Eulogy for Billie Meyer

This is sort of an internal thing. I was asked to speak for our family at my Grandmother's memorial. This is roughly what I said.

This is hard. This is hard for several reasons. It’s hard because Billie Meyer was so many things to all of us. And though I should speak of her life, and what she meant to us, I can only speak about the Grandmother I knew and I apologize for that. It’s impossible to say something that could in any way sum up the collective experience of the life we shared with her.

This is hard because I have trouble seeing my Grandmother as anything but my Grandmother so I'm afraid this is rather family-centric which is unfair to her friends new and old. Those she was a second mother to, those who cared for her as she grew older and those she regularly crushed at bridge.

This is also hard because I’m finding it very difficult to let her go. That may seem strange considering she lived 99 astonishingly healthy years, a full life by any measure, and all of us understood that it was inevitable her life would come to an end. I kept thinking I should be prepared for this. Even Grandma politely suggested we should be prepared for this.  

But the thing is, I wasn’t ready. She meant so much to me. She was an inspiration at a time when inspiring people seem to have gone to ground. She was the matriarch of our family. So much of all of our lives was lived under her watchful eyes. We still needed her. I still needed her. I needed to know she was there. This should be a celebration honoring a great person and a life well lived, but nevertheless, I'm feeling sad and lost because the one who watched over us all has gone.

So I’ve done what most of us do at times like this. We are all made mostly of memory and I’ve gone looking for my Grandmother there.

I first found her when I read the obituary notice my Aunt Billie wrote and Evelyn in Oklahoma had added some history to. I’d like to read a section of that now. Those of you who were looking forward to an exhaustive recounting of Billie Meyer’s life will be sadly disappointed. In all honesty, I’m not the right person to do that and even if I was, a brief recounting of the high points of her life could, frankly, leave us here for days. We’d have to schedule bathroom breaks and have food sent in. For now, this short excerpt will have to do.

Billie was born on July 14, 1911, in Park Hill, Oklahoma, Billie was a great-great granddaughter of John Ross, chief of the Cherokee Nation during the 1800's. She attended the Owen School through the eighth grade along with her four brothers and sisters. Billie attended Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas, from age 13 until she graduated from high school. She then moved to Colorado State College in Greeley, Colorado, where she met her future husband, Douglas Meyer, and graduated with a teaching certificate. Billie and Doug moved to Middletown, New York, Doug's hometown, where they raised their family and Billie taught history at Middletown Junior High School.

When I read this and think of my Grandmother, I see a woman of several shapes: I see a mountaineer, I see a time traveler, but the first thing I see is an Indian.

She was a Native American, a descendant of the aboriginal peoples who walked this land for thousands of years before the Europeans came. When I was a child, I didn’t understand that. The Grandmother and Grandfather I grew up with appeared, on the surface, to be exactly what I thought a grandmother and grandfather should be. There were a few oddities. There was the 150mm howitzer shell that was the doorstop in their living room. There was the cat named “Adolph”. And there were the pictures of Grandma dressed up like and Indian upstairs. The idea that she wasn’t dressed like an Indian, she was an Indian simply didn’t click in my child’s mind. It just slid off and I continued to see my grandparents as typical Americans living a happy, suburban existence.

I think that image was wonderfully shattered for me on her 90th birthday when her backyard celebration, typical in every way with what such a party should look like, culminated with Native American drumming and  dancing circle, whereupon Middletown experienced a moment of cultural displacement never to be repeated. I imagine, and I know I’m embellishing - but I refuse to give it up - neighbors paused mid-flip of their burgers on their backyard barbecues starring into her yard and thinking that somehow they had fallen into some parallel universe where this sort of thing was perfectly normal. It may have been strange to the folks on the other side of the hedge but it was a powerful acknowledgment of her past, and the people who came before her. We can be anything we want to be but we should never forget where we came from. Reading that history and remembering that birthday, I found a better understanding of where that was.

When I look again for my Grandmother she has changed and she is a time traveler.

Her childhood, her education, her marriage, raising children, teaching, retiring, playing bridge and doing needlepoint in a town called “Middletown” seems almost prosaic, until one understands that it happened during the First World War, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the birth of television, Viet

Time travelers travel lightly, blend in and keep moving. Grandma did those things very well and, with the exception of the occasional drumming circle and a decidedly non-upstate NY taste in jewelry, she lived through it all with remarkable calm. She certainly had opinions, she was engaged in causes she cared about, she certainly had reason to be upset with countless things, not the least of which was her own family, who could be maddeningly independent and on occasion exercised questionable choices in hair color, clothing, careers, and places to live. I thought Carolyn and I had the record for putting distance on where we were born when we moved to Oregon but my sister tied it up by moving there too and then my Aunt Les and Bob buried us by moving to Indonesia. I think their record will probably stand unchallenged.

But through it all, she never became bitter, especially with her family. She never thought anything but the best of us. She never had to forgive us because she always believed we would land on our feet. She lived long enough to see that that faith was well founded. Though her journey spanned a century, she never left us behind and she herself never became stuck in the past.
All of us have lived through - and will live through interesting times but we will never live through such age as she did.

When I saw Grandma in October, she took me to her basement and showed me the collection of Longs Peak memorabilia. When I think of those things, the photos, the pictures of the mountain, the maps of routes to the summit and the certificates that confirmed her accomplishment, and think of my Grandmother, I see a mountaineer.

Billie was among the first women to reach the top of Long’s Peak in Colorado.I know from experience Long’s is an especially difficult mountain to summit. I climbed it in 1978 and it nearly killed me. I was delirious, gasping for breath in the thin air and had to descend surrounded by friends to keep me from stumbling off the trail and over a cliff. Yet holding that sepia photograph, there was my Grandmother; in her 20’s, all smiles, standing on that mountain like it was the easiest thing in the world. And looking at that photograph I realized two things: Grandma was really hot in the 1930’s. I totally understand why Grandpa married her. Any woman who looked like that and could climb that mountain and make it look easy was a keeper.

And I don't mean that to be funny or crass. It's just that in seeing her that way, I realized that not only did she live through an extraordinary time, she truly lived an extraordinary life. She was more than my Grandmother. She was a woman who had successes, failures, hopes, heartbreak, love, loss and joy.

80 years later, she was still climbing. The mountain became a metaphoric one, and on the way she became an old woman, but until the very end, she had the same radiance she had in that old picture. That smile and that look in her eyes that always reassured us and always seemed to say, “It was all worth it”. She never stopped living. She never stopped climbing.

It is that last image of my grandmother that I look for when I grieve her untimely death. For despite being 99, she wasn’t quite finished living, there was one more holiday to celebrate, one more visit with the grand kids to have, one more occasion to be reminded that life in it's most minute ways is a blessing, one she was keenly aware of. It felt so unfair that she died as a result of a fall, rather than dozing off and never waking up while watching a ball game in her den. But she knew, as climbers know, that pursuing the life you want to live comes with risks if it’s a life worth living at all.

She could have slowed down decades ago, moved to a place with fewer steps and meals prepared for her. But she wouldn’t have lasted long living like that. She needed the climb to stay alive. And though she knew in the end, the fall had ended that climb, I have to believe she also knew the climb had been worth it. Her life came to an end where she wanted to be, on her particular mountain looking back on an indescribably beautiful vista of time, history, friends and family.


Erik said…
Thank you for posting this. It's a good bit of writing and it needed to be shared with the others that couldn't be there.

One note, being the irritatingly pedantic sot that I am, I believe the shell that served as a door stop for so many years is actually a 76mm round. But then again, does that really matter? I think only when it comes to lifting the bloody thing--it's heavy enough as it is.

Certainly, its true caliber in no way detracts from the lovely eccentricity of our grandparents, and by extension, our family.

Thanks again.
Leslie Lassi said…
Well said, Jonathan. Thank you for sharing your perspective and helping all of us come to terms with the gaping hole she has left in our lives. Now we are left with a new generation of family in the matriarchy and Grandma's reminder that love is what it is all about. Blessings to you and the family.
Unknown said…
I was one of those who couldn't make it to the Memorial Service, laid up (and still laid up) with a bad cold. But how I wanted to be there! I only recently reunited with Leslie and then with her Mom about 5 years ago. The Mom of Leslie that I remember in high school was a Cherokee! How that impressed me! My own great great great grandmother was a Lenni Lenape and we were all so proud of that heritage in my family.

I remember once bicycling over to Leslie's house only to find that her Mom was holding her hostage to a stack of ironing so high one could hardly see the top, and she wasn't planning to release her until it was done. I remember thinking, slightly terrified, "Boy, Leslie's Mom is sure strict!" As I remember, we did eventually get away to the plans we'd made, so either Leslie was a super ironer or her Mom thankfully had a soft spot in there. My mind is foggy on that mute point.

I crossed paths with Leslie's Mom again sometime after my 45th high school reunion. Leslie wasn't at the reunion but someone tracked her down for me and we met a few times after when she would visit Middletown. What a beautiful, lovely, lady her Mom was! So gracious, her house so neatly kept, her garden lovingly attended to, still so active, and at that time past 90. On one of those later meetings, I was given a tour of the house, and particularly remember seeing the photo Jonathan remarked upon in his beautiful eulogy, Billie dressed as an Indian (you're right, she was hot!). The last time I saw her was after our 50th reunion and I was amazed that she had just recently given up golf.

So, yes, Billie Meyer was quite a remarkable woman. And I feel blessed to have met up with her once again.

Dottie (Sayer) Ji

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