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Monday, April 21, 2014

Overheard on Vacation

I will type quickly to save the battery of my swiftly dying computer, whose charger expired the day before I went away for a week on a family vacation, on which I vowed to stay unplugged.

I did a pretty good job of it and only jotted down a few choice quotes because I mostly left my phone in my room.

Brother, when I mentioned that I was hot, at the memorial celebration for our grandmother: I spend a lot of my time overdressed.

Me, having an identity crisis and feeling old, surrounded by my cousins' kids, ranging in age from 3-7: We're not littles anymore. We're middles.

7-year-old, during a game of Hide and Seek: Annie's big, so she is probably hiding somewhere hard and big.

3-year-old, crying: I want to go to sexy school! But we can't do our moves!

Me, to 3-year-old: What was your favorite part of the week?

3-year-old: Playing with C.
Me: Doing what?
Him: Doing bad things.


Here are the remarks I shared at the celebration for my grandmother, followed by the slideshow that started off the event. (Please forgive the bad formatting. I don't have time to fix them today, but you get the gist.)

I want to start by reading a couple paragraphs from my grandfather, Charles Hockett’s “non-obituary,” which he wrote in 1996.

“In the fall of 1941 I sat in on a course in the Foundations of Mathematics, given by a professor Wilder. In it were a southerner (male), one fairly pretty and one very pretty girl, and others. I phoned the very pretty one and asked her for a coke date. She said, "Are you the southerner?" I said No in a disgusted tone of voice (ask her!). But she came on the coke date. I remember hearing the nickelodeon play "I don't want to set the world on fire, I just want to light a flame in your heart," a lovely song that I would enjoy hearing again. We went dancing, and took rides in the countryside. I asked her to marry me, and she said she would.”
And, six pages later, after a detailed account of the years 1942-1958, he closes with, “Much more has happened since [then] than ever before—my bookwriting (selling about six thousand copies in all), my songs and opera and many other compositions; Shirley’s teaching at Cornell, at Ithaca High School, and at Ithaca College, and her bookwriting (selling over a million copies); children through school and college and off on their own; five delightful grandchildren; trips to Maine, Utah, Wyoming and Montana and Idaho, England, France, Spain, Italy, China; cruises to Alaska, around the Pacific, and around South America; the Ithaca Concert Band and Shirley’s learning the clarinet to play in it and my switching from flute to piccolo to bass clarinet—and on and on and on. But to tell all that in as much detail as has been given above would stretch this essay out beyond all reason.

Besides, I’m tired of recalling and writing.

So I have given this account an appropriate title, and thanks for listening, and farewell.”

So you see, Shirley Hockett had it all. A large, boisterous, loving family; a 59 year long marriage to a brilliant man who was insanely devoted to and proud of her, travels that led her around the world, and a barrier-breaking career in a field she was passionate about.

When we got the news that Mom-Mom had passed away, my cousin posted a brief tribute to her on Facebook, honoring the matriarch of our family in a way I had never thought to but that struck me then like a bolt of lightning. She wrote it “to the woman who taught me that I could be a leader.”

I grew up with this picture of Mom-Mom in my head, ruling over us from a throne. (She didn’t actually have a throne, but that was how powerful she was.) She could be at once corrective and cutting, then burst out laughing, swinging back her beer and getting up to dance. I didn’t see myself in her or her in me at all.
In the days and weeks that passed after her death, we collected stories I had never heard and my image of what a truly remarkable, strong, brilliant woman she was became clearer.

And, interestingly, my understanding of myself became clearer as well.

I wanted to be an actress on Broadway until I was about 20 and was discouraged to discover that I was just OK. Then I got into directing, which I realized I was pretty good at. When I graduated from college and moved back to New York City, foolhardy and sure that I’d take the NYC theatre world by storm, I spent about two years feeling like an utter failure until, in great despair and ready to just give up, I started volunteering at a shelter and discovered that working with kids was like breathing for me. I had never taken to something so easily or felt so fulfilled by work.

I had searched for a calling my whole life, failing to remember or refusing to make the connection that I’m from a long line of gifted teachers.

From what I hear, Mom-Mom was a force in front of a class. She prided herself on learning every kid’s name on the first day. There’s a famous story of her continuing to write OFF the chalkboard and straight onto the wall, to keep her students’ attention. One day, late in her last days, my mom wrote to the family, recalling a visit she made to Bridges. As she was getting ready to leave, one of the men who was there to visit another resident said, "Hi, Shirley." Mom-Mom reportedly did a little wave. The man said to my mom, "She was my teacher. She taught me calculus." 

I saw Mom-Mom around Thanksgiving 2011, after I’d started my job, a job I have now been doing for almost 3 ½ years. At that point, she already didn’t know who I was, but we talked about my work and she told me she could just tell that I was doing the right thing. It was important for me that she seemed to know I was doing good work in the world.

My career is important to me; it’s a part of my identity, as I know it was part of Mom-Mom’s. She was so proud of the work she did and continued to work for years after “retiring.” I am dedicated to the kids I serve, to teaching them that they are strong, intelligent, hilarious individuals, that they matter, that who they are and whom they are becoming is just right. And that they deserve and will certainly reach full, happy lives.

It has only been in the months since Mom-Mom’s passing that I have come to fully realize that the example I have in my mind of a full, happy life and my own certainty that I too will have it all one day is thanks to her.  

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