Several friends have asked me to publish the eulogy I delivered at my mom’s memorial in September of 2008. Today, on what would have been her 100th birthday, I have finally done it – embellished with a few choice photographs (click to expand the thumbnails). I have also produced a labor-of-love DVD for people who couldn’t be there, complete with video of all the speakers, photos by my friend Eileen Gayle, and music, which was so important in her life. If you’d like a copy of the DVD, please contact me directly or let me know in a Comment.
Although Memorial Celebrations are inherently sad affairs, I have learned to appreciate and even look forward to them. And not so much for the obvious reasons–closure, saying goodbye, or even just a decent excuse to raise a glass. For me, the unexpected value is getting to know people in ways that just aren’t possible during their lifetimes. No matter how broad or deep a relationship, we’re still constrained by our own perspectives and can never know anybody the way others do. I first experienced this at Frank’s [my father’s] Memorial in 1996, and have since approached all such events with the same positive attitude and expectations. Thanks to our speakers today, as well as others who will step up during the Open Remarks, I am well on my way to exceeding those expectations today.
My longtime friend Peter Sorenson wrote this when he received the news: “Frannie possessed a rare and endearing combo of being fully present and available in the moment, but at the same time, being staunchly in control of her own reality. She graciously allowed us to be guests in this reality. With age and maturity, I have come to appreciate how important and highly evolved these two qualities of character truly are.”
As her youngest and only living child, I will now do my best to give you a glimpse into my view of her staunchly-controlled reality. But please understand my limitations. After all, I was constrained by the dynamics of the parent/child relationship, and remember, since I was born when she was 43, I only actually knew her for the second half of her life.
Aging was not a part of Frannie’s reality. Instead, she established a strict Anti-Aging Policy, which served her pretty well for most of her 93 years. She didn’t rely on creams and potions or surgery, nor did she exercise regularly or maintain a particularly healthy lifestyle. Instead, she adhered to three basic principles:
- Principle #1: Deny (to yourself and others) that aging is happening at all. How many here didn’t really know her age until after June 11? She guarded this secret vigorously, and entrusted all who were close to her to do the same – she didn’t even really want anybody to know that she was two years older than Frank. Protecting this information occasionally caused some internal conflict between privacy and frugality, another of her strongest characteristics. For example, when she was commuting to her job in the city, she carried two different BART tickets – a blue one to use when she traveled with others, and a green one to use when nobody she cared about was looking. In the last year, when she could no longer deny to herself what was happening, she stood firm in her refusal to let others see it, which is why she discouraged visitors during her illness. I know many of you were affected by her position, so I hope you now understand that it wasn’t personal, she just wasn’t willing to expose her new reality.
- Principle #2: Avoid modifying your life and activities. Closely tied to Principle #1, anybody who paid attention during the last couple of decades saw very little change in what Fran did. She didn’t believe in growing old gracefully, she simply avoided the idea of growing old. She worked, traveled, sang, partied and entertained. She remained in the family home, and for better or worse, she drove her car until a month before she got sick. Places like “Senior Centers”, “Retirement Communities” and “Assisted Living” belonged in other people’s realities, not hers.
- Principle #3: Stay true to your contemporaries, but ensure a continual flow of young people. Her success in this area is demonstrated by the crowd in this room today. When I was planning this event, my advisors suggested that I might need a bigger limo, assuming a large crowd of old people needing to be shuttled. I chuckled because I knew differently. Many of us didn’t even realize our roles in this component of her Anti-Aging Policy.
As I continue with my story, you’ll soon see how she engineered her reality and the major themes of her life to support these three Principles. It seems to have been pretty successful, so maybe we can all learn a little from her in this respect.
Music was a constant thread in Frannie’s life. She originally met Frank at the Mask and Dagger Revue, where a single piano pla
yer (Frank) served as the “orchestra”. She was committed to instilling a love for music in her kids and endeavored to teach us all piano from an early age. She hauled us off to the symphony, ballet, musicals and jazz concerts to expand our musical tastes and passion beyond children’s songs and top 40 hits. She shuttled each of us to instrument lessons, band and orchestra rehearsals, and all varieties of performances. She sent us to Cazadero Music Camp every summer. In retrospect, I’m not so sure that was an entirely altruistic move since she and Frank always managed to schedule a marvelous adventure out of the country during those multi-week sessions. I guess they considered the City of Berkeley to be a suitable baby-sitter.
But more than any other aspect of music, she loved to sing. My earliest memories include her singing to me and teaching me a wide variety of songs – I doubt there were many 5-year-olds in 1963 who could confidently render such ditties as Irving Berlin’s “Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” and “Tell Me Pretty Maiden” (from the operetta Floradora), both penned in the early part of the 20th century.
She looked forward every holiday season to hosting the “Christmas Sing” and neighborhood caroling parties at our home, always improvising the Alto harmony to enhance the crowd of singers, most of whom were locked on the melody.
At a more public level she sang with the Oakland Symphony Chorus in the 60s and 70s. In 1973, she found a home with the Berkeley University Chorus, where she remained a fixture for 33 years. I’m sure that her decision to switch was heavily influenced by the difference in the average age of the two groups – taking us back to Principle #3 of the Anti-Aging Policy: surround yourself with young people. In the fall of 2006, at the age of 91, she decided not to rejoin the Chorus, conceding that she didn’t have the stamina to stand up through rehearsals and concerts. I pointed out that they would undoubtedly make accommodations for her to sit, but her unwillingness to consider that option led me to understand that this was actually a graceful way to avoid facing the fact (or worse, having it pointed out) that her voice was no longer what it once was. She loved nearly everything about singing with these groups, with one notable exception: Auditions, which she detested without reservation or apology. Auditions fell into the same category of necessary evils as root canals, colonoscopies and income tax preparation. For the last few years, the Director of the chorus, Marika Kuzma [also a speaker], graciously waived Fran’s auditions, a concession to her tenure for which she was (and I remain) eternally grateful.
In 1970, Fran began searching for something new to help distract her from the tragedy of Ralph’s [my closest brother] death. I was twelve and presumed to be self-sufficient – I was a decidedly precocious kid, so this wasn’t a big stretch. She was 55 at the time, an age when most people are planning their retirement. Not only did she decide to rejoin the workforce, but to make it even more interesting, she took on the task of helping to define and develop an embryonic profession, “Paralegal”. With support from a close family friend, John Page Austin, a senior partner at Morrison-Foerster, she embarked on what would eventually be a 28-year career, ending with her retirement just 10 years ago at the age of 83. I guess she finally decided she needed a spend a little more time doing more important things, like traveling. I always wondered if she might have exaggerated her involvement in defining the Paralegal role, until I recently uncovered a memo she wrote that does exactly that [displayed at the Memorial].
Art Shartsis [also a speaker] has done a fine of job of portraying her career, so I don’t need to say much more, except to point out how important it was to her. The office provided a constant touchstone of distraction and support through various personal losses, and it also served as a key component of Principle #3 of her Anti-Aging Policy, with a wonderful crew of younger colleagues and a self-refreshing pool of new Associates.
Echo Lake wasn’t so much a part of her life, as an integral part of her being. I don’t even know where to start. Do I begin in the 1930s, with her stories of paddling the canoe down to the chalet alone to pick up a beau who had traveled from Tahoe, then paddling him back to cabin, then back down to the chalet (because of course, he couldn’t possibly spend the night), and then back to the cabin alone? And that apparently she did this regardless of the wind conditions, which as far as I can tell, used to change directions randomly in the 30s so that she somehow always ended up paddling upwind? Or do I somehow try to summarize eight decades of activities with family and friends, including hiking, canoeing, waterskiing, swimming, sailing, fishing, oiling the deck, and in the early part of the season, snow sliding?
Or maybe I should just fast-forward ahead to 1999, when at the age of 84, she hiked with Mary Lou Peterson and me up to the Echo Peak ridge for a final look at the stunning view of Lake Tahoe and Mt. Tallac.
Highlights include the frequent productions of the Echo Lake Playhouse, in which a variety show of skits and vignettes was presented from behind the curtain that bisected the tiny log cabin, all conceived, written, cast, and directed by Fran, and performed by various kids from the family and neighboring cabins to an appreciative audience of indulgent adults.
She also loved the pre-season Echo Lakes Association dinners, where she was a frequent winner of the “stand-up/sit-down” contest. This game begins with all of the guests standing, and then sitting down as the “number of years at Echo” is called out and incrementally increased. The result is a spotlight on the last one standing, the one who has been at the lake the longest. In this isolated case, her competitive spirit and desire to win overrode the paradox presented by Principle #1 of the Anti-Aging Policy, and she conveniently ignored the other guests’ ability to do the math.
Her final trip to the lake was last summer  on the Fourth of July, just before she was hospitalized for the first time. I’m thankful that she never had to endure a summer of being unable to make it up to the lake.
Fiji, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and Russia. Alaska, San Diego (3 times), Ensenada, Vancouver Island, East Coast (3 times), Canyonlands Utah. The Amazon, the Danube, the Columbia, and the Mississippi (twice). For most people, this would be a dream list for a lifetime of travel. But remarkably, this list of trips reflects her travelogue after she turned 80. If I go back before that, we would be here all day.
She thrived on travel, mostly with Frank of course. As a career citizen of the world, Frank was a frequent traveler to new and sometimes exotic locations. Frannie leveraged that brilliantly for several decades, frequently accompanying him to meetings, seminars and conferences all over the world – China, Japan, Austria, Macedonia, Greece, to name a few, and of course, Switzerland.
Frannie’s Austrian dirndl.
She and Frank loved to integrate with the locals. Frannie frequently acquired and donned traditional garb, adding a level of interest during the trips, but also resulting in an almost endless supply of material for various costume parties. One example is her authentic Austrian dirndl, procured in 1954, which she dusted off one year for a Halloween party at Shartsis. I more recently appropriated the dirndl for a Sing-along Sound of Music party I hosted at my house last December.
She and Frank were proud of a trick they used for convincing even the shyest of local kids to pose for photos – she carried a Polaroid camera so she could hand over an instant picture for them to keep. The kids were universally thrilled – some had never even seen a photo of themselves. This broke through all of their inhibitions, freeing Frank to take the “take-home’ candid shots with the Konica SLR.
After Frank died in 1996, she adapted quickly, cultivating new travel companions – Allan Viguers, Dick Johnston, Dorothy Clements, Francoise Debreu, as well as me and Rich. One of my most memorable trips with Frannie involved an 8-day tour of the Canyonlands of Southwest Utah in 1997. She was 82. The three of us traveled in our full-size pickup with a camper, towing a motorcycle trailer. We planned all of our overnight stops at RV parks that also featured motels – we stayed in the camper and she got a room. She embraced all aspects of this trip, including two Virgin River experiences: a lazy ride in an inner tube, and a ½-mile wade up the river in Zion Canyon.
Her travels also frequently incorporated her interest in her ancestors and family history.
- In San Diego, we found the downtown address where her parents lived (now a vacant lot with a view of the airport) and visited the Historical Society, uncovering a photo of the 1902 “Normal School” faculty, numbering 9 and including her father.
- In Barrington RI, we identified the church where her grandfather was pastor and performed the marriage ceremony of her parents in 1900.
- In Manhattan, we took the subway to the apartment that they shared while Frank was doing post-graduate studies at Columbia (and where Bob was born), and in Cambridge, we stopped by the house they rented while Frank was a visiting professor at Harvard.
- In Utah, we explored the Geneology Library, uncovering a family history book on the Greenwoods, a branch of her family tree about which she knew very little. To her great delight, we also validated the family lore that the Dismukes family name was actually an Americanization of the French, Desmeaux.
- In Ireland, she and Frank explored the homeland of his Dillon ancestors. This quest was memorialized in a display she prepared for his memorial in 1996.
Fran thrived on tradition. She absorbed cultural traditions and also created her own. The nature was not as important as the concept – she held equal enthusiasm for holiday gatherings, birthdays (other than her own), costume parties, any sort of reunion, and other annualized events with family and friends.
At the core of several of her annual events were “The Crew“ – the Austins, the Goodins, and the Helmholz’s, as well as others I didn’t know as well. Three times a year, for as long as I can remember, the Crew had gatherings that trumped all other plans, except maybe a trip to a foreign land. The annual New Year’s ski trip at the Helmholz/Austin cabin, named “Old Shoe” to reflect how comfortable it was. The summer “birthday party” at Echo Lake, acknowledging Frank and Marion Goodin’s July birthdays. The October trip to the Austin Ranch in the Gold Country. After Old Shoe was sold, the New Year’s trip shifted to the Ahwani Lodge in Yosemite, and later scaled back to a dinner gathering at a local restaurant, with the hosting duties rotating through the Crew year to year. The Echo trip dissolved as fewer and fewer were able to make the trek. But the Austin Ranch trip endured, albeit with dwindling numbers, until the passing of Betty Austin in 2006.
Reunions – it seemed that every year, she would announce that she was headed for some sort of reunion – Stanford, Dartmouth, Boalt Hall. In 2001, she even went to a gathering marking the 75th year of The Peninsula School, the progressive private elementary school she attended in Palo Alto in the 1920s. I have no doubt she would have attended last weekend’s Boalt Hall Alumni weekend had she been around.
The Faculty Club holds a special place in Newman family traditions. Many significant Newman parties have happened here, including weddings, anniversary parties, and yes, memorials (I believe this one makes three). She frequently relied on the hospitality of the Kerr Dining Hall to host lunches and dinners before concerts and for various other occasions. And of course, there was the Faculty Holiday Party, at which she hosted many tables of friends over the years. To double the impact, she actually reserved tables for two consecutive nights. When over-subscription caused the Faculty Club to crack down on this practice and limit members to one table, she simply recruited a member friend to make the booking for her, in exchange for a guaranteed seat at the table. I, on the other hand, was always asked to leave both dates open but never had a guaranteed seat – instead, Rich and I were expected to show up as designated chair-fillers in case one or more of the confirmed guests fell through at the last minute.
Holiday gatherings with family were precious to her, especially Thanksgiving. This holiday, with its long weekend, gave us the opportunity to reconnect with cousins who are scattered all over Northern California (many of whom are here today). We’ve had wonderful Thanksgiving dinners in Carmichael, Woodland, Chico and Fort Bragg. She cooked her last turkey in 2000, when she hosted an assorted crew of Newman women (Dorothy, Anna, Ellie and myself) at the Orinda house.
Acknowledgements and Closing
I never dreamed that I would be able to stand up and deliver this tribute. I’ve spent the last several years gearing up for the complete collapse I was sure to experience when I lost Mom, the last of my immediate family. But that isn’t what happened. I miss her terribly, but I can’t quite figure out how to mourn her death when she had such a long and full and rich life. The script I had written in my head had her living forever. But since that’s not possible, I think she did the next best thing – she lived fully until her body just couldn’t keep up any longer.
I’d like to thank all of our speakers, each of whom had a distinct and important influence in her life. In addition, there are a few people I need to give special thanks to today, for their role in helping to preserve Fran’s dignity and my sanity during the past 15 months.
Richard Johnston [also a speaker] was Fran’s loving companion for the last several years of her life. He visited her nearly every day that she was confined to the hospital and nursing homes, bringing not only support and friendly conversation (and her mail), but also a copy of the Chronicle so she could continue to do her daily crossword puzzle.
Joan Miura spent countless hours at the house in Orinda, sorting and organizing and labeling and moving things around so that Fran could safely return home after her first hospitalization.
Barbara Wilcox provided invaluable medical guidance and oversight. She was a frequent drop-in at both the house and the nursing home to review Fran’s medication list and to ensure she was being treated appropriately. And at the end, she was with me at the hospital to help guide me through the decisions that a daughter should never have to make.
Sarah Johnson has been my backstop all year, available on a moment’s notice for anything I needed in the North Bay while I was in the East Bay with Fran. And she was instrumental in the success of this event – she provided a sounding board for every detail, and she spent hours digitally scanning nearly 200 photos to develop the slide show.
And of course Rich, who when not in Colorado helping his own aging mother, provided limitless support and comfort, and also took on every “honey-do” task I presented him without hesitation or complaint, including hand-folding all 200 of the programs you hold in your hands.
Thank you all for joining us today.