A Sudden Need for a Eulogy:A Reflection for My Mother’s Celebration of Life

Fly High and Free, My Sweet One

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It’s been a while. I hate that I even have this piece of writing to post, but I’ll do it anyway. My beloved mother died unexpectedly on June 6, 2022, and I’ve been in deep grief since. But I am also utterly grateful for her life, my 45 years with her, and the four beautiful years that she and my son shared together. And I’m so grateful for all the care and love that have been extended to my family and me. Given the kindred bond between my mother and my son, instead of a traditional eulogy, I decided to write and read a letter to Elliott during her service on July 23, 2022.

My dearest Elliott,

On the eve of your fourth birthday next month, I wanted to bequeath you a little love gift—a letter to you about your beloved Nanna, that I would also share with our dearest friends and family at her Celebration of Life. Kind of a strange gift, I know, but one that my mom, your Nanna, would appreciate. She was the master of little love gifts and she was a letter writer all her life, after all. I’ll keep this letter safe so that you can read it later when you want to remember your Nanna.

We are all heartbroken now, sweet Elliott, and her absence leaves an unfillable gap in all of our hearts, yours, I know. You and I have witnessed one another’s sorrow over these last weeks. She was, after all,  just with us, laughing, playing, experimenting, listening, talking, planning, doing the funny things that only Nanna could do. We were just eating swirly frosted pancakes at Kerby Lane café saying at the end that she wanted to spend “just a little bit” longer savoring the last bit of sweet pancake and the ordinary extraordinary moment together.  

And of course, she insisted that at the beginning of any meal, we toast, inviting us to speak a loud unison “cheers.” In fact, Elliott, these toasts became a ritual for your Nanna, your grandpa Jim, and your aunt Lisa when I was growing up. We never really prayed before a meal, but these toasts were for us a genuine prayer, a blessing of the ordinary.

She loved the quote from Henry David Thoreau, “I traveled widely in Concord,” which was his own neighborhood. Remember the time that you put on layers and layers of cold winter gear in her living room and she sat watching, engaged in every single moment, laughing in bliss? It’s hard to make sense of how we can’t do these things with her any more, at least not as we used to. But some things, I think, aren’t meant to make sense.

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At the same time, you, your daddy and I have talked about how she IS still right here with us and how her love for us and our love for her never ever ends, how when we miss her, we should allow ourselves that, but also remember that her life with us—with your Nanna—continues through the stories we tell, the photos we look at, the songs that we sing, the pictures we draw, the lemonade you drink, which was always waiting for you in her refrigerator.

There are so many things to say about her, my sweet one. I know I don’t need to remind you—or anyone else—of these things, because we’ve all experienced them. The story that I read a few minutes ago is about someone called “Woman Wisdom,” and as her name suggests, she’s wise. And she is also deeply hospitable. She builds a great big beautiful house and she decides that she wants to host a feast—kind of like a big party like the one we’ll have later today—for as many people as she possibly can. She even goes to a high place in the city to announce the feast and invite everyone to come, no matter who they are. I imagine that she uses an enormous megaphone, amplifying her bold and beautiful voice.

This is so much like Nanna, isn’t it? Wasn’t she always, always, setting up a table for us? With all of our favorite foods, favorite plates, favorite silverware. And that ever-present lemonade. But she also set up different kinds of tables for you to enjoy: craft tables, science experiment tables, music tables, repair shop tables, and ones I’m sure I don’t even know about because they only make sense to the two of you. And Elliott, the amazing thing is that she set up tables for other people, too, and invited all of them in.

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And did they ever come! Your Nanna was a “collector of people,” as some might say. Wherever she went, she made new friends. As long as I can remember, your Nanna would meet people and within minutes, she formed real, genuine relationships with them. I’ve told you this story, but a few years ago, she and I were at a thrift store (an adventure that you, Nanna, Lisa and I so often embarked on).

That day, I walked away for no more than five minutes and came back to find Nanna in deep conversation with a person who was five minutes before that, a total stranger. I walked up and heard her ask the new friend, “Well, how did you experience that part of your childhood?” I rolled my eyes a bit at the time because I wanted to go home, but I later chuckled at how this was pure Nanna and how unique and beautiful this gift of connection really was.

I cannot express fully enough, Elliott, how after she died, so many people have told me that they had a special connection with your Nanna, that she was their “favorite” person in the world. And what is remarkable, is that this is really true, and likewise her intimate relationships with each of these people was absolutely unique and utterly genuine. She, like Walt Whitman, not only “contained multitudes” within herself, but also held a multitude of humans—and non-human lives–in her heart, her life, and at her table in her living room.

Oh, and Elliott, how can we ever describe the pure joy that Nanna took in the world, even with all the suffering and the hard things? Over and over again, people have said the same thing these last weeks—she was SO vibrant, so full of life, so radiant. She took such pleasure in our loves and joys, too. Until the very end, she told me again and again, that she “loved my life,” even as she knew I had experienced my own pain and grief. Your pleasure of drawing, painting, collecting sunscreens and bug sprays J were her pleasures, too, Elliott. And we felt that deep in our bones, didn’t we?

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Her love of life spoke in the language of play, and I’ve often said, Elliott, that while as a young person, that while my parents and I didn’t  have a formal “religious” community, play was a spiritual practice for us. Your Nanna’s ability to bring imaginative worlds into being was for me, my first way of being “religious,” of experiencing sacredness in our ordinary lives. This is still the theology that I live by, and I sense that this was also her gift to you. It was gifts like the two of you looking at the moon. I came across an email she had written to her dear friends Ann and Jerry, and I wanted to share parts of it with you:

In future decades, Elliott will have many memories of his Nanna taking him outside and explaining the moon. His own children will be enthralled by his knowledge of its extraordinary recurring journey. I’m not sure if he will use two pieces of paper and a pencil (if such things exit then), but I can just hear him say: “Long, long ago, my Nanna taught me about the moon. His little ones will say, “We like it when you tell those Nanna stories, Daddy.” And he will just smile and look at the moon . . . . 

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Well, I’ve written more that I’d planned and memorial services aren’t meant to go on forever, Elliott, for future reference. Maybe what I want to end with is to emphasize again how much your Nanna so deeply loved you, and that this love never ever ends. It continues for all of us. When your grandpa died a few years ago, we were so sad, but Nanna herself knew that their love for each other would live on. Nothing can ever change that.  If in doubt, my Elliott, we can just take a look together at my tattoo, which she also had on her shoulder:  her love for us, and our love for her, will last forever and beyond.

Elliott, let’s toast your Nanna, my mom, our beloved Cathy. Fly high and free, our sweet one. How grateful we are.

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Author: Jenny Veninga

I'm a theologian, scholar of religion, and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. I love asking the “big questions” about what it means to exist as a human being and learn from others as they do the same. My hope is that these questions can contribute in some way to living in right relationship with each other and practicing just peace near and far. My academic passions include (but are not limited to!): Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard; queer and feminist theologies; collective memory and trauma; and religious and political issues in Scandinavia and Palestine. I'm currently deepening my sense of how all these areas inform my work as an aspiring spiritual healer. I'm also a parent, a runner, a pug-lover, a thrift-store connoisseur, and a vegan. A Cancer with Sagittarius rising, I love the open road and equally love coming home. I currently live in Austin, Texas, with my partner, toddler, pug, and turtle.

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