A Eulogy For My Mother
“I love you madly.”
Those weren’t the last words my mother spoke to me, but it was how she ended the call where I found out about her cancer. It was what she wanted me to remember.
And it worked. I really only remember about half of that call, but that particular phrase stuck with me. It wasn’t one she’d ever said before, but it somehow felt familiar. I knew then, that no matter how long the treatment would last, or how optimistic she would pretend to be when we spoke, that was the moment she said goodbye. That was how she wanted me to remember her. She loved me madly.
My mother was a wonderful study in contradictions. She reveled in surprising people and subverting expectations. Witty and independent and opinionated and kind, she was 5 foot one half inch of firecrackers and feminism, equal parts wild horse breaking country girl, and subdued suburban matriarch, trying so desperately to raise her rambunctious sons with some amount of decor and grace.
When I think of my mother, I think of her love of words. While Shakespeare always had a special place in her heart, words were sacred and storytelling was a gift from the gods. We were taught to read early, and our house always had thousands of books. And if we were really really good, we could go to the library later and get some more.
But I also have a very distinct memory of her gleefully singing along to Eric Clapton’s song “Cocaine” as we drove to church. She told me this was perfectly okay because it was - and I’ll quote her - “good music” - as if that settled the manner, and was the only question a nine year old could have about that particular situation.
My mother had the soul of an artist and the heart of a rebel, and I’m pretty sure she would have loved that I told that story at church because she reveled in counterpointing punk and proper - which is as appropriate a metaphor for Sandy as I can think of.
My mother was born and immediately given up, an aspect of her life that would defy her attempts to understand, reconcile, and identify it, even as she sought to never let it define her. Her adoptive parents considered the topic off-limits for discussion, so much of her life would be lived with a question mark overshadowing her experiences. Who am I and where did I come from? Are these interests and choices mine, or part of my mysterious biology? Why won’t anyone tell me? Most of her life would be spent in the search for her biological family, for answers to questions that could never be answered in absentia, and for a place in the world that was more than just existence. For a family. And a place. And a past.
Her childhood in rural Oregon was spent in contradiction as well - with a prim and proper southern mother and a grease-monkey father whose reputation was built on being fair and honest to everyone, regardless of their race, gender, or religion - an uncommon trait at the time, but one that she chose to absorb and uphold her entire life, proudly talking at length about his reputation for fairness even just a few months ago.
Her mother’s dream was for Sandy to grow up to be … a secretary. I’ll hold for wild uproarious laughter from those who knew her. Much to her mother’s chagrin, Sandy’s nature was drawn to wilder and more independent pursuits than her mother’s nurture. In grade school she tested at a genius level, and was school president by fourth grade. By twelve she was helping her father run his service station. In high school she was the only girl in chess club. In college she challenged her professors, and drove a bright yellow convertible named Chiquita Bug, and lived alone with her dog, and for a very brief period of time, was a bouncer in a British pub.
Throughout it all there were horses. Wild horses that no one else could ride; broken horses that no one else could fix. The occasional untrainable horse that she secretly trained out behind the barn for six months before her father found out. And Saber the pony - who she described, with a slowly widening grin, as “a very naughty pony.” Because when they brought him home, Saber immediately got into the horse’s feed, ate everything, and then broke out of the yard entirely to wander off and have his own adventure, which immediately put him in Mom’s good graces.
You see, my mother also loved naughty things.
After college, she and David married, and they moved to San Francisco. She described the time fondly, speaking of working in finance, being surrounded by artists and musicians, wearing fabulous platform shoes, and dancing in the streets. But the city wore on that part of her that missed a more country life. So they moved to Sacramento - the city she would call home for the largest part of her life - in search of something more.
What she found was something she never expected: kids. I remember a conversation I had with my mom as an adult, when I told her that I didn’t think that Beth and I would have children. It just wasn’t what we wanted, and I hoped she would understand. She took a long sip of wine, and told me “I understand.” And then a long pause before a small, mischievous grin and “Yeah, your father really had to talk me into that one.”
But our childhood was full of learning and science and creativity and love. We got lost in the woods until dark, and spread a thousand legos out on the carpet, and played soccer on the weekends (with mom yelling at the referees or the coach from time to time) and built things in the garage. We read and wrote and sung and danced. We learned independence and broke rules and occasionally raised hell exactly like she did when she was growing up.
And she loved us madly.
In her thirties, sick of being overlooked and under appreciated in the private sector, Mom got involved in nonprofits - something she would continue for the rest of her life. From politics, to women’s groups, to the arts, she wore her beliefs on her sleeve, and was happy making a difference one person at a time.
Sandy was a strong, smart, confident woman before those were compliments - wearing proudly the scars from battles of what women should and should not do, say, or think - and she remained so her entire life - an example to all of us. My mother was also fiercely intelligent and curious, and challenged us to be the same. She never stopped learning, always collecting new hobbies and passion projects, and her stacks of interests and intentions always made our house feel like it was a mad scientist’s laboratory full of undiscovered treasure, uncompleted projects, and academic wonders.
She also collected people. From Portland to San Francisco, to Sacramento, she built her own family. From friends. From my father. From children. From the countless other surrogate children who were taken up under her wing and offered food, protection, culture, and knowledge.
As I became a teenager, friends of mine became new children of hers; treated no differently from me, and given both love and chores when around the house. Then there were exchange students, first a trickle, then a flood. Age wasn’t a factor either, as friends of hers often became new family to us. When someone she knew needed a home, or advice, or just a kind ear, she offered up hers without question, judgment, or reservation. And our home was always full of art, and love, and dancing, and wine, as needed. Somehow, her nature encouraged those around her to trust her, to confide in her, and to welcome her sometimes pointed opinions, suggestions, and advice.
The woman who was talked into children ended up with dozens, spread all across the world, all of whom loved her dearly. The woman who grew up without a family, built her own. All of whom, she loved madly.
And then, in her late fifties, and after decades of searching, Sandy finally found her biological family. She found her mother first - who was petite, opinionated, smart, and adventurous. A few years later, she found her father - a pilot and a professor. And through him, she found dozens of new relatives. Visiting this family and getting to know them was one of the joys of her life. She finally had an answer to so many of her questions, and she found those answers within, as she once wrote, “a bunch of creatives and storytellers.”
High praise indeed, because my mother believed in the power of art and creativity above almost all else. Her knowledge was deep and her tastes were eclectic. She loved The Beach Boys and Queen and David Bowie and The Doors … but also Metallica, and the occasional dubstep mashup. She loved old Katherine Hepburn films and modern indie movies … but also had a genuine love for dumb comedies such as her perennial favorite, Dodgeball. And as a brief sidebar - if you ever watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus on Sacramento’s PBS station, you have Sandy to thank for that - she loved it so much in San Francisco that she forced David to make PBS bring it here.
Growing up, Mom taught us early the power of stories, and art, and culture. And having left her mark on both of us, the second half of her life was also marked by her work with arts and theatre programs. She spent several decades performing with Junior League Children’s Theater, and working with various other programs to bring arts and culture into the classroom. But in the last seven years, appalled that no one else was taking on the task, Sandy took a more direct approach and began teaching and directing Shakespeare at local grade and high schools. She would spend months planning, weeks scouring local thrift stores for props and costumes, and talk for hours about the amazing transformations her kids had undertaken.
She loved them madly.
I miss my mother with all of my heart. I miss the way she laughed freely and often. I miss the way that she somehow, throughout her entire life, always found new ways to surprise me with scandalous tales or unexpected interests - often responding to my shock with a glint in her eye and “You know dear, I was a real person before I was your mother.” I miss the way she would get excited about something and hop up and down just a little bit, as if her vigor was literally bursting out of her from head to toe. I miss her voice, and her smile, and her presence every day.
Sandy valued intelligence, creativity, kindness, and hard work, and all of her friends exhibited at least one of these traits - often several. She was proudly rebellious. She was resolutely fair in a firmly unfair world. She was a fierce promotor for second chances and for finding the good in people. She was a champion for curiosity, and an advocate of the idea that art could change the world.
My mother loved horses, Shakespeare, champagne, and Lake Tahoe. She loved sports cars, Paris, and fashion. She made us put napkins in our laps at McDonalds, but owned a purple baseball cap that read “Got Wine?” - and wore it frequently. She considered leopard print a neutral color. Movies were always too loud, but “good music” could always be turned up “just a hair.” She talked about Oregon as if it was a heavenly place, and her dogs as if they were people. She hated surprises, but loved surprising others. She treated strangers like friends, and friends like family.
Sandy touched a thousand lives. Perhaps tens of thousands. Young and old. Near and far. And I expect every single one of them would say that in her own special way, she loved them madly.