Eulogy for Justine McMenamin Comte (1915 - 2010)
Presented April 24, 2010, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Portland Oregon
When I was informed of my participation in today’s celebration I was given two specific instructions: One. Prepare something – which, as you can see, I have done - and; Two. Keep it short. I will leave it to your own judgment to decide whether I have accomplished the latter. If you find this too long, I hope you will at least not find it interminable. The words, except where noted, are my own. If they spark some glimmer of recognition within you, then I will have successfully completed my task; if they do not, then the fault is mine alone.
We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Justine McMenamin Comte. As the oldest child of the oldest child of Grandma Justine, who was herself an oldest child, I have been asked to speak as a representative of the “younger generation”. You will pardon me I hope, if I take note of the irony of this.
The task is a daunting one, for in her nearly 95 years of life, Grandma Justine was many things to many people: child, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, great-great grandmother, colleague, acquaintance and friend. How can a mere handful of words possibly quantify such a life? The simple truth is they cannot, and so I will not presume to do so here today. At best, I can only offer a paltry sketch of how I saw her, and hope that will suffice.
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said: “We do not stop laughing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop laughing.” In this regard it must be said that Grandma Justine was never truly old. For in my mind, laughter was at the core of her being and the key to her personality. Those of you not fortunate enough to have experienced that laugh have truly been deprived of something special. I will attempt, as best I can in these few words, to convey to you some small sense of what you have missed.
As a child, the sound of her laughter helped me in large measure to chart my way amidst the hazardous rocks and shoals of grown-up relations. That sound: high and brilliant, like the beam of a lighthouse piercing the dark fog of adult conversation. And despite whatever fears or uncertainties I might otherwise experience, her laughter reassured me that, for the moment at least, all was right with the world.
As I grew older, her laughter also became a sound of welcome, and over time I began to hear it in the way I’m sure many of you experienced it. For, if ever there was a person whose fundamental nature embodied the qualities of fellowship, goodwill, and hospitality, it was Grandma Justine. Whether at a large family gathering, or a one-on-one visit, she would welcome you with open arms, a gracious smile and that unabashedly joyful laugh. Her sense of taste and style was simple, but impeccable; never a hair on that radiant silver mane was ever out of place; dressed at least to the eights, if not always to the nines; the table groaning with food, whether it was an Easter rack-of-lamb or a bucket of chicken from “The Speck”. Friends were always welcome; family, from the oldest to the smallest, always had a place. Her love was unconditional, and her embrace of everyone who came within her sphere knew no bounds. She was a fixture of the northeast Portland neighborhood she and my grandfather called home for so many years, known as much for her gregarious nature as for her impressive memory: there was not a shopkeeper, cook, grocer, counterperson, waitress or customer from her many years working at the Rose City and Hollywood Fred Meyers whose name she did not know, and who in turn did not seem glad to see her. Anyone to whom you introduced her instantly became her friend. She was unselfconsciously sociable, a woman who loved the company of other people, and who naturally, effortlessly endeared herself to everyone she met.
But above even these admirable traits, Grandma Justine was a woman of fierce strength, conviction and optimism. When I last visited with her this past Christmas, she expressed a desire to see her 100th birthday, even despite the numerous recent close-calls, the increasingly frequent trips to hospital and the dire pronouncements of the doctors. She admitted to being frustrated that her body was slowly, inexorably breaking down, but the sheer force of her will was sufficient, for a time at least, to overcome the inevitable dissolution. A few weeks ago, when once again she was hospitalized and we were informed she was not expected to recover, she somehow found a final burst of strength, and her condition improved enough to persuade her doctors to send her home. No one could ever say “no” to Grandma Justine once her mind was set. And set it was. She was going home, and that was that. She died a few days later, peacefully, without pain, in her own bed and on her own terms. I can only speculate, but I can imagine that must have delighted her; she’d got the last laugh on them, after all.
I will miss hearing that laugh, but I am also heartened, because I do not believe it has gone from us entirely. I believe it still reverberates around us, echoing through our memories, resonating in the deepest spaces of our beings. One theory of Quantum Physics posits that everything we can perceive: from clusters of galaxies, to the smallest of sub-atomic particles, are created from the vibrations of infinitesimally small filaments of energy. These filaments in turn give substance to all matter, from quarks and muons, to atoms, to cells, to living beings, to stars; they form, in the most simplistic of terms, the basic, underlying fibers from which the entire cloth of the cosmos is woven.
If this theory is correct, then surely laughter is a vital thread in this perdurable garment, for what is laughter in its most fundamental aspect, but a vibration? Waves of sound we feel in our chests and hear with our ears and experience in our minds. But, I believe its influence goes farther even than this: all those joyful vibrations emanating from a single source for so long must needs resonate ever deeper into the unperceived weave of time-and-space. The thread of her laughter not only connects her to us, but to each other and from each other to all things; it sews us stitch by stitch, into the very fabric of the universe.
This is the gift Grandma Justine has given us. And it is the reason our memories of her will not be burdened with sadness and regret, but will be exalted by joy and hope. Because, so long as we remember, so long as that delightful sound still rings in our hearts and minds, we will be reminded that we are never truly alone, and once again all will be right with the world..
And so, at the end, this is all I am able to give you by way of perspective: a small, personal and imprecise accounting of the value of a single human life amidst an infinite cosmology. If my poor attempt at taking its measure has proven unsatisfactory, then let me leave you with the words of someone more capable than myself of expressing them.
The American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson described the successful life thusly:
"To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest citizens; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give of one's self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived - this is to have succeeded."
And so, we gather today to celebrate this successful life. It is my hope each of us will leave this place committed to achieving the same success in our own lives she achieved in living hers. For that would be her greatest legacy: each of us harmonizing our own laughter with hers, encouraging others to do likewise, weaving together these threads of our own love and hope and joy binding us more closely to each other, and through each other to the very weft and warp of the universe itself. We can do her no greater honor.
on 11:50 AM