Eulogy to my mother-in-law, Olga Withoff

Eulogy to my mother-in-law, Olga Withoff

Olga Withoff, August 12, 1936 - December 15, 2018

Olga was a great presence in all of our lives, and I’m honored to have this opportunity today to say a few words in her memory.

I think this memorial should be a joyful one, and not a mournful one. We, after all, have to keep in mind who we are here to celebrate, and what she would have preferred.

With that said, thinking about what Olga would have wanted, I’m guessing maybe, 3 parts joyful and 1 part mournful, because, knowing Olga, she’d want the full deal, right? There’s no way she’d want us to completely skimp on the mourning.

Because that’s how she approached life—she wanted as much from life as she could get, and then maybe a bit more (especially if it were on sale).

And she got a lot of life didn’t she?

From growing up in the towns of Taft and Corpus during racially turbulent times in Texas;

To falling in love, starting a family, and traveling to the far flung corners of the globe;

To finding herself thrust into the workforce where she not only learned the insurance trade from the ground up but also successfully took on the mantle of single-mom and family breadwinner;

And, finally, into her retirement years living in what Olga sarcastically referred to as “froo froo Frisco”

At every phase of the journey, Olga took what life dealt: mourning the losses and celebrating the joys.

She persevered.
She persevered while experiencing the difficult reality that not every story—not nearly enough stories—have happy endings.

But again—just like we are doing today—Olga mourned the losses but didn’t forget to celebrate the joys.

Olga’s greatest joy, of course, the one thing she celebrated above all else, were her three daughters.

She loved her daughters totally and unconditionally by way of that epic bond that has flowed between mother and daughter since the dawn of time.

Olga told me—more than once—as you can imagine—how proud she was of the independent streak each of her daughters manifested in their own way. As her daughters grew, she always hoped that she was encouraging and nurturing that spirit of independence that each daughter uniquely possessed—and she told me how she wanted to impart to the three of them the importance of leading a life free of dependencies—free of dependencies upon another for your livelihood—free of dependencies upon another for your happiness—because that was a lesson Olga herself continued to learn first-hand.

As a proud mother, Olga loved to share stories that spoke to each of her daughters particular bent of independent sprit. I’m sure most of you have heard them….

Olga would giggle when she’d tell the story of Heidi the loquacious, who’d entertain strangers on a plane with her tales of her mythical orphanhood on the desolate fjords of Scandinavia...

Olga always lit up telling her story of Stephanie and her middle daughter’s charmingly obstinate insistence on having the red patent leather shoes from Golding’s.

And then we had Olga’s story of the time her little, yet already very head strong Erika, decided one day to run way from home, and Olga’s eyes would always twinkle when she’d tell us, “But Erika couldn’t get too far on account of the cattle grid.”

Olga shared those stories and many similar stories, because each was evocative of that independent spirit she passed to and nurtured in her three daughters; the same independent spirit that her three daughters have since passed to their own daughters as that incredible mother-daughter bond continues, eternal and unbroken.

Today that eternal bond is something we can take great joy in. That eternal bond is worthy of our celebration and is certainly something Olga would want us to celebrate.

And how would Olga celebrate?
With the finer thing of things in life, right?—champagne, Grand Marnier… Whataburger… marshmallows…

But, of course, one of the most important ways Olga liked to celebrate—be it holidays, birthdays, or just because days—was to be in the kitchen cooking.

Olga loved to cook and she especially loved cooking for all of us.
And all of us especially loved her cooking for all of us.

Our memories of Olga are inseparably wound with the memories of a warm stove, a simmering pot, and the aroma of biscuits or beans or chiles or, perhaps best of all, that incredible, one of kind smell of hot cast iron and browning flour, as Olga made the roux for her enchiladas.

But it wasn’t just the aroma or the taste of all these wonderful dishes Olga prepared for us, was it?

No, it was Olga herself that we most remember.

In the kitchen, Olga possessed a happiness and breezy self-confidence that was magnetic, and we were all drawn to her.

As we’d gather around her in the kitchen, we’d discover how each dish represented a part of Olga; each dish was a tangible link to her to life, to where she had been, to what she had experienced, to what she had learned in both wisdom and appreciation.

Gathered around Olga at the stove or counter, we’d listen to her reminiscence...

“I made Waldorf salad for the first time in Tehran, but they were out of celery, so I had to use fennel …”

“I learned this technique from a Dutch woman who was very shy and she wasn’t adapting well to life in Bangladesh…”

“In Mexico City, they insist on black beans, but I was never fond of them...”

Every dish had a story.
Every story had a dish.

And here we all are today, where we each have a favorite Meemaw dish.
Where we each have a favorite memory or memories of Olga preparing that dish for us.
And we all have a memory of her memory tied to that particular dish.

Talk about something to celebrate!
How very lucky we are to have all these things, these memories, these bonds.

But it’s not just the memories. We also have the physical objects Olga acquired over a lifetime and passed on to us (in some case whether we wanted them passed on or not).

In our own kitchen there is quite literally not a space that doesn’t contain an Olga-inspired memento:

There are the cookbooks and recipes;
There’s the stemware,
There’s the square, American Airlines branded crockery, the Air France condiment bowls, the Cathay Pacific egg cup, the Pan Am coasters, the Hotel Intercontinental salt and pepper shakers …

Because, let’s face it, Olga had a certain zealousness for acquiring things.

Like I said, she wanted to get as much out of life as possible, even if she didn’t always have the space—or the need— for what it was she was determined in getting.

The Old Testament frequently refers to Heaven as the land of milk and honey, and, knowing Olga, in her place in Heaven she’s probably already created a hidden stash of whatever vessels the milk and honey and assorted manna of Heaven are served in.

And I don’t know if there are a shoes in heaven, but if there are, well, as Olga liked to say, “Hijole!”

But that is who she was and I doubt any of us could imagine—or want—Olga any other way than how she was and how she lived.

None of us are perfect.
The world itself isn’t perfect.
And not all the stories have happy endings.

But just as Olga did her entire life, and as she’d want us to do, we shall move forward—mourning the losses and celebrating the joys.

Her memory lives on through us.
We are the caretakers.

And, as such, as we go forward carrying these memories of Olga, let’s remember, from time to time, to have the marshmallow, as Olga would have; let’s remember to drink the champagne, to grab the spoon (and the demitasse cups), let’s remember to buy the shoes, and—above all else—as Olga would have wanted—let us always remember to love and care for each other.

Delivered at the memorial service on December 21, 2018 in Plano, Texas.