Monday, April 04, 2011

Mary Joe Frug, 1941 - 1991

Twenty years ago today my mother, Mary Joe Frug, was murdered about a block from our house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was early evening; she was out for a walk. No one was ever caught or charged; we have no idea, to this day, who killed her. It was less than a month after my twentieth birthday.

At some point in the week and a half after she died, my sister and I were sitting in my parents' bedroom, talking, and it suddenly struck me that some day I would be forty, and it would have been half my life. I vividly remember telling my sister this, literally days after our mother's death. (I don't think she remembers.) I've remembered it a long time. And now, today, I am forty, and it's been twenty years. Half my life.

For the actual burial, we had a private funeral service for my mother Monday morning, April 8 -- mostly just family, with one or two friends brought along for support. Then, that afternoon there was a memorial service in Harvard's Memorial Church. (When she died my mother, on leave from her regular job at New England School of Law in Boston, was a scholar at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute; my father taught (and teaches) at Harvard, and I was then a sophomore in college there.) It's a big church; and it was filled. I think there were more than a thousand people there.

Rabbi Sally Finestone officiated. (Officially, we couldn't have the service there unless one of the university-associated chaplains officiated; as the only member of my family with any sort of connection to any of the chaplains (I was active at Harvard's Hillel), I asked Rabbi Finestone to do it. She said an opening and closing prayer.) There was some music, which my father and sister picked out. The song that got everyone weeping was Cat Stevens's "Wild World". (Technically, recorded music isn't allowed at Memorial Church, but the official head of the church, the late Rev. Gomes, was out of town at the time, and we got away with it.)

And there were eight speakers. Five were friends of our family's, including of course my mom: Cynthia Wardell, Mopsy Strange Kennedy, Judi Greenberg, Le Clanché du Rand, David Kennedy. There was the Dean of my mom's law school, New England, John O'Brien; there was a colleague of my mom's (whom I'd never met before or, to my recollection, since) Marie Ashe. (That's all in order, except that John O'Brien spoke second, between Cynthia and Mopsy.) And then, lastly, there was me.

The year after her death, the New England Law Review published a special two-volume issue dedicated to my mom's memory. It had to be two volumes because so many of her friends (mostly other law professors) wanted to submit an article. As a sort of preface, they printed the entire memorial service -- Rabbi Finestone's opening and closing benedictions, and all eight speeches. If you want to read it, the citation for it is 26 New England Law Review iii, pp. 636-658. (Yes, I had to look that up). I think that, all things considered, it gives a pretty good sense of what she was like.

Here's what I said. I wrote it the night before, a few days after my mom's murder. I was twenty. It's got a few things in it that embarrass me now -- infelicities of diverse sorts. But I haven't changed it.

I’m here to speak about my mom.

I’m the only person I know who heard the phrase, “carpe diem”, before they saw the movie that made it so common. I knew it from my mom. She used to tell me that, often. “Seize the Day” she would say. This would be her advice when I was down, depressed about something I had done or something I could not do. And she would follow her own advice, seizing every day that I knew her.

I’d like to tell you some things she did. They’re not really important things, they’re everyday things, things she sized. One of the things about my mom is that she did everything with gusto. Here are some things that she did.

She would play any tape that she liked over and over and over again, until she got sick of it and couldn’t listen to it for a month. She would wait until beyond the last possible moment to do anything, and then do it when everyone thought that she couldn’t. She would wait up for me or Emily to get home, and talk to us when we got back. She ate the icing off of cake and left the cake. She said that the reason she did this was that her father once stole her icing when she wasn’t looking. I think she just didn’t like cake.

She would manage to get to know perfect strangers before I could learn their name. People at grocery stores, friends of mine or my sisters, random strangers at a cocktail party: she would be busy “chatting them up” as she used to call it, finding out more about their soul then I would have thought possible. She was better with people then anyone else I know.

She would put on makeup before driving me somewhere at two in the morning when no one could see her. She would read every night before she went to bed. She read everything and anything. I can’t think of anyone who had as broad a taste as she did. There was always something called, “My Novel” which would change every few days. She was the first in Latin in the state of Ohio when she was in high school. I guess that’s where she learned the words “Carpe Diem”. I don’t know why, but she mentioned that fact a lot.

My mother could be very funny. A few weeks before she died, I talked to her about her trip to the Caribbean with my sister. “Well, you feel like a load of laundry: there’s a rinse cycle then a dry cycle and then you start again”, she said.

She would do embarrassing things in restaurants. She would bend over to people eating next to us and ask what they had for dinner, and if they liked it. My family, we would all cringe and blush. She was never embarrassed at all.

And she would take walks. Long walks, short walks, bicycle rides, walks during the day, walks at night. And that is how she died.

* * *

I want to say one thing about today. On behalf of my family, I want to thank you all for coming. A lot of you, if not all of you, feel that you have some special relationship to Mary Joe. All of you are right. The way she was is such that she had a special relationship with more people than I can count. And she cared about every one. Every one.

* * *

I remember a quote from a story by James Joyce, whom my mom liked so much that she named me after one of his characters. It’s a story my mom knew and loved, a quote from a story called "The Dead", and it goes like this:
One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.
As you’ve heard already, and as all of you know, my mother passed into that other world in the full grip of many passions.

* * *

When I was trying to think about what to say, and what to do, I was trying to think what she would want us to do. I thought back to what she said when her father died, years ago. She was sad, she felt his loss. She felt that she wished she had talked to him more, that she had done this and that-- as you all no doubt feel now. And then she kept going. She kept being strong, she kept being joyful, she kept being full of cheer. She kept being Mary Joe Frug.

There were imperfections in my mother’s life, like in all of ours. But she never spent much time regretting them.

Rest in peace, Mom. I miss you.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and reflections about your mom. It is beautiful just the way it is. Don't change a word of it.

Best, Cj

Heather F. said...

I agree, Stephen. Nothing to be embarrassed. It made me wish I knew her.

Matthias said...

Oh, Stephen. I can't believe it's been 20 years. I still remember your mom from all those get-togethers we all used to have at your house. And I remember like it was yesterday how devastating it was when Mira told me what had happened, what a kick in the gut it was. I never heard about the service, though, and your beautiful eulogy. I agree with the other posters. It's perfect. I've got tears in my eyes. Thank you for posting this.

Sara Ferguson said...

This is beautiful. Oh to be such a mother and to have such a mother. My heartfelt condolences.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories. I was a student in your Mom's last class - at BU Law in the Fall of 1990. She was amazing. I'm teaching a class this Fall on feminist legal theory and cannot think of a better text to use than your Mom's. How wonderful her friends have continued to publish later editions. I wish you and your sister comfort in the fact that you had a great mother, and in that so many people are so sorry that it was for just a short part of your life.

Best,
LACJ

Judy Hall said...

Stephen, I loved reading your blog about my flamboyant and dear cousin, Mary Joe. I remember hearing you deliver that wonderful tribute to her...and feeling so moved at the love that gave you the courage to speak at her memorial service.
Mary Joe was the senior of all the little girl cousins...a role model for good manners (as we were often reminded, much to our dismay) and, more importantly, the source of great fun and wonderful original stories. We always SO looked forward to her visits and to visiting her and Sally. They were both such favorites. We didn't get to visit often but every single visit was an adventure and I have wonderful memories of her at varied times in our years growing up and as adults. I remember you, Stephen, as a baby and a child and a newly wed. Much love to you and Sara. My nephew, Skyler introduced me to this blog and your incredible reminder that it has been twenty years today. What a treasure of a mother you had. You characterized her so well. Judy Hall

Michael A. Burstein said...

I just wanted you to know that I read this and you are in my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I thought of you yesterday--without realizing it had been 20 years.

Without appropriate words to say, I'll just send you love--

Jenny F

Kate Schultz Realtor Newport Rhode Island said...

Stephen - I was a local reporter in my mid 20s when this happened. I have never forgotten her and frequently search to see if there have been any developments in the case. I was very happy to read what you wrote here because I didn't know the personal side to her and now I feel as though all this rich, wonderful information were a gift. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Mary jo Frug comes to my mind every now and then, but today I loked into the affair, to see if anyone had been brought to justice, and I found your post. Your homily was so touching, it brought her clearly to life for me, and, from now on, I will not wonder abot the murder on Sparks, but rather remember, each time I pass, to Carpe diem and to be myself. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Hello. Twenty-one years ago, I was working at the textbook/reference information desk on the third floor of the Harvard Coop. Your mother's leather-bound volume Women and the Law sat on a shelf to my immediate right, alongside other volumes in the Harvard Law classics collection. It heartened me to see that women were making such progress in society. Then a co-worker of mine told us how he was at choir practice at a church across the street from your home at the time of the assassination: that they heard a woman's screams and ran out of the church to see what was going on when police sirens sounded. After that I would look at the leather bound volume of Women and the Law and think: Baby, baby -- it's a wild world.
Respectfully,
Pamela

Anonymous said...

Dear Stephen,

Oddly enough, I found out about your mother's murder only recently (in connection with a New York magazine article about Paul Clement).

Your mother was my advisor when I was a first-year law student at Columbia in the 1970s. I remember her as a truly kind and decent human being. I'm shocked to hear of her tragic death and I'd like to extend to you and your family my deepest condolences.

Debra said...

I was there that sad day when you delivered these words. Shocked ti see a a near child deliver an address none of us could imagine. What a miracle, or am I drunk, that you are still here, that you posted this, that I found it and read it wet-cheeked, remembering again how I assumed/expected to grow old with/near her? How arrogant was I that my mentor would witness and be there for my career in service to what she inspired? Truth is in my mind she does just so and how she laughs, Mary Jo. I never stop speaking and hearing her voice reply. I am 54 now and I can not believe it has been this long. Every April 4 still stabs my heart. As a lawyer I no longer - long for "justice" - whatever that is. I only hope for peace. Your post provides more than I ever expected on MJF.
Thank you.

R Turcotte said...

I was a student of MJF at NESL and like others, every now and then, she comes to mind and I check to see if Justice has been served. As a lawyer for now 26+ yrs I know that Justice is not always served, so I remember her quirky gestures, her soft slow voice holding so much passion about the topic of the day. The way she took the time always to look right at you and tell you like it was. A gifted professor, a wonderful mom--- she would be proud of you and encourage you to seize the day-every day.

Anonymous said...

The internet is such a strange tool of connection. I was leaving a post that made mention of your father, Gerald Frug, and had wanted to check the spelling of the name. With regard to his work & thoughts on governance. His bio came up and it stated what happened to your mother. So then I wanted to see if the case had been solved. And did a search and came across this. I'm sorry for your loss. For you it's 20 years in arrears. For me now having read of it, it's as if it just happened.

Bettina Network, inc. said...

Dear Stephen and family of Mary Joe Frug.

I just came across your blog because I have been going through my own papers, saw a copy of the note we wrote and left with a large basket of flowers on the spot where your mother died. I searched on her name and came across your blog.

The note reads: " 4/30/1992 -This is a day to grieve the violence inflicted on this society by its own court system acting out on the powerless.

This is a day to remember your life and work, Mary Joe Frug, and to remember the violent way it ended - on the anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.

We saw that - we understood the connection and we were not intimidated by the message.

This is a day to remember all the other violences inflicted on Blacks in this country over many years by that same court system.

This is a day to remember how those injustices were called "justice" - the courts have spoken - and how society and its institutions were called on to mete out that kind of justice and violence and called it 'law and order.'

This is a day when 12 jurors have chosen to live into and maintain the racism handed on to all of us by our ancestors.

May God give strength to those walking in your footsteps, Mary Joe, and forgive those who ridicule and do legal violence in order to maintain this evil because their identity demands it."

Stephen, may you always feel your mother close and be comforted by the incredible gifts she gave to all of us during her lifetime which changed this world a little.