Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lynda's Memorial

Two days ago, after more than six months of delays and serious setbacks, we held a memorial for Lynda here in Austin. I spent the better part of of the last month preparing for the event, and it seems that the effort was well worth it. I certainly felt Mom's presence, not just in the room as we stood and offered our tributes to her, but as I ran through each of the tasks on my final to-do list for this, her final show, I could feel and hear her at my side. This is a good thing, too, for without her unseen hand holding me up, I don't think I would have had the strength to pull it off.

The memorial was set up as an art opening, or 'closing' if you will. This was to be a final display of Lynda's work, set up to provide the backdrop for her friends and family to say goodbye. It was also a symbolic gesture to recognize the importance that art played in Lynda's life.

At first, I had no idea where to hold this 'closing' but soon remembered that Lynda had been most active in the Austin Visual Arts Association. It was the AVAA who operated the gallery on the ground floor in the ArtPlex, and it was there that Lynda spent many an hour, watching the door and engaging anyone who wandered in in a lively conversation. If they could take it, that is.

So with that in mind, I emailed the AVAA and asked if they had a space where we might put up Lynda's work for her memorial. Of course, Kelli remembered Lynda quite well, (as does anyone who ever met her for more than a minute, I suspect)and she was most generous in offering up the AVAA gallery space for our use. Not only that, but she emailed the members of the group to inform them of the event, from which I got a lot of interesting and uplifting stories about her many interactions with people in and around the ArtPlex in its golden moment.

Having established a place to hold the event, I had to take care of a few details to make it happen, but these details took far longer than I anticipated. Collecting the art, for example, meant retrieving it from storage and cleaning each painting yet again. Though Lynda and I already spent six months cleaning each and every painting, many of them are still stained with the insidious soot, and it fell to Valery to clean them yet again before we could put them up. Valery also took care of all the food, shopping and laying out the spread on a table in the gallery.

For the event, I put together a memorial photo album. I went through all my old photographs and Anne and Stephen did the same. I collected as many pictures of her as I could find, beginning with her high school graduation photo and ending with the group picture we took with her niece Lynda Sue and her two children the day before Lynda was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2006. It is a fabulous collection of imagery, reminding me of how long and diverse and interesting her life really was. Of course, there were many more moments left out of a collection like this than were included, but it does give one the sense that this woman lived a very long and full life. She was a real beauty when she was younger, and, as most of us know, a very distinguished and admirable woman when she was older.

Of course, this was just the physical transformation that she underwent over the course of her life; it's what we can see from one photo to the next. To know the mental and philosophical transformations that she underwent in her life, one had to have been near enough to hear the anger, pain and anxiety in her voice as she spoke about her past, or to see the pleasure and freedom in the movement of her hands as she painted or drew. These two elements of her life --pain of the past and pleasure of the moment-- were so intimately intertwined in Lynda's being that it would be impossible to define her existence otherwise. No less than the rest of us, she was a walking contradiction, but, unlike so many of the rest of us, she had the courage to express that contradiction in her art. No wonder then, that so many people had to ask her, "But, what does it mean?"

Most of those in attendance at the memorial had no need to ask this question, for their presence quite simply was evidence that they already knew and understood how determining the meaning of Lynda's art was up to them. In this way, those gathered also created meaning from her passing. So many of the folks who stood up to talk made mention of the way Lynda had opened their eyes and mind to a new awareness of the world that it soon became clear that we had all, in one way or another, somehow 'gotten' it over the years.

Our individual way of expressing our loss and the influence that Lynda had been in our lives took on widely varying forms as we came up to the front of the group to speak. Interestingly, it seemed to me that each person had as much to say about themselves as Lynda, for it was our interaction that we came to relate to the others present, and in that, to tell them what kind of a relationship we had had with her.

Since I organized the event, I had the privilege of going first. My own little speech was remarkably selfish, for I couldn't help but telling a couple of stories about growing up with Lynda. These stories were meant to reveal a side of her that I particularly admired, so I told the stories about "A Penny's Worth of Beans" and "We Don't Serve Poison in This House" (both related elsewhere in this journal).

The former story was meant as an example of how difficult her childhood had been and I told it to show, I guess, how, though I did not know it at the time, I had been a beneficiary of her having lived through the Great Depression. The effect it had on her life was quite different than the effect it had on mine, of course, but there is no forgetting how much she had to endure as compared with how little hardships I actually faced in my life.

The latter story was meant to be humorous, of course, but also to show how devoted she was as a mother and a cook. Not only did she never intentionally poison me(and she might have liked to, especially on those days when I would torture David:) but she fed us very well indeed, in spite of working full time and caring for an ill husband.

Unfortunately, I engaged in a little unconscious revisionism, getting the details of the "Penny's Worth" story wrong. Also as I look back on that moment, I see that by talking about so much myself, I actually failed to acknowledge just how much I loved her and respected her. Ah hindsight.

Anne spoke next. Although she did indeed "almost lose [her] Mommy without ever getting to say goodbye," in December of 2006, she took pride in having helped Lynda 'rally' for "one more year". Alas, to say that this year could have been better for Lynda, both physically and mentally, is something of an understatement but Anne was pleased that she had come to understand and got to know more about her mother at the very end.

Stephen was next to speak, and curiously, he had very little to say. I say curiously because although he is a seasoned teacher and speaker, always so very rational and calm, in front of this group, he was very emotional. In fact, he was obviously near the tears as I thought I would or should have been shedding. The acute sense of loss made manifest in his speech came from his long history with her, of course, but also because he had spent so much time caring for her in the past three years. In spite of what had come before, he had come to a resolution with Lynda when he came to live in Austin to help care for her. He had come to know her again as a new and different person than the Mother who raised him. This meant that he could not escape the the welling up of pain that her loss brought to him, and it showed.

David spoke after Stephen, referring to himself as the "last grape on the vine". He spoke tenderly of how her energy and enthusiasm for life were an example to him. He too told a humorous story about the time that he, Lynda and Bill spent a Christmas together in Rome. He made note of the fact that while there are at least 10,000 churches in Rome, Lynda had only obliged he and my father to visit on 9,999 of them, allowing them to skip the last one because it was being renovated! This was a particularly good way of saying that, no less that the rest of us, David recalled how being forced to learn about art and music and literature had been good for him, despite his notions to the contrary at the time.

This way that Lynda obliterated preconceived notions, about art or herself, was a common theme among those who got up to praise her. Leonard Radoff, who, with his wife Lisel were Lynda's best friends for more than forty years, also spoke of how Lynda had encouraged him, when he saw a work of art that he particularly didn't like, not to rush to judgment. She urged him to give the artist the benefit of the doubt and to take some time to understand what they might have been or were doing. "What's your hurry?" she asked of him. He readily acknowledged that he had too often been too eager to dismiss a work of art when a moment or two of contemplation might have been in order. Who knows what could happen in that moment?

Lisel spoke of the same sensibility. She admitted, however, to often having slipped away to a more classical gallery next door while Lynda was strolling through the modern art museum in Houston. Disagreements about the value of modern art notwithstanding, Lisel, Len and Lynda shared a love of 'high' art. Lynda would take the bus to Houston for a weekend and together, they attended many performances of the opera, ballet and symphony. And though neither Lisel nor her husband even gained the affinity Lynda had for Wagner and/or Mahler, she did realize that Lynda's passion for the music was both genuine and not to be ignored. So, they went with her despite not loving it as much as she and, as a result, learned to like it more. Lisel was good to share her husband with Lynda, for often while she prepared dinner, Len and Lynda two of them would steal off the bookstore for a coffee and another long talk.

Len and Lisel's daughter, Lesley also spoke, relating her admiration and respect for the woman who had first entered her life as a small child, and who had been nearly as influential in her life as her parents, especially later in life, when Lynda would go to visit them in California. As for so many of us, Lynda was a mentor and sounding board for both Lesley and her husband Irv, whom Lynda adored as she did her own children. Their home in Palo Alto was a haven for Lynda during her visits out west, a place where she could feel comfortable talking politics, music and art.

We heard next from Lynda's friends from the Purples reading group to which Lynda belonged as well. Dale and FloAnn spoke of her engaging personality and the sharp wit with which she could skewer most any book reader/critic that she chose. The depth and breadth of Lynda's knowledge was most impressive to those folks like Dale who came to know her passion for reading and books. Many of the members of the Purples who were not able to attend wrote notes of praise and admiration for her life, spirit and intelligence.

One by one everyone whose lives had been profoundly touched by Lynda got up to speak, and each time, these same themes came up again and again. Strength, grace and intelligence, her love of life and family, her passion for art and knowledge, these were the constants that I and most of the others recalled with fondness. New friends from the nursing home spoke about the energy she brought to her new surroundings, and old friends like John Wiley who had know her in Abilene recalled how she brought light and culture to that darkest of regions. Finally, Carl Woodring, who came to know her late in life and purchased at least four of her very large paintings to display in his home got up to speak. He had tremendous respect for her as an a friend and fellow intellectual, and spoke of how the art he has in his apartment serves as a litmus test for visitors. Those who do not comment on them are not invited back!

Finally, I read to the group a statement from Valery's mother, Billie, and it was the only time I was moved to tears. Billie had a special relationship with Lynda, based not simply on familial relations, which were indeed very strong, but on mutual respect and a love of art. They shared a common language in art, and I certainly felt it most strongly when reading Billie's words of praise for Lynda.

It occurs to me, as I have gone though this, preparing the photo album, collecting the art, writing up her biography and printing up, yet again, her statement about art, how little I really knew of Lynda, in spite of having been as close to her as anyone for the past twenty years. Each person who spoke not only touched on common themes, but each brought to me a part of my mother that I did not know. In fact,I supposed that I could not have known these things without having the chance to pay tribute to her as we did. Closure, it seems, is about preparing for the future by releasing old things and breaking free from the past.

Bye Mom.

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