Sunday, March 06, 2005

Eulogizing Andrea

Clell asked me, through Toni, to do the eulogy at Andrea's funeral service; "Maybe he can include some humor," he told Toni, "Andrea loved John's sense of humor." Of course it was not easy to be out-and-out slapstick on such an occasion. But then I started to think about the times that Andrea made us smile or outright laugh -- and the job became easier.

What follows is a slightly edited version of the eulogy I actually wrote. Given the audience, none of whom (except Clell) we had ever met, it's probably not the eulogy I would have prepared for her friends here in town. Unfortunate, that, because some of Andrea's funniest times weren't... how you say?... suitable for general audiences.
It feels extremely weird for me to be doing this. My wife Toni met Andrea in graduate school at FSU in the early 1990s. So I didn't know Andrea as long as many of you here did, and I didn't know her nearly as closely as Clell, Toni, and a select other few friends. But I love my wife, and we talk about everything, and through her I eventually came to understand Andrea in ways that I could not have done on my own.

To start, I'd like to share with you a couple of Bible verses that taken together, I think are appropriate. I apologize for doing this unconventionally. Both come from the King James Version of the Bible; one is from Chapter 21 of the Book of Genesis, and the other comes from one of the so-called Old Testament Apocrypha, Chapter 12 of the Book of Judith.
And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me... For, lo, it will be a shame for our person, if we shall let such a woman go, not having had her company.
Andrea wasn't always the easiest person to talk to. She could be stubborn and unreasonable, letting one or another fantasy view of the world rule her decisions despite the pleading of close friends. I remember one evening when she and Clell were staying with me and Toni; she'd made up her mind to do something which -- to anyone but her -- would make no sense at all. The three of us begged her, cajoled her, raged at her. Things got so crazy that at one especially melodramatic moment I actually fell to one knee and said Please, please don't do this.

Through the whole discussion, when she wasn't making her case about Why she had to do this and Why the other thing would just be impossible, Andrea sat there with this slightly puzzled look on her face, eyebrows raised, mouth slightly downturned at the corners. It was a look almost of disappointment, one which said What's up with the three of you all of a sudden? I thought you were all smart!

As Toni knows more than anyone, few things affect me more than the sound of a dear woman's voice. And that, I think, is one reason why even at such bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments, it was very difficult not to love Andrea.

We saw her do public readings of her poetry and short stories numerous times. She was one nervous damn insect on these occasions, her hands shaking and (she said) her pulse racing. And then she'd get up at the podium or the microphone, open her mouth, and out it would come -- the voice.

It was a musical voice, from which she had tried -- not 100% successfully -- to scrub all traces of Alabama accent. It was soft and it was sweet, and it had a slight strained quality to it, a heartbreaking tightness at the back of the throat which always made her sound like she was yearning for something. She was, you know, although I don't think anyone (least of all Andrea herself) ever knew what it was. Her voice sounded like it wanted to be home. And a voice, alas, that almost had come to believe it might never get there.

But the things she could do with that voice...

Take, for instance, the way she was with animals. Dr. Doolittle had nothing on Andrea, the original horse- and dog-whisperer. I here offer you some evidence: Toni and I have this grouchy overweight cat whose name, strangely, is Nameless. All human concerns are beneath her attention; you have to fight with her to move her gigantic torso from the stair step you need to walk on, and she hisses and bites at anyone who intrudes into her universe. But whenever Andrea came in the front door, Nameless would lumber into the living room like a chubby docile golden retriever. She'd sit there waiting patiently while Andrea gave Toni and me each one of her patented full-body hugs, and then Nameless would get her own reward: Andrea would bend at the waist, one hand on her knee and the other stretching out with a pointing index finger to touch Nameless on the nose. "Nameless kitty!" she'd say in that high-pitched talk-to-the-animals voice. And Nameless would instantly roll over onto her back, big belly exposed, and gaze adoringly up at Andrea. Hers was the only voice, I've long believed, that could have tamed the wild dog Cody -- like it tamed everybody else.

Don't kid yourself, either, that her magic extended just to beasts of the furry kind. For a few years, Toni and I had a mini-tradition of serving lobsters at Christmas dinner. The problem for Andrea, as it was for Toni, was how cruel it must seem to the lobsters to be plucked from their styrofoam boxes of ice and plunged into boiling water. Don't laugh; this was Toni and Andrea we're talking about here, this was a Big Issue.

Imagine their delight, then, when somebody passed on the unlikely story that lobsters could be hypnotized if you flipped them over on their backs and rubbed their bellies.

It sounded completely stupid to me. How could lobsters -- so recently immersed in freezing water -- feel anything at all through their hard-shelled bellies? The ladies would not be deterred though. And so the mini-mini-tradition began: Toni would pass Andrea the lobsters, one at a time. Andrea would turn them over, holding them on their backs in one hand, while with the fingers of the other hand she stroked their squirming bellies and murmured sweet words of comfort and prayer for them. And you know, it worked. The lobsters, writhing at first, would simply go limp. Only then, satisfied that they were asleep, would Andrea relinquish them to their fates.

Some of Toni's and my absolute most favorite memories of Andrea were the long -- and I mean looooong -- nights we spent playing poker at our house, sometimes with a few other friends but often just the three of us. The poker chips we used were, of course, blue (the dimes), red (the nickels), and white (the pennies), and they weren't hard plastic chips but some kind of soft heavy cardboard which didn't clatter but thunked when we tossed out our antes and bets. Through many hours of sharing the tabletop with smokers, the white chips were no longer really white. They were smudged and yellowed. They looked, in fact, like slices of some diseased vegetable; so Andrea -- her voice nearly breaking, as it always did, but also twisting in a way she knew would sound funny -- would lean back in her chair, toss a couple on the table, and announce, "I bet two sqwarsh." Just like that: sqwarsh. Then she'd laugh.

And what a great laugh she had, ranging from a hoarse stutter to a full-throttle gutbuster that made you wind up holding your own sides, wiping the tears from your own eyes. For a woman who'd experienced life's ups and downs so deeply and with such emotional intensity, she could -- strangely -- be moved to laugh at the goofiest little everyday bits of lifeā€¦

We've got this other cat, Dilly, who after a couple of years started doing this strange thing, as if she were about to lose a hairball but never quite succeeding, kind of a Hoop-hup-hup thing. On another of those poker nights, a few weeks after Dilly had begun to hack periodically, there was a lull -- a rare lull -- in the conversation. I was looking down at my cards, puzzling over the odds of filling a straight or something, and asked Toni almost absent-mindedly, "Is Dilly still hairballing?" Whatever Andrea had in her mouth at the moment erupted and she ran from the table, laughing hysterically. I never did see what was so funny, but ever after, we'd just have to say "Is Dilly hairballing?" and Andrea would lose it all over again.

It made you want to make her laugh, see? Just to hear it.

Of course you never actually had to hear her to "hear" her, metaphorically. One special way she spoke was through the generosity of her gifts (and the grateful warmth with which she received gifts in turn).

I say "generosity" advisedly, because Andrea seldom had lots of cash bursting from her purse. (And if she did, it was probably misappropriated student-loan money.) But she obviously always selected gifts with great forethought, knowing exactly how best to please this recipient -- and this recipient alone, with a gift she could and would not have given to anyone else. Ask Toni about the antique jewelry, the red-glitter-heart brooch, the magical stone-encrusted incense burner; ask me about the carved wooden dragon and silver-glitter lava lamp: gifts that could have come only from Andrea, gifts that will always speak to us in her voice.

One side of Andrea you may or may not know about is that she was a hugely talented writer, not only in her friends' eyes but in the eyes of editors across the country. She wrote painstakingly, sometimes working on a single poem for months, a short story for years, packing every syllable and word with intensity of feeling and beauty. For it, she won dozens of awards for her poetry and fiction, competing and winning often against hundreds of writers from all over. Sometimes it seemed like all she had to do was mail out a piece of writing, and the acceptance would arrive before the submission had reached the post office. Unfortunately for Andrea, it was not the kind of writing which would enrich her lifestyle; fortunately for the rest of us, it was the kind of writing which would enrich our lives. What editors saw in her work was surely the same yearning, generous, feeling voice which we all knew.

Her voice, you see: it comes down again, finally, to her voice. You could not get her easily to admit she'd done something worth bragging about. You could quite easily get her to argue about politics -- she'd often argue as strenuously with people who agreed with her as with those who didn't. And with what heartbreaking grace she could speak of her mom and her dad, of her brother, of her sister and niece and nephew, of Clell, of her friends...

It flatly astounds me -- us -- that we will never hear that voice again. On a big issue or a small, laughing or angry, quiet or raucous: Lord, we'd love to hear her. It wouldn't have to be a big deal, you know, a long-winded conversation. It wouldn't even have to be in person. Just one more time we'd love to hear the music of her voice, just once more hear even those simple sweet soft not-quite-Alabama mundane sentences which if we in Tallahassee heard once, we heard a thousand times, two simple sentences stuck in memory forever now like a bone in the throat:
You have reached eight seven-seven, nine-five, nine-four. Please leave a message after the tone.
We may have reached your number, Andrea. But we hope, in some way, we reached you. Because God knows, you reached us.

Sleep good, our sweet, sweet-voiced lady. We'll be seeing you.


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