Sunday, July 21, 2013

A eulogy for my sister

This is the eulogy I offered at the July 20th memorial service for my little sister, Margaret Tarleton Fritz (1952-2013):

    My sister Margaret inherited many of her traits from our Mother. Like our Mother, Margaret never forgot an important date. She knew everyone’s birthday, anniversary, or graduation date, and she sent specially selected cards to recognize those occasions. She could remember the first and last names — and sometimes the middle names — of second and third cousins.
    I was not similarly blessed. But I do have some very distinct old memories. I’ve told this story many times, and Margaret swore I was making it up, but it’s the truth. It is as clear as any 61-year-old memory can be. It’s a memory of the day I first laid eyes on Margaret. The four Tarleton siblings were sitting in the back seat of the family car — I think it was a 1946 Chevrolet  — waiting for our parents to bring our new baby sister home. I was three years old. Frances was seven. Larry would soon turn nine, and Bill was ten. Mother and Daddy at last got into the car with the new baby while the four of us in the back eagerly tried to get a look at our baby sister. Mother asked what we thought we should name her. I don’t remember what any of my siblings suggested, but I clearly remember shouting out what I thought should be her new name: “Hal!” Mother said, “We’re going to call her Margaret.”
    Many years later, our Mother told of how the doctor and delivery nurses could not get Margaret to start breathing when she was born. After some anxious minutes, Margaret began breathing but she didn’t cry the way newborns typically do. So a nurse picked her up by her feet and prepared to give her the traditional slap on the bottom to get her to cry. Doctor Sorrell intervened. He said, “Don’t you hit that baby. She’s been through enough already.” Yes, she’s been through enough.
    Margaret inherited another trait from our Mother, one shared by all five of the Roberson girls who grew up on the Wade Mill village during the Great Depression. Like all of her maternal aunts, Margaret was stoic. I have no doubt that in the past month or two, Margaret must have endured horrible pain, but I never heard her complain. She even died quietly; she just slipped away without a shout or a whimper. She always said she never wanted to call attention to herself.
    What she called attention to were her children and grandchildren. She would do anything for her children, even at the risk to her own financial, physical or emotional health. She once said that she wanted her daughters to have all the opportunities she never had. Growing up two miles outside a town of 500 people didn’t offer a lot of cultural enrichment, so we five Tarleton children played with each other in the barn loft and the woods and the fields. Margaret made sure her daughters would have the opportunity to dance, play music and dream of great careers. She would make it possible for them to attend a distant private college and to study abroad. She would do anything for her children and grandchildren. She would live her dreams through them.
    Margaret had a way of making other people feel special. Sometimes all it took was a birthday card from Aunt Margaret. Sometimes it was encouragement from understanding Aunt Margaret during a teenager’s emotional crisis. One year on her birthday — I think it was her 18th — she asked Mother and Daddy to sit together in the den and remember what they were doing on this date many years before. Then she gave Daddy an “It’s a Girl!” cigar and gave Mother a bouquet of flowers. She thanked them for having her, their fifth and final child.
    It is probably impossible to understand Margaret, or any of us four siblings, without knowing about Aug. 5, 1962. On that evening, our older sister, Frances, died in a car accident. All of us, but especially Margaret, the only other girl, felt unspoken pressure to live up to the promise of Frances, who really was as good a person as any 17-year-old could be. Margaret and Frances shared a bedroom the last few years of Frances’ life, and Margaret would not sleep alone in that room for some time after that night in 1962. Margaret has spoken many times about how much she missed Frances and envied women who had sisters to share their thoughts with.
    Margaret didn’t want to call attention to herself and never wanted a fuss made over her — at least that’s what she always said, but I’ve always suspected otherwise. When she received her diagnosis in June, she did not tell her brothers or her cousins or any of the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who would want to know. When Larry and I found out that she was sick and called, we talked to Tom. Margaret didn’t want to talk to us. Maybe she was just too weak to talk. Maybe she was so depressed that she couldn’t bear to talk about it. But I think that stoic demeanor she inherited from our Mother and her reluctance to call attention to herself were also factors in her reticence.
    Two years ago, at my suggestion, the four of us got together with our spouses at Larry’s mountain place in Cashiers. Our sister-in-law Karen, Bill’s wife, was not her usual self, and Margaret and I worried that she must be very sick. Weeks after the weekend in Cashiers, she was diagnosed with cancer and died in December 2011. Last year, we returned to Cashiers, and Bill fell ill, suffering chills and nausea, and he took to bed for most of the day. But the next morning he was up and ready to drive back to Jacksonville. A few months later, he had a heart attack and died after heart surgery. Margaret declared to me that she was not going back to Cashiers again; that place made people die. We haven’t been back to Cashiers this year, but here we are. Margaret, it wasn’t Cashiers. It was just, as John F. Kennedy liked to say, “Life isn’t fair.” I would add, “Death isn’t fair either.”

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