Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Eulogy For My Mom

On Easter Sunday April 5, 2015 my mother Harriet Alda Burns left this earth to be with her Maker. The story of the days leading up to that moment, and that moment itself are yet to be written down, what follows, however, is the eulogy that I wrote and delivered at Saint Charles Borromeo Church the day of her funeral. It was a packed church. And mom's spirit of faith and joy was present in all of us. 

Eulogy for Harriet Alda Burns, March 3, 1935 - April 5, 2015 
Mass of Resurrection, April 11, 2015
(written and delivered by Leslie Burns Patient) 

I’ll let you all in on a secret. I volunteered to do this. My mom and I used to talk a lot when I was in grammar school about how I wanted to be a priest because I just really wanted to give homilies, from this very pulpit, actually. I’m not sure I’m going to get through this without choking back some sobs, but I knew that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity mom handed me to get up here at the lectern in my childhood parish and offer some words of wisdom. 

My mom was unhealthy for quite a while now, so it’s not exactly as if we could say this was sudden, shocking or unexpected, but she had been in and out of hospitals for the last few years, the operative word, however was “out.” Mom always made it through and she’d be back home and we got more time. We didn’t take it for granted, we all cherished every extra moment we had with her, as I’m sure many of you did as well. But it’s not unreasonable to have wanted even more time. 

As soon as I thought about that idea of “time” it made me realize, that if I were to speak of the Lessons my mother taught me, one of the first things about Bunnie Burns that I know she taught all of us here was that

Time Doesn't Matter When You're with family and friends.

I learned this lesson very early on when Tracie and I were young,  Mom would say she was going to get some milk and eggs at the store, and would ask us to watch John. We learned quite quickly that though the store was only a five-minute drive, that getting milk and eggs should only take about another ten minutes, Mom would inevitably see someone or some many people she knew at the store making each aisle at least a half hour conversation. Oh, you laugh, but I am looking out here and some of you are the very culprits that kept us from our mom. Yep—Mom going to the store “for just a few things” meant that we had a good three hour babysitting window to work with.  Later in our lives, my husband learned this lesson in “Bunnie Time” when we’d stay over night and then he’d ask what time we were leaving in the morning and I’d say, “Oh, around 10.” Steve learned pretty quickly that in “Bunnie Time” that meant we were most likely going to still be there for lunch. But that’s leads into the next important lesson I learned from my mom:

Always have a large kitchen table.

You know, because real “Bunnie Time” is about sitting at the kitchen table and talking, and laughing, and talking some more. And if your table is big enough then there can be lots of people there. And there always was. The welcoming spirit of my mom was so pervasive, we had high school friends come over, college friends, grad school friends, every one ended up sitting at that kitchen table talking to my mom. Just yesterday I got a text from a friend of mine from Japan who now lives in Ohio who mentioned how she remembered sitting at the kitchen table talking to my mom. Even this past November, I was running the Philadelphia Marathon and invited a friend from Denver to come stay with us so we’d be near the city for our pre-dawn starting time. The night before we sat around that kitchen table laughing with mom and carb loading. So it’s not hard to see how when you’re working on Bunnie Time around the large kitchen table how the next lesson I learned from mom came into play:  

Anyone who stays overnight is family.

This could perhaps have been mom’s rule because she wasn’t ever a very early riser. So she didn’t necessarily want the pressure of having to cater to “Guests” in the morning—if you made everyone family, by the morning they could get their own coffee.  More often than not, the people staying at our home were already family anyway, at least our adopted families, our California Moms, our surrogate older brothers. This sense of keeping people in your life was very important to Mom. She taught us to gather friends from every era of our lives. Childhood friends, classmates in college, neighbors from Air Force Bases, friends from her “first set of kids” at St. Charles and Holy Cross, friends from her second set of kids at Cinnaminson Middle  and High School.  Friends from costume crew, choir, Women’s circle. Mom taught us that you

Keep at least one good friend for every era of your life
and if you’re lucky you’ll have even more.

You may think that with this revolving door policy, that Bunnie was from a large family but she wasn’t. She was an only child who never knew her father and had a mother who sent her to boarding school when she was only ten years old. I say this not to add gravitas or drama to her narrative, but to give you some perspective on how Bunnie purposefully built this world of friendship and family in her home, not because it was something she came from, but it was something that she desired to always have in her life.
If anything I learned from mom it is that

Perseverance over adversity is a virtue and
Humor is necessary when the tears get too tough.

She purposefully crafted a family. The family she never had. She even defined herself as a mother well before she had children. I know this because when I was having my “night before my wedding” mother/daughter talk I asked my mom “how did you know that dad was the one” and she answered, “Because I knew he would be good father.” At that time, I was a little let down. I wanted to hear about some kind of fireworks and about his sparkling blue eyes, but she said “because I knew he would be a good father.” And she was right, especially in her goal to have this strong family and to define herself as Mother. I remember kind of fighting against this as a college student and my mom, God love her as we know God does, humored me this one day as we sat at a diner while I was on Break and I was spouting all my women’s studies dialectic and “why do you let dad do this and say that, and why don’t you strike out on your own, blah, blah, blah”-- all that twenty-something “somehow I have the wisdom of the world when really I don’t know anything” attitude. And mom smiled and said, “That’s very nice, Leslie, I’m glad you’re learning so much in college.  But I’m very happy. I really am.” And considering she had a five year old and thirteen year old still at home, I’m glad she was. Happy. She showed me

There is great virtue, great glory and grace in defining oneself as a mother.

By the same token, though, she also taught all of us another really important lesson in compromise, when she was moving to Caribou, Maine from sunny Los Angeles, when she was moving back to Arkansas with an infant or back to New Jersey where she never really wanted to live again, when she was canoeing through a marsh in the middle of a summer storm with three kids under eight, when she was hanging on to hot air balloon tether lines, or dressed as a rabbit under a box in Canterbury England, Mom taught us the ultimate lesson of compromise and that is

Sometimes it’s a whole lot easier just to do the crazy thing
that John E. Burns says than to fight it.

Lest we think that Bunnie Burns let John make all the decisions for her, they acted more as a cohesive unit than I think I ever noticed until I got married. My mom called a lot of shots and one of lessons that grew from her deep and lasting love for her family was this:

When your kid is on stage you have to at least be there,
but you should probably also make the costumes.

Mom was involved for decades in our lives at five different schools, four different colleges, four grad schools and a law school and she was adamant to my father that they had to support us in everything we did, every graduation, show, recital, even to the point where she made costumes for my students even after I was already teaching for six years. Mom was adamant about showing support to her children and her grandkids going to more recitals and school musicals than you can imagine. Only two weeks ago today, while she was in the hospital she demanded that my father go to an elementary string orchestra concert, because she wanted to make sure that she at least gave her surrogate support to my youngest daughter, Kiri.
The one thing I can tell you is that when Mom meant business, she meant business and I never saw this more clearly than when it came to her Catholic faith. I remember being in seventh grade and we were starting the forms and information about our Confirmation and mom sat me down and said, “You know that this is serious, right, Leslie. This is a commitment and you’re the one who is making it. If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it just because others are doing it. If you chose to do this, you need to mean it.”  My mom’s faith was a foundation for her whole life and that sense of commitment to family and faith not only bolstered her, but I know for me my mom’s commitment to faith has helped me through many, many hard times. My mother taught me that

                                               Prayer is real.

Even as a woman of scientific medical knowledge, my mom put a great deal of credence into the power of prayer. I can remember being in the middle of a crisis of faith in college, as many college students find themselves, and I thought that maybe I would just stop going to church and my mom very gently told me not to do that, she told me that Fr. Paul, a priest friend from her younger years and someone I knew too (because as a parenthetical aside, one thing Mom taught us was that

                            priests and nuns make awesome family friends)---

so she said that Fr. Paul said to her when she was having a teenage crisis of faith, he said, “Keep going to church and the faith will come again.” A kind of 1950s “fake it till you make it” advice, I tell you, though, this was a pivotal conversation with my mother. The faith she instilled in me is what is helping me right now, because the faith she gave me tells me that she is here right now, and she will be here the way that Jesus is here in the Eucharist as we celebrate her life together.
I leave you now with some final Bunnie-isms before I close. Mom loved liturgical music, she was in choir for over forty years, she always said singing is a higher form of prayer—so it was important to her that we always sing out during Mass—at least that’s what she told us, although somewhere along the line I figured out the added benefit she sought was for us to sing louder than our dad. But that is something I ask of all of you as we celebrate this Mass,

                            Pray your song and Sing Your Prayer
(and go ahead and do it louder than Johnny.)

Finally, I leave you with the lesson my mom taught me on Easter Sunday this year. Even though she was unable to speak, she could not see us, but she showed us clearly that she knew we were there. My mom was kind of a big “should” person. I should clean out that laundry room. I should hem those pants. I should get those cobwebs. But that evening last week what mom taught us loud and clear was

The only "should" that really matters is to love one another.