My esteemed colleague’s memorial site to his recently-deceased mother may someday disappear. So, for posterity, here is Eric Patton’s eulogy to his mother Maggie, delievered in Columbus, Ohio, on 2011.06.18.
Eulogy: Maggie Patton
Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I was exposed to enough second-hand smoke, helmetless bike rides, unseatbelted car trips, and unsupervised evenings and weekends wandering around the neighborhood to make today’s overprotective and under-disciplining parents drop their jaws in horror and fling an outraged comment somewhere deep into the Internet.
Growing up with Maggie Patton as a mom, however, I was also exposed to classical and experimental music, modern dance and ballet, opera, operetta, musicals, Hollandaise sauce, artichokes, chocolate profiteroles, popovers, flaky cheesecake, and all sorts of creative and artistic and eccentric men and women. I was made puppet theaters, sewn superhero costumes, and was even knitted a replica of the twenty-foot scarf worn by a character on a British science-fiction television series, which I draped around my neck with pride – in high school. It takes a very special mom to enable and encourage a son’s terrible and socially suicidal fashion decisions.
I was also probably the only adolescent male (or female) American (or non-American) to have seen all 13 intact Gilbert & Sullivan light operas, and my mother’s innocent introduction to me of the arpeggios of Philip Glass, because of his collaboration with the choreographer Twyla Tharp, triggered an obsession with minimalist music that would eventually cause my college roommates to invest in extra-strength earplugs and early noise-canceling headphone technology.
I knew early on that my mother wasn’t quite like the other moms in the neighborhood. She wasn’t morbidly obese, for example. The furniture in our house wasn’t covered in thick, clear plastic. We didn’t have artificial flower arrangements on the television console or blue water in the toilet (until I asked for that). My mother was often gone at dinnertime for rehearsal with her dance company, so we had babysitters and fast-food meals with my dad, during which my brother Steve and I fought over the French fries that had fallen to the bottom of the bag.
But my mother was around during the day, and I often came home for lunch (these were the days when kids were still allowed outside), or she picked me up from school, or – as on one day in third grade that shall live in infamy – I walked home from school for lunch a different way from how she was driving to meet me, causing us to miss each other and for me to totally freak out when I arrived home to an empty house.
A few memories remain stuck in my head:
Collecting coquinas in the sand with her on Captiva Island in Florida as a very small child.
Endless hours spent bored out of my mind while wandering around the Columbus Junior Theatre of the Arts during her dance rehearsals.
My mom sleeping in the hospital room with me when I had my tonsils out.
Eating lunch in a College of Wooster cafeteria with the Ohio Light Opera performers during the summer and listening to the dramatic renditions of “Happy Birthday” that were periodically sung.
My mom dressing as a Victorian scullery maid at a dinner party I tried to throw in high school.
The week I spent in Paris with her in the summer before I started college – one of the best weeks of my entire life so far (although the location did have something to do with it) – waiting for the water cannons to go off at the Jardins du Trocadéro by the Eiffel Tower while standing together under a single umbrella in the pouring rain.
Driving down with friends from Oberlin to Kenyon to see one of her departmental dance concerts and watching my Oberlin colleagues smiling with surprise while enjoying dance that involved humor and music, since all the dance pieces at Oberlin were very serious, usually done in silence, and often had eating disorders as the subject matter.
Witnessing her ignore the massive damage and destruction caused by her two bichon frisés, Belle and Babette, even though my two cats, Nigel and Diana, had been held accountable for the tiniest pawprint on our kitchen floor during my youth.
Having a huge fight with her about something – I have no idea what – when she and my dad were visiting me in New York, and then going into a restaurant, still muttering and cursing under our breath, and being served food that was so delicious we couldn’t help smiling and forgiving everything since we had to comment on what we were eating.
Her sending me CARE packages consisting of huge batches of cookies at my job – up through my mid‑ to late thirties.
And now, a new bittersweet memory: Having broken into her online accounts while she was in the hospital, I discovered that she had posted Groucho Marx singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” and labeled it “her favorite song.” So Asaf and I played it for her in her hospice room, and she swayed her hands to the music.
She has eyes that folks adore so,
And a torso even more so.
My mother never really assimilated into the Patton clan. We Pattons are apologetic, hesitant, and don’t want to get in the way or cause too much trouble. We feel ashamed and embarrassed by our few vices, like taking overly long showers or eating an extra slice of cherry-berry pie. My mother wasn’t like that. My mom wasn’t afraid of enjoying life, although she preferred drinking, dancing, singing, shopping and cooking to actually eating. She wasn’t afraid to work to get what she wanted. I often wished that she would watch her language. She didn’t worry about making enemies, although she showed fierce devotion to her friends. She wasn’t afraid of making a scene in public, often to my horror as a teenager.
Although sometimes she saw herself as a simple, fun-loving small town girl from the petroleum-scented flatlands of southern Illinois, other times she had such a haughty and regal manner about her that she seemed to be some sort of coastal aristocrat who had just jetted in from the Upper East Side. Often she seemed totally out of place in the Midwest. I remember going into a clothing store with her here in Columbus to buy a shirt and being surrounded by a chorus of cheerful and smiling sales clerks eager to help us, and then, after I had chosen a shirt, excited to tell us over and over how “cute” our selection was. I remember my mother and I running out of the store as fast as we could with our purchase, laughing in disbelief at the sickening sweetness of the happy salespeople.
I have one last memory to share. I have no complaints at all about the staff at Riverside Methodist Hospital or the Kobacker House hospice – many or most of them were wonderful and amazing, and all of them were highly competent and attentive. But the day that my mother was transferred from the hospital to the hospice, she was assigned to an extremely perky and chirpy nurse. My father and I were still in shock about the circumstances, so we politely listened to this woman as she described the features of the hospice in inappropriately enthusiastic detail. I could tell that this was the kind of person my mother would not have been very fond of, to put it mildly. When the nurse started directly addressing my mother – who had appeared to be unconscious since we had arrived at the hospice – my mom suddenly pulled the blankets up and covered her head. My dad and I laughed uncomfortably.
A few hours later when the nurse told my mother that her shift was ending and that my mother wouldn’t have to deal with her anymore, my mom – who again had appeared to be totally unconscious all day – suddenly made a vigorous “thumbs up” gesture. Even this saccharine nurse got the message.
I suspect that my mom was considering the use of an alternate finger.
Of course we are all heartbroken and in shock over my mother’s sudden passing, which happened much too soon. But I have the small consolation that she was recognizably and indisputably my mom, right up to the very end.