When my mother received a definitive diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, she faced death with realism and equanimity. The final indignities tried her courage, but her grace sustained us as we grieved through her swift decline.
She was a beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and friend to many. She was also a critically-acclaimed translator of Russian literature.
Her last major life project, which she completed only weeks before cancer began to tighten its final grip, was a family history. For years, she pored over genealogical records and available documents and produced a collection of narratives that deepened the family’s sense of connection to American history and ideals.
She taught her children from an early age to take American history seriously. She brought us to the Lexington Green and the Old North Bridge where the “embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard around the world.” The revolution of common people against monarchs who styled themselves as divinely-appointed eventually spread from there across Europe.
She taught us early that Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal” was neither complete nor fully realized at the time of the revolution.
She took pride in the intellectual leadership of Massachusetts and taught us that leading abolitionists spoke out in Boston. The war to end slavery figured large in the songs she sang with us and the poetry she read to us.
She always choked up reading “Barbara Frietchie,” identifying with the heroine of that poem, who snatches up a Union flag shot down by an advancing column of Confederate soldiers. “’Shoot if you must this old grey head, But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.” In the poem, the heroine’s moral force prevails and the Union flag waves over the long Confederate columns advancing through the town.
Mom’s father’s family was in Ohio before the Civil War. One branch ran a station on the underground railroad. They corresponded with John Brown while he was in prison before he was hanged for the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Men from his family wore blue into battle in the Civil War. Her father’s grandfather was shot in both thighs in the battle of Cloyd’s Mountain, Virginia where he lay for three days before being picked up.
She also spoke with reverence of her father’s younger brother Bob’s bravery in WWII. After Japanese torpedoes set the carrier U.S.S. Wasp aflame in the Coral Sea, he was among the last men to leave the ship before it sank. She collected a volume of family letters which told more of that story.
She lived for a year in Tokyo with her newborn son while her husband served in Korea. She learned to speak some Japanese, formed friendships with her neighbors there, and grew to love Japanese culture.
During the Vietnam War, she and my father took us to the anti-war demonstrations on Boston Common.
As she taught us with gravity about American history, she also taught us by word and deed to respect every person as an individual. She took an interest in everyone’s story, respected everyone’s perspective and was never quick to judge.
She was devoted to family and to community and to service broadly. As a translator of Russian literature, she opened new vistas for English-speaking readers. She worked hard to fully appreciate the words of her authors and translated them with empathy for the human struggles behind the words.
She imparted to her children a reverence for the founding ideals of the American republic, a recognition of our failure to live up to those ideals, a commitment to service, and most importantly, respect and empathy for every individual. She died as she lived – with grace and courage.
I’m so grateful to all who have taken the time to share thoughts or send condolences. Each comment means a lot to me and to my family.