Today, 2 April 2017, is the one-year anniversary of my grandmother, Laura Jane Boyle Weber’s death. She died surrounded by family shortly after her favorite show, Lawrence Welk, ended. As my Grandpa liked to say, “Why…Lawrence Welk went off at 7:00, and Jane went off at 7:01.” (I realize that reads a bit callous, but it was really loving and endearing when he would say it.)
She was tapping her fingers to music she loved as she died. May we all be so lucky.
Here is the eulogy I read at her funeral service. Hard to believe she’s been gone a year already.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the time I got to spend with Grandma and the important ways in which she helped to shape my life. I’d like to share some of my memories, offer a bit of reflection on them and, I hope, honor her by expressing what she means to me.
At family gatherings, like Grandma and Grandpa’s anniversary party, people often compliment me for coming all the way from New York City to be with everyone on these occasions. But I’m not a New Yorker by birth. When I was a boy I lived right down the street at 1922 Madison Avenue right here in Mt. Healthy until the age of five, in a house which Grandma’s mother owned before my dad bought it. While my mom and dad were at work, Grandma would watch me and Greg. I enjoyed it when she would come over – we’d watch the Price is Right and we’d both be excited when that alpine game with the yodeler came on (we, of course, would yodel ridiculously along with the TV). As we ate our lunch we’d watch her soaps – All My Children is the one I remember most – and I remember asking her questions about the characters and the sordid details of their lives. To her credit, I don’t think she fully explained the ins and outs of the adult world to me, but she let me ask the questions and we’d talk about the characters – she liked to gossip. Truth be told, so do I. But that sounds negative, doesn’t it? Let me rephrase that: we both love stories, and discussing the lives of others is a kind of storytelling. Through this storytelling she developed my love for the drama of daily life which would find its way into my love of writing and theater, subjects which I currently teach.
Despite the fun we had, there came a point in the afternoon when I sensed that it was almost time for my mom to get home from work, and, like most kids, once I suspected she was close I would get agitated and want her to be there right away.
“Where is she?” I’d ask, impatiently.
Grandma would reply, “Let me look…” and then she’d go to the window, look down the street, and tell me, “She’s about fifteen blocks away.”
“How do you know that?” I’d ask.
“I have magic glasses.” That answer was reasonable enough to me, and I accepted it.
I remember one particular time when I was maybe three or four years old going to get a zweibach from Schultz’s Bakery on Pleasant Avenue – which I have always referred to as Grandma’s Bakery – then driving to Harbin Park – a place I loved because, at the time, it was where we held the Weber family reunion where I’d get to see, Aunt Alma and Uncle Al, Uncle Barney & Boomer (that’s what I called Aunt Bert for some odd reason), Aunt Gert, Eugene and Betty, all my dad’s cousins and all their kids. Anyway, on the hill at Harbin Park, Grandma and I parked while I had my snack and looked out at the clouds in the distance. They were choppy and extended for miles. Grandma said they looked just like waves on the ocean. I had never seen the ocean, but I had seen the grand prizes on the Price is Right that featured fabulous vacations to Hawaii and Acapulco. I didn’t quite see the parallel, but she said the clouds were like the whitecaps on the waves, and that if I used my imagination I’d be able to see them. And then, all of a sudden, I did see it. It made perfect sense. I looked at the sky and saw the ocean; it was my first poetic thought. I don’t know that grandma was a big fan of poetry, but by making metaphors with the sky and seeing the world through her magic glasses, she helped shape my imagination and my inner world in ways that would give – and continue to give — a lot of color to my life.
Many years later, when I was in 7th grade, Grandma and Grandpa were living in Florida. I flew down to see them on my very first flight all by myself, which probably planted the seeds of my love of travel and my strong sense of independence. Anyway, they took me to Daytona Beach; I’d visited the Gulf of Mexico before, but this was my first time seeing the Atlantic. Whereas the Gulf was usually brown and looked like a big lake to me, the Atlantic looked like the ocean of the Price is Right – cerulean blue and crested with white. “Don’t you remember?” she said, “I told you they looked like clouds.” All those years later, she remembered that conversation.
For those of us in her immediate family, there’s a very special place about an hour east from here called Lake Lorelei. For a period of time in the 80s we would spend every weekend there together, boating, swimming, cooking out – just being together as a family. Some of my favorite memories from my childhood were the Saturday nights at the clubhouse at Lake Lorelei where there would be a band playing jazz standards and big band swing tunes that we all associate with grandma and grandpa. In fact, the moment I hear the opening notes of “All of me…. Why not take all of me?” I immediately think of the two of them. I loved watching everyone dance; I loved sitting with my family, drinking my ginger ale and eating pretzels while singing along with the band. These experiences made me want to study music and perform, which I’ve done for my entire life. I’ve even made it to Carnegie Hall – a few times – but I can tell you that singing there, as special as that is, is not as dear to me as singing along with grandma and grandpa and the band at Lake Lorelei.
Before Lake Lorelei was a part of our lives, I would stay with her and Grandpa – and a teenage Kimmy, and their dog, Buffy – at their house on Evalie. If the weather was nice we would walk across the street to visit Bob Kay and swim in his pool. We’d do word searches together and other puzzles — she loved a game, and she saw that I did too (still do!). I remember her telling me when I was very small that one day I would be big enough to go to bingo with her. After years of waiting – which only made it seem that much more glamorous – that day finally came. I remember entering the bingo hall and being amazed as I watched Grandma in her natural habitat. She greeted all the other ladies – her friends and adversaries – with pleasant hellos (then told me who to watch out for because they win too often). She bought 30 bingo cards for herself and one for me. “How come I only get one?” I’d ask. “Let’s see if you can keep up with one before we add to it.” I quickly graduated to three cards, but never made it past six. She had a bag filled with metallic chips and magnetic wands to remove them quickly; dabbers of ink for the single card rounds. And good luck charms: trinkets and trolls that she would set up like guardians of her cards. “Do they work?” “They do. They’re magic.” Again, this seemed reasonable to me because she did win the money. Sometimes quite a bit.
She was a winner. And a wit. The life of the party. She had a wonderful laugh and smile, and I know we would all love it if she could walk through the door right now and tell us that she was fine.
Grandma left me her magic glasses, and in case anyone here is worried about her, I want you to know that I can see her. Shortly after the moment of her death, she thought, “I went peacefully…surrounded by loved ones…I even made it through tonight’s episode of Lawrence Welk…and I’m ready.” So her spirit, with all her might, yelled out, “BINGO!” to that great Bingo Caller in the Sky, St. Peter. He called her name and she approached, thinking to herself as she rose through the clouds that they still look like the ocean. She’s
young again, and beautiful. Her hair is long, her lipstick is very red. “Laura Jane Boyle Weber,” he commanded, and she said to him, “Who wants to know?” She was a bit surprised because her voice was healed and wasn’t shaking. St. Peter wasn’t in a joking mood, so he just looked at her sternly, and she decided to behave. He looked over her bingo card and said, “Laura Jane,” (she looked a bit nervous) “it appears that your time on earth was fun. You made people smile. You made people laugh. On the whole, the world was a merrier, wittier, richer place because you were in it. You are welcome into heaven.” When the gates opened and she walked inside, her mother, Iva Pohlar Backus, gave her an entire chocolate cake. “Is this whole thing for me?” she asked. “Of course,” Grandma Backus said, “and don’t worry – there’s no diabetes in heaven.” Laura Jane replied to her mother, “Doesn’t matter, I was going to eat it anyway.” Her Grandpa Pohlar, a bar owner here on Earth, poured her a beer knowing that she hadn’t had a drink in many years. She smiled, and as she took her first, glorious bite and her first delicious sip, Lawrence Welk struck up the angelic band – “A one, a two, a three!” – and she sang along with them and all her relations in heaven: “You took the best, so why not take the rest? Why not take all of me?”