My mother, Renate Wisoker, passed away at home, peacefully and without pain, on April 22, 2017. The official obituary can be found here.
For my own, personal eulogy to my mother, which I somehow managed to get through reading at the memorial service without crying, please continue reading.
I am a writer. Those of you who’ve read my work know I routinely turn out hundreds of thousands of words. Simple words, complex words, and a whole bunch of entirely made up words.
I grew up being encouraged to read the dictionary for fun. My parents valued learning above all else. We didn’t just have the chance to go to college; we were EXPECTED to go to college. To matriculate.
That’s one of them fancy words I’ve learned over the years. Matriculate. Always sounded to me like it should mean that time when you leave your mom’s house for real for the first time. Or like it should have something to do with graduating. But it really just means to be enrolled in college or university.
Words are funny things. For a writer, assembling words into a story is a bit like herding a million plus cats into a box. It’s much easier if the box is very, very large.
The words I’m speaking to you right now are a tiny, tiny subset of a very, very large herd of extremely recalcitrant cats, all of whom have been hiding from me for days now. In other words, I, the writer…have been left silent.
My sister Tanya finally gave me a box in which to fit the things I want to say. I wouldn’t have been able to write this without her help.
I think I knew the German words for cat and dog before I could read. My mother and grandmother, Martha, always talked in a mixture of German and English. It’s peculiar to me, today, that while I was always pushed to excel in school, I don’t recall any particular push to make me learn German. It was just part of the background sounds.
My siblings may remember differently. It may well be that mom tried to teach me and I just refused to learn. It could be that she chose not to teach me so that she could have private conversations with her own mother. I don’t know. I’ll never know, now. There are so many things that I’m realizing simply never occurred to me to really talk to her about. I can compare my memories of childhood with those of my siblings, but mom and dad are no longer here to adjudicate disputes over The Way It Really Happened. That’s an important point of parental privilege.
Here’s a ridiculously small item: did my mother serve us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when we were kids? I have no clue. Seriously, no idea. One sibling insists yes. Another says no. By the time we asked, dad was already gone and mom’s memory was failing.
Everyone knows my mother sewed. Gardened. Danced. Traveled. Adventured. But who knows which of the shirts in her closet she wore to my nephew’s bar mitzvah? Who can point to which pieces of furniture were brought from Florida to Oregon to Connecticut to New Hampshire to Connecticut and back to Florida?
Who remembers trying to wrangle a cranky, screaming toddler on a public bus in the Oregon summer heat? Only mom. My siblings weren’t there. I was, but I was too young…I only know about it through stories.
From the trivial to the profound moments of my life, mom was always there, patiently collecting stories, holding on to the memories of our past selves. Every triumph was read back to me, as was, naturally, every mistake. Another important parental privilege!
I know the German word for naturally, but I’m afraid to try saying it because while I can spell just about anything, my pronunciation is terrible in English, let alone German. Even the German words for cat and dog, I won’t try saying those in front of a crowd.
Stories come naturally to me. I remember telling stories to my sister’s stuffed toys, having imaginary friends, endlessly writing bits and pieces, scenes and chapters, in those clunky three or five subject notebooks.
I remember one day, while I was in high school, I was sitting in my room writing. Mom came in, very upset because she’d just found out there was a school dance that night. She tried to order me to go. I refused. I told her I just wanted to write.
I am now the only person who holds that memory.
The last few days have been very surreal. I’m beginning to realize that’s in part because I now have no trustworthy backup to so many family memories. My mom. My dad. My cousin Rhoda. My grandparents.
My sister gave me a very, very good word, one that finally got me started on this eulogy. I can’t find a word in any of my dictionaries, or even make one up, that fits any better than this. I’m even going to say it in German first.
I am now enrolled in a life without my parents at my back.