09 September 2007

My Eulogy at Grandmother Ruth's Memorial Service

The memorial service for my Grandmother Ruth Elliott was held today at 4:00 p.m. at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Santa Monica, the church she had attended for the last twenty years. Gathered together were most of Grandmother's family, church members, and friends. It was a wonderful ceremony (with the exception of one non-family speaker who really broke out some inappropriate messages that made more than a few people unhappy) that was filled with joy in remembrance of a woman who lead a long, remarkable life, and gave her love unconditionally to all her family and friends.

The video presentation that my uncle Phil (Grandmaother's youngest child) and I put together of her life came out quite well, despite our working until late hours the night before and feeling we would never get it finished. We scored it to a variety of music. My choices were "Vorspiel" from Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner, "Introitus" from Requiem in D Minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner. Her younger brother, a pastor, performed the benediction, and his wife read out a history of Ruth's life which my mother, Phil, and Eileen had put together (with some editing help from me). Then each Ruth's four children stood at the podium and spoke about their mother, often through tears.

Afterwards, the grandchildren took the stand one at a time. Grandmother had seven grandchildren total—I am the fourth—but Dean's wife Audrey has been with the family for so long that she is included with the group as if she were blood. Scott, the oldest grandchild, was unable to make to ceremony, and Stacy, the second oldest, had to take care of her children during the service, so it fell to Kim to speak first. I spoke second, followed by Dean (who read excerpts from letters Grandmother had sent to him), my sister (who flew in from Munich) and my brother (who flew in from Atlanta), and finally Audrey.

As the most secular of an already very secular group of grandchildren, my eulogy touched on personal recollections, with some science and literature trivia thrown in. Here is the complete text, which I am happy to say was well received:
For all of you who are wondering who put all the Wagner into Grandma's slide show, mea culpa. I just got back from Bavaria.

Hello. My name is Ryan Harvey, and I am Ruth’s favorite second oldest grandson. Grandmother always called me…Ryan. Nicknames don’t have a way of sticking to me.

My grandmother was born nine days before one of the most important announcements in modern science: Albert Einstein’s publication of the Theory of General Relativity. I mention this not merely as an interesting piece of trivia, but because physics had a great deal of importance to Ruth Elliott. A particular kind of physics: the law of motion that states that when a comic actor steps on a banana peel and crashes down three flights of stairs into a pool of mud, or a southern-drawling rooster discovers that despite all his teasing of the barnyard dog at the safety zone out-side the reach of its chain, the dog can escape from its chain whenever necessary, my grand-mother will start to laugh uncontrollably.

In fact, if I really wanted to honor grandma’s favorite form of entertainment, I would not now be standing here. I would have tripped on the way up the stairs, knocked over the podium, and when I tried desperately to set it back up, would drop it on my foot, and jump around howling until I fell over in the baptismal font.

As Grandma’s favorite cartoon character [Foghorn Leghorn] would put it: “I say boy, I say, look here. That ain’t no way to get baptized. Ya’ got it all wrong.”

Well, as long as it was on TV and not happening to me in real life, Grandma would think it was a hoot.

Among my fondest memories of her was watching silly comedies at her side, listening to her lose control with the most vibrant, infectious laughter in the universe. Only my father can beat her for sustained, contagious laughter. Maybe he picked it up from her. She loved the movie It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (she always knew how many "Mads") and the TV series Fawlty Towers. (I can remember her screaming out at the top her lungs near the end of one episode: “This is the worst hotel in the world. The worst!”)

But I most remember how much she loved the South African comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy. She stumbled onto when I found it on TV one day, and I seriously thought we would have to hold a memorial service for her that week, she was laughing so uncontrollably. My special present to her for her 90th birthday was a copy of the film newly minted on DVD, which she immediately re-watched that night.

Of course, Grandma’s gift to me wasn’t just laughter—although that would be enough for most people. I believe she broadened my view of world because of her upbringing in a distant land under old-world colonialism: the country of Myanmar, or Burma as the British called it. I was immensely proud to tell people, even at a very young age, that my grandmother was born in Burma. Everyone else’s grandmother was born in Dunnwich, Massachusetts, it seems. But my grandmother was born in Burma. That made me proud.

Although I would often get the illogical response from people: “But you don’t look Burmese.”

Oh well.

Grandmother’s stories of Burma helped me form, at a young age, a sense of the wider world beyond my suburban windows. They also instilled in me a healthy fear of snakes. Which is enormously useful when you live in Southern California next to scrub-covered hill.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that Grandma had shared Burma with another person who had a great impact on the lives of others. A young British man named Eric Arthur Blair, unable to afford a college education, joined the Imperial Indian Guards in 1922 and served in Burma until 1927. He later wrote of his experiences in the novel Burmese Days. He wrote under the pen name George Orwell, and would later write the classic, world-shaking books Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Again, I mention this not out of trivia, and not just because George Orwell is one of my favorite writers. I mention this because Grandma, although not seeming to be the sort of woman who could shake the world with her quiet sense of duty, love, and generosity, had an immense affect on the world nonetheless. She never wrote a major book. She didn’t discover the theory of relativity (although she enjoyed its effects in slapstick comedy). But she loved everyone in her life without condition, and we can see the affects here in this room. Her children, her children’s children, her children’s childrens’ children, her siblings and their descendants, and her friends who stayed close to her for over seventy years.

For all this, my grandmother counts as a world-changing woman. Everyone of us should have such fortune.

And, in closing, my Grandmother made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world. I will accept no arguments on this point.

As Shakespeare said, “The rest is silence.”
The rest of the day was spent at a reception at my parents house with Indian food. It was a true celebration, not a time of sorrow or mourning, and it was heartwarming and exhilirating to see the memory of my grandmother bring us all together.

By the way, Lovecraft fans, did you catch my sly reference hidden in the eulogy? No one in that room did, but I expected that.