“I have almost a complete disregard of precedent and a faith in the possibility of something better”. —Clara Barton
My dearest mom, Elaine, passed away last week.
In many ways, writing these words is surreal. As some of you may be aware, I am not from a big family. I am, in fact, an only child. I lost my beloved dad when I was a young woman. For many years, my mom and I have been together, linked arm-in-arm, facing this world and living our lives right by each other’s sides. Our many joys and deepest pains were always shared. We were never alone because we had each other.
There is so much I will miss about her. She was bold, brave, caring and deeply generous and giving of her spirit and time. She had a great sense of humor and loved to be teased. She was the most lovable ham. Too often is the phrase “larger than life” used, but it suited her perfectly. “Life of the party” was also an excellent fit (if you were seated next to her at a dinner, you prepared for fireworks). She was elegant and lithe in stature, but robust, mighty and refreshingly irreverent in the way she carried herself and lived her life.
When I was a young girl growing up in Missouri, many of my interests reflected those of my grandmother. I loved art and nature. I had a pony and, of course, a dog. We had baby chickens every spring. I loved playing and helping in the garden and making things with my hands. Above all else, I adored dress up! These were all things I did enthusiastically but in solitude, as I was shy and introverted.
A move from Kirksville, Missouri (population 9,000), to St. Louis when I was a middle schooler left me feeling very isolated and under-confident. Although my dad was the principal at my new school (this presented its own set of challenges for a 12-year-old new girl in town), I felt like I was on an island.
My mom was very concerned about my adjustment to my new life. Her advice to me at the time was that I simply needed to learn “how to bubble!”. While I was still scratching my head over the meaning of this suggestion, she was already busily executing an ambitious plan – I was going to run for school government (she coined this The Bubble Campaign)! This registered horror in the unassuming side of me. But before I could open my mouth in protest, my mom became my manager AND team, churning out ideas for platforms, strategies, buttons, posters, carefully crafted speeches, endless pep talks and many, many motivational snacks! Kids who were running for other offices even sought her help. Our “rec room” was our lively headquarters and my initial doubt was eclipsed by her unbridled enthusiasm. Much to my surprise, I won. Fast forward to my next run for school government years later and my mom charmingly coerced a classmate of mine to swing into my speech on a rope, both of us in costume, for a comedic “Me Tarzan, You Jane” moment (My middle name was Jane – Carolyne, my first name , would become my moniker after my move to NYC). Needless to say, that candidacy was a far cry from the shy girl who could barely muster the bravery to run years before. My mom’s confidence and gusto was infectious in my life. And there was no detail in my world unworthy of her enthusiastic brand of championing. Her belief in me made me fly. And with that new vantage point, the world began to open for me.
My mom was an educator, down to her bones. She earned her teaching degree in college and proudly pursued further degrees in special education in St. Louis. When I was in college at Washington University, she was working with a group of disabled children, some who were completely non-communicative. Her work with them was consistent but insufficient based on their needs. She applied for a grant and developed a program that allowed their time with her to be not only dedicated but full-time. With this new platform, she was able to tailor techniques and approaches to their needs that when applied consistently over time, yielded miraculous results. I remember going to see her for a second time working with her kids after some time had passed. The feeling of pride in progress radiated from that classroom and those children’s faces. I will carry the memory of seeing my mom doing what she loved best, what she was called to do, with me forever.
In later years, my mom was an advocate for children in the court system and went to great lengths to place these children with extended family members who may not have seen the potential in themselves as suitable guardians. Keeping families together was her main goal and her passion.
Later, she worked for the Red Cross, driving and distributing essential supplies in a DAT (Disaster Action Team) truck in St. Louis. She came to the aid of not only those in need in less fortunate communities but gave sustenance and provisions to firefighters and others who were also serving their community tirelessly. She assisted in relocating families in crisis to hotels and offered service and support to those who were suffering in their daily lives. The Red Cross gave her the Clara Barton award for her work and dedication. Few endeavors gave her more fulfillment and purpose than her work with the Red Cross.
Post-Hurricane Katrina, she also helped place evacuee students in St. Louis school districts who had been displaced and unable to continue their education in New Orleans. This included helping their families adjust to living in hotels and offering them support in picking up the pieces of their lives after that catastrophic storm.
In 2009, I urged my mom to come live with me in Connecticut. It was the time of the economic meltdown. This was no small feat – as she was quite content with her independence and the rich life she had built for herself in St. Louis. However, health reasons contributed to her decision to eventually come live with me. Upon her arrival, she got straight to work. She identified needs in local food banks and women’s shelters and requested a van that would help her deliver supplies to both these places. My love for her is on full display in the fact that I allowed her to take over swaths of my garden so we could yield more practical, heartier vegetables for donations (delicate mesclun lettuce was cast aside). Her work in our local community made everyone fall in love with her immediately. She was defined by the work she did to help others. Her role in CT, despite her aging or health hurdles, was no different. She even started a “10-ers Club” at my house. As a guest, you could not set foot on Weatherstone without giving $10 to fund her community projects. This endeared her to all my friends and kept us rooted in our community. Seeing my neighbors through her eyes and dedication was such a blessing.
She was a voracious reader. The Sharon Library was wonderful and set aside 4-5 books at a time. She wanted romance (but without “lurid” sex scenes!). She also followed the news closely and always sought to be well-informed. She spent most of her later days content and upright on a stool in her kitchen overlooking a bed of roses. Adjacent was a bird feeder and she marveled at the many varieties of birds that would frequent her favorite spot. This brought her comfort and joy. Through it all, she never lost her sense of humor. She was very self-effacing, insisting that any artistic talent I had skipped her and came directly from my maternal grandmother! But so much good came directly from her.
Even during this last year when she had times of pain and depression, she was always mindful of her many blessings, saying she was so fortunate to be surrounded by so much love and care. Through it all, she kept her Midwestern charm and strength (and her ability to strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere!).
She existed to help others and to make them feel safe, appreciated, valued, supported and inspired. I shall never stop trying to carry out that legacy, in my own way. I was incredibly blessed to call her my mom, and I move forward, carrying her in my heart always. I’ll start by gathering a truck of donations for those in need right now from her home because that’s exactly the way she would have wanted it done.
Stay safe and hold your loved ones close,