Eulogy for Gayle R. Rolfe
by Bree A. Rolfe
I am going to start with the poem I wrote about my mother and my godmother Janet, who was her oldest friend. It’s on the prayer cards as well. They met when she was 16 years old and so they’d been friends for 50 years when she died. Their friendship was always something I admired growing up and so I wrote this poem when I was getting my MFA at Bennington. It’s called:
Barefoot in Davis Square
Janet and my mother spent long afternoons
smoking cigarettes, flirting with boys.
My mother’s feet are black on the bottom.
Flecks of pavement trapped in the sole.
I say, I wish you’d taken better care of them.
The grooves in her Beatles records,
worn with a patchwork of scratches.
I tell my mother they could have been
worth something without the skips.
She laughs and tells me about late nights;
records strewn on the floor of Janet’s smoky room.
She tells me how they chased a limo together
because Janet loved George and she loved Paul.
Her records were for playing, not collecting.
When I think about my mother, I often come back to the last line of this poem. That her records were for playing and not collecting. Now that she’s gone, I realize this was sort of the way she approached life— that life wasn’t something to be collected and tended and left in a protective sleeve on a shelf most of the time. It wasn’t something you took down and played only on special occasions and placed carefully back when you were done. I think she felt like life was something that you ripped out when the feeling struck you. You played it loud so you could dance with your hands above your head. And you danced until you didn’t want to dance anymore and then you tossed the record aside and found something else that fit your mood at the moment. And you worry about the scratches later.
This enthusiasm and fierceness is the way she lived her life. In the days since her death, I have described her love as relentless. And it was. She tried to take care of her family and friends with a relentlessness that was often overwhelming but was always underscored with such a powerful and deep love. I didn’t always understand her and maybe I was a little too much like her, so there was a lot of push and shove between us. But no matter how much I pushed her away, she kept coming back. She never left me alone no matter how many times I told her to. She simply refused.
She was also relentless in her expectations and sometimes I think this could be hard to deal with, but it’s something that I have internalized. When I was in high school, I was a good student. I was supposedly gifted and I always got good grades. Every term when I would bring home my report card, she would, of course, congratulate me on my grades, but then she’d inevitably make a comment about my getting a C in gym and how it was keeping me off the honor roll. At the time, I remember being really annoyed with her and thinking she was only concentrating on the negative. However, in retrospect, how ridiculous is it that I couldn’t just try and get a B in gym? All I had to do was change my clothes. And she knew I was better than a C. She knew I was an honor roll student and she wouldn’t accept any excuses to the contrary. Her expectations and her refusal to lower them were an integral part in my getting through high school and then college and then graduate school. I am not sure I would be the teacher and writer I am today without her both telling me how talented I was and holding me accountable to live up to that talent. If she had indeed “left me alone,” like I had asked, I would not be the person I am now.
Her high standards did not only apply to her children, but also to herself. My mother was a cyclone of energy who never stopped to relax until she had done whatever task she put her mind to. When she finally made the decision to lose weight, she committed to it with an intensity and drive that was contagious. She not only lost over 90lbs (we often joked that she’d lost a Bree), but she also inspired those around her to get fit. When she was in the hospital where she worked for 35 years in the last few days of her life, her fellow weight watchers and gym goers would come up to my family and let us know how she had motivated them in their own fitness goals. She was a constant at the gym and had a whole crew of friends who felt her unyielding drive and focus.
She also brought that drive to being a mother, and later, a grandmother. She never missed a school play or dance recital or graduation ceremony or any event that my sister and I participated in— no matter how much I begged her to just skip this one. She was always there cheering us on and taking a million photos. And if I thought she was persistent about our accomplishments, it was nothing compared to what happened when her granddaughter Addison came into our lives. She jumped into being a grandmother with her whole soul. She immediately retired from work and took care of her full-time. Grammy and Addison were the best of friends and I am convinced that my mother is probably the only one who can truly give my three-year-old niece a run for her money in the energy department. My mother took her to story hour to music and me class to my gym— they were two ladies about town and they soon had a whole entourage of friends.
My mother actually had quite the entourage of friends and family. And her expectations for them were as high as they were in everything else. She was relentless in her devotion to her friends and so she was blessed with a truly amazing entourage. In the last weeks of her life, I got to see their devotion first hand. They came and sat with us at the hospital, bringing food and trying to help in any way they could. Some organized paperwork and cleaned. Some brought homemade breakfasts and late night sundaes. Some brought favorite dishes and beautiful flowers. She inspired the kind of friendship that makes times like these bearable. When we were at the beach she loved so dearly in South Yarmouth the other day, her close friend Gloria came with some Hawaiian themed wine glasses she’d found that she thought my mother would’ve liked. She kept telling Gloria that when she got to the beach she wanted two glasses of wine. And sadly, she didn’t get to do that, but Gloria made sure we had them for her. And the special glasses would’ve been fine the way they were for most people, but Gloria knew that Gayle would’ve wanted something extra. So she spent the night before taking apart a lei and sewing the flowers on to the glasses. We all laughed and agreed that Gayle would’ve expected nothing less— custom, handmade Hawaiian glasses put lovingly together by her dear friend.
But I also know that she would’ve done the same for her friends if the situation called for it. In fact, she had on many occasions. Her relentless expectations even extended to birthday parties. I think I must have been four or five and I wanted a Strawberry Shortcake birthday party. Back then, you couldn’t get anything you needed for a party with a few clicks. The party industry just wasn’t what it was today. But that wouldn’t stop Gayle. I have a vivid memory of her drawing seeds on red balloons so that they’d look like strawberries. The entire place was decked out in Strawberry Shortcake everything down to the bike I got as a gift. And this birthday wasn’t unique. She did this every year for every single birthday I ever had, probably up until last year when I turned 40— there was a pirate one where she went all over trying to find black balloons because I wanted them to look like cannon balls for our water balloon fight and if I wanted it, she was going to get it.
And there was nothing in this world my mother loved more than a party. She was relentless in her pursuit of a good time. She was the ultimate host and went to great lengths to make sure people felt welcome in her home whether it was spending three days beforehand making everyone’s favorite Christmas cookies or making sure all of her decorations were coordinated for the holiday being celebrated. She loved to do these things and even though most of the time my immediate family gave her a hard time about how the party overran the household for weeks beforehand, somewhere her love of hosting became ingrained in me. When she went to other people’s parties, she was always the first one on the dance floor and the last one to leave it. She taught me to never show up anywhere empty handed and that, no, it was not okay to just bring a bag of chips.
It’s hard to sum up someone in just a few words and I guess I’ve used a lot here, but it still feels inadequate. My mother was a lot of things and sometimes a lot of things all at once. She was a mother. She was a grandmother. She was a friend. She was often a hurricane. She was determined. She was fierce. She was a loyal and loving. She was relentless. But also, she was the party. Her life was certainly for playing, and not collecting.