Ann Lastayo - portrait of a young woman
My Mom passed away on January 17th this year at the age of 87 after a long battle with progressive dementia. She died peacefully, loved by family, in a very natural order of things. Birth and death are equally natural and a graceful goodbye is something to cherish. I debated whether to share this on WordPress but in the end have decided that it is ok (or at least a compulsion that can’t be denied) and perhaps something said here might help someone else as they deal with the death of a parent. Besides the finality of loss and the hole it leaves in your life, there are the details of a Memorial Service and eulogies to be given. Quite gratefully I report that my youngest sister, Lynda Gail, handled the arrangements with the funeral home and the order of events for the service. My job was working on a selection of photos to show my mother’s very full and interesting life as the daughter of a military officer, military wife and mother, and as an artist.
I have always had a fear of public speaking so even with a very intimate memorial with mostly family and a few friends I felt the weight of responsibility as if being oldest and giving the first of the eulogies meant I had to do more or say more. Jerry Seinfeld, put the fear of public speaking in a humorous light when he said, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” On the responsibility part a very good friend gave me the best advice on the matter saying that my mother’s life was a mosaic and that I was just a part of that mosaic. Keep the talk to a few points, not too long, and that all the other family members would fill in the picture and that I don’t own it!! This was very freeing for me because this is a moment in life when we all should feel free to just say what touches our hearts out of an entire life where there are so many directions you could go, so many stories you could tell. So I did, I said just what meant the most to me, those memories that just always stuck even though I was barely aware of it…it was just life. Oddly, when I stood up at the podium with its nice light and microphone and my words before me, with the first sentence all my fears seemed to dissolve and I enjoyed talking about my mother. This post will be a little long as below as I feel compelled to share my words to Mom. I can’t say it serves as an example but maybe. Don’t be afraid of your eulogy as memorials are a celebration of life and a eulogy is one last chance to say thank you.
Mom was always my biggest confidence booster and being a nervous public speaker, she is seeing me though one last oral report.
My mother was beautiful, intelligent, talented and full of life. Her laugh was so beautiful and musical it could literally light up a room. You wanted to be near it. She loved her friends and she loved art and after high school chose to attend fine art school instead of the traditional university approach. Having the soul of an artist she had a wonderful perception of color, proportion and composition and saw the beauty around her. I feel in some ways she was a woman, like many in her generation, caught between those who chose careers and those who chose family. She could have done many things. As her daughter, I am so grateful that she chose marriage and motherhood and poured her creativity, intelligence and passion into loving Dad, raising her children and balancing the demands of being an Army wife. I am thankful for the wonderful childhood she gave me. I cannot imagine a greater gift.
As alluded to before, I confess to not having been the most confident child during my school years and Mom was always there for a pep talk and to build me up. She would tell me to hold my head high, shoulders straight and walk down the halls like I owned the world. She’d tell me that with God’s help I could do anything.
When so many complain of parents who only listen with half an ear or are just not altogether there for them, my mother was a very present, astute parent. She was always available for quizzing me for chapter tests in school, listening to an oral book report, and bouncing off ideas. She bailed me out in grade school when I had an assignment to write a poem animating an object. At my wits end, she came up with the idea of describing the roar and long neck of a dinosaur only to end with the hungry beast being revealed as our humble family vacuum cleaner. I remember it as being very clever.
Mom’s sense of art was always an inspiration for me to create. I drew birds and copied horses off of book covers. When we lived in Florida I sat outside with my sketch pad and drew palm trees. Mom was the best critic on all my efforts. One time I wanted to do an artistic female nude and got my hands on a Playboy magazine. Mom was not upset with me over this, not in the least, and just grabbed her pencil and showed me how to improve the drawing with her obvious skill with human anatomy and classical training from art school. I think when she fixed that pencil sketch I got my first real inkling at how good she was.
Besides, school work, Mom’s astute understanding of human nature was applied directly towards my boyfriends. Much to my annoyance, when it came to motives and character flaws, she was usually right. I was clueless and she was a good guide. I do remember in my early dating years sitting at the foot of her bed when I returned home from a date telling her all about it. I can tell you I had friends quite stricken by this idea. I was amazed and sorry to know that other people had mothers they couldn’t talk to. Mom was my supporter and my confidante.
As our family moved from base to base every two years or so, my civilian friends would often ask how I could have school spirit when I’d been in a place for such a short time. My happiness and security were completely the result of having a solid core of support and love at home. My family was my home, it didn’t matter where we were. The fact that we would move in a couple of years for me was an exciting change to look forward to, not an emotional disruption. That could only happen when the family unit is strong. Even when my father was off at war serving his country overseas and in harm’s way, Mom was there to keep us centered. Life was normal and things ran along as they should. She really didn’t let us kids see if she felt stressed or worried when he was away and she never passed along any anxieties to us kids. I look at myself and wonder if I could have done the same. She conducted her role with such grace.
Our saddest time as a family was over the loss of my baby sister, Susan Leigh, at the age of 6 months due to a heart defect. We all loved her so much that Mom and Dad turned sorrow into joy giving us baby Lynda Gail. I can still remember them announcing that Mom was expecting. Around 16 and still clueless, I looked over at Mom and said “you are pregnant again?”! She just laughed and replied, well not “still.” She could lighten a serious mood and see the fun in things.
No matter how old we are, our parents are always our parents and we are always their kid. I can remember one visit to Merritt Island a few years back when I was excited with my first digital camera. One of my plans was to do a photography day of route 192 which had some Old Florida spots to take pictures of before they dissolved into the past. So Raymond and I got up early to leave quietly without disturbing Mom or Dad, and there they both were in their pajamas at the front door seeing us off with a canteen of water and some sandwiches like we were children heading off to day camp. The vision of my elderly mother in her feminine soft robe handing me the water is indelibly imprinted. It was so cute.
Lynda Gail writes romance novels and this led directly to one of my favourite memory scenes with Mom. Mom was always a reader of historical romance and mysteries and loved a good plot. So one beautiful afternoon, with soft light streaming in the living room windows, Mom, Ginger and I found ourselves sitting around brainstorming on romance novel scenes with Lynda Gail. All the while twirling and nibbling on strawberry string licorice while we talked. Just four women having fun being women. That was the best.
When Mom and Dad retired to Merritt Island, my mother turned her love of painting to China Painting, and joined a group of women who loved the craft. Mom’s last few years were marked with progressive Dementia and Memory Loss but her interest in compositions and painting never waned. Even when she became unable to see a project to completion, she kept inspiration all around her in the form of calendars of beautiful birds and magazines with images of brilliant flowers, still life scenes, and trade publications for porcelain artists. She was always planning compositions and that occupied her mind. I would show her my latest bird pictures utilizing my iPad where she could stretch and move the image around to suggest best composition. Invariably she was right on. We spent many hours in her last years talking art and looking at compositions. I truly miss having her to share creative ideas with.
One of my last memories of Mom at La Casa showed me that there were still lessons my Mom and Dad could teach me. It was dinner time and Dad and I were sharing time with Mom in the dining room. She was sitting in the wheel chair at one of their circular dining tables after the meal. Dad pulled out his tattered, well- loved favourite book of poetry from the pocket of his cargo shorts and began to read her a poem. I felt as if I was watching them from afar and was reminded how dearly we love to share the things we love most with the people we love most and that we need to let them. I also remember showing up and Mom saying,’ Judy, where have you been?’ and being so pleased that this frail woman who raised me still had me in her mind despite everything.
Above all, Mom loved her family. Advanced dementia was marked by thoughts of her parents being alive, and sometimes her mind was occupied with looking out for the arrival of her young children. Parental love both received and given was so deeply imbedded in her being.
To you Mom, I say thank you for all that you poured into the person I am, for building me up and never tearing me down, and for a solid stable childhood I can forever draw from.
Now you reside with the angels and dip your brush into the colors of the stars and paint on a heavenly canvas the wings of angels.
I am deeply blessed you were my mother and miss you dearly.
Ann Lastayo Howard - her desire to create never waned - this is from November of 2015 at 86