Monday, September 6, 2010

Eulogy for Audrey

May 24, 1925 – September 2, 2010

There are a lot of things to say about Audrey Epton, and it’s likely that some of those things will stimulate some of you to think, yes, that sounds like Mom, that sounds like Grandmother, that sounds like Audrey, but other items on the list won’t resonate hardly, at all. That shouldn’t surprise us; the truth is, Audrey didn’t share herself fully with most people.

A few of her friends, Hazel, Audrey, Jackie, Virginia, knew her well and long and, in some ways more fully than anybody else did, so maybe some of you can tell me later what I missed, what parts of Audrey I need to think harder about, and let me tell you, I will welcome that help. But here is my list about Mom, the things I knew or felt all along, the things I barely glimpsed, the things I am just beginning to understand:

First, she loved Bernie with a devotion that most people don’t experience in their own lives and he loved her back with that same devotion.

Second, in their lives together, Bernie was the show and Audrey was the rock. And because Bernie was the show--aggressive, charismatic, adventurous--most people never saw Audrey for who she was, because Bernie came first.

Third, Audrey never for a moment minded that Bernie came first. She was fully satisfied with her life. She had Bernie. She had children she loved. She had friends and she had excitement to fill a lifetime. And she would tell you all this, if you asked and she was in a mood to talk, but mostly she didn’t talk about such things. More than anything else, Mom, Audrey, was always of a mind to move on to whatever came next.

Everybody thought Mom was beautiful. And she was. And she was extremely careful about every detail of her appearance. But it seemed to me that she wasn’t vain about it. It was almost as if being beautiful was something she did for Dad. Of course, at the end of her life she was physically worn out and not feeling particularly pretty. But she was still Mom, focused on the family that would be left behind when she died and reminding us that we had to remain loyal to each other.

Mom wasn’t a great storyteller, mostly she left the stories to others, to Bernie, to brother Pete. But she told a few.

She was a brat when she was a kid, she said. And delighted in her own physical abilities—how fast she could run and how high she could jump. And those characteristics came together in a childhood she remembered fondly, the times when she teased and even tortured her older brothers, Doug and Pete, both of whom she could outrun by the time she was six or seven.

She’d tease them to distraction and then dash off; Pete, in particular, was relentless in his pursuit, but he couldn’t catch her, though there came a time when they dashed through the kitchen and he pulled a fork from a drawer as he ran by and threw it at Audrey, sticking it in the wall as she ran off. I always wondered what Grandma in England said about the fork sticking in the wall of her kitchen, but somehow we never got to that part of the story.

When Mom was 14, the Germans started bombing London and so she slipped from childhood into war with nothing in between. I don’t think that those of us who were born and raised here can fully grasp what it means to have your childhood go up in smoke and fire, but that was what happened to Mom’s childhood.

At 16, after a couple of years of air raids and blackouts, Audrey’s sister Eileen, pregnant at the time, moved back into the family’s home, to live with Mom and Grandma and Grandpa. Eileen’s husband, Arthur Sanders, and Pete and Doug were then fighting a losing battle in France.

One night, while Grandpa was on duty as an air raid warden, Eileen went into labor. Unfortunately, the Issett home was situated in a fairly isolated part of London. Because of the blackout, Eileen and her mom had to make their way on foot over a long bridge to get to the women’s hospital. There was no light other than that provided by bursts of flak, exploding bombs and burning buildings. Audrey watched Eilene and her mom cross the bridge, disappearing in moments of sudden darkness, reappearing in the light of sudden gouts of flame. Eventually, they made it off the bridge and disappeared from sight.

When I think of what I was doing when I was 16, knowing nothing but peacetime, thoughtless about my options, taking casual strides toward adulthood, I wonder what it means to have the world around you become so relentlessly unsafe and to wonder whether or not you will ever see your mother or sister again. Mom did see them, again, and they brought home baby Roger, who brightened the war years and whom Mom once called, “the love of our lives.”

But childhood was definitely over by then and, soon, Audrey was enlisted in the British Army’s Women’s Auxiliary, stationed on the channel coast as a plane spotter assigned to anti-aircraft crews. Audrey met Bernie in 1945, at a dance that brought her auxiliary company together with a squadron of American airmen. Bernie served as liaison between the two groups and, in the process, warned his fellow officers that he would be escorting the beautiful Brit.

In a matter of months they were married, and Mom was pregnant with Teri, while Dad was rotated back to the states without her, to train for the invasion of Japan. But by the time Mom, twenty years old and pregnant, managed to squeeze onto a US Air Force flight to the states, Dad was back in Chicago. This was the point when she met more Eptons, all of them, in fact; an event which she obviously survived, but I’m guessing had the potential to be at least as traumatic, if physically less dangerous, than the bombing of London. Eptons, as many of you know, manufacture their own special brand of fireworks.

Uncle Jerry and Aunt Marilyn are the survivors of that generation of Eptons and knew Mom longer than anyone else. And, perhaps, when we get back to 1110 later today, Uncle Jerry, the greatest Epton story teller of all, can tell us what really happened when Audrey met them all.

Now, remember, this summary of Mom’s life from when Pete threw the fork until she came to the United States and, in 1946, had Teri, appears in the middle of a list of things that seem to me to be true about Audrey. And there are several more things to add to the list.

Over the next few years she and Dad had three more kids, me and Mark and Dale. During the years of our growing up, Dad was the extravagant one, treating all of us, Mom especially, with a great deal of generosity. Mom accepted everything Dad gave her with the grace with which she accepted all the events of her life. But while Dad liked to demonstrate his love with gifts, Mom never actually required that, at all.

She never doubted Dad’s love and never asked for much. She got used to living well, of course—who wouldn’t—but she stayed attached to the simple things, her family, raising her children, living in partnership with Bernie, who was always off to the next big thing, which often was running for political office, for Congress, for the state legislature, eventually for mayor of Chicago. Audrey never shrank from any of it, and never complained about the demands.

If you include Dad’s years as president of innumerable civic and professional groups, as a founder and member of national organizations and political committees, you’re talking 40 years of political days and nights, of networking and campaigning, of schmoozing and making nice. As an actual reformed politician myself, let me say that imagining four decades of that sort of activity is as difficult for me as imagining being bombed at home when you’re supposed to be in bed. But Mom remained Mom despite the relentless demands, never complaining and always moving forward.

It was after Dad died that we all got to see how ingrained those characteristics were in her. She never stopped mourning Bernie, but mostly she mourned in private and somehow, though the only man she ever loved died twenty-three years ago, she learned to love another, Bob Bentley.

I think it took Teri, Mark, Dale and I a little time to catch up with Mom and to understand that her embrace of Bob and his family said nothing about her love for Dad, but was simply her moving on with life. She loved traveling with Bob and she loved spending summers at Bob’s place in Michigan where there were always a mix of Bentleys and Eptons hanging out together and enjoying the process by which families grow, rather than shrink.

And families do grow, at least this one has—let me count the ways—the grandchildren, Doug, Nate, Amanda, Julie, Stacee, Abraham, Mike, Jori, Gordon, Claire, Brendan and the great grandchildren, Manu, Ollie and Ethan. First to last, Audrey was thrilled by their very existence. Their youth, their love and their potential gave her both comfort and hope.

And there is one more family group, sons and daughters, also, who shared Audrey’s moments of joy and sadness—Owen Pulver, Marrianne McMullen, Ella Epton and David and Linda Bentley.

There were some profoundly sad moments for Mom these last couple of years, no Bernie, no Bob and her own cancer diagnosis, but by and large she remained the young Audrey, always on the run, only with fewer people to tease. She had her cranky moments, to be sure, she and Hazel, Elaine, Audrey, Vi and Jackie would gather for cards and, often as not, complain to each other that they were getting too old for real fun and sometimes, tragically, too old to share a cocktail. But to the end, they all gave it the old college try, drinking more often than they should and looking forward, not behind.

Ultimately, Mom had one other love—the White Sox and all last week while Mom lay in bed, breathing slowly, lying quiet, the White Sox were winning. This did her a great deal of good, we know.

How do we know? Because for Audrey, the athlete, winning was the point and we know she heard us, even if she wasn’t saying much. Last Tuesday, Teri, Mark, Dale and I were gathered around her bedside, talking casually. At one point, Dale said to her, “we know you’re uncomfortable, Mom,” and though she had said very little for hours, she responded, “I’m not uncomfortable.”

That was Mom, self-contained and private, but sharing what needed to be shared. She died exactly the way she lived, with her grace, dignity and extraordinary sense of privacy intact and evident. Audrey’s was a good life and a fine death.

When Mom died

When Mom died
there was a moment
when I thought
my eyes would run with tears forever.

But though her dying will never stop,
eyes do run dry,
and mind and focus drift.
When the grief slipped away,

I dreamed instead of Mom
the way she dreamed herself;
fleet and sure-footed,
a goddess in full stride.

1 comment:

  1. your eulogy was a fine and good understanding of a wonderful womens' life.DSE