Eulogy for Josephine Clark

By the time she was 10 years old, Josephine had lost both her parents and had been separated from her siblings. She’d been moved to a foster home in Millis, Massachusetts, where she wasn’t treated particularly well by the wife—that’s what she called her foster mother: “the wife.” Life was off to a rough start for this girl, but then things took a turn.

One night, while she slept, her foster parents were in the basement, at their still, making liquor, something they ought not to have been doing at any time, but certainly not during Prohibition. Something went wrong, and there was an explosion. A big one. Upstairs, Josie woke to see what was the matter, and she was about to open her bedroom door when she heard a knock at the window. Faces were there, people, begging her to come that way. So, she did. She crawled out of the window. And we wouldn’t be here today if she hadn’t. You see, on the other side of her door, the house was gone, ripped apart in the explosion. If she’d gone through the bedroom door, instead of through the window, she would have plummeted into the debris below.

There are two words you can use to describe what it was like to have Josephine Clark in your life: lucky or blessed. In the end, they both mean the same thing. Whether you believe that chance smiled on us more times than logically possible, or that a higher power saw fit to grant us an angel for 94 years, I think we can all agree that some force was at work in giving her to us, in keeping her with us.

Consider this: one day, back in the streets of Cambridge, she had a chance meeting with a boy in the street, a boy she barely recognized because it had been so long since she’d seen him. “Are you Josephine?” he asked. And when she said yes, he said, “You’re my sister.” Just like that, by chance or by blessing, she had her her family again.

And think about this: a few years later, when she came of age, if it had been any other young man following this smiling girl around the streets of Cape Cod, if anyone else had asked her to ride with him in a car, that contraption that made her sick when it moved, would it have gone as well? Would they have traveled together as far as they did? I close my eyes and imagine my grandfather, Earl, holding his hand out to her, beckoning Josephine into the car, her stomach churning as it always did, but now not just because she got car sick, but also because this boy, he gave her the butterflies.

What a life she led, this woman! Four children, ten grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and three great-greats. She worked too, in the early years, to afford money for the extra things, tucking cash away in hidden compartments in the kitchen that I thought were the coolest things on Earth when she showed them to me as a kid. One of these jobs was at Educated Crackers in Lowell, where she learned every machine so that she could relieve anyone at anytime. Another, the one that I remember, was her gig at Jack’s Diner, where she was a chef and cook, whipping up a pea soup that was, in my dad’s words, the talk of the town.

The woman could cook! Her brownies. Holidays will not be the same for me without her brownies, and surely you all had a favorite dish of hers that you can remember, too. In high school, she made me these blueberry scones in our toaster maker—how lucky John and I were to have our grandmother as a housemate—she made these things for me many a morning, rushing to get John and I out the door and off to school. And I will never forget the way sometimes they were still gooey on the inside, warm and flowing the way that love is, the way love always was with her.

Twenty years ago, in the late winter or early spring of 1994, there was a period where both of my surviving grandparents were in the hospital at the same time: my father’s mother and my mother’s father. This scared me, sixteen year old me who hadn’t seen death up close before, at least not since I was too young to remember it. And after my grandfather passed away that September, I spent the next twenty years worrying over when I would lose Grandma, too.

But I didn’t lose her—we didn’t lose her—not until now. And think of all the things she lived to see in the last twenty years.

One of the only solid memories I have of Grandma in rehab back in the day, after her stroke, is of Jessica being there during one of our visits. I can’t explain it, except that maybe looking at her I noticed that she’d grown up a bit, that she’d changed from the little girl my brother and I grew up playing with.

If Grandma hadn’t made it through rehab and given us these twenty extra years, she wouldn’t have been here for the gift that Jess gave her: three great-great-grandchildren. It’s blessing enough for a person to live long enough to see their great-grandchildren, but great-greats? Do you think she ever expected to live long enough to see that?

So much luck, so many blessings, so much joy.

Even when we thought we’d lost her, back at Christmas time, she held out a little longer, to give us more moments like these. She lived long enough to meet Jackson, to hold her eighth great-grandchild in her arms. She lived long enough to smile at the news that Michael had asked Kristy to marry him.

Of course, it is unfair that she will miss things, now that she’s gone. Bradley will graduate college tomorrow, and she won’t be here for that. In a few months, my cousin Christle will have her third child, her first girl, something my grandmother beamed about. And though Christle wasn't a blood relative, she was always like another grandchild to Josephine. There was room in this woman’s heart for all of us, for even more. Let that be what comforts you in the days to come, when her absence stings the most, that she had in her heart not just enough love for her own long lifetime, but for many more lifetimes to come. That love is in the air around us now, free for us to take hold of, to carry with us, to do with what we will.

My mom, who was with Grandma in the end, who was with her through so much and who knew her as well as (if not better than) any of the rest of us in these final years, she handed me a few notes the other day that she had jotted down as Grandma passed, one of them taken from a calendar she keeps by her desk. Those sorts of sayings can be sappy sometimes, over the top, but the one that Mom gave me, it sums up Grandma’s philosophy on life better than I could, or at least more succinctly than I have: Never miss a chance to say “I love you.” It’s simple, it’s painless, and it’s free.

We love you, Josephine. Thank you for teaching us how.