My Aunt Jan, my mother’s younger sister, died on April 13, 2019.
We had her funeral this past Friday, May 3rd, at which I gave the eulogy. She did not have children, and her father (my grandfather, George), her only sister (my mother, Judy) and her mother (my grandmother, Helen) all passed before her, in 2000, 2006, and 2009 respectively.
After scripture readings, a gospel, and brief homily by the deacon, a few words from my aunt’s former partner, Richard, with whom she was in a relationship for 17 years, a bible reading and powerful personal message from my older brother, Anthony, and a poem and Anne Lamott book passage read aloud by my older sister, Rebecca… it was my turn.
It took me about nine minutes to deliver the eulogy I wrote, speaking to a full chapel of over one hundred of Jan’s close friends and family. I didn’t know maybe half of the people in attendance, those who knew my Aunt Jan from other walks of her life; so I had decided to greet as many old friends and former co-workers of hers with a smile and a handshake as they walked up to the chapel doors.
I thought that if I was able to introduce myself to most of them, then we wouldn’t be complete strangers when I stood before them to say what I had prepared. I was nervous to speak, but I was confident in the message I was there to deliver.
After the service was over, we all walked from the chapel to the grave site to bury her cremains. Many mourners I had just met hugged and thanked me for what I wrote, as we shared this powerful experience of saying goodbye to someone we loved. The love and energy Jan had given in life to those for whom she cared, inspired me to write the following words to honor her in death, as I shared that day...
Jan’s Eulogy 5.3.19
I have written a lot about death and losing people I love. I write to make peace with the fact that they’re gone, and with why they are gone. I write to process how I feel about it, and about them, and how their words and actions affected me.
But I also write to honor them in death as best I can, aiming to share more of who they were and what they meant to me and others in this life. Today, I’m going to communicate with you some thoughts and feelings I got down on the page when I sat to write and reflect on my Aunt Jan’s life.
As a writer, not a public speaker, I would much rather post this where you all can read it yourselves. But since delivering a eulogy at a funeral doesn’t work that way, I’ll read it to you, and do my best to convey through my voice what came out through the strokes of my keyboard in silent reflection.
Jan and I share a middle name. Marie. She was Janice Marie and I am Lisa Marie. She called me “Lisa Marie” my whole life, so I recently began calling her “Janice Marie” in texts and when I saw her. But before that, while growing up, I simply called her “Aunt Janny.”
Aunt Janny was a cool aunt because she was ten years younger than our mom. She was 16 when I was born. She often babysat my siblings and I, and for as much as I can remember, she let us run wild and do what we wanted.
Once on her watch, I fell and hit my head on the corner of our coffee table while jumping on the couch. I have a scar next to my eye from the injury, and Jan often liked to remind me of this mishap… a running joke that amused her. Somehow she equated it as her proof that she was not fit to watch over little kids.
As a 20-something girl, she possessed a gentle ruggedness that made her intimidating, yet approachable. When I saw her, most often it was in shorts washing her car in the driveway of my Grandma’s house on Tuba Street in Chatsworth.
She did this A LOT. Like every couple of days, a lot. She always had a potent air freshener hanging from her rear view mirror, and religiously applied Armor-All to her car tires, dashboard, and leather seats.
Jan’s happy place was in her immaculately clean sports car, cruising and blasting her favorite tunes. She would drive us to Malibu in her powder blue Chevy Malibu… her love for the beach trumping her dislike of sand inside her car.
Just picture it… a 23-year-old Jan driving three little kids over Kanan Dume Road to Paradise Cove Beach in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s. The winding canyon road, windows down, wind whipping through our hair, and our little bodies sliding across the back bench seat, saturated with Armor-All.
No seat belt law meant we were untethered and at the mercy of Kanan’s sharp turns and Jan’s slippery, lubed-up leather. We would be crushed up against one another, pinned between a sibling and the car door, until a turn in the opposite direction catapulted us to the other side of the car, all the while a soundtrack of 70’s soft rock hits blared on the car radio.
No, none of the songs she played were AT ALL appropriate listening for the 7, 9, and 10 year old kids that my brother, sister and I were. But even though the lyrics went over our heads, the choruses were burned into our brains.
My brother collectively dubbed them, “Janny Beach Songs,” as we still refer to them today. Over the years, Jan loved when we would list these classic songs from memory and sing a few bars of “Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover,” “Hot Blooded,” “Afternoon Delight,” or “Hot Legs.”
Jan loved music. She loved sports, and she loved shiny colors, especially RED, on her cars, her lips, and her nails.
But bright, neon colors… those, she most often wore on her feet.
(I brought out a pair of Jan’s neon orange Nikes from behind the podium and placed them in front of me)
I don’t know exactly when her obsession with the blindingly neon-colored athletic shoes began; but I do know the dizzying number of pairs she had, like this one, are a perfect analogy to Jan herself during the years she wore them.
They are sporty, but stylish…
flashy, but comfortable…
casual, yet expensive…
Just like her.
Jan loved what she loved, and embraced it all with vigor.
She was sentimental… about family, her favorite songs, and her precious memories. I actually don’t remember her being sentimental in her youth; but what do kids really know about the inner emotional life of the adults in their lives, unless those adults open up and share it with them.
Some people say we get more sentimental as we age… that things a younger person would deem “sappy,” like TV commercials and greeting cards, can easily bring older people to tears.
I don’t know if age has as much to do with it as maturity does. I think sad things that make us weep, or happy things that make us cry, elicit these emotions, to those that are paying attention, because they are just that… sad or happy enough to provoke a physical release in our bodies… grief or joy, manifested through tears.
The grief and the joy are not necessarily stronger or more potent for most older people than they are for younger people. It’s just that most young people, and unfortunately some grown adults, have not yet developed the tools to let feelings flow without fighting them… their restraint often rooted in fear and shame.
Our culture has taught us that emotions are for the weak, that holding back tears is a sign of strength, and that being or appearing vulnerable should be avoided at all costs.
I think society got it wrong.
My Aunt Jan had this way of pushing her lower lip out to communicate something was causing her to become emotional. I think it was her way of feigning crying to avoid actually crying; although sometimes she did begin to cry too when she just couldn’t stop herself.
She did it when she told me how something I had written affected her.
She’d say to me, “You make me cry, Lisa. You’re such a good writer. Your words are so beautiful.”
And she would say it almost like she was a little mad at me for rendering her helpless to her own tears. Like I had found her Achilles’ heel and she was being forced to unwillingly surrender to her emotions when she read what I wrote.
Of course, she didn’t have to read the pieces about my mom, or marriage, or life being challenging or hopeful. She could have avoided them and not subjected herself to riding a roller coaster of emotions. But I think she liked taking the ride, and letting me bring her on a journey to that place she wouldn’t let her daily life take her.
That place of vulnerability. That place we go as humans when we surrender to what we feel so completely that, often in a flood of tears, we are relieved of a heavy burden. For those who don’t ever allow it, or who don’t allow it often, crying is like a valve being loosened just enough to release the pressure of what has been held inside for too long.
My writing brought Jan to that place. With every lower lip pout or tear she cried, I think she got a little relief from what she often held inside: sadness, pain or just the feeling of really missing her nuclear family… her mom, dad and sister… the three people who loved and shaped her and brought her up in this world.
Janny is not here to read this; but I can picture her now being overwhelmed by it… her lower lip in full effect, holding back tears, and lovingly reprimanding me for “making” her cry.
Well, Janice Marie, I’m sorry/not sorry. I am honored to be someone who loosened the valve on your emotions every once in a while. I’m content to believe that this would have elicited your tears as well.
But in truth, I know that if you are feeling anything comparable to the human act of crying in this moment, it is not because my words “made” you do it. If you are crying, I believe they would be tears of joy in seeing your family and friends show up to honor you today. It would be from the overwhelming joy of being reunited with your nuclear family again.
I can imagine the four of you together in a tight group hug… you with my mom, Grandma Helen, and yes, even Grandpa George. I imagine him as a beautiful light embracing his wife and daughters closely and tenderly, his soul now free from what held him back from doing so while he was here.
I imagine you wanting all of us to know that you are okay. Wanting us to be happy for you… happy you are with your family, and happy you are at peace.
And I AM happy for you. I am SO happy to also imagine you as a light, shining bright outside the confines of your human form. As bright as your neon Nike’s, with no need to wear Nike’s anymore.
I imagine your energy soaring through this chapel and through all the people here who love you. You touched us all with your energy, and you will continue to do so each time we think of you.