I have given a lot of speeches in my life: to students, professors, committees, aspiring artists & sales teams, but this is the hardest one yet.
How do I begin to express the impact that one amazing woman has made on this planet in her 91 years?
BUT — First things first. Merle taught me many things…
One of the most important was gratitude.
In honor of that, I want to thank you all for being here to celebrate her light and legacy.
I also have a few extra special thank you’s.
As you know, Merle was a proud and fiercely independent woman. I have to thank the people that helped her maintain her dignity, even as her independence and body, slipped away from her.
Thank you Brian and Marg for preparing meals, checking in on her, and always ensuring her safety.
Thank you to Jenny – whom she considered one of her own grandchildren – for ensuring she always looked her best. Something that was very important to a woman who never left the house without red lipstick and a touch-up compact.
Thank you to Mom (Carol) and Dad (John) for always being there for her, for putting her foremost in their thoughts, for respecting her wishes and most importantly –to Nana — allowing her to have autonomy until the end.
Thank you to Lynn, who despite her own health and family issues, listened to Nana, made her smile, and always made her feel important.
Thank you to Bayshore health and the VON– especially Fatima and Paul– for treating Nana as an individual, for taking care of her when I couldn’t, giving Mom and Dad comfort, and for friend-ing her.
We come together – today- touched by one woman – a very strong and extraordinary woman, whom each of us knew differently:
she was: a friend, neighbor, ally, mentor, sister, mother, aunt, grandmother,and great grandmother.
And she will be missed.
To some of us she was more than any one of those things.
To me she was my second mother, grandmother, confidant, teacher, and hero.
For the longest time, I really believed she would outlive us all.
Her spirit, drive, and determination had led me to nickname her the “bionic woman”. It seemed like nothing could keep her down. She dealt with whatever life threw at her with grace, beauty, poise and vigor.
After her first joint replacement operation, she astounded doctors by walking within days without assistance rather than weeks.
When she insisted on continuing to do laundry despite the fact she couldn’t carry the laundry basket downstairs anymore, she innovated a system of using her cane to corral the dirty laundry to its place.
She was an unstoppable force – one that commanded – rather than demanded attention.
So, when I think of Nana – MERLE – I am grateful for having had her as my model of the ideal feminist; a perfect balance of grace, power, and loyalty.
When I think of how she lived her life, many themes emerge (beauty, pride, love, loyalty, intelligence, logic, sensibility, adventure, and strength) but two themes reverberate and govern all others: Voice & Choice
Merle knew who she was and what her priorities were. She had no reservations expressing herself, defining her boundaries, and carving out a space in this world. When it came to her life and how she lived it, she was explicit.
You know the saying “don’t cut your nose off despite your face?” Merle turned that on its head. On the one hand, she would go out of her way to accommodate you. But, on the other, if it wasn’t appreciated, or, if it didn’t fit into her scheme of how she wanted to do something, she would be sure to let you know the rules of her world.
When I was 5 or 6, Mom was in the hospital and Nana was caring for me. She would wake me up (a challenge in itself), make me breakfast, and then braid my hair before getting me to school. When I didn’t like Nan’s vigor and “instant facelift” approach to braiding, her solution was for me to cut off all my hair.
When she asked you to do something, she didn’t mean when you were ready. She meant you should have anticipated it yesterday. Mom tells a story from her childhood. Mom was playing a board game with her sisters when Nan asked her to get something from the store. By the time Mom said, “when I am done this game,” Nan had her coat on and was halfway out the door to do it herself.
She wanted her coffee piping hot and her cake cut exactly an inch thick. She never complained, rather explained what her requirements were.
She knew what she liked and because she always told you, you always knew exactly where you stood next to her.
So, it should come as no surprise then, that Merle’s favorite animal was the cardinal. In case, you are not aware the Cardinal has a very loud whistle that commands attention when defending its territory. And Nana had a cardinal’s voice.
As exacting as she was in the requirements of living her own life, she gave latitude and freedom to others in their own. She respected other’s boundaries in the manner she wanted her own acknowledged.
She never offered opinions, but would give honest but balanced feedback when asked. And, if you chose not to take her advice, she would never say “I told you so.” Instead, she would accept your decision.
If I was ever undecided, she would never tell me what to do. When I wanted to move into a man’s house without a ring on my finger, I went to her for advice. She said, “it happened in my day, it will happen again, but what will make you happy? What do YOU want to do.” If I ever wanted to make her proud, I knew all I had to do was own the choices I made, be ethical, and respectful of others choices.
She always looked at all angles of a problem. When she was young, her sister Helen was bulling their youngest sister Louise into doing dishes, even though it was Helen’s turn. When Merle came into he kitchen, Helen tried to convince Merle to join her side. Instead, Merle suggested they do the dishes as a team and finish faster. That didn’t satisfy Helen – who went to their mother and complained. Their Mother’s solution was to send Louise and Merle out to play and leave Helen with the dishes.
Merle was always a champion of social change. She fought to repeal a mandatory retirement age. She was modern and forward thinking. She believed all people (regardless of orientation or gender) deserved love, equality, and the ability to make their own choices. She always said, “it’s all the same God, just different buildings.”
She was the only person in my life who could do no wrong. She could commit no injustice. I strive to emulate her ethics and courage. She showed me that beauty is strength and strength is beauty.
While her body did reach its limitation, she has left us all a legacy and every time I see a Cardinal, I will be reminded of her brilliant red lipstick on lips that spoke for justice and autonomy. She will live on in our hearts and in the changes she affected in this world.