Eulogy for Connie Spafford (10/19/2019)

Image of Connie Spafford 1956 Graduation picture and current picture from Eulogy in Rhinelander, WI

My sister Nikki and I took our mom in for a memory evaluation 10 years ago. The staff person asked a series of questions to get a baseline of her memory. One question asked how many children she had. She answered four. The nice woman said that Nicole and Jason are here, can you tell me where your other two children are right now. My mom’s deadpan response was, “I don’t know. Someplace minding their own business.” I laughed so hard that I began to cry. I pulled it together, as it seemed like the medical professional was starting to turn her scrutiny to me and my mental abilities.

My mom never went back for a follow up, even though it was evident that something beyond simple memory loss was occurring.  She made my dad promise that there would be no more visits for anything memory related. 

Things slowly progressed over the last ten years, but my mom remained in her home almost to the end. She was a con artist, a charlatan, and a magician when it came to all things conversational. For most of her time battling the disease we were constantly told by friends and relatives, “Oh, I just talked to your mom and she seems fine.” She had a particular maneuver that I especially enjoyed. She had perfected the long-standing Croker mumble. My grandfather was king of the mumble. It was thought that he had elevated it to an art form. My mom had taken it to the next level and used it to end bothersome conversations and get back to her kitchen.  Her father would have been proud.

My mom was a quiet person. She did not need nor want to be the center of attention. And on those occasions, when she released her subtle, but focused wit, it always seemed like it was more to amuse herself than her intended audience.  To us, her sense of humor was the gold standard to which we aspired. And in moments of profound sadness, like today, it is one of the greatest gifts that she bestowed upon us.

Nikki talked about how my dad first met our mom. I will add that after dating for only a few months, my dad once again mustered up courage. This time to ask her to marry him. She declined. She said she was thinking of moving to Florida. Marvin, the thirty-year-old bachelor, drove home that night thinking he had just dodged a bullet and wondering why he ever asked that question. A few weeks later my mom’s plans apparently changed. She asked my dad if his offer was still on the table. He said that it was. She had him right where she wanted him. Putty in her hands. They were married in 1960 and remained so for 59 years.

My mom was strong, independent, quiet and very funny. She was the backbone of our family. My dad may have worked long hours on the farm, but she would also do that seasonally AND take care of the house AND four kids. Who wouldn’t want to be riding on a tractor in the solitude of your own land rather than breaking up fights between four kids?

I have a very vivid memory of being about 7 years old – probably in 1971. It was a miserable winter day, maybe 10 below zero, and my mom was taking all four kids – me, Matt 5, Justin 3, and Nikki 1 – to the doctor. We came out of the house bundled up. Justin was teetering with his new walking ability and mom held his hand. She also held Nikki. Matt was in front and already down the stairs and I was next to mom.  In the next second mom slipped on the ice and it played out in slow motion to me. She let go of Justin’s hand and grabbed Nikki with both hands. Her feet came up from beneath her and she fell on her back hard. The kind of hard that knocks the wind out of you. When she caught her breath, she began to cry. She slowly sat up holding an unphased and safe Nikki and my mom continued to cry. As a child seeing a parent cry, I didn’t know what to do. Matt had walked back to where we were, and Justin slid down the stairs one step at a time. Matt and I just stood next to mom. Not knowing what else to do, I put my hand on my mom’s hand and said, “Your O.K. It’s O.K. I love you, mom.” I held my hand on hers until she stopped crying and now appeared to be contemplating getting up.

I let go of her hand and walked down the steps. I had faith that she would be ok. She lingered there on the steps. When I turned around my mom was gone from her sitting position. Somehow, with the uncanny strength of a mom with a baby in hand, she popped herself up from the ice and was on to the next adventure.

For a family that didn’t really take big vacations or small vacations or……. vacations, our adventures many times came closer to home. One such adventure was the discovery of Monty Python on PBS by my mom and me. We soon became addicted. Justin was four years younger, but also quickly fell into the Monty Python camp. Humor and writing became a big part of my life and my mom encouraged me. She always said that if you could spell, you could do anything in the world.  Not exactly true. She would write an annual letter to her friend Judy in Florida and take a week to write it – dictionary in hand – rewriting and honing her humorous stories for her friend. When I was old enough, I became her dictionary, her personal spell checker. I often wondered if she encouraged me to be a good speller so that she wouldn’t have to dig through a dictionary.

Over the years I learned many things from my mom. In an effort to keep you from falling asleep while listening to me, I’d like to give you five small stories to illustrate five important lessons my mom taught me.

I liked making the jokes and my mom was sometimes more amenable to them than my dad. One day I was helping my dad at our cottage doing a roof repair. We were working most of the morning and I may have been utilizing a few too many characters or goofy voices. When we came off the roof for lunch, my mom pulled me aside and gave me some great advice. She said that she was very confident that if I didn’t stop goofing around up there, “Your father is going to throw you off the roof.” I heeded her advice.  Lesson 1: Learn how to read a situation.

When I was eighteen and just out of high school, I was woken up one weekday morning by my mom yelling sage advice up the stairs to me. “Jason, wake up and get your life together!” I was haunted by this and had to get up and ask my mom what she meant.  I had a job and would be going to college in the fall. She said she just thought it was a good way to get my attention. It did. Lesson 2: Make a statement.

As Nikki stated, she would also let you know when a line had been crossed. I found out that one such line involved my muddy shoes on her freshly mopped kitchen floor. I got halfway across the floor before my thirteen-year-old brain realized that I was leaving big clumps of mud on the floor. She appeared out of nowhere. Her eyes narrowed. My eyes widened and I knew no simple sorry would get me out of this one, especially since it registered in my little brain that I had done the same thing the day before. It’s the two strikes and you’re out policy. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her reach for her broom to start sweeping up the mud. At least that’s what I thought. She began to follow me with the broom. I walked fast, then she ran. Then she was chasing me – with a broom. There was no way she could catch me – or could she. I didn’t know, so I needed to keep running. I was 13 and she was 39. She was really 39 that year – not like all the other years, when she was also 39. But she kept running. I had never seen her run this far. I never realized how important that floor was before this. My mom chased me down the road to a grove of trees where I climbed a pine and she stood below with her broom. My mother had treed me. After a while, she did a Croker mumble and went back to the house. Two hours later I came in the house with no shoes, assuming this incident had passed. The second I walked in the door I saw my mom standing there like some kind of Ninja, broom in hand, and before I could get out the door she swatted me on my backside three times and I swear I only saw her swing once. Lesson 3a and 3b: Persevere and take dirty shoes off.

My best memory of my mom’s design style was that she liked to do things differently. We had a mauve front door on our farmhouse. And we had the most cutting-edge bathroom wallpaper. My mom had chosen a pattern made up of naked Greek women sculptures. As a fourteen-year-old boy, it was electrifying AND, at the same time, daunting to be in a bathroom surrounded by so many naked statue women. Lesson 4: Be a trendsetter.

At fifteen, I had a date but no wheels. I needed my mom and dad to drive me to town that evening. My mom pried information out of me about the date. I showed signs of embarrassment as she quizzed me.  They dropped me off a block from the theater per my request. Then my mom instructed my dad to drive around the block several times – like sharks circling, with my embarrassment being the blood in the water. The third time around my date approached and my mom rolled down the window as they passed and waved frantically at me with a huge smile. The date asked if I knew that woman. I said that’s my mom. She said, she seems like fun. I said, “Sure.”  Lesson 5: Get over yourself.

Nikki and I have only told our stories today, and Justin and Matt have many similar stories. One day at our cottage, Matt, probably age 15, put on a life jacket and decided to swim out to a peninsula. My mom always sat on the shore watching over us. That day our Aunt Juanita was with her. Matt waved to mom from out in the lake. She thought he was signaling for help and her and Aunt Juanita got in a rowboat and went out to “save” Matt. As they got close, he tried to explain he was fine. They still tried to get him into the boat. Their oars became unknowing weapons as they dangerously swung them around, barely missing Matt’s bobbing head. He finally talked them into sparing his life and rowing away from him.

Justin took it upon himself to become a stand-up comedian. When he first told mom that he was going to be a stand-up comedian, mom said, “That’s not funny.” She was his best audience and he knew something was funny if he could get mom to laugh.

Mom’s other gift was her love of cooking and baking. She would often spend her nights marginally involved with whatever show was on the television. If it were up to her, the show would most likely be a Poirot murder mystery on PBS. But her main attention would be affixed on the well-worn recipe books sprawled out on the coffee table in front of her.  She was always searching for a yet undiscovered recipe gem, or the right recipe candidate that just needed her mad scientist skills to take it to the next level. This passion for wanting to create the best Lemon bar or pot of chili may have missed me, Nikki and Justin, but it did not miss Matt, who has carried in his wallet a handwritten recipe for white chili that my mother scrawled from memory for him over thirty years ago . 

I also want to mention how welcoming mom was to people coming into the family. When Cynthia and I were married 25 years ago, Cynthia instantly became like a second daughter – another person to share long discussions about books, gardening, cooking and design.

Twelve days ago, and some 48 years after I held my mom’s hand on the steps of the farmhouse, I was with my siblings and dad in the hospital and holding her hand again. I didn’t realize until thinking about it later, that I said the same thing. “You’re ok. Its ok. I love you.” That was the last thing I said to her. I left that day and she lingered for a while and was then gone from her place there on the bed. She sprang up and on to a new adventure.

Thank you all for joining my siblings, my dad and me here to tell some stories and celebrate my mom’s life. She is someone who always inspired and encouraged us and those around her with a smile, clever quip or humorous quiet aside. Through her gestures we were encouraged to always look on the bright side of life. We will always remember her and thank her for that.

There are packets of wildflower seeds in a basket on the table. Please take one or more and plant a garden for Connie. Join us down the street at ArtStart gallery for a small luncheon. We’ll be serving mom’s favorite food and drink. Hamburgers and Cokes. Once again, thank you all for coming today.

Cue Music: Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.

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