How can it be 13 years already?
Thirteen years ago this past week, we lost Hazel Irene (Cottrell) Geissler to multiple cancers. A smoker like many in her generation and like most of her family, she paid the terrible price so many have paid for that particular addiction.
We had known for weeks that the end was coming; it was no surprise when the phone rang at 5 a.m. that terrible day. I couldn’t leave for Virginia right away: I was scheduled for my own post-thyroid-cancer-surgery scan later that morning (negative then and thereafter, thank heavens).
In the hours I had to kill before I was to leave for the hospital, I sat at my computer and did the unthinkable.
I wrote my mother’s eulogy.
When the time came days later, I couldn’t bring myself to deliver it. I sat instead, at Byrd Memorial Methodist Chapel in Kents Store, Virginia, surrounded by my brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles and cousins. My hand was gently gripped by a nephew whose touch offered more comfort than he will ever understand, and I listened as it was read.
Hazel Irene Cottrell Geissler.
Also known as “Totsy.”
Born March 21, 1926 in a little west Texas town that had, as its best attribute, the care and loving of her large and growing family.
Died April 23, 1999 in a little Central Virginia town that has, as ITS best attribute, the care and loving of her yet even larger family.
73 years of a rich and varied life, far too complex to summarize in the usual kind of eulogy.
A life of difficulty and of challenge, a life of travel and of diversity, a life of peace and of love, a life hard to capsulize in a few minutes.
If you asked about educational achievements, you’d hear that my mother never finished high school and from that you might think she was an uneducated woman. And you would be wrong.
Remember that she was almost 16 on a fateful day in December 1941 when bombs dropping on Pearl Harbor made things like finishing high school seem unimportant. She went to work in oil and geology research instead, hoping to contribute in her own way to the war effort. From that day almost to her last she never stopped learning.
She read everything she could get her hands on, from the classics to Dean Koontz. One of the first major expenditures she insisted on, long before my sister and I could even read, was a full Encyclopedia Britannica, and she used it and read from it as much as we kids ever did. She taught herself to play chess from that Encyclopedia — even surprised our father one night by playing him to a draw when he’d been playing for years. We all learned early and well that books were treasured friends in our household.
Her abilities were so well recognized when we lived in New Jersey that the League of Women Voters turned to her for leadership and guidance when our town needed to change its name to gain a central post office. It was our mother who helped choose a new name, singularly appropriate for the town where Thomas Edison did so much of his work — and Edison Township came to be.
And she not only learned first aid and rescue techniques; she taught them to hundreds of others over the years.
Not to mention the fact that she always, always knew the six-letter word for a mammal with winged toes for 34 down in the New York Times crossword puzzle. (The word is “aliped.”) A puzzle I might add that she always finished, in pen, not even needing to erase a word here or there.
No, she was not an uneducated woman.
If you asked about her family, you might be told that she had four sons and three daughters and nine grandchildren — five boys and four girls.1 She had a rich and warm and different relationship with each of her very different children and grandchildren in all of our diversity. She was proud of the degrees and the accomplishments of her children, proud of the sports skills and arts skills and college aspirations of her grandchildren. She delighted in learning the languages of bioethics and business, of computers and technology, of lunar landings and the law, in finding a soulmate in a daughter who loves the rocks and soils of the earth as she did, a granddaughter who loves the charcoals and oils of art as she did, grandsons with the same love of books and same twisty sense of humor as she had, daughters- and sons-in-law who are real teammates and partners to her children. She rejoiced in all of our successes, commiserated with us in all of our setbacks, joined with us in much of our fun. We will all treasure our memory of her 70th birthday weekend in New York, with a Broadway play, and a dinner and brunch, and before — after — in between — during — the kind of cutting up and horseplay she was so fond of.
But that doesn’t tell her story either: there were also the children she adopted in her heart, and the children who adopted her. You can’t talk about my mother’s children, for example, without knowing that — from the day she was born — she had a daughter of the heart that she shared with her sister Cladyne. Our cousin Bobette has always been Mother’s other child, and she Bobbi’s other mother.2
Nor can you talk about Mom’s family without talking about all the kids over all the years that she ran and worked in the stores around here who brought their school pictures FIRST to Ms. Totsy BEFORE the rest of the picture packet went home to their own parents.
No, she didn’t just have seven children and nine grandchildren. Her heart was bigger than that.
You might look at worldly possessions and see that she never had a lot — and probably never had a positive bank balance in her life. But that doesn’t tell it all. It doesn’t tell, for example, of the years she ran Kents Store, and so many times even after she had locked up for the night, someone would knock on the door, needing a gallon of milk for kids at home, needing credit for that gallon of milk, never really going to be able to pay. When you have enough to share a gallon of milk, time and again, with others in need, and when you have the generosity of spirit never to regret having done so, you are not truly poor yourself.
And there isn’t any usual eulogy category that begins to capture her love of a good story or her ability to tell it. There are so many stories that she loved and told so well that it’s hard even to know how to choose a few to share. One of my own favorites is how a man who might have become my father became my uncle because of a dresser drawer. Seems my mother was dating this serviceman, and she kind of liked him, but her older sister liked him a bit more. At that time, things were a bit crowded with 10 kids sharing quarters, and my mother — as the younger sister — had to keep all her things in boxes under the bed. My Aunt Cladyne — as the older sister — had the treasured dresser drawer. High level negotiations resulted in a swap. It’s because Mom got the dresser drawer that some of you out there are Barretts.
Or the story about the little boy who came into the store one time and Mother was explaining to him how a thermos for sale could keep his milk cold on one day and his soup warm on another. And her eyes would always get as wide as that little boy’s must have as she related how he looked down into the thermos and then up at her quite seriously and asked, “How do it know?”
Or perhaps the most recent that she was just perfecting about the letter from my nephew, her grandson Max, who told her how he had worked hard and saved his money and now he wanted her to convince HER SON to let him buy a car.
No, eulogies usually don’t cover storytelling.
And you might look at the diseases she battled at the end — two different cancers, chronic obstructive lung disease, and you might think how sad it was that she had to fight so hard. But the last years of her life were not sad, were not unhappy. She was constantly surrounded by the love and — more — the genuine friendship of her own brothers and sisters. She never had a doctor’s appointment or a treatment scheduled where at least one and usually more of her sisters wasn’t with her. The Cancer Unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center still wants Aunt Marianne back to entertain both the patients and the staff.3 Her days and her evenings were spent with that love and friendship all around her — watching game shows together, sharing a meal, above all else sharing a laugh. Even when all that could be shared was a warm hand or a soft kiss, she was never ever truly alone.
And what, you might ask, did this woman who never really owned anything leave to those she left behind? The answer is so simple and so clear: look around you. She left us each other. To care for. To forgive. To share a story with. To laugh with. Above all else, to love.
We will take care of each other, Mom. We will tell the stories as best we can. We will keep them, and we will keep you, alive in our hearts forever.
- There are two more boys now in the ranks of her grandchildren. And three and 8.5/9ths great grandchildren. ↩
- She and Bobbi were reunited last year. See “Happy trails to you,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Apr 2012. ↩
- And we wish she could go back and entertain the folks there. We lost Marianne, also to cancer from smoking, in 2007. ↩