Sunday, June 6, 2010

Aunt Chris

It's hard to believe that all three of the MacGill sisters have died. They went out in the exact opposite of the order in which they came in: Aunt Sheila, the youngest, left us first. Then Mom. And three days ago,  the eldest: Aunt Chris.

Here they are in the sweetness of their youth. Our Mom is the one on the right with the full-hearted smile. Aunt Sheila is in the middle: enigmatic and mysterious even as a little girl. And Aunt Chris, who died on Wednesday, is the one on the left - her expression full of longing and hidden depths: how I wish I had asked her more questions when she was still alive!

It turned out that she had left a legacy in her parish we were quite unaware of. Even the priest, who didn't know her personally, had heard of her as a formidable presence, a woman willing (one might say eager) to confront "principalities and powers" (the Cardinal!) and to insist on the rights of women as full members of the Church.

At her funeral this morning, we expected very few people.  She was old (86), and having been disabled for several years, she was no longer in circulation. But many more than we expected managed to come. Her friends were - quite simply - amazing. Vivid, articulate, loving and true.

Mary McRae brought her Holy Communion every Sunday, kept her in touch with what was happening in the parish and contained within herself a memory of the person Aunt Chris had been before her own memory began to fail and her faculties to weaken. She was her link and her anchor.

Leona Cooper, a microbiologist and a remarkably accomplished woman herself, told me: "What I loved most about Chris was her brilliance. She was a brilliant woman."

Why does it take a death for us to discover who the people we love really are?

Here's the eulogy I wrote for Aunt Chris:

Eulogies are never adequate. Each one of you will know something about Chris MacGill which I don’t and which I should have. So apologies in advance for all that I don’t say.

The size of the group here this morning is no measure of the influence Aunt Chris had on our lives or in this world.

The size of this group is actually a measure of Aunt Chris’ stubbornness, particularly in regard to her refusal to leave the city of Miami where she lived for over 70 years.

I lost track of the number of times her sisters begged her to move to the North, to settle closer to them, but though she loved her sisters, and their husbands and children, New York and Massachusetts were just too darn cold for her.  She loved the South for its warmth as well as for its gentle hospitality and grace. Miami was her home.

So she remained the magical aunt who visited at Christmas (always coming in by train - she was stubborn about flying too) and who arrived bearing wonderful gifts, and strong opinions and cigarettes and her own bottle of gin.

As children, we would line up outside the room where she slept, waiting eagerly for her to wake up: she fascinated us. She was a single woman in a world full of Moms and Dads and we watched and wondered what it was that made her tick and just how her life was constructed.

In those days, in our minds, she was simply an aunt - and each one of us has specific memories - too many to describe here - of childhood experiences which she illumined by her presence.

But now that we are adults, we realize she was far more than just our aunt or our mothers’ sister. She was a remarkable woman in her own right, quite apart from her relationship to any of us.

It began, perhaps, in her youth, when she and her sisters discovered the Girl Scouts - an organization she was devoted to and which helped develop the strong independence and confidence which marked her entire life.

In an era when few women entered radio journalism, she worked her way up through the ranks of the Associated Press. One of her proudest achievements was serving as Bureau Chief in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Here in calmer Miami, she continued to work at the AP, and was a strong supporter of the Union, of which she was a lifelong, dues-paying member. When I was 16, I lived here with her for almost a year - I remember once the clerks at a local supermarket went out on strike and every chance she got, Aunt Chris would go out of her way to make as if she were going to drive into the parking lot to shop. She would pretend to just notice the picket line and would then make a big production of backing out elaborately, beeping the horn and waving to the strikers. It never failed to cheer them and it never failed to thrill her.

She told me there was nothing in the world like the feeling of solidarity and power the Union gave working people and she never forgot her own experience on the picket line when the AP went on strike and how the sight of her single, lonely little picket sign late one night outside the office where she worked was enough to make an 18-wheeler brake, reverse and back away, refusing to cross her line to make a delivery, even though it just was to another office in the same building.

Justice and equality were tremendously important to her. She was active in the civil rights movement in the 60’s and supported farm workers in their struggle for decent working conditions. Closer to home, as her friend Leona can testify, she was a passionate advocate for the rights of women, particularly in the Church. She would have been sadly amused by the difficulty Nellie had in finding enough priests to cover the many funerals and weddings here at St Hugh’s this week. We trust she is making a strong case for women’s ordination now in the only court that really matters.

The Cursillo movement was huge for her and the friends she made during those exciting days remained her friends to the very end. Two of them, Peggy and Brian are here with us today.

In her final years, life became more and more difficult for her as her health failed and her ability to get around declined. She was blessed by the support of her long-time assistant Bertha, who died just a few years ago and, more recently, by Gennifer Buchanan, who devoted many hours to her care. We also want to thank Mary who brought her Communion every week and Anne Sheehan who came by regularly to play Scrabble with her until she was no longer able to decimate the opposition.

Justin and Maria were steadfast friends to her and their son Alex brought her joy and entertainment. Mary provided practical advice and medical consultation generously and without regard to her own convenience. Moy not only made it a point to visit frequently and to arrange for Aunt Chris to get out to Fisher Island regularly, she also ensured that she had every possible human comfort and hang the expense. Chrissie, though she couldn’t come today, thought of her Godmother as - indeed - another mother and was in constant touch with her by phone and mail.

But it is truly Christopher to whom we all feel a debt of gratitude which can never be repaid. His loving and selfless care for Aunt Chris was an inspiration and a blessing. Thank you, Chris, from all of us.

Aunt Chris loved her sisters dearly  - her twin Pat, and their kid sister, Sheila - and when they died before her, a part of her died too. Now she has been reunited with them in Heaven and though we grieve her loss, we celebrate the restoration of the wonderful relationship the three of them shared. We praise God for the gift she was to each one of us and we look forward to meeting her again ourselves one day in the company of the saints.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.


Lucy Cuseo said...

Beautiful. Aunt Chris.

Lucy Cuseo said...

Beautiful. Aunt Chris.