Last night, I attended my aunt’s Zoom remembrance/memorial/whatever you call these things now. And it was lovely because she was lovely. It was full of brilliant, funny stories and anecdotes and kindness.
But one person stood out among all the beautiful articulate people who spoke. It wasn’t the Congressmen who did a lovely job. It wasn’t the head of a nonprofit or the athletic director of UNH.
It was a five-year-old girl named Grace.
She sat on her mom’s lap, stared patiently at the computer, waiting her turn for well over an hour. Or at least it seemed like she did.
And when her turn came? She blew me away. You have to imagine Grace’s quote with this clear, articulate, pausing-between-most-words, five-year-old’s voice, absolutely convinced in the confidence of her statement and that confidence? It’s deserved.
Here’s what Grace said.
I’m here to tell you that Aunt Max is still alive. She’s in our memory. Memory is a special magic that survives in your whole life.
So many of my friends hurt today and so many days because they miss people, because they blame themselves for other’s deaths, because they long and grieve.
But here’s the thing that Grace knows and I want you to know.
Memory is a special magic that survives your whole life.
And that memory keeps people alive and it can keep the ideas of those people alive. What they loved. What they worked for. What they believed. Their intrinsic values.
That works for countries and communities too.
The job of the living is to embrace that special magic but also use it to shape ourselves, your own families, our communities and our futures.
Dog Tip for Wednesday
It’s easy sometimes to give everyone (especially cats) some side-eye, but giving back to your community, your world?
It’s more than writing a check. It’s about taking a chance, making a life connection, touching someone.
You don’t have to be perfect. Just reach out.
Share this if you want and also because it would be super nice of you!
I found out yesterday that my aunt Maxine died at the end of August. This is typical for my family where I tend to be the one who never knows anything important until weeks or months after everyone else. That’s okay. It is what it is.
Aunt Maxine had her own family before she joined ours and they were all of my siblings’ generation, not mine because I came so much later. I was the age of their children, basically. I can’t imagine the grief that they feel because Maxine was a force. She was a light. She inspired and made change in ways that seemed almost effortless.
This is the kind of woman she was.
Mom was a proud graduate of Cornell, Class of ’45, where she continued to be an active alumna and class president through her 75th reunion held on Zoom this past June. She was a positive force in the New Hampshire community, dedicating much of her life to serving needs of the people around her in the areas of child care, mental health, women’s empowerment, education, the arts, athletics and politics to name a few.
Mom created a warm and welcoming home, buzzing with activity, which was often the gathering place for family and friends of all ages. She was well known for her chocolate chip cookies and brownies that were stashed in the freezer for all to grab.
With boundless energy, a keen interest in people and the world around her and a belief in civic engagement, she lived the Judaic precept that having been given life, it is one’s individual responsibility to better the world around you. Warm, smiling, inclusive and astute, Mom was a consummate networker, who connected countless numbers of people around their common interests. She frequently enlisted help in causes she supported, and trust us, you couldn’t refuse Maxine. Never short of opinions or advice, she was a force to contend with.
Mom’s proudest achievements were the work she did as the founding director of the Greater Manchester Childcare Association, the first federally funded day care center in NH, and her work as chairwoman of the 1975 NH Commission on Laws Affecting Mental Health. Under her leadership the commission was instrumental in enacting legislation that extended mental health insurance coverage in group policies.
It is not hyperbole to say that New Hampshire lost two giants among our citizens in August.
Maxine K. Morse of Portsmouth, formally of Manchester and Laconia (and a magnificent property on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee), passed away on Aug. 23 at age 96. Raised in New Hampshire, she attended local schools and then Cornell University, a lifelong love of hers. Maxine Morse was a force with whom to be reckoned as she inspired her children and grandchildren, friends and colleagues to do better than they thought they could do.
I did not impact Maxine’s world at all. I’m not enough of a narcissist to think that I did, but she impacted mine. I’ve written before about how I was the last child, how my parents divorced and my stepdad died, and how my mom and I struggled financially—a lot—as I grew up.
But Maxine and her husband, my uncle Dick, gave me hope that I could be everything and anything that they were, but also that I had a responsibility to the world and to my community to use whatever I had to try and make the world a better place.
They tried to send me to private school and fund it. Mom refused.
They helped me with my college choices and were heartily disappointed when I didn’t chose the most prestigious one. Mom was okay with that.
They tried to convince my mom to let me go study at the Goethe Institute in Germany when I got a scholarship. Mom refused.
They did everything they could to try to make me blossom.
Be Brave Friday
I’ve written this before, but today is BE BRAVE FRIDAY, and sometimes it’s hard to be brave when people like Maxine leave the world, but sometimes it’s easier too because of the light they shone and the path they followed are such beautiful examples to the rest of us.
When I was Little I was Shy and I Knew I wasn’t wealthy or Like Dick and Maxine and Their Friends
We visited their house a lot. And once I went to a window seat that looked out on Lake Winnipesaukee at Maxine and Dick’s house. There was a bookshelf at the end of the seat and in that bookshelf was an etiquette book full of how to eat at the table, what manners were, how to write thank-you cards, exchange greetings, and so on.
It was a beautiful summer day. All the other kids were swimming and playing tag. I was reading and memorizing and trying to learn how to be like the others.
Eventually, rushing in from outside to get cookies or something out of the freezer, my Aunt Maxine noticed that I was sitting there, reading.
A Force To Contend With
“Carrie. What are you doing? Go out and play, Carrie,” she said.
She liked to use people’s names a lot. She also was sort of bossy in a nice way.
I was afraid of bossy, but I also loved my aunt so I said as bravely as possible, “I’m reading.”
“Don’t you want to go swim with the other children? They’re all outside getting sun, having fun.”
They were. They were splashing around in the water, doing cannonballs off the dock, or perfect dives. They had perfect bathing suits from L.L. Bean and Lands’ End, and every single one of them seemed to know how to ski, play tennis, and were learning golf.
She took the book from me and read the title. After a second, she sat down on the bench next to me. “What are you reading this for, Carrie?”
And I said, “Because I want to be better.”
“Be better! That’s ridiculous. You’re wonderful as who you are.”
“I want … I want to fit in.” I looked her right in the eyes and she got it. I knew she got it. She understood all the things that I couldn’t figure out how to say.
She handed me back the book. “I will make a deal with you. You read this for another half hour and I’ll set the kitchen timer. When it goes off, you go play with the other children and get some exercise.”
Nodding, I thought this was okay. “But I might not finish the book.”
“You can finish it after dinner and games.” She pet me on the top of the head. “I’ll bring you the timer.”
I was five.
THAT BOOK CHANGED MY LIFE BECAUSE OF MAXINE AND DICK.
They realized that there was a social code and a way of being that wasn’t easily accessible for me no matter how hard my mom tried. I was a poor kid in a wealthy town. I was a latchkey kid who was awkward and driven and terrified of failure. Paying for acting lessons, to play on the soccer team, to play piano were huge stretches for us. Sometimes they happened. Sometimes they didn’t.
My aunt and uncle understood my situation and my want because my uncle was the same way. He was the oldest son of a single mom. He pushed himself hard to succeed, to learn the social code of success and wealth. He went to UNH because it was the only place he could afford and he was valedictorian there, desegregating the fraternity system while he was class president. He eventually went to Harvard Law and married Maxine, a woman who had so much intellectual stock and prowess that it was just ridiculous. Seriously? Cornell, Class of 1945? Brilliant didn’t begin to describe her. Dick ended up being the head of an international law association, head of a law firm, chairman of the board of trustees at UNH and so many other things. And so did Maxine.
CRACKING THE CODE WITH BOOKS
My little five-year-old self was trying to do the same things as he did and to be wonderful the way Maxine saw me. Somehow. I took the first and only step I could think of taking — reading that book, trying to crack the social codes of behavior that made their friends and them so different from my mom and me.
I was in college when Uncle Dick was dying.
We had all gathered for one last Thanksgiving. There were tons of people there, the same kind of brilliant, world-changing people that were there when I was five and when I was ten and when I was fifteen. The same wonderful, world-changing people who will be at Maxine’s Zoom memorial on Tuesday.
On this day, my still-alive mother and my still-alive nana were barely able to sit still because they were so overwhelmed with Dick’s impending death. They’d have to leave the room every time someone mentioned his name.
During dinner, Maxine called them into his bedroom with her. They stayed for about two minutes and left sobbing.
“He’s too tired,” Maxine said at the threshold of the hallway that led to those bedrooms. “He needed them to go.”
But then, a minute later, she called for me. “Dick wants to see you, Carrie.”
I remember pointing at my chest. “Me?”
“He’s not too tired?”
“No,” she said. “Not for you.”
NOT FOR YOU
There was a bit of a murmur at the table because Uncle Dick wasn’t really calling for anyone to come see him. He was barely holding on.
She ushered me into a back bedroom that wasn’t their normal place to sleep. The wooden walls were dark because the shades were drawn. There was only one bedside light on. My uncle was thin and his breathing was so heavy. It seemed like there were a million blankets layered on top of him.
He met my eyes as I came to his bed and sat on the edge of it, ignoring the chair.
“Everyone sits in the chair,” he rasped out.
“I wanted to be close to you.” I grabbed his hand.
“Nobody wants to be close to death.”
“You aren’t death. You’re my uncle.”
WE WERE QUIET.
The weight of his hand in mine seemed like nothing and everything all at once. I think he might have fallen asleep, but I sat there thinking about how beautiful he was, how elegant, how he challenged systems of injustice one at a time as best he could, how he taught himself Japanese, how to play the organ, how to be wealthy, how to fit in with an entire class of successful people that he wasn’t born into, and how he and Maxine both tried to lift other people up into that class with them.
He opened his eyes. “Carrie, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Will you pick it up?”
There was only one answer.
“Yes,” I told him. “Yes.”
It was the last thing he said to me. He fell asleep again. We left for home. I left for college.
At Dick’s Funeral
Uncle Dick had a huge funeral with people in waiting rooms and lined up. There was not enough room to fit all the people who loved him and Maxine and wanted to say goodbye.
Maxine’s memorial, thanks to COVID, will be on Zoom.
having been given life, it is one’s individual responsibility to better the world around you.
At Dick’s funeral, I had to hold up my mother, my nana. And I had to stand at the podium and read a Psalm. I’m not sure if that was Dick’s choice or Maxine’s, but I was the one they chose to represent the family. The rest of my family couldn’t figure that out. I was the youngest. Not the most confident. I had a speech defect.
I’m pretty sure that I was Maxine’s choice because she knew the power of being seen, the power of words and of choice and as I read the Psalm that Dick chose when he planned his funeral out and those words echoed in the sanctuary, I got it. The power of voice, of words, of being seen. There is strength there. You don’t have to hide on a window seat, but you can go out into the ocean and the sun.
When I read those words, they were bigger than me. They were comfort. They were about the life of Dick, the life of Maxine, the life of all of us.
And since then, I have spent years trying to figure out how to make my words to my uncle not be a lie. How to meet the challenge of his life so well lived.
And it’s not just him. It’s also Maxine. I want to be worthy of her faith in me, in her assertion that I was wonderful the way I was.
And I know I’m not doing enough. It’s hard to motivate other people. Sometimes it’s hard to even motivate myself. But Maxine did it. She did it over and over again.
I have a friend who recently said to me, “You do so much volunteering. I don’t. I can’t. I’m a selfish person. I want to make money.”
And I didn’t know what to say.
I still don’t.
WHAT IS THE GAUNTLET? IT’S INCLUSION.
I have only succeeded as much as I have because people like Maxine were willing to let me read a book, to be examples of goodness, to give me the opportunity to interact with senators, opera singers, doctors who have saved thousands of lives.
Humiliation and exclusion are not what we should aspire to. Inclusion and praise are not things to be afraid of giving to other people. Enjoying other people’s successes and happiness doesn’t make you any less likely to succeed.
The gauntlet is about being unafraid and allowing other people into your life, your heart, your communities.
Aunt Maxine and Uncle Dick told me throughout my childhood that intelligence was a privilege that I was born with. It could be cultivated and expanded on, but what was the most important thing was finding a way (or many ways) of using that privilege (intelligence, class, race, gender, being physically fit, and so on) and using it to better other people’s lives, your own life, the world, not in a way that makes you a hero but in a way that makes you a friend.
having been given life, it is one’s individual responsibility to better the world around you.
Be Brave. Vote. Act. Speak out. Include. Applaud. Connect. Give a child a moment with a book. Give yourself one too. And sing some Sarah Vaughn in honor of my Aunt Maxine, okay?