Eulogy for my Grandmother

Date: 20 Mar 2006

This is the text of remarks I read at my grandmother’s funeral on Saturday, March 20th, 2006, in North East, Pennsylvania. This is the text as written, not a transcript, and I improvised and edited slightly as I went, but this is the substance of what I said. My grandmother was Mrs. Marcella Armstrong. In the text I refer to her as “my grandmother” or “Grandmother” because that is what we always called her, never “Grandma” or anything more familiar. During the eulogy I slipped once and referred to her as Marcella — she would not have approved of this breach of etiquette by her grandson!

Note: the minister had just read the text of cards that were handed in from those in attendance, each of which contained a brief note about the guest’s best memory of my grandmother.

First I’d like to say that my wife Grace is busy in the nursery, but if she were here I know she would want to express her appreciation for the kindness my grandmother showed to her each time they met, and the way that my grandmother welcomed her into the family.

I want to talk a little bit about time.

My grandmother had a lot of time on this earth and she knew a lot about time. She taught me how to tell time. She had an alarm clock, and she sat down with me one day and set the hands to different positions until I could reliably tell her what the clock said.

A while ago I was on my way home from work. I was very hungry, and I had a long drive ahead, so I stopped at a Taco Bell. I used to get bean burritos at Taco Bell in 1993, because they could fill you up for 59 cents each.

I almost didn’t recognize Taco Bell in 2006. They had items on the menu like Baja Chalupas and Fiesta Gorditos. The paper cups had rims that you could unroll to find out whether you had won a prize. The drinks were all strange, like Code Red and Pepsi One, and the cups were enormous — I think they were trying to sell me a half-gallon of soda. There were ads on the placemat, ads on the napkin, and even ads on the wrapper around my bean burrito. The one utensil they had available was a plastic spork.

Taco Bell has become all about advertising and gambling and huge doses of caffeine and sugar. It has nothing to do with dining and civility. I’m thirty-eight years old and eating at Taco Bell has already become an extremely weird experience for me, after only a dozen years. I want you to take a moment and think about how strange and disturbing the world today would seem like to someone born in 1904 — someone who lived to be 102 years old.

1904 was the year that the ice cream cone was invented, and the year that the first New Years’ Eve celebration happened in Times Square. In 1900 there were only 10 miles of paved road in the United States and 8,000 cars. In 1906, 15 states had speed limits of 20 miles per hour, and it took 52 days to go across the country by car.

One of my friends read this and commented that not only did they not have cell phones in 1904, they didn’t have the technology behind the cell phone, or the science behind the technology behind the cell phone. Modern quantum mechanics, which is the theory that eventually produced technologies like the transistor, was still at least 20 years away.

In 1904 the Pope was Pius X. That was eight popes ago. The president was Theodore Roosevelt. That was eighteen presidents ago.

The film The Great Train Robbery was released. It was twelve minutes long, and at the end featured a gun fired directly at the camera. A lot of people who saw the film thought that they were actually about to be shot and screamed in terror.

This sounds stupid, but think about the first time you saw an astronaut walk on the moon, which happened when I was about the same age as my daughter is now. When I listen to the news about the latest technology, like cloning, and robotics, and genetic engineering, sometimes I want to scream in terror too! It’s all coming at me a little bit too fast.

In 1905, there was a silent film called The Gay Shoe Clerk, which featured a shoe salesman who managed to get a look at the ankle of one of his female customers. The clerk even gave her a kiss, which was pretty scandalous, and this resulted in his being attacked by the young lady’s escort.

Although Grandmother was born a few years after Queen Victoria died, the culture she grew up in was heavily influenced by the Victorian era. Grandmother didn’t keep her ankles hidden, but she was always very nicely dressed, and her manners came from the Victorian tradition. Grandmother was all about civilized dining and letters, especially thank-you notes. She was not entirely formal, though. She also had a great sense of humor, and I remember her laughing. She knew that it was rude to laugh at other people, but she was humble and always willing to laugh at herself.

In the Victorian era, a young lady would be expected have an escort when she was out in public. She would be expected to know how eat an eight-course meal off of fine linens and china and know the difference between a a fish fork, a tea fork, an oyster fork, an ice cream fork, a pickle fork, and a lemon fork. I’ve never even seen most of these, but I’m quite certain none of them was much like a plastic spork from Taco Bell, and I don’t think they would have been eating Baja Chalupas off that fine china.

There were very elaborate social rules. If you wanted to visit someone, you would leave a calling card with the butler, then go home and wait for a note that would suggest a time for your visit. This seems like a lot of work, but at least people knew how to write back then. These rules all prevented a lot of rudeness, like when bill collectors call you during dinner, or when you are talking on the phone with one person and call waiting cuts in. Rudeness, like drinking a sixty-four ounce soda in your car while driving and talking on your cell phone. These are the things that we call “modern conveniences.”

Compare Victorian table manners with the life of modern convenience, and maybe you can get a feel for just how far away from home my grandmother must have felt. Modern life made her very nervous. It certainly makes me nervous.

It reminds me of Gandhi’s answer when he was asked “what do you think of Western civilization?” He said “I think it would be a good idea!”

Grandmother and I had some things in common. I studied English and loved writing, and she could understand and appreciate that. Our best communication with each other took place via letters. But my hobby was always computers, and that’s what I’ve mostly worked on, and so I was never really able to explain to her what I did for a living.

Maybe it’s understandable that when my mother told my grandmother that she had gotten an e-mail message from me, Grandmother frowned and asked her “did you write it down?” To Grandmother, e-mail would have been a little like a telegram without the piece of paper — something you couldn’t save and read later. Written letters represented careful thought and good manners and the preservation of civilization. Telemarketers and Taco Bell and grandchildren who didn’t write thank-you letters on time represented just the opposite.

It was just this year — 2006 — that Western Union discontinued telegram service. They had been sending telegrams for 143 years. Does anyone think that the technologies we use now will still be largely unchanged in another 143 years, in the year 2149? Things are changing faster and faster, coming at us like bullets. I’m starting to feel pretty far away from home myself.

A lot of time has gone by since my grandmother taught me to tell time — not 143 years, but maybe thirty years. To my grandmother thirty years must have seemed like nothing. I am sad that she had to spend her last thirty years without a husband, since my grandfather died long before she did, and that she gradually had to give up many of the things that she loved, such as her independence and her work at the church library. She could no longer see well enough to read or write, or drive a car.

I last saw Grandmother two weeks ago. She could barely hear, even with two hearing aids, and barely see me. Even so, she told me how much she appreciated my visit, and she did her best to listen to news about my family, and told me that she hoped that I would bring them all next time.

She lost many things as she got older. But she did not lose her dignity. That was very important to her. I am grateful that she died peacefully in the company of family. It is a blessing, and it gives me hope that one day I will die with as much dignity as she did.

Although I don’t feel like I knew my grandmother all that well, I am a better person for having known her. She was a bridge to another time and she had a message for us from another century — a message about love, civility, dignity, and faith. Se was, in her own way, a defender of civilization.

My son Isaac, by the way, was born in 1994, 90 years after my grandmother was born, and my daughter Veronica was born in 2004, 100 years after my grandmother. A century. I have hopes that one day in the year 2104 Veronica will be 100 years old, and that she will get to know her own great-grandchildren. I also hope that there will be at least a little bit of civilization left for her to defend.

The last time they were here, Veronica and Isaac sat at a table with my grandmother. She couldn’t hear them or see them very well, but they hugged each other and held hands, and they communicated their affection for each other across that huge gulf of time. I don’t think I’ve ever seem anything in my life that taught me more about the meaning of time. It was a blessing and a miracle and I am grateful that my time and my grandmother’s time overlapped for as long as they did, and that I could learn some of what she had to teach me.

Thank you.

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