[I read this aloud at the funeral service for my mom, Virginia Swedberg, October 29, 2022]
The New York Times keeps a database of obituaries for famous people who are still alive. That way, when someone dies, they can just grab the obituary, make a few additions, and publish it. As I worked on my mom’s eulogy, I found myself wishing I had done the same for her. Someone should have warned me not to try to write and grieve at the same time. Eulogizing anyone’s mother is a daunting task. But capturing all that my mother was — and all that she meant to me — would take more than a single eulogy; it would take a book. So, let’s just call this the Preface.
Mom lived a long and unconventional life. Growing up on the heels of the Great Depression, fatherless and in some ways motherless, she had to tap into any resource available to survive. At seven she joined the local Foursquare Church — the same one that had excommunicated her mother years earlier for divorce — because she figured they would care about her and even feed her once in a while. At nine she convinced Shorty, the man living in the attic of her house, to let her work for him at the filling station, pumping gas and changing oil, which she adored. And she developed a deep bond with her grandmother, who provided the love and emotional support that her mom couldn’t.
As she grew older, my mom continued to show an uncanny resourcefulness and ability to adapt to new situations. She left home at sixteen and worked her way through nursing school. After school she spent another fourteen years living independently, moving to different parts of the country, working various jobs, attending seminary, and finally settling in at a state mental hospital in Warren, Pennsylvania — as an employee, not a resident. In her late 30s, she left that job and the community in Warren she loved so dearly to marry and have kids. While Dean and I were young, she gave up full-time work to raise us, but she never stopped pursuing her interests. She sang in the Old York Road Community Choir, took night classes at Temple University, worked occasionally as a private-duty nurse in people’s homes, took on a number of roles at the American Swedish Historical Museum, and helped run an “Art Goes to School” program that brought reproductions of fine art to elementary schools to get kids excited about art. When we reached high school, she returned to her true vocation and worked at Byberry State Hospital until the state closed it down. That was probably her most challenging job, but also the one she loved the most. She had a knack for seeking out the most troubled patients and caring for them in her no-nonsense way. Even when her favorite patient Charlie poured his bed pan over her head, she just shrugged it off and related it as a funny story that night at the dinner table. And she kept telling that same story for the next forty years. Classic Ginny. No matter the job or pursuit, mom always approached it with energy, intensity, and a wry sense of humor.
I see many of my mom’s dear friends here today. You all probably know better than anyone that mom was never one to turn down a free meal. She loved her friend Ruth not only for her sassy personality but also for her delicious Italian dinners. She scouted out churches in the area for events that included lunch. She once picked up a couple hitchhikers on one of our family trips in exchange for a delicious egg and bacon breakfast at a campsite the next morning. When Dean and I asked for encyclopedias, she became a World Book sales rep and sold enough to get a free set. When she took me and a friend to a professional magician convention at the Fiesta Motor Lodge, she managed to get us all in without paying, a feat she was particularly proud of. “If you ask me, it was more like a professional rip-off convention,” she laughed.
Mom was often hard to pin down and enjoyed keeping people “on their toes.” As a mother, she sometimes acted more like a nurse. On days when I was too tired to go to school or just needed a “mental health day,” she would send a note to the school, letting them know I was suffering from “lethargy and general malaise.” But as a grandmother to her first two grandchildren, my brother’s amazing kids Jacob and Brandi, she acted more like a mother. She helped Dean raise them for 8 of their childhood years.
Mom was at the same time both old fashioned and hip, religiously traditional and theologically… idiosyncratic. She “hated” sweets and yet she somehow kept eating them. She was clinically depressed and socially exuberant, quick to stereotype others and just as quick to accept them. Politically, she was both conservative and liberal, depending on the issue and the many personal experiences that shaped her views. She loved music and collected a trove of classical records and CDs, but left many of them unopened. She was thoughtful about buying gifts for others and forgetful about actually giving them. She desperately wanted neatness and order in her life, but lived in a house that was cluttered and chaotic. She was, in short, a complex character.
Mom was also eccentric and effervescent — always game for an adventure — even in her old age. Just a couple years ago she let Brandi’s fiancé, Kyle, take her for a ride on his motorcycle. The image of her sitting on that machine made us burst out laughing. When she talked about going out with her “lunch bunch” friends, she never failed to mention that she was the driver. Then she would claim that she was the only one who didn’t mind driving at night. And finally she would mention everyone’s age, just to make sure we got the point that she was the oldest. Yes, she remained fun and vibrant and young-spirited to the end. Just a few months ago she insisted on getting her passport updated, and she sent her trumpet into the shop for repairs so she could start practicing again. At 93!
Our mom lived a long and full life. And yet she wanted more. I wanted more of her, too. Who wouldn’t want more of Ginny? I love you, Mom. Always.
What a wonderful tribute. The photo is clearly the Farmor of Lucy and Ben!
I always enjoyed hanging out with Ginny. It was great to read more about her. I was hoping she’d hang around long enough to vote! And I know she was hoping she could vote too. She didn’t want to miss anything! I loved her personality and passion.
Thank you for sharing this, Karl. It’s making me think I need to get to the task of mapping out my own mother’s eulogy!
I love the picture above of your mother as a young girl. I can see both Ben and Lucy’s faces in hers. She certainly lives on through your children!
Grace and peace to you as you adapt to life without your mother’s physical presence.
Thanks so much for sharing this. I love how you illumined your mom’s lived paradox. There seems something almost alchemical about it. I think of Niels Bohr exclaiming, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”
Our world so needs to be enlarged and to breathe with such a capacity for paradox. May Ginny’s energy —welcomed by so many!—continue to help us.
And, like all the rest have said, Wow, so wonderful to see how your both Ben and Lucy are so infused with her!
May the peace of a gentle night be yours.
Karl, what a wonderful tribute to your mom. You were a loving son, and I am so very sorry for your loss. Ginny was quite probably the coolest, smartest, outspoken in the best possible way, interesting, delightful, curious, and most precious person I’ve ever met. The stories she shared with me about her astounding life always had me glued to my seat, leaning forward, and at times found us holding hands. She was amazing, always candid, wielded a wry wit, and said whatever came to her mind. She was an inspiration and I loved her. So, add me to what must be an enormous fan club, stretching far and wide. She absolutely adored her sons and grandkids! She sure did an outstanding job raising you, Karl, and she was proud of you! How blessed you were to call her Mom. She will always be one in a million, and she will never be forgotten. Sending so much love to you and yours, Karl.