by David Perkins
Thank you for coming today, to join us in saying goodbye to Mother. We didn’t expect to be back here so soon, because Mom comes from a long line of people who live forever. I guess we were sort of counting on her to carry on the tradition – but the fight, for the past eight months, was particularly hard and she was tired. So we bring her here to rest, next to Dad, whom she’s missed so terribly for the last five and a half years.
She was born Era Bell Bruton in 1925. I asked her again recently, and not even she was sure anymore, whether Era Bell was supposed to be one word or two. At some times and places, during the years she was married to Dad, she was known to some people as “Perky.” There are those of us who called her “Mom,” and to a select few, she was “Grammy.”
But it was her Aunt Fern, I’m told, who when Mother was still a baby, would give her the nick-name that would stay with her for the rest of her life – and to almost everyone who knew her, she was “Sugar” or just “Sug.” It was a name that, to some, would occasionally seem inappropriate. Because, while she was a sweet and warm and generous person, she could also be as surly an old broad as you’d ever want to run into.
She had a quick wit, an acerbic tongue, and seemingly even poorer judgment than I when it came to knowing when, or on whom, not to use them. Consequently, she was always surprised to learn that she had hurt someone’s feelings. Her sense of humor endeared her to most people, but her blunt, to the point attitude gained her still another nick-name. More than a few people began calling her “Maude,” after a television character with a similar style and delivery.
You rarely had to guess how Mother felt about you, but I’m sure that she never intentionally hurt anyone, because she was also one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever known. She didn’t find it easy to share her innermost feelings, but she did tend to wear them on her sleeve, and she was easily wounded. Then, unless you were immediate family, she held a grudge for a couple of years. Ultimately, however, she was willing to give just about anyone a second chance, and almost everyone did the same for her.
She was married for almost forty years, and things must have been mostly tolerable because she and Dad renewed their vows in a second ceremony to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary.
Her family was the most important thing in her life, and she worked hard to see to it that we all got along with one another most of the time. She played the matriarch, the referee, the bouncer, and the loving parent with equal skill, and we somehow all managed to reach adulthood without permanent injury.
When Dad died in 1987, her life changed dramatically and she never quite seemed to regain her bearing. She missed him every day, and the weeks around the anniversary of his death were especially painful for her. But in the last couple of years, she was presented with a new grandson and two great-grandsons, and her family remained a source of strength, joy and, no doubt, aggravation.
She was also blessed with wonderful friends, and spent a lot of her time involved in water aerobics with her swim group, or “taking money from the widow-women,” as she liked to describe her regular card games with her poker friends. She loved traveling and took frequent trips to Las Vegas, to drop off some money, as well as an occasional cruise to Mexico or the Caribbean, to drop off some more money. In fact, wherever a slot machine was to be found, she would travel to get to it – usually with her best friend of fifty years, her sister-in-law, Martha B.
When she was first diagnosed with cancer, last November, she didn’t take the news well. But soon, she determined to put up the best fight she could, and for the next few months went through nearly devastating radiation and chemotherapy. She said that she was not afraid to die, but that she wanted as much time as possible to be with her family. Finally, a few days ago, weakened by the therapies and exhausted by the fight – with no promise of recovery – she made the decision to let go.
I have a two-year-old son, who obviously never met my father, and who will not remember having met my mother. It is now my job – it’s all our jobs – to see to it that he knows, and that her great-grandchildren know, who she was and who she continues to be in our lives. Because each of us who knew her, and loved her, carries with us our own distinctive part of Erabell Bruton “Sugar” Perkins, and it becomes our obligation to keep that part alive by passing it on. It’s what I believe the life and death cycle to be all about, and it is the only “life after death” that I’m certain of.
If Mother believed in a life after death that would allow her to join her loved ones, then I know she’s happy now to be with the mother she dearly loved, and the father she worshipped, and the husband who left her much too soon. In 1984, when her mother died, I sent Mom a poem, which she said was a great comfort to her. It’s also how I prefer to think of her now.
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond’s glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds
In circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there. I did not die.
Those of you who were not able to see her recently might like to know that she went out just as ornery as she was, for at least all of my life. In sharing her feelings a couple of weeks ago, about the prospect of her death, she said, “It kind of pisses me off.” And that pretty much sums up my feelings about losing her so much sooner than we had expected. And I think that’s okay, because her loss will leave a large hole in all our lives. So, go ahead. Be pissed off that she’s gone. But don’t let that get in the way of being thankful for the blessing that she was while she was here.