…here’s the text of the eulogy/life sketch thing I read at my mom’s funeral on Wednesday. I’m still in shock at the fact that she’s gone and in a lot of ways it doesn’t seem entirely real. In giving the eulogy I had to think what to say about her that capture the essence of who she was for a group of people, many of whom knew her in different contexts at different times in her life — some from church, some from work, some from family — and a few who didn’t know her at all but were there to support Dad or me. This is what I came up with:
There are many things I could tell you about my mother, but as I was considering how to start this I thought of a Mother’s Day program at church many years ago, when they were giving out awards to different mothers in the congregation. There was recognition for the mother with the most children, the oldest mother, etc. Then they announced an award called “Mother with the Highest Ideals,” and the award went to Sue Morgan. I leaned over to my mom and whispered, “Also known as the Mrs. Zebedee award!”
I don’t recall how old I was then – perhaps 12 or 13, certainly old enough to know the story of the overly ambitious mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who had the nerve to ask Jesus if her sons could sit on His right and left hands in the Kingdom. I couldn’t have explained at that age exactly what “high ideals” meant, but I knew that my mother, like Mrs. Zebedee, always wanted and expected the best for me and from me, even if it seemed out of reach. And from the fact that she was given that award, it was clear that other people recognized that quality in her too.
That memory is tied to another one that gave us a lot of laughs over the years: the memory of Mom quizzing me on my spelling words back in Grade Two. Into the familiar list of second grade spelling words: “bag, bed, big, box, but,” she would toss in a word drawn from the newspaper headlines or just pulled out of her own head, so that her version of the spelling list would go, “bag, bed, big, box, organization.”
The knowledge that my mother expected me to do my best and to strive for something a little more than I thought I could accomplish was one of the foundations upon which my life was built, and it may all have begun with those spelling words.
My mom, Joan Morgan — or “Sue” as she was known to many thanks to a childhood nickname — was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934 but had the good sense to come back home to Newfoundland, her mother’s home, when she was only 10 months old. She and her cousin Joe, a few years older, were brought back to St. John’s by parents who, for various reasons, were unable to care for them in New York, and raised by their grandparents and their Aunt Gertie.
One of the central pillars of my mom’s life was her relationship with my dad, her husband of 50 years. Their relationship went back long before their 1962 wedding day, as they grew up together as members of the St. John’s Seventh-day Adventist Church and students at the Adventist school. My dad remembers waiting at the corner on the walk to school so that he could catch her on her way and walk to school with her, and giving her a ride on the crossbar or the handlebars of his bike – until they were stopped by a policeman and told it was unsafe. However as she was a mature young lady of 13 at the time and he just a boy of 11, she may only have liked him because of his bike. All her life she had a fascination with wheeled vehicles, getting a driver’s license and a car as soon as she was able and always enjoying the freedom of being behind the wheel of her own vehicle, as well as the fun of bargaining with the car salesman to make sure she got the best possible deal.
As for her relationship with my dad, it took several years before that pre-teen crush blossomed into adult romance in their twenties – after they had both been away for a few years. Dad was in the air force, while my mom attended Oshawa Missionary College, now Kingsway College, after finishing high school here in St. John’s. Next month would have been her 60 year reunion, and she had her plane ticket booked to attend. Ten years ago, at her 50th reunion, she swore she wouldn’t return for the 60th because all those old folks back for the 60th reunion looked so feeble! But she changed her mind earlier this year and was looking forward to making that trip along with my dad and other family members, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jerry, some local church friends who are also attending, and some of her old friends from college days. Mom had wonderful memories of her two years at Oshawa and enjoyed the chance to connect with friends from those days whenever possible.
After she had attended school at Oshawa and worked in New York City for awhile, she moved back to Newfoundland. That’s when she and my dad began dating, got married, and moved into a tiny apartment in the upstairs of my Aunt Gertie’s house. They enjoyed 50 years of marriage and celebrated that milestone anniversary last July. Although my mom was a very social person, she disliked parties, especially ones where she was the centre of attention. Her wedding to my dad had been a famously small and quiet affair with only a handful of people in attendance, and when Jason and I got married she was one of the few mothers of the bride in history to suggest that instead of helping pay for a reception, she and Dad would be happy to give the same amount of money so we could go on a nice trip and quietly elope! When hers and dad’s 50th anniversary drew near she began talking about having an anniversary party – not because she wanted one, but because she thought people might expect it. We could see that she was getting stressed out about the idea and she was relieved when we convinced her we should all take a family trip to New York City instead – because unlike parties, travelling was one of the things she always loved throughout her life.
If I had to describe my parents’ marriage I would say without hesitation that they were the best of friends. They taught me by example that a strong and long-lasting marriage is not one where the partners never disagree – because they often did! – but one where disagreements can be worked out. Not one where an unkind word is never exchanged, but one where unkind words are quickly forgiven. Most important, I learned from my parents that they key to a strong marriage is being able to laugh together and genuinely enjoying each other’s company – which my parents did, right up to the last day of Mom’s life.
I’ve said that though she disliked parties, she was a very sociable person. Everyone who knew her remembers her as warm, outgoing and friendly. If you went to church with her you had to expect to wait for her to have half a dozen long conversations with people afterwards, because she was genuinely interested in people’s lives and wanted to know what was going on with them. Going anywhere in public with her took longer than expected, since she was bound to run into several people she knew. This was true all over St. John’s but often when she visited other parts of North America too. Anywhere where there were lots of Adventists and/or lots of Newfoundlanders, my mom was bound to find someone with whom she had a connection. She had a wonderful memory both for names and for faces, which mystified both my dad and me – in fact over the last few days we’ve often wished she could be beside us whispering in our ears at her own wake, reminding us of who people are and where we know them from.
Many of her connections came from her working life. In the 1950s and early 60s, when many women still assumed that a job was something you got until you found a husband, my mother always planned to have a career of her own. Although she enjoyed working in the medical field, she never aspired to be a nurse – one of the few acceptable professions for girls to go into at the time. “She always wanted to be a secretary,” my dad said when we were talking about her career. Nowadays secretaries are more often referred to as “office administrators” and that term better captures what my mom did throughout her working years, as she managed the offices, first of the Adventist doctor in St. John’s, Dr. Eugene Hildebrand, later of Doctor Cosmos Ho, and then went to work for the newly-formed Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University. For most of her later working years she managed the Family Practice Clinic there, where her duties included organizing the rotation schedules of the medical residents – a job so complex that apparently even after computers were brought into the workplace the job was still given to her to do by hand, because she was better at it than any computer program.
My dad has said a couple of times over the last few days that Mom always loved her church without ever being a typical “church lady” and that was certainly true. I remember her telling me that when she was a teenager she used to enjoy taking part in church in terms of doing readings and recitations at services and church functions, but that somewhere along the way she developed a fear of public speaking and could no longer stand up front and speak. She found many quieter ways to serve though, functioning for many years as church clerk and later as editor of the church bulletin. But her greatest love in church life was the connections she made with people and many of those who attended the St. John’s church over the years have fond memories of her warm smile, encouraging words, and her ability to meet and greet people. Someone once told me they believed my mother’s spiritual gift was the gift of encouragement, and she used it well both in the church and in the community. Though she suffered over the years from a number of health problems and worried a great deal – far more than she needed to – about her family, most of the people she interacted with never saw her own troubles or worries, only her warmth and her genuine interest in them.
In her retirement years, my mom’s life revolved around her family. She spent much of her time and energy taking care of Aunt Gertie, who had taken care of her so many years ago, making it possible for Aunt Gertie to stay in her own home until she was 96 years old, and then visiting her faithfully when she had to go to a nursing home. Mom took great joy in her grandchildren, Chris and Emma, and spent as much time as she could with them. And, of course, her greatest joy in retirement was the time she and Dad spent together, which was pretty much all the time. They enjoyed the things they had always enjoyed, like taking trips and going to eat out at nice restaurants, but they also made a fun adventure out of the everyday things of life – even if one of them had to go to the supermarket or the drugstore they would rarely go alone, but go together just for the sake of enjoying each other’s company. She loved to go for a drive even with no particular purpose in mind, and if she and Dad had someplace to go she would often suggest leaving early so they could go for a little drive on the way, just to see what was going on.
As her family we are inconsolable at her loss and the sudden way in which she was taken from us, but it’s a comfort to remember that on the last day of her life she went to church and chatted and visited with friends there in the morning, spent the afternoon visiting Aunt Gertie at the nursing home, and in the evening was on her way out to attend a concert with me and my dad. I think we would all feel blessed if our last day on earth could be spent doing the things we loved with people we loved, and that knowledge will console us as we wait to see her again on the resurrection morning. I like to imagine that when that morning comes she will be reunited with my dad and say to him, “Don, it’s wonderful that the Lord has come to take us to heaven — do you think we can get Him to go for a little drive around first?”