Monday, January 16, 2012

Billie's Eulogy

We held a wonderful memorial for Billie on Saturday.  More than sixty-five people came, including her sister Mary and her three children, Jane, Peter and Carey.  Valery's sister Alexandra came with her partner, Steve Welch, and, of course, Chris was there with Colleen (who also did the flowers). 
I was honored to give the eulogy as Billie asked me to do many months ago. 
For those who could not be there, here is what I said:

I am here before you today to talk about Billie.

In what must surely be the best model for these kinds of speeches--in terms of both density and brevity, Lincoln famously said that “The world will little note nor long remember” what he had to say.  True though this is of the other speaker’s words that day, Mr. Lincoln’s brevity was neither despairing of the death he had come to acknowledge nor unnecessarily deprecating of the importance of his words on the occasion.

He wasn’t saying that we shouldn’t be here, conducting this ritual; or that we shouldn’t be here, saying these words.  The World doesn’t need to hear these words, the World doesn't need note them nor does the World need to plan to long remember them in order for those words to be valid and truly meaningful.

The World may not care, but we do. The important thing is that we take the time to say these words.  In such rituals as these, words make the meaning of life.

Billie (like Lynda, my other mother) knew that I am a man of too many words, so as I speak, I can hear her calling out from the peanut gallery: “Too many words, Mr. Dubov!  Too many words!”

Billie,  I will do my best to keep it short.

So, what words?  What can I say about Billie that is not hopelessly hyperbolic or morosely solemn?

Well, I could talk about her name.  Her full name was Wilma Gayle ‘Billie’ Houtman Caselli Clark.  Whew, that’s quite a mouthful.  It seems impossibly long until you do a bit of parsing.

How we got from Wilma Gayle to Billie, I am not sure, but I do know this:  if my first name was Wilma I’d change it to Billie.   I can’t say as I blame Billie for doing it.  Of course, it wasn’t her doing at all.  The nickname came from her Dad Neal, who (according to her sister Mary) started calling her “Wild Bill from Vinegar Hill”.  Now, where Vinegar Hill was and why Wild Bill should be from there is still a bit of a mystery to me.   I believe there is an old song which refers to “Dirty Bill from Vinegar Hill...he never had a bath and never will."  Well, though we all knew Billie as a clean sort, this actually refers to Billie’s long-ago tomboy days.

Yes, of the four sisters, it was Billie who was the tomboy.  To those who knew Billie as one of the most beautiful women ever to grace their vision, such humble beginnings may come as a surprise.  But it says volumes about her that when the tomboy look no longer hid the truth, Billie accepted her name, her beauty and used them both  with the skill and grace that came to define her presence in all our lives.

Houtman, of course, was her family name, which is still shared by many others in the small town of Holland Michigan.  Her grandfather was instrumental in establishing part of the town's identity--the Dutch Windmill--and her parents Dorothy and Neal were both active members of the community.  Tulip Time was always an important event in the lives of the family as the children were growing up; the girls often dressed up in traditional Dutch costumes to entertain the crowds that gathered to see the parade along 11th street in Holland.

Caselli was Billie's first married name.  Pierre Caselli was a Frenchman, transplanted to the United States as a young man, where he met Billie while attending Hotel School at Cornell.  She was in art school in Boston and they met at a restaurant where she was a waitress and he was a dishwasher. They moved to and lived for many years in Austin, where he was the manager of the Lakeway Inn, and she was a teacher.  She had three children (Alexandra, Valery and Christopher) with Pierre, who died of cancer at the early age of 49 in Austin.

Clark was Billie's second married name.  After Pierre's death in 1981, Billie and John Clark-- who had known each other for years already--began to see each other socially and eventually married in 1984. Dedicated to his wonderful ‘Bride’, John adopted and was adopted in turn by the Houtman clan, moving up to Holland be a part of their lives and to support Billie in her many artistic endeavors.

But I didn’t come to talk about Billie’s name.
I came to talk about Billie.

I suppose could talk about me, especially because there may be some of you who are wondering just who I am and why Billie asked me to deliver this eulogy.  After all, I am just an, in-law.

I am a late-comer to this story, an outsider in many ways that go beyond the different last names.  But from the moment I rolled her daughter Valery up to where Billie was working (painting a sign on a door in a Westlake Hills strip mall) in a shopping cart and introduced myself, Billie treated me as her one of her own children, with all the love, respect, and no small measure of the high expectations that come with that position.

I was privileged to be loved by Billie, who offered it without condition.  In gaining her love and trust, I also felt pressed to be good.  I felt the need to do well, for her, for her daughter, for her grandchildren, but most of all for myself.  Billie was my ‘other mother’ She inspired me to be a better person and I loved her every bit as dearly as I did Lynda.  I will miss her.

But I didn’t come to talk about me.
I came to talk about Billie.

I could talk about Art (with a capital A), because Billie was an Artist (with a capital A).  More than that, she was a talented and prolific artist.  In a time when that title (“Artist”) is often assumed by individuals who are neither talented nor trained and by many more who have never actually worked at the craft, Billie was, to put it bluntly, a real artist.

Born with a great deal of God-given talent and put into practice by virtue of her own determined efforts, Billie always considered herself to be an Artist.  She never lost sight of her goal.  That means, even as she was raising her family, wiping bottoms, reading, cooking, cleaning house, taxiing kids to music lessons; even while teaching art to grade-schoolers; even while painting dentist’s names on strip mall doors, or running the Message Parlor (her sign-painting studio in Westlake), Billie was true to her passion.  Billie was always true to her Art.

One measure of her passion may be found in the body of work that she left us.  Her prolific watercolors are on many of your walls and a few are here on the tables today.  She created dozens of sculptures, many of which, by virtue of the material and the skill of the artist, will survive long beyond any of our mere accomplishments, however great they may seem to be, for such things as degrees and houses and even poems will all fade away with the steady beat of Time, while Billie’s bronzes and the images cast therein will remain for as many generations as you and I are all together capable of imagining.

But I didn’t come to talk about Art.
I came to talk about Billie.

I really should talk about family, because as important as Art was to Billie, it was not as important to her as her family was.  Billie was from a large, loving family.  She was born in 1933, the daughter of Dorothy and Neal Houtman, the third of six children.  Her sister Mary is here today and will say a few words about her, while sisters Joan and Sally and brothers Don and Ken all send their love and affection to this gathering.   Billie was always been close to her siblings (especially her sisters, two of whom lived nearby in Holland), their spouses, their children, and even their children’s children.

Billie's own three children were a special point of pride for her.  To say that they were close is an understatement of the highest order.  Billie was especially fond of the two grandchildren (Pierre and Madelaine--Valery's children) that she had an opportunity to see grow up while she lived in Austin.

(By the way, Billie's brother Ken created the video slideshow that we’ve been enjoying here today; her son Christopher collected the photos for that and the album on the table; and her daughter Alexandra provided the music.  Alex and her partner Steve Welch have been playing for us ‘live’ thanks.)

As good as her family as been to and for her, it hasn’t always been free from pain and strife.  It was in part because of this pain that because she understood the value of family in a way that most young mothers do not. After her first husband Pierre died of cancer at home, Billie had to move into a smaller house and go to work to support her family, which she did without resentment or complaint.  Later in life she and her second husband John moved to Holland to be near enough to care for her mother Dorothy.

John's unconditional love and enthusiastic support allowed Billie to flourish as an artist and to be a close part of her family.   The nearly annual family gathering during the summers in Holland was a treasured time for all us, and Billie in particular.

But I didn’t come to talk about family today.
I came to talk about Billie.

I could talk about friendship, for even though I am merely a part of her family by marriage (I snuck in through the kitchen door, so to speak), I also enjoyed the privilege of being her friend.  Many of the people here today counted Billie as a good friend.  You know that the kindness, caring and loyalty of a good friend is a rare treasure, and you know that Billie was all of those and more to many wonderful people.  Somehow, she kept up with all our lives, our children, our projects, our trips and most of all, our plans, hopes and dreams.

When you spoke with her, she would remember all those details about your life that you thought no one remembered but you.  When she did, you realized (more than once, I hope) how grateful you were for such a good friend.  We were all warmed by her charisma and nurtured by her kind thoughts and comments.  The Purples (to which my mother Lynda also belonged) was an especially important group of Billie’s friends, and they are well represented here, thank you.

But I didn’t come to talk about friendship today.
I came to talk about Billie.

I could talk about teaching, because Billie was a teacher.  And while she would have, in her typical self deprecating fashion, have discounted her abilities as a teacher, she was in fact a terrific teacher.  The importance of teachers--good teachers, like Billie--in our lives simply cannot be overstated.

What made Billie such a good teacher?  Billie made us all believe that we could be creative.  'You can’t draw a straight line?  Ok, let’s do circles.  Can’t match colors?  Ok, let’s try the color wheel.'  How to hold a brush?  What color to put down first?  How to make a mold?  A casting?  Paint an Easter egg?  All these things and more I learned from Billie.  What about you?

While she definitely took up teaching to support her family during lean times in Pierre’s career, Billie still brought her passion for Art to the classroom.  She taught her students Art because that’s what her hands knew best.  She taught many different individuals, in many different settings, from classrooms to kitchens, from pre-schoolers to seniors.

But while many learned much from Billie,  the subject was only nominally about Art.

Billie actually taught her students about Life, because that’s what her heart knew best.  If you were ever lucky enough to be in one of Billie’s art classes, or had her show you how to draw, or if you ever had her gently guide your hand with a brush or over some clay in her studio, you learned a lot more than how to make a pinch pot or a paint watercolor still life.  You learned to love Art, but thanks to Billie's guidance, you came to appreciate what lay beneath: Life itself.

Billie was a teacher, of Art, and of Life.

But I didn’t come to talk about teaching today.
I came to talk about Billie.

I considered talking about God, for Billie was a faithful servant of the Good Lord, in His many manifestations and many subtle glories.  Billie was grateful to God for more than her existence, though.  She was grateful for the world itself, for the place that defined that her being and for the people with whom she shared this place.  She often made note of the small things that most people, in a hurry at best and inattentive at worst--would walk past, overlook or simply miss.  To God, she was as grateful for the World as she was free of malice for the cancer that claimed her life.

As gracious as she was with God about the illness that took her from us, I am not.  I am tempted to rail at Him for taking Billie from us so soon.  But Billie would remind me of my manners.  She would tell me that it wasn’t God taking her from us but a disease, so if there’s any railing to be done, there are better targets than Him.

Besides, I didn’t come to talk about God.
I came to talk about Billie.

Hoo boy, I could talk about Death today.  After all is there a better time and place than a eulogy?  Probably not.  Death wasn’t something Billie ignored or pretended wasn’t going to happen.  When she was diagnosed with the Cancer that took her life, she fought with the courage and determination that defined her life.  She was as realistic as the situation required, as hopeful as she dared to be, and as resolute as she could be about facing her end.  Billie faced Death without fear or remorse and with as much dignity as any one of us could hope for.

Indeed, I can only hope that when my time comes, I will face it with the same dignity and dare I say it, style,  as Billie did.  After all, we are all facing the same fate. Quite honestly Billie (the teacher) has shown me how to do it with right, with humor, grace and charm.

But I sure didn’t come to talk about Death today.
I came to talk about Billie.

Well, it seems that in spite of all the things I have not talked about, I have managed to say a word or two about Billie.  Of course, we didn’t come here today to hear my words.  We are gathered here to remember Billie--each of us in our own unique way.

The truth is that we’ll do most of our remembering later.

We’ll remember Billie when we read something in the paper we know she would laugh at, when see a piece of art we want to tell her about, or when we hear some beautiful music that we would love to share with her.  Those moments will be bittersweet, of course.  But despair not.  In those moments, you will know that she is not gone, but that she is here with you.

It’s a fleeting feeling, I know.  But then, what feeling is not?

As we carry on (and we will), some of us will be lucky enough to see Billie live on in the mirror.  Some will see her in the hands, eyes and smiles of her children and grandchildren.  Others will enjoy the privilege of seeing Billie in their hands, hearing her in their thoughts and sharing with others that ready smile she so often graced us with.

Still others (countless others) will never have met her, but will know who she really was as they stand before one of her works.  There, they will feel her presence, resonating within them like Life’s tuning fork.  They too will come to know Billie.

Billie was a person who made each of us--and by extension, this World--better.  By better I mean that Billie brought us--each one of us here today, plus many more not present--to become wiser, kinder and gentler people, simply by her presence in our lives.  This a rare trait, but then, Billie was a rare individual.

So, what can we do for her in return? It’s not a foolish question.  Even though she is gone, there is a lot we can do for her, each of us, from this day forward.

Resolve, if you will, on this day--and every day of your life going forward--to remember Billie often and with love.  Resolve to carry on her legacy by being grateful for your life, passionate in your love, and determined to make a difference in the World.

Raise a glass today (and every day, if you will) to a wonderful person who did all that and more.

Billie, we will remember you!