Genevie “Jennie” Dietz Gerhards
January 15, 1928 – October 9, 2006
October 11, 2006
St. Paul Church
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.