Carpe Diem: A eulogy to my mother, Merrie DeVoe
NOTE: This was my eulogy to my mother who passed away while I, my husband, and one of our sons were on vacation with her in Italy. This is what I chose to speak about at her memorial (it is a speech, not an essay and reads as such). Others had spoken about her generous spirit (fostering children) and kindness as a grandmother, mother, and friend.
My mom was a remarkable woman.
She started off as a timid, quiet and dutiful daughter. She grew up in a rural home in Lansing with her grandparents living on one side and her aunt and uncle living on the other side of her. She told me she was always being watched so she couldn’t get into too much trouble. But, she was always being loved and cared for, too.
Then she was a dutiful and supportive wife—helping my dad through college and with his teaching and coaching careers. She had four children within six years and worked hard to raise us. She was so busy with athletic boosters, volunteering, being girls scout leader and softball coach, and taking care of us kids—especially my two naughty brothers—she didn’t have time for much else.
But then, in her mid-thirties, she experienced an awakening. She became a politically active feminist and entered college to pursue a degree in social work. We didn’t have a lot of money back then, but she was determined to go. So, she sold her grandmother’s antiques and her great grandfather’s coin and stamp collections in order to fund her education. The irony of someone who eventually became a professional genealogist selling off precious family heirlooms to pursue her education is not lost on me.
She immersed herself in history and genealogy. She became editor of the West Michigan Genealogical Society’s quarterly publication, volunteered for the Heritage Hill Historic District, and was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I remember her bringing me to cemeteries in Pennsylvania, Ontario, Missouri, and New York to look at burial sites of some branch—or twig—of the family tree. We would comb through records at tiny rural churches and long-forgotten town halls. She would drag me to libraries so that she could do her college homework or study historical records, newspapers, and vital records. She had an insatiable curiosity. And she was incredibly passionate about her interests. You’d think an 8-year old kid would resent her mother for taking vacations in graveyards and spending Saturdays in the library. But I wasn’t. Her thirst for knowledge, her love of reading, and her passion for her pursuits made me the person I am today. I went on to study history, and philosophy, and literature—and to teach college English and Writing—and to be an entrepreneur, just like she was. She instilled in me the idea that we all have a vocare, a calling, a purpose for being here and that we must heed that call and follow our bliss.
My parents loved to travel, and after they had sold their business, DEVco Awards, in their mid-fifties, they had the idea to move into their motorhome full-time. They planned to eventually drive all around the country visiting friends—and cemeteries—and sports arenas—and taking family vacations all year round. They put off the idea because they were busy with their careers and grandkids, but something would change their mind.
In November 1997, at the age of 56, my mother was driving a brand-new Saturn station wagon on the S-Curve when she suddenl
y encountered a line of backed-up cars. She slammed on her brakes but was thrust under a delivery van puncturing its gas tank. She realized her leg was broken, but the gas alighted. Flames were licking both sides of her car and she didn’t know what to do. Should she open the door and go through the wall of flames, or should she wait with her crushed leg until she was rescued. And that is when a miracle happened. An angel swooped into her car and gently told her that she must get out. The way my mother recounted it to me, the angel helped her take her seat belt off and helped her open the door.
My mother instantly was set afire. She hobbled to safety, and bystanders told her to drop and roll. The good Samaritans ushered her to the side of the road just in time to see her car explode. It was as if it were a Hollywood movie. The flames and smoke could be seen for miles away. The angel had saved her life. This devout Catholic woman who had prayed for so many others, loved so many others, and had helped so many others, had experienced a true miracle from God.
It took my mother eight months to recover from her severe burns and shattered leg, but when she did finally mend, she and my father decided that their dream life of full-time RVing couldn’t wait. They had a new perspective: they must make every moment count.
They sold all of their belongings—and our childhood home—and spent the next twelve years traversing the continent from Guatemala to Alaska, from California to Prince Edward Island. Friends and family would join them as they absolutely sucked the marrow out of life. New England in the Fall, Florida at Christmas, Texas during the Bowl Games, Sunrise over the Rockies and on and on. For their 50th wedding anniversary in 2010, they took a two-week vacation to the only state they hadn’t visited: Hawaii. They had every possible adventure you could imagine, they made friends everywhere they went, and they never had one regret.
My mom loved immersing herself in new cultures, volunteering for political campaigns, working for her church, volunteering on her association’s committees and boards, helping immigrants and refugees at the Mexican-American border, and teaching English as a Second Language. She would host home parties with her ESL students so that they would feel welcome in our country, and at 76 years old, she attended protests against the border wall. She started her activism with demonstrations for Civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War and never stopped working toward social justice, economic justice, and peace. Until the day she died she was giving to others and making a difference in our world. (Photo: Merrie (left) with Senate Candidate, Beto O'Rourke, in January 2018.)
And she just knew how to have so much fun, fun, fun: playing mahjong, card games, and water volleyball; hosting football-watching parties, surprise parties, and Cinco de Mayo parties—and, of course, traveling the world. She traveled to Europe several times, South America once, went on innumerable cruises—and visited friends and family all over the country. She even made a point to see every single niece, nephew, child, grandchild and great-grandchild she possibly could just this past spring.
I’m telling you now that when Merrie DeVoe passed away on a HUGE trip to Rome surrounded by friends and family it was perfection. It was exactly as she would have wanted it: a grand adventure in a foreign land—a city rich with history dating back to the Etruscans in 600 BC, in a neighborhood four blocks from The Holy See , surrounded by a landscape filled with sculptures of saints and angels, and in the arms of family who could enjoy the trip with her. My mother’s lesson for you is to remember the past, work hard toward a better future, and seize the day.