One Woman’s March

This isn’t a usual blog post, but this hasn’t been a usual week, either. Today we buried my grandmother–a woman so strong that she could’ve held a national women’s march all by herself. May the strength of all women guide us forward into an era of peace and equality for all.

Below is her eulogy. I was honored to write it.


It’s not easy to sum up the life of someone who’s lived 89 years. When that someone has had 7 children, 13 grandchildren, and 9.5 great grandchildren, you know she’s packed a lot of life into those years. And so it was with Mary Frances, our Diddy.

Born in 1927 as the 2nd of 7 children, Mary Frances started life on the farm. She acquired her nickname, Diddy, early from her grandfather, who lived with them for a time. When Diddy was fussy, he would bounce her on his knee, saying “Hey diddly diddly” and it stuck—much to her chagrin.

diddy-2Her family grew tobacco, among other things, on land along the Patuxent River near Upper Marlboro. The farm was almost completely self-sufficient, despite not having running water or electricity. And when you have a farm with no running water or electricity, you quickly learn the value of hard work.

When Diddy was 5 she started at Hickory Grove Schoolhouse, a one-room school with a wood stove. It was the job of the children to keep the fire going. Even the littlest ones took turns bringing in wood from the pile. With only 10 students in the entire school and so many Murrays, it’s easy to imagine that she and her siblings took up most of the seats.

It was in childhood that Diddy first earned her reputation for resilience. As a girl, Diddy’s mother had a ruptured appendix and needed to be rushed to the hospital. Back then there was no 911 and no way to rush anyone anywhere, and by the time they got her all the way to Providence hospital in DC, her mother’s appendix had turned gangrenous and they weren’t sure that she would survive. But survive she did.

Then, a few months later, Diddy needed an appendectomy, too. Her father had no way to pay for the growing medical bills, so he promised the surgeon an IOU from his tobacco harvest. It had been good that year—so good that her father had had to rent extra space in a neighbor’s curing barn.

On his way home from visiting Diddy, the drive from the hospital took him past that barn, which he saw was fully engulfed in flames. All of their money for the year, including for the hospital bills, went up in smoke. I asked Diddy what they did without the money. She said, “It was a hard year,” and she changed the subject.

diddy-1When she was 17 she proved her resilience again, getting struck by lightning on her way to the well. She was knocked unconscious, and her mother had to drag her in from the storm to revive her. Diddy wasn’t scared of much. In fact, one of her sisters said once, “she’s not afraid of the devil – the devil is afraid of her.”

Her childhood years were built on hard work and centered on faith and family, and she carried that into adulthood. As her sister Margie told me, their parents gave Diddy and her siblings the gift of sticking together, which meant helping each other out and giving each other a hard time. Diddy told me once that she had stuffed her stockings into her brother Buddy’s jacket right before he left for a date, hoping he’d get in trouble with his girlfriend. Sixty years later, she was still giggling as she told me that story.

In early adulthood she got to know John Mazzullo, the son of family friends, and was quickly smitten. Life on the farm isn’t always conducive to romance, however. She liked to bake coconut cakes for him before each date, but with no electricity, it was a chore. Diddy made seven-minute frosting for the cake with a double boiler, Margie holding the pans steady while Diddy mixed the frosting by hand. For seven minutes.

Sometimes the livestock worked against your love life, too. Diddy had taken her best dress out of mothballs to air on the clothes line before her date with John, and a few minutes later she looked out the window to see their cow chewing on the dress. She wasn’t able to save it, but she had a good laugh about who was going to drink the milk the cow made that day.

Diddy was the first to get married and leave home. Her sister Margie says that even though they were happy for her, they all cried when she and John left for their honeymoon because they would miss her so much.

As one would expect, Diddy was a hard worker in her own house, too. She had her first two children within 10 months of each other, my mother June and her sister Maggie. When my two boys were born in the same short time span, Diddy was my kindred spirit. I knew that if she could do it, so could I. It was incredibly comforting on those weary nights when I had a newborn, a 10 month old, and no sleep for weeks and weeks. She could do it, and so could I.

diddy-7Diddy went on to have seven children in 10 years, pausing only to have a kidney removed. The doctors warned her that her remaining kidney wouldn’t last more than a few years, but she proved them wrong and hung onto it for decades. In later years she beat breast cancer, kidney cancer, assorted surgeries, and more than one bad fall. We never doubted that she’d bounce back, because that’s what Diddy did. Always. Deep down, I know we thought she’d outlast us all.

We are heartbroken that she’s gone but take comfort in knowing that she passed on her good humor, resilience, and her parents’ gift of sticking together to her own family. And if you look around the church today, you’ll see that we’re happily stuck together, still.

Diddy’s family was her crowning glory. All of those children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren gave her lots of opportunities to hold babies – her favorite thing. In fact, she’s probably held most of the people here today on her lap at one time or another.

diddy-9My cousins and I share some memories I like to call “Diddy essentials”: Easter egg hunts on Marlin Lane, hanging out in the basement together at Christmas while the adults enjoyed the peace and quiet upstairs, Diddy carving the turkey at Thanksgiving with that giant, noisy electric knife. Her oyster stuffing. Her cheeseball. She even challenged my husband Corey to a shrimp eating contest, and she cheated shamelessly. She giggled about that, too. And decades later she still made that coconut cake for John—but now all of us shared it with him.

If a lot of our Diddy memories seem to revolve around food, there’s a good reason for that. She’d take a bite of something homemade and exclaim that she could taste the love in it. Having made seven-minute frosting over a double boiler with no electricity, this woman knew that hard work WAS love. Love for John, then their children, and the rest of us.

Seven children, 13 grandchildren, 9.5 great grandchildren, and 12 spouses: all told, there are 41 of us lucky enough to call her our matriarch. A woman who showed us that even lightning can’t keep us down.

diddy-5

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The LAST Weekend of Summer

This weekend I had a flare of panic. Not because the laundry pile was perilously high (which it was) or because I had forgotten to look for a new dentist (which I had – again), but because I realized that this was the last weekend of summer.

And I mean the LAST weekend of summer, before Cade starts kindergarten and summers for the next 12 years will be defined by the school calendar, and not the weather. Starting next week, we will be sucked into the machine that will churn us through back to school shopping in July, snow days that that will leave us scrambling for child care, and vacations planned with the precision of  a space shuttle launch. The days of picking up and going just because it’s sunny will be gone. The thought made me queasy and a little sad.

So on Saturday morning I announced, “Today we will ride a steam engine train!” It’s no Disney World, but I figured it was good enough to make me feel like I was still harnessing the last bits of summer sunshine. Cade was unimpressed.

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See him hiding back there? He’s not fooling anyone.

C: I don’t want to ride a train!

Me: We’re going.

C: No! You can’t make me.

Me: Buckle up, kid. We’re riding the rails today.

The road to the train station was winding and lovely. Pastoral, even. But every time I turned onto a new country lane, I heard an audible, heavy sigh in the backseat. Cade was done with my bubbly enthusiasm. Over it. I was still in summer mom mode, but he had already zoomed past me into a pre-adolescent ‘tude of sarcasm. He had become, at five, too cool for me. I was kind of proud of him. At the same time, I wanted to cry for the baby that I realized was long gone.

As the steam engine chugged up to the station to pick us up, Cade broke out into a huge, silly grin. He bobbed up and down in his Star Wars sneakers, giddy with the thought of climbing into the coach and watching the farms speed by from the window. My baby isn’t gone, just hidden under bravado and the cool exterior of a boy who wants to be taken seriously as a big kid. I realized then that I don’t have to worry about putting him on the bus next week. He’ll have his buddies at school, the teachers will take good care of him, and he will transition more smoothly than I will.

But it is, surely, the end of something precious and special –in the same way that kindergarten will be a new kind of special. I may not be ready, but the train is leaving the station just the same. All aboard!!

Strausburg

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You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

I haven’t been watching the political conventions these past weeks because everything about this election stresses me out. Instead I’m watching re-runs of The West Wing as a Utopian exercise in denial. But there’s no way to avoid one key fact – a woman is making history tonight.

This got me thinking about all of the amazing women I know. And I know a LOT of truly incredible women. Indulge me for a minute. I want to paint you a picture.

80s Girl

Big hair, big dreams.

It was the 80s. My friends growing up were regular gals. They played with Strawberry Shortcake dolls or Star Wars action figures. They put Sun-In in their hair, or lemon juice, making friendship bracelets and folding notes to each other in origami intricate enough to make a paper crane blush. They were girls. Regular, ordinary, legwarmer-wearing girls.

I’m not that old. (Really, I’m not. Ahem – let’s move on). When I was growing up there weren’t many worthwhile role models around. We had a few good ones, sure. Sally Ride. Murphy Brown. Probably more. There were more, right?

Now we’re older and suddenly there are kickass women everywhere. My old girlfriends from grade school are now CEOs, CMOs, business owners, petrophysicists, attorneys, pharmacists, astrophysicists, instructional designers, and strategic experts in their field. And those are just the flashy titles. This gang also includes teachers, social workers, mothers, nurses, salespeople, writers, and loads of other jobs that are just as (if not more) grueling than the first batch. My LinkedIn connections list looks like a boastful Jeopardy category. I’ll take Impressive Careers for 500, Alex.

I’m not pandering. I don’t mean, “Gee willakers – look what the little ladies can do!” What I love is that we’ve done it while still being us. We have better highlights in our hair now, sure. But we got here without having to compromise who we are or apologize for being women. My girlfriends are still smart and funny, silly and disarming. And we are everywhere.

That’s not to say that things are equal. We all know there’s still work to do. But still — if I had a daughter, I would revel in the fact that don’t have to give her the, “You can be anything you want when you grow up” talk.

She’d watch the convention speeches tonight and see that it’s true.

 

Murphy Brown

 

 

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