The Writer as Eulogist
July 16, 2018 § 5 Comments
By Michelle Bowdler
I am the designated eulogy giver in my family, a role that became mine years before anyone called me a writer. Writing and then reciting a good eulogy require that I sit my own sadness down on a pew as I walk to the podium, adjust the microphone and speak. At the funerals of my relatives, I work to evoke shared memories that allow family members and friends to grieve as if we are one body. It is our collective eulogy offered up by one of us in the tribe.
We loved her so.
We remember that mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
We recall a turn of phrase, an unruly lock of hair no product could tame, the way she loved yard sales or a pint of beer or the Lawrence Welk Show, or the lap of a puppy’s tongue.
Or, or, or.
My skills have improved over time as the losses pile up. To get a eulogy right, one must edit down a life to fewer than ten spoken minutes or you’ll lose the crowd. One must find words and stories to make the crowd laugh and cry, titrating the feelings out in just the right dosage.
When my Grandma Esther died, I told jokes. She was married four times and divorced twice. She was known for questionable recipes designed to save money. “If the ingredients are good, how can it be bad,” she’d say while using the meat grinder affixed to the wall to combine Monday’s salmon with Tuesday’s chicken with last Thursday’s liver. It seemed we often laughed at her rather than with – like the time she divorced her third husband when she found a bra in his dresser, and admitted later it was probably hers.
When my mother died, inspiration failed me. Our relationship was fraught and her early death robbed me of the chance to work anything further out with her. I pulled up a piece I had written about her and scoured it for anything to share. My mom was half Persian and turned so brown in the summer that as a young woman on vacation in Florida in the 1950s she was asked to sit in the back of the bus and sit she did. “It wouldn’t have been right if I showed them my tan lines like my friends said I should.” Now, that would have been a good story to tell, but I waved it aside. Instead, and the choice baffles me still, I struggled to convey how her physical beauty took all of our breath away – She looked a bit like Sophia Loren mixed with Cher; maybe more like Rita Moreno with a hint of Ann Bancroft. I reminded the crowd how all the married men in the neighborhood came over after my dad died with offers to help out and wouldn’t leave. My mother’s sisters asked me later why I didn’t talk about what a devoted mother she was and how desperately she had loved my sister and me. I learned, then, that a writer needs to know her subject to evoke anything useful.
My aunt Marlene died a few months ago. She was, for me, the exception in an array of deaths of complicated characters who loved deeply yet were challenged at times to convey that love. All efforts to write this eulogy failed. My page stood empty, waiting.
An hour before the service, I found my metaphor. Passover had ended just a few weeks prior to Marlene’s death, and I had sung the song Dayenu multiple times around a Seder table. The phrase itself means: “It would have been enough,” as it honors deeds and blessings for which we are grateful. Even when there might be more good works coming, the crowd asserts dayenu, acknowledging that whatever we already have been given is enough. As I shared each tiny and precious memory of my aunt in a funeral home in Chicago, I said repeatedly – dayenu. Each kindness, each moment of feeling special in her presence, each time I heard joy in her voice when she knew it was me on the other end of the phone. Dayenu. Dayenu. Dayenu. What each of us wanted so much was that one moment more, but the memories would have to do. They would have to be enough and so – dayenu. It was a Passover death, and this word resonated as the crowd was shouting it with me by the end of the eulogy.
After I spoke, someone came up to me and said, “You are a beautiful writer,” and my heart hardened. It was the only time since I coveted that identity that I did not want the compliment. I wanted only for the grieving crowd to see my aunt and the light she left behind. I wanted my words to be in service of evoking her only. I wished for the writing to disappear and for everyone to see and feel my beloved Marlene fully one last time.
Michelle Bowdler has been published in the New York Times, and her writing has been seen in Burningword Journal, Gertrude Press, The Rumpus, and other literary magazines. She has two essays in a book entitled: We Rise to Resist: Voices from a New Era in Women’s Political Action (McFarland 2018). She is a 2017 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award for Non-Fiction recipient, a Ragdale Fellow, and a Boston Grub Street Memoir Incubator alum.