M y mother died in March of this year (2017). I wrote a eulogy for her that I thought might be good to share with all of you. Some of you have had complicated relationships with your mothers. Or your mothers have passed on or are otherwise not in touch. Hopefully this will help. I delivered it at her memorial service, hosted at a church and attended by my younger brother and our loved ones and good friends. For many reasons I have omitted my brother’s name and other details.
Maureen Vincie was born on July 30th, 1946. She died on March 18th, 2017. She was very sick, suffering from lung cancer, and she’d had health problems for the last few years. These problems stemmed from a lifetime of looking after other people before herself.
Many of you know her as a parent. Someone who will fight to the death for her sons. Who thinks the world of _______ and the people who work here. Who loves _____ and I without reservation. But I want to talk about a side of my mother’s life that many of you didn’t get to see as much of.
In some ways, my mother’s life was tragic. Her family didn’t believe in her, and her mother was abusive. Her first husband, our father, suffered from mental illness, and her second husband ___ was killed by a drunk driver. She struggled with money for most of her life, didn’t get to travel to the places she dreamed of and read about. She didn’t get the chance to live the artists’ life that should have been hers when she retired. She spent the last healthy years of her life nursing her mother, who frankly took three years too long to die and left her broke in the middle of yet another recession.
In the last three years she suffered from a series of vision problems, which as a photographer and visual person is like losing little bits of yourself every day. She battled depression and loneliness, but was too proud and stubborn to reach out, and picked fights even when there were none to pick. In some ways she was a tree that had grown around a fence. The obstacle was embedded too deep in her to ever be removed.
In sum, she lived more for others than for herself. As many women do.
I say these things not to be hurtful or to shock people, but to give you some idea of the nature of the miracle that was her life. Because there’s another side to this story.
My mother loved music, art, poetry, photography, film. Her love of those things, and her nurturing of that love in us is one of the big reasons _____ is an artist and I’m a filmmaker. She became a self-taught professional photographer and writer, working for newspapers, non-profits, schools, churches, and ad agencies. She taught herself the intricacies of typography, printing and graphic design, back when those things were all “analog.” It’s hard to convey the joy of being in a print shop or a dark room, the smell of fixer and printer’s ink, but those were some of the highlights of my childhood.
One of the things that she never gave herself credit for is her technical chops. She figured out how to use early PC word processors, desktop publishing tools, and database management systems, back when those things were pretty clunky. She and ___ built two darkrooms, one in our tiny apartment in the Bronx, and the second one in Rhinebeck when we moved upstate. She learned how to frame at the Rhinebeck Artists Shop. We built or cobbled together or repurposed a lot of furniture over the years, and she was always tinkering with new things — learning calligraphy, doing some watercolors, framing or hanging posters.
In the early 90s, partly because of the recession and partly because of arthritis, she decided to move away from photography, and worked as a grant writer, tech writer and database designer for a number of nonprofits and small businesses.
Following a really bad fall in 1992 that she never fully recovered from, she decided to switch careers. She became an ESL teacher, and worked for about a dozen schools and companies. She loved her work. She also continued to teach graphic design and desktop publishing at various local schools in NY. Her work as an ESL teacher made her very happy.
So what connects all these different occupations, this moving restlessly from career to career, job to job, place to place? Some of it was the normal dissatisfaction of work — you start in a job enthused that you’re going to be able to do cool creative things, and then you learn your bosses have no idea what you do but want you to do it with five dollars and yesterday. But make it good!
Some of it was the simple struggles of making a living, and dealing with ageism and sexism. Some of it may have been a way of not focusing on being creative, not giving herself the permission to be as expressive as she could be, when she wasn’t on the clock. I think sadly she couldn’t escape those voices from the Irish Catholic culture she grew up in at that time, which didn’t encourage “girls” to be artists.
I think there’s another side to this though. Uniting all these seemingly disparate jobs, and this restlessness, is the quest for key moments of connection. I’ve experienced this magic sometimes when taking photographs. You point the camera at someone, and suddenly the distance between you disappears. You see their whole life story in the curl of their mouth, in the scars on their hands, in their eyes, in the way they lean forward or shy away. You become them, they become you. You take on their struggles, tell their story, and may even become their advocate. That’s beyond simple communication. She was always striving for that level of empathic connection, whether in the darkroom or in the classroom. That’s the miracle she achieved in her work. And she touched so many people this way. I’ve gotten calls and emails from people who haven’t seen her in years telling me how much they meant to her.
I’ll leave you with this poem, one that she found and showed me just a couple of years ago. This is from Gregory Orr, from How Beautiful is the Beloved:
Ask the tree or the house;
Ask the rose or the fire
Hydrant — everything’s
Waiting for you to notice.
Everything’s waiting for you
To wrap your heart around it.
That music has been playing
Since you were born.
You must be mad to resist it.
Always the beloved
Eager to dance.
All we have to do is ask.