NOTE: I made these remarks at the Celebration of Life for my mother, Celia Oliver, on December 5, 2022. We miss her.
I’ve collected an assortment of descriptions of Mum this week—mine and from others—and it’s been interesting to hear how we saw her: loving, funny, resilient, irreverent, distractable, silly, opinionated, complicated, joyful, effortlessly cool, interested, elegant.
Mum was most definitely all of those things, but the qualities that feel most central to me are the joy she took in things large and small around her; her ability to find the funny and silly moments; her resilience through life’s challenges; and above all else, her fierce love for her family.
Mum knew how to find joy and how to create it. She found it in tiny jam jars, cheerful colors, cozy sweaters, and apricot scones. She found it in gardening and in a long succession of dogs and cats too numerous to count. She found it every time she looked out a window, walked down a street or rode in a car. “Look at that…[fill in the blank]!! It’s so cute!”
A recent friend of Mum’s at the Bertram House captured it perfectly, calling it her “childlike sense of wonder.” She was amused and amazed by the large and the small details of her world. “Cute” was her adjective of choice, and it was used kind of randomly to admire everything from the passing 18-wheeler with a yellow stripe, to a ladybug, and once to our great confusion, to the coal barge in Salem Harbor.
A sense of adventure was part of this. After spending her childhood in Lebanon, Jerusalem, Cairo, and her early married years in Alaska and Germany, Mum had a love of travel. When I was 6, Mum (a single mother, widowed 2 years earlier) announced that we were going to go to Paris the following summer. We would sail over on the S.S. France and rent a flat for the summer…if I learned French. I remember the language instruction records vividly, but don’t remember becoming fluent and somehow we never went… It was decades before I realized the pleasure she got in the planning, even when the adventure itself didn’t materialize. This was true of her plan to move to New Zealand for a year, (our mail carrier was quite confused by the daily delivery of the New Zealand Herald one year); the plan to join the Peace Corps when I left for college, and the houseboat on the inland waterway (never mind that she and Walt knew nothing whatsoever about boats).
I learned early from Mum that laughter was a gift that could make anything better. As a pre-teen I spent a lot of time in and out of hospital for back surgery and scoliosis treatment. I wore bulky body casts or a back brace during that especially self-conscious age of 11 to 14. One of Mum’s greatest gifts to me during that time was to make a game of staring back at the kids who stared at me in my unwieldy armor. And laughing at ourselves. During those years I remember her offering constant good cheer and loving support in a way that left no room to feel sorry for myself.
As Mum’s memory declined during the past few years, she continued to be able to laugh at the absurdity of the world and at her own decline. We laughed a lot during these past few months and that was a balm to both of us.
And then there was her resilience. Mum’s complicated life included many upheavals and losses that shaped her. Boarding school starting at age 8, wartime, emigrating to the U.S. and leaving beloved grandparents behind in Lebanon, more boarding school. She was widowed before she was 30. There were more moves, remarriage, a divorce. Life brings us all challenges. She struggled. I know she did. And yet, she created a life where she found joy and humor and a good portion of contentment.
When the time came to move from the little condo she loved on Kosciusko Street to the Bertram House, that resilience came through loud and clear. Mum, who loved her “quiet little life” and valued her privacy, made the adjustment to assisted living with enthusiasm (mostly). She opened herself to new people and created a little community of dear friends among the loving staff there. She embraced them and they returned her enthusiasm in the best possible ways. We’re so grateful for the time she had there and the love she shared during recent difficult months.
When I asked Will and Abby what the first words were that came to mind to describe Grandma, they both said loving first of all. So did I. Mum’s love was fierce. It was absolute. It was sometimes exhausting. It was joyful and funny and resilient. And it runs through all of us. She adored her family, each of us in our own way. She loved babies and dogs (not necessarily always in that order) and loved nothing more than being a grandmother and great grandmother.
That circle of life business worked its magic in our family this year. Lily’s birth in April brought incredible happiness to all of us. Mum’s delight in her, right up until the last days of her life, was a joy to behold.
Mum, we miss you already, but I’m hoping you’re settled on that cloud you always told me about, dangling your toes with Daddy, Damdaddy and Granny, Peter, and all the other special people. We love you.