Thursday, May 10, 2018

In Remembrance of My Mother

My mother passed away on April 12, almost a month ago now. At some point, I may be ready to write much more about her (in fact, I feel she'll be a part of everything I write moving forward), but for now I'll make a memorial space for me to visit her here. This is the eulogy I wrote for her services but which was so touchingly delivered by my big brother, as we sisters stood behind him, holding each other up.

It means a lot to our family that all of you are here today to pay tribute to our mother, Carol Jean Vensel. As families often do when they lose a loved one, we’ve been getting together and talking about her, and remembering all of the attributes that made her unique in the world, and extraordinarily special to us. Someone once said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. And over these last, difficult days, one of the things we come back to, time and again, is that our mom was someone who just showed up.  She was someone you went to for advice, for help, for information. She knew something about just about everything: childcare, home repair, common illnesses and injuries, legal matters, banking, church rules, of course--automobiles, and so much more. She could tell you all about cooking and cleaning, even though neither was a favorite activity of hers.

When we were younger adults, sometimes we may have found it annoying that she thought she knew so much; as we became older adults, we became annoyed when we realized she was almost always correct. She had an amazing memory for details, both from her childhood and throughout her life. In the last few years, we may have felt that she might, finally, be getting some of it wrong, but now we’re getting older too, so we’ll never know for sure.

Carol Jean Bowen was born on December 29, 1938, in Morgantown, West Virginia. She was an only child for several years, and spent four years in the care of her grandmother while her mother served in the Army during World War II. Recently, while discussing this period, she recalled the exact date her mother returned from Texas. Yet she always talked about this experience in a matter-of-fact way, seeming to understand that her mother needed to show up for her service. This formative time was the first example of our mother’s grace under personal sacrifice.

When she was nine years old, her status as an only child ended with the birth of one--then soon after--a second little brother. Our grandmother ran a tight ship, and Jean was a quiet and obedient daughter. She took her role as big sister very seriously, and became a great help to her mother. She always liked to read, and she always enjoyed clothing. She and her cousin once had a contest to see who could last the longest without wearing the exact same outfit twice. Later, when our dad built an addition to our house, the only thing she asked for was a closet that ran the length of the room, one entire side just to hang clothes.

In the middle of high school, her family moved to La Canada for a short time, then settled in Lancaster. She would often talk about how difficult this transition was, but I imagine she handled it with her usual diligence and lack of complaint. She graduated from Antelope Valley High School in 1956. She attended college in Duluth, Minnesota, at St. Scholastica, partly because her cousin Anne was enrolled there already, and partly because her mother liked that it was an all-girls’ school. She chose a major in Medical Records, and it was during her years at this Catholic university that she decided to convert to Catholicism. She fell in love with the rituals of the Mass, she said, and felt at home.
Her Catholic faith was a cornerstone of her life, and it became a formative part of our lives as well. Our parents were married at this church in 1960. There were baptisms here, First Communions, Confirmations, celebrations of our grandparents’ lives. We all attended grade school right here at Sacred Heart, and through this church community, our mom met many of her wonderful, lifelong friends.

After college, she worked for a time at Antelope Valley Hospital, where she met our father, then she stayed home for several years taking care of us. Some of you may know her from the many years our parents owned and operated A.V. Auto Electric. Her favorite times at that job were when some disgruntled customer would ask to see the owner, and she’d show up, five-foot-four and definitely not a man. She loved the looks on their faces when she told them what was wrong with their cars, and of course, she was always right.
 Later, she was the parish administrator at Saint Junipero Serra Church, where she enjoyed being near the children at the church’s preschool and working closely with Father Ernest for many years. Recently, she served as a Eucharistic Minister, right back here at Sacred Heart. She enjoyed meeting with her Bible study group and other social occasions with friends. She liked to travel. Still a voracious reader, she went through 3 to 5 books a week. Above all else, she cherished time with all of us.

What can I say? She was the anchor of our family, and we find ourselves adrift without her. She was a wonderful mother who made all of us feel we could do anything we set our minds to, if we worked hard. She was a dedicated daughter, taking care of her parents and always finding time to visit them, no matter where they lived. We will always remember our summer trips to their house in West Virginia, and the way she kept us close to them despite the great distance. She was a dedicated sister and aunt, sister-in-law and daughter-in-law. I think any one of us in her immediate or extended family felt she was someone who would show up, any time you needed something, without question.

When she was turning 60, my mom complained that nobody had made her a grandmother yet. So we started having kids, one or more just about every year, until she asked us to stop. Nothing made her face light up like her grandchildren, and each one was lucky enough to have a close relationship with her because--you guessed it--she showed up for them, too. She watched countless music and dance recitals, school events, baseball, soccer and football games, and she took time to just hang out with them too.

As we contemplate moving forward without her, we are strengthened by her strength, comforted by her love, and hopeful that we can honor the example she set and continue to show up for our loved ones, not just today but always.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka