We celebrated my grandmother’s funeral Mass today. The family elected me earlier this week to deliver her eulogy. It was difficult to write, and I’m grateful to a good friend for helping me through it.
We’re here to celebrate the funeral Mass of Marion Bruce Shakely. Our presence here, together, is a tribute to Marion. Our Mom. Our Gram. Each of us here, like a mirror, reflects a part of her life, and together we both celebrate and mourn in the light of her life.
We know so many of the essential facts: Born in South Philadelphia, the child of Philip Bruce and Marion Roth. A child of the Great Depression, who grew up without a father. A daughter of St. Bernard parish as much as Mayfair itself. A striver. A student who delighted in scholastic challenge and achievement from Saint Bernard to Mount Saint Joseph Academy to the University of Pennsylvania. A loving and devoted wife to John, after meeting in a chance blind-date—that went, in her words, “horribly.” A mother of five children. A grandmother to ten, and great-grandmother to many yet to come. A traveler. An exacting writer and serious reader. A thinker. A doer.
But facts alone don’t tell Marion’s story. No amount of raw information could explain the gifts she gave us. Gifts like Marion and Bill. And Alison, Joe, and Samantha. And the gifts these begot: Phil, Andrea, Monica, me, Chris, Sarah, Julia, Alex, Michael, Nicholas, Abigail, and Henry.
(Christians speak of “the mystery of life.” Each of our lives is a unexpected gift, she professed, from God. And as mysterious as that might sound, it seems less mysterious when considering how absolutely unexplainable we can seem—sometimes—to one another.)
No set of facts could capture the essence of her spirit and character like little reminiscences, the little flickers of life that live on as a part of our lives:
She’s there in Mayfair, forming one of her earliest memories of her mother Nana through the Depression, who’s tearing up just a bit, because, she laments, “There is more and more need, and I can only help a few.”
She’s on Cottage Street, delighting in the presence of her “Pay-pop” and the likes of Aunt Alice, living through an era of color and vitality that most of us understand only in black and white.
There’s Uncle Bill, coming into her life as her first son and little companion.
There’s Aunt Marion, earnestly asking her what would happen to Pop—a non-Catholic—when he died, and her attitude of Christian hopefulness.
There’s Aunt Alison, heading to bed as her mother dictates a scribbled school paper for her father to type out on the typewriter, pipe smoke billowing out of the office.
There Aunt Samantha, Mom, going to her mother like all of us at one time or another, for a no-interest loan from the Bank of Gram.
She’s just earning her first driver’s license in her late 40s to visit her sick mother. She’s probably already decided to visit daily.
She’s mourning—holding a child denied life, but not, in her eyes, humanity, whom she’ll bury along with two more at Nazareth Hospital—“the beautiful baby of three months with blonde hair and clenched fists.”
She’s casually deploying her sharp wit with some comment or other, maybe recalling in surprising detail the events of some book or poem from seven decades prior.
Yes, she’s snapping into Longfellow’s classic: “Listen my children, and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-Five, Hardly a man is now alive, Who remembers that famous day and year…”
She’s at home, half-shyly recalling Pop’s recitation of Elizabethan poetry throughout her life.
She’s in the kitchen on Log College Drive, calling—booming—up the stairs for one of us to wake to face the world on a cold school morning.
She’s driving to Archbishop Wood to meeting of the band parents or to pick me up and offer advice after a late afternoon in the newspaper office.
She’s growing more youthful later in life, drawing energy from the lives of both expected and unexpected family and friends, and heading on an errand to Len’s Hartsville Garage or Bountiful Acres. Soon she’ll decide to visit Rome—that Bank of Gram loan at least in part repaid, where she’ll see a saint, John Paul the Great.
It’s Christmas, and she’s asking one of us to put on the dinner music in the living room. Julie Andrews begins to sing.
She’s parked outside, asking for our help carrying in Food for the Poor; “the good sort of things that we would have.” (And there’s Pop with her, warning to lock the doors, because “We can’t trust these Catholics.”)
She’s on the road somewhere to Saint Mary’s Manor in witness to her husband, continuing her daily visits to him long after his memory of her had fled him.
She’s at home, just now, following the news and writing a check to support people who could use some help—apart from the world but not cold to its needs.
There’s little Abigail, candidly eager to meet “the oldest living person in our family”, about to meet her waiting grandmother.
We’re with her in the toasty television room as she laughs freely, reveling in memories like these.
And there’s Uncle Joe nearby, with characteristic love, cooking a meal so this woman’s life might continue in joy.
These little flickers of life, of a full life ended in its 88th year, can speak to only parts of the whole woman we love. As we mourn her death, and the loss of her presence in our lives, we can delight in the prospect of her coming to see the face of God.
We’re celebrating Mass for Gram, but we’re burying both husband and wife. In remembering both today, let’s remember that their lasting gift to us is the gift of our family.