Memorial Tribute

OWL Booklet a Touching Memorial Tribute at Funeral
by Jane Ross

The blue covered OWL-Circle booklet of stories, neatly bound with blue ribbon, stood facing us from a handsome carved wood book stand on the dais of St. John Neumann Church in Austin, one bright fall day in November. We were gathered there for the funeral of Mildred Declerck. Just two weeks earlier, Mildred had been a member of the OWL group that had met every Wednesday during October in the church's offices.

OWL Program Coordinator Pat Flathouse had organized this OWL group to bring the pleasures of memoir writing to the senior women of her own parish and she had asked me to lead the group. Word had gotten out in the parish about OWL and Mildred's brother, a friend of Pat's, approached her and asked if Mildred could be included, even though Parkinson's disease made it difficult for Mildred to recall her early memories and to write.

As I facilitated the OWL group over the five weeks of the workshop series, I found I needed to work closely with Mildred to help her access her memories and to express these on paper. We tend to associate Parkinson's disease mainly with shakiness. But it affects the body and brain in other ways too, making it difficult for the person to express herself. But gradually and with support and patience, Mildred began to open up.

Mildred had recently moved to Texas from the home in New York where she had lived for much of her life and this move had been disorienting for her. Here in the supportive environment of the OWL group, she was gradually able to express the disappointments and regrets she felt about leaving her old home and many treasured possessions. She talked once about a special quilt she particularly missed. It was made up of individual circles of fabric each stitched round the edge and then gathered. These "yo-yos" were then sewn together to give a ruched effect. She had made this quilt herself, starting when she was a child and adding to it over many years. It had started out as a cover for her doll's bed but ended up as a large bed quilt. Through her writing she was also able to reconnect with some of the happiest memories from her childhood—visiting the 1939 New York World's Fair and making homemade ice cream.

Through OWL, Mildred began to form bonds with the other women from her church. Thanks to this growing sense of connection, Mildred accepted an invitation to attend a weekend retreat organized by the women of the church. It was at this retreat, at the beginning of November, that Mildred seemed to move from regret and disappointment into a new sense of peace and reconciliation. Though her death, just a week after the retreat, came as a shock to her family, there was a sense that she had found peace and had resolved whatever unfinished business she had needed to resolve.

In the days before Mildred's funeral, Pat Flathouse and I talked about how we could turn Mildred's stories into a small memorial booklet to give to her family. Because Mildred had had difficulty writing, her stories were quite short. We decided to complement them with illustrations. Some rapid research on the internet yielded photographs of the Trylon and Perisphere (the signature buildings of the 1939 New York World's Fair) and of an old-fashioned ice cream maker with its wooden bucket and crank handle, both mentioned in her stories. A little manipulation with Photoshop turned these photographs into "water colors" and Pat was able to insert these into her computer file alongside the text of the stories. She put together just a few copies of Mildred's booklet to give to the family members, using the distinctive OWL quilt-pattern cover. The copy that stood at the front of the church was the subject of many admiring comments and much gratitude from family members and friends.

There are so many lessons in the story of the booklet for Mildred. Above all, it underscores the immense value of the life-writing process and of the OWL workshops. Would Mildred have found the same peace at the end of her life if she had not taken the OWL workshop and written about the World's Fair and making ice cream? Of course, we'll never know for sure. But I do know that when we are able to write down our stories, whether they are stories of delightful memories or of strong regrets, like the loss of a cherished childhood quilt, we are able to separate from those stories and look at them with a detached eye. We can see them in perspective, as events that affected us, certainly, but also as events that do not define who we are. We are able to move past them and find consolation in the here and now. In Mildred's case, I feel certain that OWL helped her move past her regrets and find consolation in reaffirming her faith, in the loving company of the women of her church.


Jane Ross is a freelance writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. She has facilitated a number of OWL workshops in the Austin area.