep herself on the road and as she was thrown. Those were agonizing moments.
Anyone who knows Meg, knows that, if anyone had been there to hear her last words or know her last thoughts, they would have been of Casey. Casey is Meg’s legacy and all she would ever have asked from her friends and family is to take care of Casey.
We did not find out about Meg’s death until six hours after it happened. I could barely function when I first found out. I did not sleep that night. We went to Austin the next day and that day is a blur to me still. I remember moments, but there are huge holes in my memory of everything we did that day. Grief does that.
I’ve found, during these last 17 days, that my memories of Meg don’t make me grieve. I cherish every one of those memories because they were all part of what made Meg, Meg. They were all part of Meg’s story. And our family will always have those Meg stories. Telling them again and again will always be part of our family gatherings.
It’s the future that Megan won’t have that tears me to shreds inside. She won’t have a chance to finish college or get her own house. She won’t see Casey’s first baseball game, or his first day of junior high, or his high school graduation. She won’t teach him to dance or to date or to build furniture or do repairs. She won’t tease him about his crushes or sit on the front row at his wedding. She won’t watch her beloved nieces and nephews, Jack, Andrew, Leo, Miles, Skyler, Ellie, and Rye, grow up. She won’t have grandchildren. She won’t grow old. I grieve for the future she won’t have. And I grieve for how much we will all miss her. I miss her.
A couple of days after Meg’s death, I looked to see what our last texts had been. About ten days before her death, I had texted this to Meg: I wear these pearl earrings, that you got me a long time ago, all the time. And every day, when I put them on, I say a quiet “thanks Meg” to you. So today, I’m typing it too. Thanks Meg.” She texted me back: “Aw that makes me happy. Love you momma.” And I said “Love you too.” A few days later, we shared a funny and sweet exchange, which ended with her typing “lol.” I love that the last thing she sent me was lol. Meg was always laughing out loud, loving out loud, living out loud.
She shed her skin.
She bled on the pages of her days.
She walked through walls.
She lived with intention.
I want to end with a short prayer that Megan had loved when she read it. We hope you will stay after the service to enjoy a meal with us, and we understand if you’re unable to do that. Casey realized last week that today would be his mom’s birthday. He wanted to have a birthday party for his mom today – with cake, singing, and even a piñata. So we will have cake and a piñata in about 45 minutes. Maybe the best way to end this service, after this prayer, is for all of us to sing Happy Birthday to Meg.
In this time of sorrow and tragedy, may all who mourn be held in love. May all who act proceed from love. May we trust the tensile strands of love to bind us to one another – Catholic to Muslim to Protestant to Hindu to Jew to Atheist to Sikh to Humanist to Unitarian Universalist to Buddhist to Agnostic to Pagan – that together we may mend our fractured world, heal our aching hearts, and reweave life’s broken web to create peace.
Amen. Shalom. Blessed Be.
Fare thee well.
❤ ❤ ❤
Tyler Clinton Roach
Jac gave the eulogy at Ty’s memorial service on January 9, 1995
Tyler’s life was way too short. Today would have been his two month birthday. Two months. Such a small amount of time. An yet — its difficult for me to remember a time before Ty.
But with a lot of effort and a lot of tears, I can remember last summer. We got a call from Kathryn and Jerry Earle that eventually led to their asking us to adopt him. Three years ago, when we adopted our youngest daughter, Brigid, who has Down Syndrome, we said that we were having our adoption tubes tied. She was our last. How glad I am that those adoption tubes came untied! We were cautiously excited about getting Ty all summer. We picked out a name and even though Rocket fever was running high, we resisted the temptation to name him Olajuwon Tomjonavich. We liked the name Tyler and we loved the name Ty and we thought that it would be easy for him to learn to write when he reached Debbie Thompson’s class at Stuchbery Elementary. And the name Clinton — well, we love both the name and the man so that one was easy. His brothers sometimes called him TC and, when they were around his conservative uncle, they called him Clinton — loud and often.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I said we were cautiously excited. The caution was because birthparents do sometimes change their minds. The Earles seemed to know their minds very well. We met with them several times during the pregnancy and they invited us to be present for the birth. Shortly before the due date, I suggested that they have a fetal echocardiogram done just to be sure that the baby’s heart was all right. Her doctor felt it was unnecessary. An earlier ultrasound had shown no defects. But the Earles persisted and were sent to another doctor to have the test done. It showed that there were some problems and the doctor ordered a more extensive echocariogram with a pediatric cardiologist. I was there for that test, which occurred only two days before Ty was born. I have had children with all kinds of problems, but I have never dealt with heart problems. I immediately began learning this whole new alphabet. Ty had a VSD — ventricular septal defect. He had a AV commune — an open between the ventricle and the atrium. He had a cleft mitral valve and a cleft tricuspid valve. Problems. The cardiologist, Dr. Ayres, predicted surgery at 6 to 9 months. She was not alarmed. The was fixable. Years ago, they would wait a few years to do the surgery, but they discovered that the heart responded better to surgery earlier. This was life threatening only if we didn’t do anything. But as long as he was checked regularly and took medication and eventually had the surgery, he would have a long fun life. We did not despair over this news. We were thankdul that it was 1994 and such procedures were almost routine and that we lived in Houston and that we had great insurance.
On the day that Tyler ended up being born, I woke up at 3:30 ini the morning and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up and did a little school work. At around 7:30, I got a call from the Earles saying that labor had started and they were on their way to the hospital. I asked when the contractions started and I wasn’t surprised when I was told they began at 3:30 in the morning. Tyler and I already had this mysterious connection.
Tom and I have had a lot of babies before Ty — our eight and then our foster babies, too. Most of the time, when I first held a baby, I told him or her, “I’m so glad to meet you!” But with Ty, it was more like, “It’s so good to see you again!” It was like we had known each other for a long, long time already. When Jerry handed Tyler to Tom and said, “Congratulations!,” Ty actually flashed a quick smile at Tom. I know you all think that babies don’t smile when they are a few minutes old, but you don’t know Tyler Clinton Roach. From that day on, nearly every time Tom picked up Ty, Ty gave him one of those beautiful smiles. None of you probably know that Tyler had a dimple. It showed only when he smiled and he always smiled for his daddy.
Ty did great in the hospital after he was born. The cardiologist said that it wouldn’t last long because, as his pulmonary function increased, he would begin to show the symptoms of his heart defects. We took Tyler home just two days after he was born to the loving arms of his brothers and sisters. Ty just took over the house. One of the things I’ve been struck by since his death is how every room of our house has Tyler in it. Every room has his swing or his bottles or his bottle warmer or his lamb skin or one of his diaper bags or his little tiny diapers or his play gym or something! Ty took over our hearts, too. I had forgotten how a baby rules your days and nights.
He got up often at night and every time I’d pull myself out of bed, I’d be so tired and then I’d pick him up and he’d be so precious that I’d actually thank him for getting me up. His neck was so warm and we’d cuddle under one of his big blankets and it was a special time. Not that I wasn’t happy to occasionally share that special time with his dad on the weekends, but I can say that never resented those night time feedings. They were a sweet time.
Ty did start to develop some problems with his breathing so we went to the cardiologist and she started him on a diruetic and told us not to worry. It helped. Later, his heart began to beat wildly and the doctor put him on digoxin and told us not to worry. That helped, too.
Tyler had a fun time at home. He went to Colin and Sean’s soccer games. They are great big brothers and they would often just come and ask if he could go to their room to play for awhile. Ty loved being with the guys. Megan wanted to take him to school for show and tell, but she had to settle for a photo. Paul asked his teacher to show him how to write Tyler’s name. Brigid loved Tyler — she didn’t love him easy, she loved him hard. A hug would sometimes turn into a strangle hold, but Ty didn’t seem to mind, as long as we were always there to rescue him. We always were. In a way, it was heartening to se Brigid go through so many of the typical signs of new baby sibling rivalry. She wanted to have a bottle and be cradled, an activity for which she is usually much too busy. And I’m very happy that she got over the worst of that in the last three weeks and was actually able to give gentle hugs and sweet kisses to Ty. I wanted to see them grow up together. Brigid would have been a great role model. She still will be, but just not for Ty.
Tyler had great Godparents — Rex and Susan. They loved him a lot. Susan’s house was his second home. He was lucky to have a grandma and grandpa who loved him and that greatest of all thing in our family — a Mamoo, who found Tyler irresistible.
Because of his heart problems, Ty didn’t grow much during his little life. He took in a decent number of calories, but all of his energy went into running his little heart, just surviving, so there wasn’t a lot left over for making fat cells. And his muscle tone was very low, but that didn’t bother any of us. It just made him all the more cuddly. Cuddly was definitely Tyler’s strong suit. He loved to be held. When Tom or I would hold him whle we watched television, we would find that we couldn’t look at the screen because Ty wanted our eyes. He could lock into your eyes with such a power that he didn’t need to use his mouth to talk. Those eyes said it all.
Tyler had a wonderful first Christmas. He was the hit of our annual Christmas breakfast. He was held by so many people that morning that I think he was sore from it. He went to the school parties that I was in charge of and he was popular there, too. He stayed on a little pouch in front of me and he loved that. On Christmas morning, his big sister Kendra brought him down the stairs to see what Santa had left him. Santa was very good to him. I think was Megan who pointed out that it wasn’t exactly fair (6-year-olds have a very strong sense of what’s fair) because Ty had to good for only six week to get his stuff and she had to be good the whole year. I think his best present from Santa was a doll that has Down Syndrome.
Tyler died on Friday. On the Saturday before, we had gone to the pediatrician because Ty had a slight fever. With any other child, it would not have been something to call the doctor about, but Tyler was special so we called. It turned out to be the best thing because we met our new pediatrician, Dr. Gant, that day. Because of insurance changes, we had to stop seeing the pediatrician that all my children have seen for 21 years, Dr. Truitt. It was devastating for us to have to leave him for an unknown doctor. But Dr. Gant was wonderful from the start and I’m so glad we got to meet her that day. She ran tests to see if Ty had an infection, but he didn’t. We made an appointment to come in Friday for his two-month check-up. On Wednesday, he went to the cardiologist. She said his heart had major defects that had gotten worse as his heart had enlarged, but she was not alarmed. She said we might do the surgery in March.
Thursday night, Tyler slept all night. Of course, if you’re a parent, you probably remember the first time your baby slept through the night and the absolute panic with which you awoke. I woke up at 3 and checked on him. He was fine. Because of his heart problems, he made noise when he breathed so he was easy to check on, right there in our room. I touched him to be sure he wasn’t feverish. He was cool. Tom and I started getting the kidlets ready to go to school a little after 6 and Ty slept through all that. He’d move his head back and forth, but he didn’t wake up. When Tom got back from taking the kids to school, we started getting ready to go to the doctor for Ty’s 2-month check-up. I woke Tyler up at 7:45. I lay him on the bed to change his diaper and Tom knelt down beside him to talk to him. But Tyler wasn’t his usual self. His eyes were wandering and as he tried to lock into Tom’s gase, it was fleeting. He couldn’t quite control his eyes. Tom said, “I don’t like the way his eyes look. My baby’s just not quite right this morning.” I agreed, but we’d be at the doctor’s office thirty minutes and we’d get her to check. His little belly felt a little warm, but his feet were very cold, even though he had on a sleeper and had been under his dinosaur blanket. His breath was cool. I sat down with him on our love seat in our room where I nearly always sat to feed him and I gave him his morning meds. He sucked on the eyedropper and I told Tom his suck was good. Maybe his eyes didn’t look right just because he was still sleepy. I knew he’d be hungry so I gave him his bottle and he took a couple of sucks and then pushed it out with his tongue. I put him up on my shoulder and at that moment, his body died. Because of his huge heart, I could physically feel his heart beat against my chest when I held him. His breathing was noisy. There was no gradual realization that he wasn’t breathing. It was immediate. I knew. And in my heart, I knew he was gone forever at that instant. I told Tom to call 911 and I started infant CPR. There was never any response. I have never given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a real person before and, at first, I thought he was making a little sound, but I soon realized that it was just the sound of my breath coming back out of his body. I closed his little eyes. I kept giving him CPR untl the paramedics arrived. There were seven of them in our bedroom, many with tears in their eyes. Soon 2 neighbors came in and I called my best friend, Susan, and she got there quickly. Eventually, we went to the hospital in the ambulance. They worked on Tyler tirelessly, but there was never any response. After we got to the hospital and a few minutes had passed, they “called” the death. I don’t know what time the death certificate will say that Tyler died, but I know when he left his body because he was in my arms. Dr. Gant came in to give us the official word and she held Tom and me in her arms and cried as hard as we did. She was wonderful. The hospital let us hold Tyler after he died. Susan went to the schools and got Colin and Sean and they also got to hold him and say goodbye. Holding Tyler in the hospital was a special gift. He looked just like a little sleeping Tyler. His little hands were still perfect. His hair was sticking out everywhere, so beautiful. We all held him and rocked him and kissed him and said goodbye to the little body, knowing his spirit was still with us. But oh, how we miss that little body.
We got Megan out of school and told her about Tyler. She did not want to accept it. She looked all over the house for him. She still insisted for a long time that he wasn’t dead. You see, Megan likes to get her way and we think that she thought that is she said it long enough and loud enough, then he would be alive.
I didn’t know if Paul would even understand what dead meant. I told him and he immediately explained it. He said, “Tyler baby is sick. His head hurts. He go doctor. He go hospital. Police come. Tyler baby not come home.” He repeated it many times and he understood on some level.
People always say that losing a child is the hardest thing you’ll ever go through. You hope you never do have to go through it. You may think you know what it’s like, especially if you’ve lost someone you love. But if your parent died or your brother or sister or friend, the grief is horrible, but when people tell you that it can’t compare to losing a child — believe them. It can’t. The depth of this sadness is immeasurable. It’s so deep. And so relentless. I just want to have Tyler here for two more weeks. Two more days. Two more minutes. I just want to look down in the crook of my arm and see those little shining eyes smiling up at me. Those little eyes are now helping someone else to see and that is one of Tyler’s legacies. I want to smell him again. For the last three days, I’ve been carryng around his last crib sheet and the last two sleepers he wore, but now they are starting to smell more like salty tears than my little son. I want to feel the warmth of his neck and the feel his breath on my cheek.
I like to look for the positive in any situation and if Tyler had to leave us, he did choose a lovely way to do it. Tom was home that morning only because I had surgery just before Christmas and was not yet up to running the house alone. I can’t imagine how this all would hae been if I had had to call Tom at work to tell him or if I had to go through it alone. All the other kidlets were at school so they didn’t have to see all the panic of the morning. He didn’t suffer. He didn’t die alone. H died in his mother’s arms with his daddy at his side. A lot of good things, but they all end with — but why did he have to die at all?
This baby was so loved and lots of people have said that these last few days. He was so lucky to be part of a family who loved him so much. But Tyler Clinton gave as much as he got. He loved all of us so much. He was an amazing little son. He was my son shine. I wanted to watch him grow up. I could see him learning to walk, riding his first bike, winning a race, holding hands with a girl, working on math problems, just all the growing up stuff. I wanted so much for him. We all did. People say he didn’t live long, but he lived a whole lifetime. Tyler’s lifetime.
And now I’m the one with a hole in my heart.
❤ ❤ ❤
Written and Delivered by Jac Brennan on January 17, 2009.
It means so much to me, and to my brothers, to see so many people here this morning. I feel so blessed because, when I think about the people who mean the most to me, I look around and see that nearly all of them are in this room right now.
I want to tell you about my mother. If you’re here, then maybe you knew her. Maybe you’re here only because you knew my brothers or me, and so you know my mom only through our stories. We have lots of “mom stories.”
All of those stories start with her birth on August 24, 1920. She was the second daughter of Bessie Winslett Durden and Branton Durden. Her big sister was Hazel. Hazel and Mom had a very close relationship when they were children, growing up during some very hard times. They were very poor and, at one time, even lived in a train boxcar here in Houston. Hazel and Mom stayed very close as they grew up, married, raised their children, welcomed their grandchildren, and grew old. They talked every day. They took care of each other when that was needed. They enjoyed each other’s company. They could talk for hours and they could also have entire conversations without saying a word. I hurt so much for my Aunt Hazel today because I know how much she will miss her little sister.
And I’m happy to have this chance to say how much I appreciate my aunt, and my cousin, Kay, especially, for the help and all the care they gave to my mother, especially during these last few years. I don’t know what she – or I – would have done without you.
My mother grew up right here in Houston, albeit a very different Houston from the one we have now. She went to Deady Junior High and Milby High School where she lettered in swimming and excelled at the swan dive, and was a member of the National Honor Society. When she was in junior high, a life-altering tragedy affected her life. Her father, a Houston police officer, was convicted of accepting a bribe during Prohibition. He went to prison and the headlines in the newspaper made sure that all of my mom’s friends knew about it. Her friends wouldn’t speak to her and she felt very alone at school. Another student, Yuba Belle, came to my mom’s rescue and told her that she understood how she felt because her own dad had been in trouble with the law. Yuba and my mom became fast friends – and forever friends. They never lost touch and even talked to one another just a few months ago. That friendship turned out to be a very fortuitous one. When they were in high school, about to graduate, they made plans to double date to the prom.
Luckily, and really by design, my mom’s date had a car. A few days before the prom, report cards came out, and sadly, my mom’s date didn’t do so well. His father grounded him, meaning that Yuba and my mom were both out of luck because now there was no car to get them to the prom. Then Yuba had a great idea. She had this cousin who was just 3 years older, who was kinda cute, and who, most importantly, had a car. And not just any car – but a Terraplane. So my mom agreed to this blind date with Yuba’s cousin. His name was Jack Brennan.
Jack and Doris married on October 6, 1939. They were as in love as any two people have ever been. And they stayed that way. I was so blessed to have grown up between the 2 of them. They lived at first in a garage apartment behind my grandmother’s house in Eastwood – in the same neighborhood where I live now. They had their first child, James Patrick, in 1942. Three years later, their second son, Daniel Durden, was born. And I came along 6 years after that – the youngest child and the only girl. To say that I was spoiled doesn’t really begin to cover it. Just before I was born, the family moved way out on the edge of town. It was right across the street from MacGregor Park, near the University of Houston main campus. Yeah, the edge of town has moved a lot since 1950. It was a wonderful neighborhood for growing up. My mom was a sort of typical 1950s stay-at-home mom. She was the most involved mom ever. She was the room mother for all of us, chaperoned every field trip, never missed a little league game, school carnival, PTA meeting, piano recital, choir concert, and any event of our lives. She was the mom who came out to the yard with a pitcher of kool-aid (with double sugar because she didn’t want it to taste watered down) and paper cups for all of our friends. We were definitely the house where everyone hung out. I seldom spent the night away from home in elementary school. It was just a given that sleepovers would be at my house. And my boyfriends in high school would stay friends with my mom even after we’d break up. She was the mom that all my friends would wistfully proclaim that they wished their moms would be more like.
My mother helped us with school projects. I remember endless posters, book reports when we had to dress up like a character, lots of those maps made out of salt and flour and her most legendary project, which was the mushroom cloud that she made out of Ivory Snow Flakes. We will never forget that one.
We went to church every Sunday morning – growing up in Central Park Church of God. For awhile, both of my parents taught Sunday School and my mom was the Sunday School Superintendent. Later when I was a Religious Education Director at Emerson Unitarian Church, she said I was following in her footsteps. I love that we went to that church. It was a small church, and I really did get a good Christian education. Between church service, Sunday school, youth group, bible drills, vacation bible school, and lots of other activities, I really did learn a lot. We also had family worship during the week at home. Now THAT was entertainment. I set up some rules, the most important of which was that I took roll. I called out each person’s name and Dad would answer, “Here” and Mom would answer, “Present,” both of which were acceptable. And then Pat or Danny would answer, “Yo.” I explained the “here or present” rule, but they insisted that “Yo” was also a proper response. So I counted them absent. They would yell and I would cry. I’m not sure why the whole idea of Family Worship never really took hold for any significant period of time in our house.
My mother loved music, but she would be the first to tell you that she was not musical. When my parents decided that I should learn to play the piano when I was 8, they went down and bought me a piano from Brook Mays. They could have rented it, but Dad thought that showed a lack of confidence in me. So they bought it – and faithfully paid $14 dollars a month for years. They also had to pay $5 a month for me to have piano lessons from Mary Starr, a truly gifted teacher. I learned to play the piano and I could also sing pretty well. My parents constantly marveled that they had produced a child who was musical. Every morning before school, I would sit at the piano to practice while my mother would fix my hair. She would put it in a pony tail or a French twist or a little bun with a pony tail coming out the center of it. And she would hum along with the music and tell me over and over again how talented I was. She gave me confidence. I eventually got my college degree in music, majoring in both voice and piano. These last few months, I’ve been driving my mom around a lot – mostly to doctor appointments. Because we were going to be in the car so much, I got a couple of CDs of the old songs she loved and I played those for her. I sang along. Every time we reached a destination, she would tell me how much she enjoyed “my concert” and how she loved to hear me sing songs she knew.
My mom was a great cook, amazing cook – as long as you wanted to eat one of the seven basic meals that she cooked. We had the same thing on the same day of every week. So if you wanted chicken fried steak, you knew which night of the week to make sure you were home for dinner. To be fair, she would sometimes change things up on the weekends when we might have breakfast for dinner, which we all loved. Or go to Chuck Wagon or Bill Williams for Sunday dinner. She also made us malts on Saturday nights while we watched Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel. Every time I have a malt now, somewhere in my head, the theme from Have Gun Will Travel starts playing. She would also make 3 different vegetables for the three of us because we liked different things. Same with white rice, brown rice, and mashed potatos. She would make all three. Can you imagine? If we wanted it, that was enough. I’ve been trying to think of times when anyone asked her for something and she said, “no.” Except when you were maybe asking to do something for her, I can’t think of a time. Whether you wanted some savory beef or a place to stay or a lettuce and tomato sandwich or some typing done (back when it was called typing and not keyboarding) or some money or some advice or a wine cooler at the end of the day with a little cheese, you just had to ask.
I can’t talk about my mom without talking about Sports. My mom was, until the day she died, a sports fan. I hung out with her for awhile on Sunday and she made me find us a football game we could watch on TV. She enjoyed football and basketball and all of the sports in Olympics, even those sports that shouldn’t even be called sports, but her favorite was baseball. I could tell you about how she instilled this love of baseball in others, but my cousin Rusty did it better when he wrote the following in honor of my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary in 1989. He wrote:
I remember going to Little League games with Jack and Doris back when Danny was on the Sims Bayou Braves, and I would be the Braves’ batboy and Doris and Jack worked in the concession stand, scooping up snow cones and cokes. So it was no surprise to me when some 20-odd years later, I learned that they were still going to Little League games to see Jacquie’s son, Danny, play and that they were still working the concession stand. So every time I jog past the Little League filed near my house in Austin, I always look to see who’s working the concession stand – I guess I’m always hoping to see Jack and Doris dishing out snowcones and Cokes.
Of course, back then, the Brennans’ house was on Winnetka Street and they only lived a couple of miles from the original Colt Stadium and later the Astrodome. We were all so excited when Houston landed the Colt .45s and learned where the stadium would be. I remember one summer I saw them 13 different times, almost always with Pat and Danny – not bad for a kid from out by the Ship Channel.
MacGregor Park was just a block away from the Brennans and the semi-pros played there during the summer, and again, I was a batboy. Usually Jack was watching from the stands, and the players themselves seemed like Goliaths to me – big and sweaty and serious. When they weren’t using the field, Jack used to take me and Pat and Danny over there and pitch batting practice to us. I got all kinds of encouragement from them during those practices – hitting one out to the outfield grass was a long drive for me. Danny used to yell that a hit like that would be over the fence in Little League.
Whenever Jack and Doris came out to North Shore to see me play, miraculous things would happen. I would get a hit almost every time I came up to bat if I knew they were in the stands. One time in particular comes to mind. I was in Colt League, my last year to play, and the ball park was only a block from our house. Doris and Jack came to see me play one night, and on a pop fly down the right field line, I ran from my position at second base to what seemed like my driveway to catch the ball going away. The right fielder was standing there flat-footed and was totally amazed as I made the over-the-shoulder catch look routine. It was the last out of the inning and as I trotted back to the dugout, I was bursting with pride because my two favorite fans were there to see me.
Today, baseball is still a big part of my life. The Astros are on cable TV in Austin, and this past summer I not only saw them on the tube almost every night, but on two different business trips, I was able to see them in other cities: New York and San Diego. So from the East Coast to the West Coast, it’s really not that far. After all, they sell snowcones in those ballparks too. And I catch myself glancing into the concessions as I pass by. You never know, maybe Doris and Jack have moved up to the big leagues. Either way, I love them dearly and owe my life-long love of baseball to them.
My mother did love her baseball. Even when her eyesight got really bad, she still listened. In fact, back in the day, she always listened to the games on the radio because they mostly weren’t on television. And even if they were, there wasn’t a TV in the room where she ironed or in the kitchen. My Dad would often take off work during the World Series so they could watch the games together at home because, back then, the World Series was a series of day games. I have always loved it that I grew up in a family where sports was a big deal. Still is, we never get together without talking about sports. If you need to know who was playing third base during the 4th inning of the home team in the 2nd game of the 1958 world series, my brothers can tell you. If you need to know who the first major league player was to get hits for two different teams on the same day, I can tell you that one.
We were not allowed to curse in our house. And we didn’t. I can’t say it was really hard to keep our language clean, especially since my mother would wash our mouth out with soap if we didn’t. That even happened to me once. One day, though, my mother was at her wit’s end – a place I know well – with her children’s squabbling and, in frustration, she shouted the word, “Damn!” We were, all three of us, so astonished that we sat down together and it was as if someone had pressed the mute button in our direction. Perfectly quiet. Until we heard my father’s car pull up in the driveway. Then Pat and Danny burst out the back door and went running down the sidewalk yelling, “Mama said damn! Mama said damn!” Not that we were tattle-tales, but it was just such a once-in-a-lifetime thing to have happen.
Mom was what is now called a stay-at-home mom, but back then was called a housewife, for a long time. That was the norm. Only one of my friends in elementary school had a mother who worked outside the home. But when I got into junior high school, and had two brothers in college, a job opportunity presented itself. A friend from church, Verda Harrison, told her about a job at Ben Taub Hospital as an admitting clerk in the emergency room on the 11 at night til 7 in the morning shift. Mom, always thinking of the kids, said that would be perfect because she would be home before I left for school and could sleep while I was at school. She took the job at $1.50 an hour and she immediately loved it. A few years later, when she got stabbed by a patient while she was at work, she still loved her job and couldn’t wait to get back to it. She left only when an offer was made to her that she couldn’t refuse. She became a secretary, with regular day time hours, in the nursing education department where she made friends that lasted, literally, a lifetime. Ruth Franklin, Derotha Stephens, Dorothy Edwards kept in touch, took her out to lunch, and talked to her on the phone. A couple of those friends came to see her just a week before her death. She was in pain, but you could barely tell it during the visit. She loved seeing them. And it was a blessing for me and for Dan to see her be so happy and animated in the midst of what was a difficult time.
She retired, with multiple commendations, awards, and parties, from the Harris County Hospital District when she turned 65. She and my Dad were looking forward to traveling, but it really wasn’t meant to be. His health kept them from much traveling after she retired, and she was glad that they had traveled a lot, especially with their best friends, Andy and Louise Jones, throughout the years.
Two of my children will tell you about the kind of grandmother my mom was. But from my point of view, well – when I had my first child, Danny, my parents instantly became these amazing grandparents. My mother stayed with me for the first week after I had Danny. The day after she left, I called her in the morning, crying, and asked her if Lonnie could bring the baby over to her for the morning because I was pretty sure I would never get the hang of this mothering thing. She said yes, of course. And that was the start of Friday Nights with Mamoo. For about 20 years after that, she had at least one grandchild at her house every Friday night. One of my children who shall remain Sean told me this week that every happy memory of his childhood has Mamoo in it. I reminded him that, you know, I was there in his childhood, too. He said, “No, no, mom, I’m just talking about the HAPPY memories.” And while I like to think I produced a little happiness here and there during my children’s childhoods, I know that I could never really hold a candle to my mother. When I was about to have my second child, my mother confided that she just wasn’t sure that she and my dad would really be able to love another grandchild. Danny was their universe. But as soon as they saw Kendra, they fell head over heels in love. After that, all of the other grandchildren who came their way – Colin, Nicole, Sean, Kelsey, Paul, Megan, Brigid and Tyler – just generated more and more love. But as I said, I’ll let Danny and Kendra tell you about that in a few minutes.
I do want to mention one thing, though. My mother just found out at Christmas that she was going to have her first great-grandchild in August. She was very happy to get the news, as she’s always been a little jealous of Hazel’s great-grandmother status. I didn’t realize how excited she really was, though, until I kept running into people where she lived who congratulated me because she told them that she was going to be a great grandmother. She was really thrilled about that and I think I will always regret that she didn’t did get to hold this baby.
She did really welcome people into the family, though – including the people her children married. Back in 1994, my mother wrote out some wishes for each of her children and grandchildren and she wanted them to be read after her death. I am not going to read them to you, except for one. I want to read what she wrote to my sister-in-law, Maryfran. She wrote: “What a perfect daughter-in-law you have been. Thanks for being my friend. I really enjoyed spending time with you on Christmas Eve. We put together some really great parties, didn’t we? I wish you continued success in your career.”
Maryfran has always been a friend to me, too, but she really became my hero these last few weeks as she has helped so much, especially with navigating the medical and living services that we were getting for my mom. We are really lucky that she is part of our family – and that she has put up with my brother, Dan, for all these years. Not that she had to do that to stay part of our family because, once you’re part of this family, you can’t just divorce your way out. You’re in – and we’re all the better for that. Lonnie and Tom can confirm that.
Religion was very important to my mother. She was raised in the Central Park Church of God and she continued to be an active member there for more than 60 years. After my father died, and Central Park Church changed ownership, she became a member of Park Place Methodist Church. That church family welcomed her and it was a godsend for her to have such a warm, wonderful, active church home in her later years. She attended that church for 18 years and it is good see some of her friends from Park Place here today.
My mom’s faith really got her through. If she ever had a complaint about any church service anywhere, it was that “They didn’t sing any of the old hymns.” And that’s why we’re singing a couple of her favorites today. I was going to sing them by myself until I mentioned them to my two best friends, Susan and Laurie, and they both insisted that everybody should sing the hymns. And they’re right – Mom really would like it better that way.
My mom and I had a lot of funeral experience. When we lived on Winnetka, we had a funeral for every goldfish that died. We had funerals for kittens. We had funerals for birds that would fall from the trees and would not live, in spite of our best efforts. She never made fun of me for wanting to have a solemn ritual to commemorate the life of a fish or a bird or a cat. She would find a little box – from the size of a jewelry box to a shoe box – and we would line it in our finest Kleenex and dig a hole in one of the flower beds. And we’d say a prayer for the dearly departed and sometimes cry together.
I realize that there is always a tendency, in eulogies, to sort of canonize a person and make them sound greater than they were. My mother had her flaws. She would pack your bags and send you on a guilt trip when she could. Like if I didn’t call her one day, then the next time I called her, she would say, “Who is this? Oh Jacquie – yes, I once had a daughter named Jacquie, but she stopped calling.”
Speaking of calling, I want to thank my brother Pat for calling my mother every single day. She was so proud of that and she really relied on it. When her eyesight failed, he read the newspaper to her, especially Leon Hale, Ken Hoffman, and the headline stories.
Mom did not want to admit her infirmities. Up until this last December, she would almost never say anything about her circumstances other than “no problem” and “everything’s fine here.” When Pat, Danny and Maryfran, and James and I told mom that she really could not drive anymore, she was so sad. She didn’t really think her driving was that bad, in spite of collisions with garbage cans, light posts, and the garage door. Forever after that, the day was known as “the day jacquie took my car away from me.” One thing that eased the transition a little was that James bought her car and spent some time fixing it up. She loved it when we would pick her up to go to breakfast on Sunday mornings in that car, which had belonged to her brother before it was hers. It was a real luxury car. James eventually gave the car to his son when he started law school. Even a couple of months ago, though, my mom inquired about the car’s whereabouts. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it had, essentially, died.
She never wanted to bother us, as she got older. My children would call her and, although she was always happy to hear from her grandkids, after 30 seconds or so, she would say, “well, thank you for calling. I love you. Bye.” She was so worried that she would be a burden, even on the phone. Even the very last time I visited her, we talked and watched some football, and after about 20 minutes, she said, “Well, Jac, you need to get on out of here now. I know you have things you want to do out in the world. You don’t need to spend your time here.” I didn’t leave, but that attitude always frustrated me, even though it just came from her not wanting to be a burden to us.
Without question, the saddest time of my mom’s life was after my Dad died in 1990. In some ways, that event changed her to the core. She had happy times after that, but she was never as happy as she had been when he was here. She lost her bouancy, her inner brightness was dimmed. In the last few years, she has been ready to go. She told me so many times. She was ready. In some ways, she’s been ready since the love of her life died. But especially this last month, when she was in so much pain, she was ready. She did not want to continue to suffer the indignities that came with this injury. So yes, even in this loss, there are lots of things for which I am very grateful. She did not endure a long illness. She was still THERE, right up until she wasn’t. I had a great visit with her the day before she died. Before I left, I brushed her hair and held her face in my hands and told her I loved her.
This week, I’ve really been struck by how slowly my mind and emotions are catching up with the reality of my mother’s death. Every morning, on my way to work, I call my mom. So I actually hit her number on my speed dial two days ago when I left my house in the morning, forgetting for that second that she wasn’t there. When we went to Target, on Tuesday, I took something off the shelf and almost tossed it in the basket for her, forgetting for that moment that she wouldn’t be needing extra soups anymore. I was replying to an email of someone who was actually writing to tell me he would be at the funeral, and I typed that it would be good to see him and my mother would enjoy seeing him, too. I know she died, but on a whole lot of levels, I just can’t get my mind around it.
My heart breaks for our family and for all of you who knew my mother, but I’m sadder still for those of you who didn’t know her. You missed out. I speak for my brothers and me and our children when I say that we are who we are because of my mother. She gave us roots. She gave us wings. She gave us everything. And for sure, the world shines a little less brightly without her in it.
Eulogy for Mamoo
Written and Delivered by Kendra Vara on January 17, 2009
I don’t think my grandma intended for her grandchildren to call her Mamoo, but according to her, the first grandchild sort of decides what grandparents will be called. Danny, apparently, couldn’t say “GR”s and somehow, by the time I was born, her name was Mamoo and that was all I ever called her. Having a Mamoo was one of the best parts of my childhood.
Mamoo came to every Forget-Me-Not & Sweetpeas softball game, every piano/harp/cello recital, and every event I was involved in at church. When I finally decided to swing the bat during my second year in Little League, I got back-to-back hits (a triple and a double), Mamoo was the only one who witnessed the magnificent event.
In our family, Mamoo was sort of famous for her biscuits — those amazing Georgia-style biscuits. Uncle Bant showed me how to put sugar on them. Mamoo made them until well after she could no longer read the labels on the ingredients. Well after.
I loved my Saturday shopping trips with Mamoo. Every Monday I had something new to wear and a new tape to listen to after our weekly trips to Foley’s, Joske’s, Baker’s, Sam Goody, or all four. When the woman at the checkout counter would tell me that I sure was spoiled, Mamoo would always say, “No, I just love her.”
At Mamoo and Papoo’s house, snacks were pretty much unlimited – plus they always had the kind of snacks that Mom wouldn’t let us have at home. And when Mom would pick us up, from Mamoo’s, the snacks had to stop. She’d say, “You’ve had enough.” Then Mamoo would meet me behind the tree in the front yard with one last ice cream sandwich.
Jump Rope for Heart is a 24-hour jump roping marathon for elementary school-aged kids. After I signed up for Jump Rope for Heart without being able to actually jump rope, Mamoo spent hours teaching me how.
Every Christmas, Mamoo made fudge with pecans, divinity, and oatmeal cookies with raisins and nuts. But, she’d make a special batch of fudge and oatmeal cookies, just for me and my mom, without nuts or raisins.
She taught me how to play Battle, Candyland, and Chutes and Ladders and pretended not to notice when I cheated.
We played with legos at her house. She’d keep my latest Lego creation on the bookshelf until I was ready to construct again and then helped me pant them all beige for an adobe village I had to make for a school project.
If I was lucky enough to spend Friday AND Saturday nights at her house, I got to go with her, Papoo, and Uncle Bant to 59 Diner or the Telewink.
She came to every Forget-Me-Not & Sweetpeas softball game, every piano/harp/cello recital, and every event I was involved in at church. I was quite the softball player, but I discovered pretty quickly that I could get on base about half the time by just standing that and watching as the pitcher walked me. When I finally decided to swing the bat during my second year in Little League softball, I got back-to-back hits (a triple and a double), Mamoo was the only one who witnessed the magnificent event. The other adults were all watching Danny. Apparently, he had been actually hitting the ball for several years by then.
My friends, particularly Jessica and Heather, loved to come with me to Mamoo’s. We’d take over the front room and she’d make us whatever we wanted to eat, we’d talk on the phone all night and in the morning we’d eat breakfast and get in the pool. Of course, we needed to take showers, but it was so much easier for Mamoo just to wash our hair in the pool. That way we wouldn’t have to get all the way out of the pool and get in the shower. No, Mamoo had an much easier way. She would warm up water in the tea kettle enough times for 3 girls with long hair and come out to the pool and wash and rinse mine, Jessica’s, and Heather’s hair with Prell.
After every visit to her house, Mom would roll down the window, count to three, and we’d shout out, “We love you, Mamoo and Papoo!”
I don’t often wonder if I’m a lucky person, but when I do, I just think “if you’re lucky enough to have grandparents like Papoo and Mamoo, you’re lucky enough.” I’m very lucky.
Eulogy for Mamoo
Written and Delivered by Danny Vara on January 17, 2009
About 15 years ago Mamoo took pen to paper to relay some of her thoughts for this sad day. Close to the beginning she wrote, ”Now take out 20 minutes and grieve for me – no more- and get on with your lives.”
That’s just the perfect example of Mamoo being Mamoo or Mom being Mom or Doris being Doris or Mrs. Brennan being Mrs. Brennan.
Even in death she’s thinking of us and our time as opposed to asking for much reflection of her and the incredibly selfless life she led.
She was kind and generous not because she expected anything in return, but because those were the characteristics that simply guided her life.
It is such a tremendous loss not only for the family and friends here today, but for the friends she would have made and certainly an unimaginable loss for the great grand children she would have spoiled relentlessly.
I was lucky to be the first grandchild and to dub her Mamoo. Not the prettiest of names for the prettiest of souls, but what are ya gonna do? I pronounced ice cream – aughum.
And I’m certain I speak for all the grandchildren when I say that as toddlers and throughout the rest of our lives there was a natural word association between ice cream and Mamoo.
Her freezer was always packed with blue bell and ice cream sandwiches and flavorpops and bon bons and she was always willing to say, “Okay, you can have just one more popsicle.”
And that usually meant one more box.
On Friday nights as a kid, Popoo would pick me up from elementary school and take me to play a couple of video games. Then when the quarters ran out we’d go pick up Mamoo from Ben Taub. She would let me get a coke with the crushed ice that I assumed Mamoo had made special for me at Ben Taub. Anything that seemed extraordinary I assumed my Mamoo had a hand in and she usually did.
I remember hearing the story from Mamoo and Popoo about the night someone came in and stabbed her, yet when I had my mom retell it the other night it was a lot more scary.
When Mamoo told me it was more along the lines of, “yes, someone stabbed me, but it was no big deal, it was a clean cut and there was too much of a fuss made.”
And I think it’s easy for us to envision Mamoo wanting to wait in line or maybe wait until after her shift to get that little ol’ papercut in her chest looked at.
She was always, always one to put other people’s needs before her own.
I’m not even sure what needs she had beyond, apparently, the need to see everyone smile.
On those Friday nights we’d watch Dallas and Falcon Crest and Mamoo and Popoo would get their cheese and wine coolers and I’d ask for a sip and they’d oblige.
There was never a need to beg for something at my grandparents house. A simple question starting with ‘Can I’ always led to yes.
The only thing better than a Friday night with Mamoo was a Saturday morning sitting at her kitchen table.
Fried eggs never tasted better. She would make us kiddie coffee with more milk and sugar than you’d find in a bowl of cereal.
And I feel sorry for those of you out there who never had a chance to have a Mamoo biscuit.
As I learned to cook I realized the old axiom of ‘you can taste the love in the food’ was not only very much true, but very likely was born from someone eating breakfast at Mamoo’s.
As I think everyone in here knows Mamoo loved baseball and really could talk about any sport until the day she passed.
And as I was thinking about this the other night and all the times we’d talk about the Astros I can’t recall her ever saying one negative word, which considering the Astros is quite remarkable and once again indicative of the positive woman she was.
She didn’t miss a single little league game nor a chance to tell me to keep my head up after an 0-fer. She was the most genuinely positive person I’ve ever had in my life.
Mamoo made pillows for Kendra and me out of the little league jerseys we wore and fortunately not all of them were lost through the years
She also made me pillows out of my Big Shoot Out t-shirts. Big Shoot Out was a basketball contest and three years in a row in elementary school I won and advanced to the district competition where the top three finishers would get trophies.
Three years in a row Mamoo and Poppoo drove me to those competitions.
Three years in a row Mamoo and Poppoo assured me that one of them saw the scorecard and
Three years in a row, oddly enough, according to them, I came in 4th each time just barely missing out on a trophy.
They just hated to see any one of us disappointed.
As I grew older I now regret mine and Mamoo’s paths not crossing as much.
She was the one person who never once let me down and never once spoke a negative word to me.
Sometimes though the thoughtfulness she showed me all my life actually sunk in and I would call her many an afternoon at exactly 3:52 when Alex Trebek would give us the Final Jeopardy answer.
She’d answer the phone and we’d throw out guesses and then watch. Then we’d talk about how the Astros lost the night before and then we’d say our goodbyes.
One of the last nights I really spent with her was a couple of years ago when I wanted her to teach me how to make her world famous chicken fried steak and biscuits.
My brothers and I went over there and as she showed me how much oil to put in, how to know when it was ready, how to bread and everything else, and the best part was we talked.
And we didn’t talk about the Astros or Jeopardy or what kind of ice cream she had.
We talked about her life because I think as a grandchild who never had to want for anything, I didn’t fully understand that this gift from God had a life before I was born.
I didn’t understand that until I was much older.
It was just fascinating hearing her to tell me about what downtown looked like when she was young and that timeless subject of how much things cost.
I only knew Mamoo as the world’s greatest grandmother and little about Mamoo a child of the depression, who was a member of the National Honor Society, who married a few years before wartime, and who raised two great uncles and one inspiring mother.
So we made chicken fried steak and I didn’t want to write it down because she didn’t have it written down and the best recipes are never on paper.
And I’m sorry, but you won’t find the recipe by googling “Mamoo’s Chicken Fried Steak”, believe me I tried.
But what’d be the point anyway you can’t put the love into she did.
As for those delicious biscuits well I can almost taste them every time I get mad at myself for popping a can of tasteless dough at home.
I don’t really know how to end this, how to finally say goodbye. I just wanted to attempt to convey to those of you who weren’t lucky enough to be her grandchildren what a remarkable, kind, loving and just plain special woman our Mamoo was.
And I know the next time I see her she’ll have a smile on her face, a kind word, and if I’m really lucky a biscuit or two.
I just love you Mamoo.
❤ ❤ ❤
Jac gave the eulogy at his funeral in February 2001
Branton Anderson Durden. Uncle Bant, as all the nieces and nephews called him because, as children, Branton was just a name we could not get our mouths around. He was my only Uncle. I want to extend my sympathy to all of you who knew him. I feel sad for the sorrow I know you feel. And I feel sadder still for those of you who didn’t know him. He was a grand person — with a good heart.
My uncle was born on August 23, 1928 here in Houston Texas. Except for his time in the service, he never lived anywhere else. He grew up with two adoring older sisters watching over him. Some might say trying to control his every move, but certainly not anyone who KNEW Hazel and Doris. Branton graduated from Austin High School. He started to work for Texaco in 1951, where he became a Systems Analyst.
In 1952, he was drafted into the US Army, after working less than a year for Texaco. He went through his 18 weeks of basic training and then was sent to Korea. He was in the infantry, in the anti-tank and mine platoon. He landed in Pooshahn (phonetic) and then was sent to the front lines. After only a couple of days, the Sgt. asked for volunteers who knew how to type. My uncle said he had always heard that you should never volunteer for anything in the army, but he went ahead and raised his hand. It was the best move, he recollected, because he spent the rest of his time in Korea in HQ, a good 5 or 6 miles from the front lines. He was a Corporal and was awarded the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service medal, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Korean Service Medal with three bronze stars. He was discharged from the army honorably in February of 1954 and he returned to Houston and his job at Texaco. He never left either of those, until he retired from Texaco in 1984 when he was 55 years old.
When he came back from Korea, he took advantage of his veteran’s benefits by going to college. He went to the University of Houston at night and, although it took him thirteen years, he got his Bachelor of Business Administration degree. He saved his transcript and I was looking at it last night. He got As in his accounting courses and business law and he got his only D in psychology. I think Branton really liked to deal with the “what” of situations and not so much the “why.”
Branton didn’t have any children. I think maybe he got more than enough of a taste of having children by being around his seven nieces and nephews. His first was Marc, born in 1941. Next was Pat, born in 1942. Then Mike, born in 1944 and then Danny, born in 1945. Rusty was born in 1949, the last of the boys. Then there was me and then my cousin Kay. We were born in – well, let’s just say we were the youngest.
The great love of Branton’s life was golf. He shot a hole in one once. He loved to golf. That’s why we have two of his golf clubs in the flowers on his casket. When he retired, the thing he was most looking forward to was spending more time on the golf course. Last year, after his hip replacement surgery, his first question was not about his cancer, but it was about whether he’d be able to play golf. He loved to watch golf on television, too. I could not imagine a more boring way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but he was always mesmerized. Of the pros on the tour right now, Fred Couples was his favorite.
He really did love sports. For 10 years, he ushered games at Rice Stadium just for the love of being at the games. I asked him recently why he did that for ten whole years. He said it was so that he could get into the games for free. Between him and my parents, there was little doubt that all of us grew up knowing the proud traditions of Rice University and to this day, we always root for Rice, even when they play our own alma maters.
Branton and I had lots of good conversations in the last few years. He came to my office one day and he talked about his death. At that time, which was in 1998, he thought he didn’t have long to live. It was the fall of 98 and the Astros were in a fight for their division title. I thought they just might make it to the World Series. I told Branton he couldn’t die til the Astros made it to the World Series. He said they better hurry. Well, maybe next year.
He told me a couple of months ago that he didn’t really want to die, but he knew it coming soon and he felt peaceful about it. He said that he had a good long life and he had lived it pretty much like he wanted to live it. He hoped people, mainly his sisters, would not be sad when he died. But he said that he thought that, if he was aware of anything after he died, he would miss the start of baseball season most of all. He would miss the hope that he held out every season for the Astros that THIS would be the year. He said he would really miss that feeling of hope.
The first time he went to the Hospice was the week before the Super Bowl. He was at my mother’s house and he started having difficulty breathing and they had to call an ambulance to take him to the hospice. He seemed pretty out of it all day that day and we – my mother, my aunt, my cousin Kay, and I — started making plans for his funeral. I told him goodbye when I left him that night. I went back early the next morning so that my mother and aunt could go home to rest and there he was, just sitting there watching TV and reading the paper and acting like nothing had happened at all. We spent a couple of hours alone together that morning and he told me that he couldn’t remember anything from the day before. He told me then that he was finally ready to die. He said, “I’m sooo ready that I can’t really figure out why I came back. I don’t even care about these two teams in the SuperBowl so I don’t think that was the reason I came back.” Our office had a little SuperBowl pool – the kind where you buy a square and watch for the score at the end of the quarters. Branton bought a square and ended up winning the last two quarters for $100. When I took him his winnings, his said, “Maybe that’s why I hung around cause I never did manage to win a football pool before now.”
Branton and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye on politics so we just didn’t discuss it much. We kinda had an understanding. He didn’t say anything bad about Democrats in front of me and I didn’t say anything good about Harry Truman in front of him. Although Uncle Bant could have a reasoned discussion on just about any topic in the world, there was NO reasoning with him on the subject of Harry Truman.
Branton was definitely a creature of habit. He had his special places where he loved to go. The Texaco Country Club and the grill there, especially when Delores Caldwell was working. Sunday morning breakfasts at the 59 Diner. The Tel Wink on the corner of Telephone and Winkler. Ruffinos where Loretta and Wanda worked. Henry Brown was his mechanic for all his Buicks through the years. If Golfcrest Hardware didn’t have something, he pretty much just didn’t need it.
He loved to play the lottery. A dollar for some hope. Most weeks he bought a LOT of hope. He never struck it rich, but he never lost hope.
In the last few weeks, his health was really leaving him and he told me many times that he was ready for his life to be over. He said he was at peace about his life and he was so tired of the pain and of the struggle just to breathe. I know it will sound preachy for me to say this, but I just wish that every young person who ever thought that taking up smoking would be cool, could just have sat with Branton and watched him and listened to him struggling to get air those last two days of his life. The Hospice made sure he was not in pain, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t fighting to get every breath because he was. As much as our hearts broke over the thought of losing him, the thought of him continuing like he was at the end was much worse. He was ready to let go, and in the end, we were all ready for him to let go.
For the last 15 or 20 hours of his life, he was more or less semi-conscious. His eyes were neither opened or closed exactly, but just between the two and unblinking. He would occasionally flash a quick smile or a grimace. Sometimes a word would come out of nowhere -–”where is she?” “a hole in one!” “jack of all trades” which is what he called my father; and one of his favorite expressions when things weren’t going his way – “Rats!” He had an air of kindness and goodness around him right through the end. He made it easy to do things for him because he never ordered and he always appreciated.
My mother, Doris Brennan, and my most favorite aunt, Hazel Couey, have taken care of my Uncle these past few months. Their deepest appreciation and that of the entire family is extended to his friend, Fernando Cassanova. We don’t know what we, or Branton, would have done without him these last few years. He has been a great help in all kinds of ways.
Two weeks ago, I asked Branton if there was anything he especially wanted me to say in his eulogy. He said no. Then he said – “Well, make me seem better than I really was.” I told him that would be impossible.
I would like to end by giving my Uncle an Irish Blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And, until we meet again may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
❤ ❤ ❤
John Roach, Tom’s Dad
Jac wrote the eulogy and Tom gave it at his Dad’s funeral in 2002
My mother, my sister, and I want to extend our thanks to all of you for coming here today. We have had several difficult months and it helps to know that we have the support of our friends and our family.
My Dad, Johnny Roach, was born on April 5, 1906. His parents were John Roach, Sr. and Josephine Prado. He was one of eight children, but only one, my Aunt Josie, survives him. He married my mother, Helen, his “beautiful girl,” on April 7, 1937. Their firstborn, Mary Jean, was born on May 15, 1938. His first son, John Dennis, was stillborn in 1948. Then I was born on June 16, 19 – well, let’s just say a long long long time after my older sister. Later, grandchildren came – Terri, Brenda, Tracy, Mark, Eric, Kyle, Kendra, Danny, Kendra, Colin, Sean, Kelsey, Paul, Megan, Brigid, and Tyler. And then great-children – Cory, Britt, Adam, Joseph, Stephan, Bobby, MacKenzie, Samantha, Jonathan, Blair, Taylor, Westley, Hayden, Dalton, Kendall, Chance, and the soon-to-be-born baby Everett.
I grew up with a Dad that everybody in town called “Uncle Johnny.” My Dad worked for Hamlin’s Minimax Grocery Store back in the days when small grocers delivered groceries right into your kitchen. My dad delivered the groceries to everyone’s house and everybody knew him. As a kid, and especially as a teenager, I will admit that I was sometimes embarrassed by this – by my dad being a grocery delivery man. Only later, when I became an adult, did I appreciate that my dad really humbled himself to do this fairly menial job just to support his family. Supporting his family was always his priority. Even well into his 80s, he supplemented the family income by shucking oysters. I envied the way he could do that – two at a time. It was a skill I never mastered.
Up until a few years ago, he could still work circles around me. About 15 years ago, I was putting in a new wood fence in my yard and I brought him over to the house just to keep me company outside while I worked. Well, let me tell you – he was not about to sit there on his hands. He got that post hole digger and he started digging holes and he didn’t stop until they were all done – hours later. I kept wanting to take breaks, but not him. He was in his 80s, but he was showing me a thing or two about stamina. And really, he was always like that. He always felt like he could work like a young man. Yes, he always thought of himself as younger than he actually was. Even in the last few years, he would see someone in a store, and this person would clearly be at least 25 years younger than he was, and he would shake his head and whisper to me, “That poor old woman” or “That crotchety old man.” I would have to stifle a laugh at my 90-year-old father pitying someone in their 60s as “old.”
And he also always felt that I was still a kid – which was kinda nice when my kids tend to think of me as slightly older than dirt. Of course, him thinking of me as a kid meant that he pretty much never believed that I, his little boy, could do anything myself. Every time I would show him something I built, he was treat me like a kid who has just brought a crayon drawing to him. Or I guess, more accurately, a kid who just brought some really beautiful watercolor masterpiece painting to him. He was usually impressed, but he also usually thought I either bought it or somebody helped me build it because his little boy would never be able to do that by himself. Sometimes I would show him something and he would actually argue with me about whether I did it.
When lots of adults look back on their childhoods, they can recall happy memories of fishing trips or little league games or other special times with their dads. I don’t have those particular memories because my dad just didn’t do those things. We were not close in the sense that we shared our feelings with each other. We didn’t just hang out together. But he was always there – giving me a strong work ethic by example, and never pulling his support from me, or from my sister, no matter what.
I remember one time Jacquie and I drove down to Palacios with the kids. As we were leaving, my mother was filling the back of the car with fried chicken, potato salad, and coconut pie and my dad pulled me aside. He said, “Let me see your wallet.” I gave it to him and he opened it up. In terms of money, it was empty. He took out his wallet and put a 20 dollar bill into mine. He said it was for a tank of gas. That simple, and much appreciated act, started a tradition for our family. When any of my kids come in from out of town to see me, I always buy them a tank of gas. And speaking of wallets, on the day he died last week, I got his wallet. As far as I know, nobody else had looked in his wallet as long as he lived. I opened it, and found two photos of me from when I was in elementary school. I never expected to find anything like that and it really touched me.
My dad didn’t go far in school. He had to quit school to help his family after the 2nd grade. In spite of that, or probably really BECAUSE of that, education was important to him. He was proud when his children and grandchildren graduated from high school and prouder still of those who continued their education beyond that. Many people thought that Dad could have been a CEO of some Fortune 500 company if he had just had the formal education because he was a smart man.
One thing about living such a long time – nearly 97 years – is that the entire world changed during his lifetime. When he was a kid, his family, like most, didn’t have electricity or running water. There was no computer or television or even a radio in his house. An ice box was exactly that – a box with a big chunk of ice in it. And the dishwasher was – well, his mother. Back then, there were very strictly observed divisions in our society between racial groups and even between men and women. When he became an adult, women had just gotten the right to vote and it would still be a long long time before anybody in his generation ever thought of women as equal to men. When he was born, cars were not yet mass produced. The only wings in the sky were attached to birds. He saw the invention of airplanes, and eventually commercial air travel. He watched as the first rockets went into the air and as the first man landed on the moon. He saw airplanes drop bombs in wars and he lived to see airplanes become bombs themselves on September 11th. He lived through America’s involvement in six wars. He was always keenly interested in current events. He kept up with the news and had strong (some might say stubborn) opinions about everything. Yep, he was stubborn and hard-headed for sure. I’m just glad that only my sister, and certainly not me, inherited that trait.
Listen, my father was not a saint and I don’t want to make him out to be one like people sometimes do after a person dies. He was impossible to get truly close to. He liked to boss everybody around. He always thought his way was not just the best way, but the only way, to do things. He did not much trust people and, in spite of the advice of the cliché, he would always look a gift horse in the mouth. In every silver lining, he could always find a cloud. Yet, he loved his family. He worked hard to provide for his family. He worked hard for the non-monetary awards that hard work brings to a person. He stopped going to school, but he never stopped learning.
In my life, I never have thought of my father as a sentimental person or an affectionate person. He and my mother never held hands or exchanged any public signs of affection. But these last few weeks, my mother was in the hospital. She was very very sick. I took my dad to see her and he showed a completely unseen side of his personality. He lamented his ability to handle it if he ever lost his “beautiful girl.” He sat by her side and he would hold her hand and stroke her hair. Every time he would leave her hospital room, he would bend over and kiss her and she returned the kiss. With both of them, their short-term memory wasn’t that great, so sometimes they would kiss goodbye and then a few other words would be exchanged. Then as we were walking out the door, one of them would say, “Did I kiss you?” So, OK, maybe they weren’t the most memorable kisses ever exchanged, but those kisses meant a lot to the two of them.
Dad didn’t think his beautiful girl would get out of the hospital. Honestly, my sister and I worried about that, too. But she started getting slowly better and she got out of the hospital one week ago today – last Thursday. She came home and, for the first time in weeks, they were together again as they fell asleep. But they didn’t wake up together because Daddy died during the night. It was almost as if he was hanging on until he got his beautiful girl safely out of the hospital and back at his side. I am so grateful that I got to see this love and affection between them – the bond of a 65 year marriage.
I would like to close with an Irish Blessing –
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be ever at your back.
May the rain fall softly upon your fields.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.
❤ ❤ ❤
Betty Rae Miller, James’s Mom
Jac gave the eulogy at her service on September 22, 2001
Betty’s children, and her sister, want to thank each of you for coming here to share this very precious moment with them. I am proud to be the person here today to give some of their memories a voice. I want to extend my condolences to each of you who knew Betty. And while I am so sad for those of you who knew her, I am sadder still for those of you who did not know her well. She was one phenomenal woman!
You have already heard some of the basic facts of Betty’s life. Those facts – those milestones – while very important, of course, can only scratch the surface of this amazing woman’s life. I want to scratch a little deeper today so that each of you might leave here feeling that you know her just a little bit better than you did when you came into this church this morning.
I want to start with what Betty’s oldest daughter, Mary, wrote about her mother’s life. She asked me to read them to you just as she wrote them.
Mary began with a quote from Mother Teresa:
What can you do to promote world peace?
Go home and love your family
And now in Mary’s words:
We called her Mother, sometimes Mom. She was strict and old-fashioned, so it was usually “Mother.” She was a very practical woman. She taught us to put our family first – handed down to her from previous generations. I remember that she said many times that we wouldn’t need charities if we would take care of our own families. She always said that her mother taught her to be nice to other people. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” So, following her mother’s advice, she was always very nice to everyone she met, whether on her bus rides or during a family gathering.
She loved her mother and father very much and, when she talked about the best times, they were of Riviera where she was born, and the people she knew there – P.J. Mixon, and now his wife, Janet, and Doris Yaklin.
By example, she taught us that self-discipline each day leads to success. Her grandparents had wealth and privilege, but living through the depression taught her that to survive meant sacrifice and hard work. I don’t think there is one of her children, grandchildren, or nephews that did not receive assistance during a financially hard time. The way that she was able to assist financially was to watch every single penny that she spent. She said that love was demonstrated by our actions. As were many from her time, she was uncomfortable talking about her emotions, though she seldom said she “loved” us, her actions left no doubt.
She was so proud of each of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She felt that God had truly blessed her with her progeny. She took great pride in the fact that all three of her children not only graduated from college, but that her son, Ronnie, is a professional engineer and her two daughters are CPAs. She followed her own advice and started college when she was 58 and received her associate’s degree when she was 61 years old. Mother believed in education, not only for financial gain, but also for life enhancement. In addition to academic achievement, she valued good parenting and skillful craftsmanship. She knew that our world needs all kinds of different gifts to contribute to society.
She had a great sense of humor and loved jokes and comedy. Her father had a good sense of humor and loved to joke and keep the family conversation fun during their family time together. Nancy’s husband, Paul, remembers talking to her one day about riding the bus. Paul rode the Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which was DART. Mother rode the bus in Fort Worth. So, he said, “If Dallas is DART, what do they call the Fort Worth area rapid transit?” Mother thought for a moment and just broke out laughing. From that moment on, Paul was accepted into her family’s “inner circle.”
I remember some of her happiest moments were during her genealogy research. I took her to Riviera for a long weekend and left her to spent time with her old friend, P.J. Mixon. She bonded instantly with Janet, P.J.’s wife, and I saw a transformation from a senior citizen to a schoolgirl. She was sitting up until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning talking and laughing. Nancy took a week off from work to take Mother to Rankin County, Mississippi. Mother loved meeting the relatives that she had never known and connecting to her roots. Her grandmother had died during childbirth with her father. So Mother grew up knowing nothing about the huge family support system that existed in Rankin County, Mississippi. Fortunately, she connected with these people during her visit. Again, she has left all of us with the fruits of her persistent efforts and hard work in locating and documenting her findings. What a beautiful legacy for her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and all of the generations to follow. Once again, love in action.
Mom’s final weeks with us revealed a depth and strength that we did not know she possessed. Even though she was well aware that she was in a very serious condition, her thoughts were still on others and how “this” was impacting them. Mom set a benchmark of bravery and self-sacrifice that will be a very tough act to follow.
Her father and mother gave her a belief in the Bible and God that was very strong throughout her life. When asked what she believed would happen when she died, she responded, “My spirit will go immediately to be with the Lord.” Even though it is hard to let her go, we must all take comfort in knowing that she is in heaven doing the work that her Lord required of her during this time.
I am thankful that I chose her to guide me through life’s lessons, and teach me how to approach life with strength, determination, and persistence.
Thank you, Mary.
Betty’s life: Betty Rae Russell was born on August 2, 1929, in the farmhouse where her family lived just outside Riviera, Texas. She was named after both of her parents – her mother’s name was Elizabeth, although she was called Bessie, and her father’s name was Ray. So she was Betty Rae. Today, in fact, is her mother’s birthday. Dates were always very important to Betty and she would have liked this sweet coincidence.
Betty loved talking about her childhood. Always a trailblazer, she was the youngest girl in Riviera to make the Honor Roll in first grade because she was only five years old when she graduated from first grade. Church was an important part of Betty’s life. She said that her favorite Bible verse when she was a little girl was the oft-memorized and recited John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”
She spent her childhood days on the farm helping to milk the cows, climbing trees, playing in the stock tanks at neighboring farms, and cutting up with her big brother, Jody. Betty was the little sister of the family for twelve years, until she became a big sister when the family’s third child was born. Betty’s mother told her that, if the baby was a girl, Betty could name her. She named the baby Wanda, after Wanda Wiles, a friend of hers in Riviera. Betty told me that she always felt a little like a mother as well as a sister to Wanda, because of the difference in their ages.
She married Adam May in 1946 when she was only 16. They had three wonderful (and brilliant, to hear Betty tell it) children – Ronnie, Mary, and Nancy. I have heard so many stories from Betty about raising her children and the joys of being a mother. She sometimes doubted that she was best at mothering her children. She talked honestly about how she sometimes felt overwhelmed by the demands of mothering in the midst of frequent moves and housework. But when she looked at what good mothers Mary and Nancy had become, she felt that she must have done something right or they wouldn’t have learned how to mother so well. In one of the last emails I had from Betty, she bragged about what a wonderful mother Nancy was to Rachel.
I asked Nancy what she wanted everyone to know about her mom. In Nancy’s words:
Mom and I had a lot of good times together. I’m so glad that we lived in the same city for so much of my adult life because it brought us even closer.
We loved shopping together and spending the day in the mall. Mom loved going out to eat and her favorite place to eat was Luby’s. Sometimes she’d let me have my way and we’d go to a Mexican food restaurant, but she always preferred Luby’s.
Mother didn’t need other people to make her happy. She found happiness from inside herself and from her relationship with God.
Mom loved music. She loved to sing with her lovely soprano voice, not only in church choirs, but also in her everyday life while doing housework and while driving. She really loved music and, her Baptist roots notwithstanding, sometimes she just could not keep her happy feet still. She danced. I remember watching Lawrence Welk every week and Mother and I would dance together.
My childhood was very different from Mary and Ronnie’s – not simply because I was much younger than they were, but mostly because during most of my childhood, Mom was a single mother. Looking back, I don’t know how she managed everything she did. Even though money was very tight, she always found money for me to take piano lessons. It was a necessity like rent or electricity. And when she heard that my school was starting a violin program, she marched right out, without even asking about my interest in it, and bought me a violin. It probably cost a month’s rent – a whole lot to a single mother. When I was in Girl Scouts, she was a troop leader. I don’t know how she managed it all.
Mom was always a comforting presence in my life. When I was upset about anything, I turned to her first and she would always provide great calm and acceptance. I could always count on her.
Thank you, Nancy.
And I also asked Ronnie, a man of few words, what he wanted everyone to know about his mom. He thought for a long moment and then said, “I want everybody to know that, of all her children, Mom always liked me best!” She would have laughed so hard if she heard him say that. And then, I just know, she would have protested, saying it just wasn’t true, worried that someone might think he was serious.
After Betty and Adam were divorced, Betty started working for the City of Fort Worth. She said that she had no idea what kind of job she would get. She had very little money – she said that she had to borrow a nickel from Adam for the parking meter the day they went to court to get their divorce – so she started going to the employment office every morning. She thought it was better for her to show up in person rather than just call. She thought they would have a harder time turning her down in person. She got her job with the City without too much delay and she loved her work there. It was a big change for her, but she handled it with enthusiasm. She loved to do new things. She was very determined about things throughout her life. Some would say even a little stubborn, but she preferred “determined” as a description.
This determination led her to do something she had always regretted not doing before – continuing her education. She started taking classes at Tarrant County Junior College and, at the age of 61, she donned her cap and gown and walked across the stage to proudly accept her Associate of Arts degree. Remarkable woman!
Betty retired from the City of Fort Worth in 1994 and her life again headed in a different direction. She had a new granddaughter, Rachel, Nancy and Paul’s baby girl. She retired so that she could be Rachel’s caregiver while Nancy and Paul were at work. She loved rocking a baby again and, according to her supervisor at the City, Betty seemed to get younger-looking after she retired. Rachel made her young again.
Betty may have been a senior citizen, but she never quite managed to get her mind around that fact. She delivered food to senior citizens through the Meals on Wheels program. She spoke of the elderly people she met with great love and concern, but always with a respect reserved for those who were much older. She never saw herself as a peer to the “elderly.” Betty told me once that she never ever thought about dying. She just could not imagine that a day would come when she would not be alive – when the world would keep spinning without her. It wasn’t an ego thing at all. She just could not imagine not waking up to enjoy each and every day.
Betty had four grandchildren and she really loved being a grandma. She was a very young grandmother when her first grandchild, Robert, came along when she was only 38. Next came Mike and then Jason. She was even a young great-grandmother at the age of 58, when Robby was born on her birthday in 1987. Lyndsay was her first great-granddaughter. Then she had her first granddaughter, Rachel. And then another great-granddaughter, Madie. Then another great-grandson, Cooper. She loved bragging about her grandchildren and her great grandchildren and showing off their pictures and telling their funny stories. She could tell them again and again and they would make her laugh every time.
I can’t say that nothing ever fazed Mom because the last thing I want to do is to make it sound as if she was too good to be true. She was human, of course. Sometimes she would get mad about people or things and sometimes she would go into a long list of things that she would do or should do and she could rant and rave with the best of them. But she would always end her tangents by saying something like, “Well, maybe that’s what I could do, but I never really would. I bet that person was just having a bad day. You know, that happens to everybody.” And her sweet spirit would just talk her right out of her anger. She had a great gift of spirit.
Then sometimes things really didn’t faze her the way you would think they would. All of her children were frantically trying to reach her on the day, about a year and half ago, when deadly tornadoes unleashed themselves on Fort Worth. It was hard to get a phone line through at all, but even when we did, there was no answer at her house. We were all so worried. At long last, she answered when I called. I told her we had all be worried about her. She said she was fine – that she had been at the downtown library when the tornadoes came. The library? That was in the middle of the hardest hit area. She said that, yes, they had gathered everyone in the basement of the library and yes, the skylight had crashed in and yes, there was shattered glass and some blood, but she and her friend were both fine. She said that, once the excitement died down, they were going to catch the bus to go home. Of course, the buses were not exactly running on schedule ten minutes after the tornadoes came through. Another woman heard them talking and offered them a ride home. When they got out to the woman’s car, all of her windows had been blown out. But Mom said they just brushed the glass off the seats and they got home safe and sound. She just was not fazed at all.
Not every person asks for a computer for her 70th birthday, but that’s just what Betty did! Her son, Ronnie, had gotten a little notebook computer and he showed it to her. She had never wanted a computer. Like many people her age, she was somewhat afraid of them. But when she saw his, and it practically looked like a toy, she said, “Well, you know, I believe I would be able to work one of those little things without the big computer attached to it.” And so we got her one. And so she did learn to use it. She loved email. I had email from her nearly every day. Even in the last few weeks, when she was sometimes too weak or tired to sit at the computer, she would ask Mary to check her email and shout out instructions to Mary about how to reply or to print it out. Just like her loyalty to her soap opera, her “story,” she was very faithful in her email correspondence.
The computer helped her in another interest that developed into a true passion in the last years of her life – genealogy. As you heard in Mary’s words, this led her into all sorts of new directions – to new places, meeting new people, developing new skills, and leaving her family with the priceless treasure book of family history that goes back to the 1600s. For a few months there, you could not have a short phone conversation with Betty because even the most innocent of questions like “how are you doin’?” would send her off on endless explanations of everything she had discovered about the family. She would always talk as if you knew as much detail as she did, but no one ever came close. She knew so much detail and could just spout it off seamlessly.
Ronnie wanted so much to take his mom back to Riviera for a last visit during these last few weeks. He knew that it was not going to happen. But his act of faith was in the planning, not the doing.
Yesterday, we were talking about trying to sum up Betty in single words. Some of the words that kept coming up were:
Comfortable – Mom was content with herself. She lived alone, but never complained of loneliness. She was enough for herself. She read, she researched, she prayed, she learned. She was comfortable in her own skin and content.
Sense of Humor –Mom loved to laugh and tell jokes. She sometimes didn’t get the punch line just right, but her laughter was infectious. And she loved to watch funny things on television and listen to her grandchildren’s jokes.
Friendly – Mom was always outgoing and friendly around people. When she used to catch the bus from Fort Worth to San Antonio to visit Mary, she would invariably get off the bus and introduce Mary to the new friend she had met on the bus and explain the person’s life history to Mary. And if you drove down Camp Bowie, where Mom would ride the bus, she would point out people at the bus stops and tell you about them and their families. She loved to talk to people.
Thrifty – She could stretch a penny farther than anybody. She loved a sale! One day, she pulled out six pins and let Mary, Nancy, and me each choose one. There was no special occasion except, she said with pride, she found a really great sale!
Sacrificing – She would give and give without complaining. If you were in need, you had only to ask her for help. But most of the time, you didn’t even have to ask her. She just gave without being asked.
Vain – Not in a bad way. Just in a way that said she always cared about her appearance, no matter how bad she was feeling.
Protective – She was protective of the people she loved, especially her children. She could criticize them when they needed it, but no one else could. I’ve seen her rewrite history many times to preserve the perfection of her children.
Her Smile – Ronnie and I saw her last night before the viewing at the funeral home and we both had the same reaction – where is her smile? She could always, no matter how bad she might be feeling, manage some kind of a smile. And that smile was pure magic.
Hardworking – She always worked hard at everything she did. She did not do anything halfway. She put her whole self into everything she did.
Dog lover – Mom loved dogs. If she told you one dog story, it always led to many more. Telling you about Abraham would remind her of one about Funny Face and that would remind her of one about Cinco and on and on. And she spoiled rotten the two newest dogs in her life – Liberty and Justice.
Love of Life – She loved life and she crammed a lot of living into her 72 years. She always said she thought she would live to be 112 years old. She planned to love life for a long time.
Loving – She was very loving in her actions, and very tender. She was not wordy about her love, but no one she loved ever doubted that love.
Health Conscious – During her birthday week, just seven short weeks ago, Mom got her cancer diagnosis. We looked up everything we could find about it. She did not have a single risk factor for it. Few people live as healthy as she did. She went to the gym two or three times a week. She walked a lot. She didn’t drink. She didn’t smoke. She watched her cholesterol the way other people watch sports scores. She always knew her numbers. She cooked in such a healthy way that you sometimes just didn’t want to eat her food. Brownies baked without oil or sugar, but with applesauce in their place just didn’t – oh, but they were healthy!
Mother always looked on the bright side of everything, even her cancer diagnosis. She told me that she was grateful that she got the chance to know Ronnie and Mary as adults better during these last weeks. They had left home at young ages and she never got to spend as much time with them as adults as she would have liked.
She did not want to believe she had stomach cancer. She told me the last time I saw her, while I was giving her a foot rub, that she was in denial about it, “but,” she said, “then I look down and I can see that its there. Still, I’d rather deny it.” Her attitude was very positive until the very end. Yesterday, her friend, Clara, received a letter in the mail that Betty wrote last Saturday morning. In it, she said that her children were so good to her. And she also said that she would get better. Even the day she died, she said that she was feeling a lot stronger. She never stopped planning for the next day. She said that her favorite Bible verse about faith was Romans 5:1: “Therefore, justified by faith, we have peace with God.” And she did.
Yet, her life was not so much taken as it was – well, given.
Betty wrote in a book for her grandson, Jason, in answer to a question about what she believed would happen when she died, “When I die, I believe that my spirit will immediately go to be with the Lord.” We are as certain of that as she was.
After Betty died, her daughter Mary was telling little Madie about the death of her great-grandmother. And Madie said, “But Grammy will always be alive in my heart, and in your heart, and in Daddy’s heart.” Madie definitely has the right idea. As long as any person on earth has a memory of Betty, Mom, Grammy, then she will be alive.
It is hard to believe that Betty is no longer among us. But, in a way, she will never leave us. The void her death leaves in our lives will never be filled. Yet, even in the pain of the moment, none of us would trade places with those whose lives were never touched by Betty Rae.