In Memmorium


Genevie “Jennie” Dietz Gerhards
January 15, 1928 – October 9, 2006

October 11, 2006
St. Paul Church
Silverton, Oregon

A Life Well Lived

I was much younger when I last attended Mass in this church. But imagine me younger still, seven years old, maybe. I am walking along with my mother. We’re about to enter a building. Sears and Roebuck, maybe. Just as we come to the door, she stands aside. I stop too, not knowing what to do next. I look to my mother for a little guidance. She says, “A gentleman holds the door for a lady. Go on, open the door.” I open the door, hold it for her. She leads the way. I follow.

There are two important aspects to this story that personify our mother’s life and our life with her.

The first is respect. How often my brothers and I heard the words “respect your elders.” That meant respect for parents, respect for family, respect for teachers, respect for rank. It was all inclusive.

The second aspect this story is example. What I learned from both of my parents is the importance of setting a good example with your life.

Respect and example, of course, are not really two things, but one.

My mother was the child of a Polish immigrant. She grew up in a small coal town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her father worked in the mines. She understood what it meant to be on the low end, the labor end, the minority end, of the social scale.

The unkind treatment of the lower class made a big impression on her. Perhaps that is the only thing she ever really hated. It also made — indirectly — a big impression on my life. Never in her presence did I hear unkind words about a person’s color, religion, or nationality. Prejudice and bigotry were simply not part of my education. Instead, all people are equal and deserving of respect.

There is an immutable truth to life that says good actions bring good results and bad actions bring bad results.

I’ll speak more about good actions and their results in a moment. Now is the time to talk about bad example, bad actions, bad results.

Those of you of her generation no doubt remember when Mother Culture taught that smoking was sophisticated, glamorous, a symbol of independence. These were qualities my mother wanted to cultivate as she escaped the oppression of small town life into the excitement of the Big City, of Washington DC.

But instead of sophistication and glamour and independence, what she ultimately got was just the opposite. As most of you know, about 18 years ago she was diagnosed with emphysema. Say good bye to sophistication and to glamour, and especially say good bye to independence.

As I said, bad actions bring bad results. We all make our mistakes and she made her share. But she was wise enough to understand that even though actions of the past cannot be changed, and we have no choice but to live with their results, it’s the actions of the present that matter, and those actions have a tremendous effect on the future.

Until just a couple of weeks ago, most of her life since that diagnosis was spent quietly in her spiritual room where she wrote her memoirs and poetry, read her Bible and other spiritual books, listened to recorded stories and watched a little TV. And, in the most positive of ways, she reflected often on her death.

The result of such reflection is wisdom. She had no delusions about how things were and how things would be for her.

What she did not do was complain about her condition or any of the negative things which that condition imposed upon her. In truth, there wasn’t much to complain about.

My mother’s life was a life well lived.

It was well lived in four ways.

It was well lived because she treated everyone with loving kindness.

It was well lived because her compassionate heart included everyone.

It was well lived because of the great joy she found in her family and her faith.

It was well lived because of the equanimity with which she faced her many trials and setbacks and limitations.

Now I ask you to consider one very important result of those good actions, of a life well lived. It’s not that she gets a heavenly reward. It’s not that people say nice things about her at her funeral.

My mother, our mother, our friend, my father’s wife of 58 years died well. She died well indeed.

May all of us benefit from the example of a life well lived.

Los Angeles to Mexico City to Oaxaca

imageOur first challenge after landing in LA at 9:00 was to get from Terminal 5 to Terminal 2 and having dinner during our two-hour lay over. After getting directions, we boarded an empty shuttle under the blue sign. We meandered through the maze of LAX, going from one terminal to another, adding passengers at each stop. Finally we squeezed our way off the shuttle at Terminal 2, which appeared dedicated to Aeromexico. Already we had the feeling of being in another country.

Security at LAX is more stringent than at PDX, and both Robin and I got frisked. At PDX we walked through a standard metal detector. LAX offered us the body scanner. You walk into the booth, stop and make a 90 degree turn, place your feet on the yellow footprints, touch your hands together over your head, and hold the pose for at least three seconds. Robin went through first. A TSA agent pulled aside. Another one got me.

“You have an anomaly in your groin area,” he said to me. I told him it was a money belt. He told me I had to take it off. He offered a private area but said I’d have to leave my other things behind—carry on, wallet, phone, iPad, passport, shoes. I untucked my shirt and pulled off the belt. He went through it and gave it back. He said he had to frisk me, presumably to assure himself I had no other anomalies.

For Robin, instead of putting her passport back in the bag she kept it in, she put it in her back pocket. Instant anomaly, according to the scanner.

The four-hour flight to Mexico City was inconsequential but for two things. First, I left my hat aboard. It was a favorite but not irreplaceable. The other just added to the confusion of going through the entry process of immigration and customs.

Sometime during the flight to Mexico City, the attendant handed out some forms. Robin and I were trying to sleep (we didn’t) so neither of us were paying attention when the attendant passed us by.

Once off the plane we learned we had to go through immigration. We ended up in a massive room with a couple hundred other people ahead of us in another of those long snaking lines. At the other end of the room were six or eight circular kiosks, spaced at random. Each had an  agent sitting at a desk inside the kiosk. I noticed that many of the people in front of us, and those coming in behind, had some sort of form in hand along with a passport. I asked an English-speaking person where she got hers. “On the plane,” she said.

Other people, too, were at various counters, filling out forms. I scouted around and found what we needed and got back into line with Robin. It’s difficult to fill out a form while you’re shuffling along with baggage. Eventually we got through immigration with our visas stamped.

Next was customs, with another form. We had to pick up our checked suitcase, which along with our carry-ons, was opened and searched. That done, the suitcase went back to baggage, and we hustled to the gate. When our flight was called, we walked through the door, expecting, as with all other flights, to board a plane. We didn’t. Instead, we boarded a shuttle bus that sat idling at the curb. The bus filled with people and with fumes. After fifteen or so minutes we made it to our plane, parked well away from the terminal.

The sunrise flight to Oaxaca was beautiful, with mucho mountains, including an active volcano. The flight was quick, about half as long as the itinerary said it would be. Around 7:30 a.m. we deplaned onto the the pavement, stepping down an iron stairway. It was cool and partly cloudy. I missed my hat.

Aloft and away

imageWe arrived at the airport about two and a half hours before takeoff at 6:44 Saturday. I like to be early because if there was a problem needing resolution, there would be plenty of time for it. But all went well. On a Saturday afternoon PDX was nearly empty. We zigzagged unimpeded through the stanchions as we approached the Delta counter.

Two attendants vied for our business. Robin and I each had a carry on bag, but we shared a large suitcase to check. It weighed in at 49 pounds, one pound under the limit to avoid a fee. We went through security with the same ease.

Before going through security, we stopped in at Powell’s Books. One of our traditional pastimes while on vacation is reading, but not independently. Robin reads aloud while listen. One of her favorite genres is young adult fiction.

We got a cup of coffee, wandered down Concourse D, then settled in at D5 where Robin began reading “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs. After we boarded and got underway, she read for awhile more before we went into our own worlds: I with my writing, Robin with a sudoku puzzle.

Moments ago I felt the obvious change in altitude as we began our descent into Los Angeles. Seat belt fastened. Ready for the next phase.