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May Belle GAINES

May Belle GAINES

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December 19, 2014
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December 27, 2012
Eulogy

“Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories. And telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories.”

That quote comes from a favorite writer I shared with Mom. Alice Munro.

We all knew Mom as a respected teacher and accomplished artist. Most of us knew her as creative, a bit funny, and humble. It often seemed that she deferred to her more voluble and opinionated husband, my father Richard.

But I knew Mom as someone firm in her opinions even when she did not voice them, and determined about goals I saw her set and reach over the course of a lifetime.

When I was small and took swimming lessons (it was southern California after all), she took lessons as well. She was terrified of being in the water, but she conquered her fear to make sure her children were safe. And she learned to love to swim. I'm pretty sure Mom was the parent to organize our beloved beach outings to Santa Monica and Zuma Beaches.

I also remember when Mom learned how to drive. And went back to college for a teaching credential. And started to work full-time when Will, Susan and I were in elementary school. How many moms in those days did all the jobs of a housewife and worked outside of the house as well? It was lonely coming home from school to a babysitter or later an empty house. But in hindsight, Mom was a great role model. It never occurred to me that I would not have my own career, and make my own way in life.

Mom's two most important gifts to me were art and reading.

I guess I inherited her artistic talent and she encouraged me every step of the way. Along with my Aunt Edie, she took me regularly to the LA County Museum of Art. She and Dad enrolled me in special high school art programs.

I think we are all familiar with her beautiful watercolor paintings of the last 20 years. I was astounded recently to find portfolios of work from her art student days, paintings, life drawings, fashion illustrations—some of it Mad Men trendy, some of it as fresh as if it was created this week.

Mom loved to read novels more than just about anything. Reading was her biggest gift to me and my siblings. I hope I have passed my love of reading on to my own sons. Do you know that she kept a diary for decades of every book she read? She loved classics, contemporary literary novels and short stories, thrillers, and mysteries (P.D. James, one of her favorites).

Throughout our childhood, Mom took Susan, Will and me to the library every two weeks. I always checked out—and devoured—my full allotment of books. I think it was 10. The first thing I always do as an adult when moving to a new town is acquire a library card. Thanks to Mom, I rarely go more than a few weeks without reading a novel.

It was tough for Mom when she was diagnosed with macular degeneration. For a time she was able to read large print books. She re-read many of her favorites. She enjoyed books on tape but it was never the same. It was even tougher when Mom was diagnosed with dementia. It became harder and harder for her to track the stories. And it became impossible to for her paint anymore.

I feel blessed to have enjoyed Mom's company in these final months at the Rafael nursing home where she was loved and cared for, and always cheerful.

We kept sharing stories until the end. I will cherish those memories always.

Kathie
December 21, 2012
Dear Will, Kathie, Dick and Susan,

My heartfelt condolences for May Belle's passing. She was a wonderful lady! My thoughts and prayers are with you...
Much love,
Carmen
Carmen Zarate
December 08, 2012
May Belle always struck me as a woman with a fine eye, a keen intellect, and a huge heart. Every moment I got to spend in her company was a pleasure. I am thinking of all of you with lots of love.
December 05, 2012
What do you think of when you think of your mother? My brother-in-law asked me that, when we were driving back from Dad's place, the evening Mom died. Ray has lost both his mother and father in the past couple of years, so I guess he knows how to do this grieving thing.

Books, I said, and I was thinking about Mom, my adult friend. I was thinking of discussing novels with one of the smartest readers I know. That notebook where she listed all the books she'd read. I think she started it in the early nineties—or maybe that was her second one, I'm not sure. She wanted to keep track of the authors she liked, make sure she didn't cart home a lot of books she'd already read from the library. I tried to emulate it once, but soon gave up and just relied on hers. It was a gold mine of contemporary fiction, idiosyncratic and eclectic. Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Andrea Barrett, Robert Boswell, Frederick Busch, Robert Boswell, John Casey, Ethan Canin, Frank Conroy. She loved Doris Lessing. Joyce Carol Oates, Carol Shields. She even got through Salmon Rushdie's dense tomes. She had a code system I couldn't quite follow, and cryptic little notes to remind herself of the story and her reactions: "lots of description to make up for weak plot";
"didn't like style;" "good writing, slow moving, interior of woman's mind, check other books";
"NO, boring"; "contrived story about superficial people"; "love story, interweaving themes"; "1st person, introspective"; "very sad story, gracefully told."

Mom was humble about being smart. But her intelligence defined her for me—sharp, dependable and quietly understated, in the way she listened, her careful remarks, counter questions and replies, her subtle ironies.

What do you think of when you think of your mother? My mother. Why aren't I thinking of childhood. Of Mom the Mom? The one who cuddled us as babies and taught me to bake a cake and sew and wash dishes and clean a bathroom and make my bed. She did all that, managed the domestic show for a family of five, guided and tempered our father—fulfilled the duties of a fifties wife and mother.

I guess Dad, my Aunt Edie, Lois Holloway, and Chuck Wooten are the only ones left in the world who knew May Belle before she became a mother. I only knew her as Mom. And yet, when I think of her, I don't think of food or nurture. I hardly remember her in her prime, and yet it's May Belle leaving her mark in the world, I think of. All those first graders who learned the magic of the printed word, the potential of a book, because of my mother. The paintings of sweet peppers and grasshoppers, flowers and lady bugs—even the acrylics and incredible drawings she did long before I was born. Mom in the classroom, Mom experimenting with color and brush strokes. That's what I think of when I think of my mother.

I started grieving for her years ago, when she stopped being the smartest person I knew. When she stopped painting and couldn't really remember what she had been reading. I felt she was losing pieces of herself. Unbecoming herself. She was losing her place in the world, I was losing my friend, and Dad—Dad was losing his compass, his moderator. But Mom. Mom the mom, the wife, the center of a grown and dispersed family, persisted in ways I am only now understanding.

What do you feel when you think of your mother? I feel the calm at the center of life's storm. The place I always came home to, long after my wanderings had canceled out any sense of home. Not a house, not a town, not even these California hills. Not a place, and no longer, even a person. Just a listening calm that stayed with me even as the woman who created it faded, that holds me centered, that holds you too, Dad, even now, in our lives.
December 05, 2012
Dear Richard,
Phil and I were so sorry to read of May Bells death. We have missed seeing you at the symphony.
I remember so clearly the first time I met May Belle. It was at "Art on the Move." May Belle saw my work and responded with enthusiasm. She was the first artist I met when I moved to Sonoma County and introduced me and my work to the Windsor Art Guild. She invited me to show at the Library which led to many other opportunities. May Belle, I thank you.
Her own work, in it's colorful glory,represents her spirit and will live on.

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