Nan Player Hermus: 1942 – 2012
Below is the full text of the Eulogy I delivered for my mother on August 18th, 2012. It was written to be spoken, however, and I have not edited it for this blog post. A video of the actual speech is located here.
I have in front of me many words prepared, but we all well know that words are not, and cannot, be sufficient for an occasion such as this. Like in all other things, we can only try our best, and that is what I shall do as I attempt to honor the life and the memory of my mother, Nan Gwynn Player Hermus.
I am not a great family historian, and thus we are spared a linear recounting of the events of Mom’s life. I say spared, because though I often regret my lack of knowledge of some details of her past, they wouldn’t adequately convey the true essence of what made my mother so very special.
So, I set out to craft a picture of my Mother, using stories from my memories of her. As it turns out, curating from a lifetime of memories is a daunting task. In the minutes and hours after her passing, I attempted to conjure up some warm, happy images of Mom to hold close during that difficult time. In shock, I found that I couldn’t do it, and I was absolutely overcome with panic. How could this be? I felt this incredibly intense emotion, a combination of love and loss so strong that it felt like fire burning inside of me. I could not breathe.
There was, however, one image that kept flashing through my mind over and over again. I was a small boy, around 8 or so, and I had done something bad (not too hard to believe). I had been banished to my room, but defiantly, I came out and glared down the stairs. I saw my Mother standing at the foot of the stairs, brandishing a hair brush. She waved it about, threatening to spank me with it, should I fail to return to my designated place of punishment, for the full allotted time. And this was the scene that kept replaying.
I became even more panicked; what kind of a thing to fixate on; it seemed to me almost tragic. Why was I thinking about my mother punishing me? But then, I remembered her face: there was no menace, and no anger. We both knew that her threat was completely empty: she would never lay a hand on me (nor brush nor any other available item).
She wanted to enforce discipline, for my own good, but she was not capable of corporeal punishment; nor capable even of harsh words delivered in harsh tones. But despite that knowledge, I decided to relent and obey; back into my room I went. Why? I guess I’m imagining thoughts that I couldn’t possibly have had at that age, but I know them to be true now. I didn’t want to take advantage of my mother, just because she was too gentle to back up her threats. Looking at her face, I knew that she truly loved me, and wanted only what was best for me. And for that, I loved and respected her. And now, it made some kind of sense, this image dancing through my head; for what else could be more important to remember? My mother loved me, and I loved her.
A mother’s love, unconditional and sincere, is a precious gift, but Mom had much more to offer. I recall asking her once about people with different color skin, and she spent a very long time talking to me about it. She made it abundantly clear that skin color had nothing to do with what is inside a person, nor height or weight, nor things owned or language spoken. She also explained to me about intolerance; how some people disliked or even hated others based on superficial characteristics. When I asked her ‘why?’ she told me that this hate was handed down from parent to child, and it was up to us to change that. The details are blurry to me so long past, but her message of tolerance has stayed with me, for my entire life.
And unlike her threat of punishment, that message was anything but empty. My mother surely did practice what she preached. She lived out her beliefs of inclusivity, tolerance, and generosity by helping troubled children, families, and the elderly, regardless of creed or ethnicity, through a long career in social work.
As a child, though I knew something of her work, it was still mostly a mystery to me (probably because my Mom purposely did not share many details of her work). It was something else entirely that made me understand exactly what kind of person my Mother was. Every year, my mother would volunteer for the Toys for Tots drive. Christmas was her favorite holiday.
Mom was a voracious reader; she had a love of genre fiction, especially science fiction, which she passed on to me. We were both fascinated by the infinite possibilities of “what might be”; either in remote corners of the universe, or far into the future. When I was a teenager, we would sometimes share books with each other; recommend them and discuss how much we enjoyed reading the stories. I didn’t fully appreciate it then, but it was a unique way of bonding that was quite special.
My Mother was intelligent, witty, and had a great sense of humor. Forgive the clichés, but her smile was so radiant it was almost blinding. She always seemed to have a twinkle in her eye, and her laugh was hearty and contagious. I recall even in the hospital, I would joke with her and she would smile or make a funny gesture, despite the challenging circumstances. After reading countless condolence emails from her friends, I found that this perception was shared by many others, and not just the figment of a doting son’s imagination.
Among the most striking of my recent memories, is how loving, nurturing, and engaged she was with her granddaughters, Alexandra and Samantha. They called her Ima, which is Hebrew for Mother. She would read to them, sing to them, and have wonderful tea parties with them, complete with fancy hats and real tea served on china. She would always bring a good size sack filled with various creative activities, always different. She must have spent hours researching them. I remember vividly how she would often perform ‘itsy bitsy spider’ for both girls when they were young, and how it delighted them so. It delighted my mother, as well.
The remarkable thing about this was not just that she was a wonderful grandmother. For me, it was as if I had traveled back in time, unseen, perhaps by escorted by some beneficent ghost, to see my mother as she might have been while raising me; back to a time when I have almost no well-formed memories. With every hug, every adoring look, every thoughtful lesson; I could imagine a little dark, curly haired boy as the joyful recipient instead of those blonde angels. I know that grandchildren are often spoiled, but I could not be more certain that my Mother showered me with every bit as much love and affection.
I know the Alexandra and Samantha brought my Mom great joy, and I am so happy, ecstatic really, that my wife Suzanne, who was like a daughter to her, was able to know and love her for over a decade. To share with my Mother this gift of a loving family was better than anything I can imagine, anything in the universe really (although the iPad we got for her birthday may have come close). I am also grateful that these little girls got to know and love her, even if it was not long enough. We will do everything we can to keep the memories of her alive for them. Because when I look at their beautiful faces, and into their blue eyes, I see my Mother, beloved Ima.
In the end, it is quite simple. My mother, Nan Gwynn Player Hermus, had an impact. She made a difference. She made a tremendous, gigantic, massive difference; to the lives of her family, her friends, her co-workers, and an absolute legion of complete strangers. She really and truly cared about others. She was loving, warm, caring, empathetic, patient, forgiving, strong, smart, and funny. She was beautiful, inside and out. She was, quite simply, extraordinary.
I would like to bestow two final gifts on my mother.
The first, a vow: I will always remember her, what she believed in, and how she lived her life, and I will do my best to be more like her. I know I can never match her, but I will try to be a little less selfish; to be a bit more patient; to always be tolerant and inclusive; and to help others more in whatever way I can. I will do all that I can to instill these qualities in my children, and anyone else who will listen, so that we can expand and amplify the impact that my Mother made on this world; and carry on her legacy. I would ask, for those present who feel it in their hearts, to do the same.
The second gift is a bit of poetry, my first and perhaps my last. I imagine the verses to be somewhat clumsy, and the structure a bit lacking, but it was forged from the intense love and loss I felt in the very hours after my mother died. It is titled: Mother, Ascendant