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Ilka Joy and Treasure

I wouldn’t touch this under normal circumstances — trying to write something about my mother now and do her justice. But we had the services Friday and I did write and read a eulogy. It was a nice day; a pause in what’s been weeks of rain. She told me once that she’d like a piper to play and I was able to make that happen .. a young auburn-haired, kilted lass who reminded me of her. And the reverend read Burns’ “Ae Fond Kiss” at graveside and at my suggestion. Somebody bought me a book some years back and outlined that one. I could have chosen worse. It was a beautiful ceremony and I don’t toss such words around. But like I say, words will fail me for a long while with this one. I did, however, manage to string these together and then read them in front of the assembled crowd:

Some of you have heard this story. It was about five years back and Mom had just suffered another in a series of interminable falls, hospital stays with delirium and long stints in the cardiac unit, a month of physical rehabilitation and other complications at Kindred in San Rafael .. all par for the course. I was at the end of my rope and had contacted Lynn and Leslie at Eldercare, which would eventually lead to meeting Marilyn and a significant change for the better.

But she was happy this day in a way that defied odds and defined her spirit. We’d been to the orthopedist and seen an x-ray of her lower body that displayed enough pins and rods to construct a go-kart. Rob said it looked like something from a ‘Ren and Stimpy’ cartoon. And we’d finished getting blood tests at Marin General where we’d run into an ex girlfriend of mine there with her in-laws and at her father in law’s deathbed.

“How’s he doing?” I asked, and the solemn answer came back that he was near the end and with the priest in his hospital room.  “Ooh,” my mother queried, “Don’t they trust the doctors?” There were intense stares all around as she smiled obliviously. So I excused us and shuffled her away with her walker. When we got to the parking lot I asked “Mom, why would you say that?” and she replied “what did I say?” I said “they told you he was with the priest and you asked if they trusted the doctors.”

Priest?” she said .. “I thought they said he was with the police.”

Helen Davis Monaco was born to Agnes and John Moncrieff, March 1, 1935, in Perth, Scotland. At the time she attended school, Scottish education was regarded as among the best in the world. From age five all children were schooled together until streamed, at age eleven, towards an academic or trade-oriented education according to their abilities. This segregation took place on the basis of an examination the final year of primary school. She did so well in those exams that she was awarded the title of “Dux,” or top student in academics and all-around merit. This honor led her straight to Perth Academy where, the records show, she continued to excel.

In 1952 she moved to London and worked for the Foreign Office, eventually being transferred to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. And in 1958 she made it to American Airlines Flight Academy in Dallas/Ft Worth, before being stationed as a stewardess in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After a year of flying she landed in San Francisco, got a small Tenderloin apartment at 525 O’Farrell Street, and was hired by my grandfather Dan at Monaco Labs. Dan would soon tell my father “if you don’t ask that girl out, I’m going to do it for you.”

She was a first-ballot inductee to the Scottish Mothers’ Hall of Fame, ruined two sons for life in any attempt they’d make to meet a woman who equaled her, and made my father the very epitome of a man who didn’t know how good he had it. I can’t begin to convey who my mother was in spirit, but up until the end and through huge cognitive changes, she could somehow transmit this simply by being herself. It didn’t even take words. She had caregivers fighting over who would get to care for her after my father died.

I can’t properly eulogize my mother. It’s an impossible task. She equaled my dad in all the flattering ways I eulogized him, but eclipsed anyone I’ve ever met in a more ethereal sense .. in positivity, in spirit, in goodness. Fortunately she was able to convey these qualities with just about any encounter. As a hostess. As an employee or employer. In line at a bank or supermarket check-out. She was the only person I ever believed when told “everything is going to be alright.”

As with all elite conveyors of wisdom, she taught by showing .. not telling. She taught by being. I’ve received some praise in recent years for helping to take care of my parents. But the truth is, this wasn’t some self-sacrificing act or run at becoming the next Mother Teresa. It was a pleasure to give back a fraction of what my mother gave me. She was the draw. She was the pull. She was the reason. Moreover it was an exceedingly rare example of an extended stretch where I was able to get out of my own head — and believe me, that’s no place where any of you want to be. It was simply another in a long line of gifts that she gave to me.

I discovered music through my mother .. discovered Johnny Cash. Then I went in my own direction as she tried to keep up. For a short time when I was in high school she thought everybody was Sting. A tune would come on the car radio and she’d say confidently “That’s Sting!”  “No, Mom,” I’d say, “that’s Tom Petty” or “that’s the Pretenders.” It didn’t matter .. everybody was Sting. Her roots were strong. She had a similar memory to my own for song lyrics and would point out that the Neil Young song I was playing was, in fact, a Don Gibson song.

She used to tell me that she was a Scottish witch; which would explain a lot of things. Not a witch in the good-witch bad-witch Wizard of Oz sense, but more like some elfin creature tripping from one serendipitous moment to the next. She had sayings – “Yer bum’s a lemon, suck it and see” and “Ye can’t see shite but ye need a bite.” She had all the exterior qualities too, thrown in for good measure. She was as good-looking as my dad reckoned he was. More than one male friend, in noting her passing, has begun with “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I always thought your mom was …”

There is no easy transition in trying to wrap up a goodbye to my mother. And this isn’t that. The truth is I talk to her all the time and will continue to. She said some things to me about that as well .. prepared me for this time as much as any son could be prepared for losing someone of her stature from this earthly existence; from ‘shuffling off this mortal coil’ as she and Shakespeare put it. Instead I would like to include some quick thank-yous as I did with my dad’s eulogy. Again, thank you to every caregiver who worked at the home in Greenbrae and took such great care of her. You all know better than anyone what went down in recent years, who was there and what was needed. You all bore witness. Thank you to Hospice for being such a fantastic service and allowing me to meet some great people. Thank you to Eldercare, Lynn and Leslie, and most particularly Marilyn Christensen, who had a Scottish mother herself and understood and bonded with my mom the very day she met her. Thank you to Anne O’Toole for her invaluable friendship and assistance this week. Elissa, once again thank you for making this trip for just 24 hours from New York to pay respects to a woman who thought the world of you. My parents were very different people, but they both agreed on you.

Most of all, thank you Mom.  I said it plenty when you were here and will continue to until they eulogize me. You were the single greatest influence in my life. You were me and I am you. You live on.

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