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.