Losing a Matriarch

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Immediately upon learning of a loved one’s passing, your mind flashes back to your last conversation or encounter. Was it loving? Was it kind? Then along with the sadness arrives a moment of retrospection when you examine who that person was to you, what your relationship with them was like, and what lessons, if any, are to be learned from his or her life.

I recently lost an elderly cousin I loved like an aunt.  Ma Tante Céline was 84 years old. I was fortunate to see her one last time exactly a year ago when I visited her in Haiti. That afternoon reignited the timeless easy feeling of special moments spent with a close friend. We talked, caught up on each other and family and shared a delicious meal of Creole chicken and rice and beans. A loving encounter filled with laughter.

Over the course of the ensuing days my memory began to piece back together a portrait of the woman named Céline. Ma Tante Céline was what in our family we call a real “nègesse Coulanges,” a strong, smart, no nonsense woman who always worked hard. She was savvy, enterprising and reigned as the CEO of her domain. She had grit before the word became fashionable. Even as a child it was apparent to me that she was a mover and shaker. Céline was the family member who seemed to have it going on. People gravitated to her and deferred to her counsel. Her house constantly buzzed with people.

Members of several generations and close friends gathered to be with her one last time and reminisce at her home going ceremony. People talked about the woman whose home was always a welcome stop for recently arrived Haitians and a gathering place for family and friends. Middle-aged men and women, with now young adult children of their own, remembered with great fondness time spent in her basement, a safe refuge and hang out for them as teenagers. Céline made everyone feel welcome and loved. You were comfortable around her. She had her quirks, God yes, especially in old age, but she was above all a people person. Anybody – men, women, young and old – could find in her a trusted confidante, a sponsor to help with finances, a wise adviser or simply an amiable company.

Everyone present had a story.  Mine was that she’d been the sponsor who lent me money for my mother’s funeral until a small life insurance kicked in.  Of course Céline’s tale was always that she borrowed the money from someone else to give to you.  This clever strategy ensured that you paid her back. After all, who, if one were wise, would want to put their benefactor on the spot?

She was also the elder I trusted for vetting my now husband, Hamilton when our dating became serious.  As I recount in my memoir, Cads, Princes and Best Friends, the two of them, originally from neighboring towns in Haiti, chatted like old acquaintances that evening. I still chuckle at the memory of her signature inquiry when we had a moment to ourselves. “So, Dane, when is the wedding?” – One who strongly believed in marriage, Céline  was always anxious to marry off the young women around her. I believe she might have even done a bit of matchmaking along the way. –  “Céline,” I replied then, “we’re just dating. He hasn’t even proposed yet!”

I look back on her life now and see lessons she imparted to me by just being who she was.

Lesson #1: Work hard to achieve what you want. She created a comfortable lifestyle for her and her children, thanks to a secure union job in the services industry. But she also engaged in side businesses and amassed investments. By the time she retired, she was able to enjoy the good life in her gorgeous home in the hill section of Thomasin in Haiti where she spent most of her time.

 Lesson #2: It’s okay to aspire to greater. She pushed her children and all young people around her to achieve. A Haitian immigrant with no college degree, she made sure her three children received their education, including two master’s degrees, one from Columbia.

Lesson #3: Keep your house nice and open it to people. That single family house in Brooklyn, New York underwent frequent renovations as she continually upgraded to newer and better. In the midst of that, visitors and the occasional house mates were a constant presence.

Lesson #4:  Live your life to its fullest. She married twice and in between had one torrid love affair we all remember for its continuous drama. She traveled, enjoyed a busy social life and was known for doing things in a lavish but classy way. A grand dame for sure!

Lesson #5: Love God and love people.  Céline’s heart was open and you felt genuine love in the way she interacted with people. Her purse strings loosened generously to support family and friends in need. In her later years, she made it her business to help the needy in Haiti;  a one-woman non-profit organization. In fact, as her casket was lowered into the ground, the only outburst of the day came when a woman wailed and cried out, “Our sponsor is gone! Who is gonna help the people in Haiti now?”

My sister Nerlande summarized her life best when she said, “Céline lived a great life. She worked hard, established herself and raised her children well. She had two marriages and a passionate love affair.  She traveled and partied. Then she spent her later years helping others, doing God’s work.”

Céline’s viewing and funeral were closed casket events that spared mourners the sorrowful last memory of seeing her in eternal sleep.  Instead, there were streaming videos and pictures with family members and friends.  While greatly aggrieved by her passing, people unconsciously displayed faint smiles that contradicted the tears in their eyes as each relived memories of moments spent with her.

I remember an article in the Oprah magazine in which the writer suggested that one write their own eulogy as an exercise to how you want to be remembered when you are gone. Céline’s home going services was a celebration of a life well lived, one that touched many and honored God. It is fitting then that she is buried alongside “God’s chosen people,” in a Jewish cemetery in Weston, Florida. When our car entered the Menorah Gardens, my fellow passengers and I couldn’t help a chuckle as we drove past rows upon rows of Abraham, Cohen, Goldsmith, Levine, Meyer, Rosenberg, Silverstein, etc… Classic Céline! Ms. Thing is probably the only Haitian resting among the Jewish elite of Weston. Even dead, the lady’s got chutzpah!

I have two older sisters who are thankfully still on this earth, but with each passing of an old-timer, the generational layers peel off to reveal the next elders. I realize I have now joined their ranks and must be mindful that my life conveys lessons to the next generation, at times overtly and others even when I’m not aware of it. During a conversation with my niece Karen while I was there, I mentioned how pleased I was that her son Nicolas and she were so close and I’d observed how he respected her opinion on life decisions. She reminded me that a remark I made to her years ago about her interaction with her then teenage son had altered the nature of their relationship. The commentary was intentional at the time and made out of love; I could not have predicted the magnitude of its impact twelve years later .

None of us knows how long we have on this planet, but all of us should think about what imprints of ourselves we want to remain when we leave.  If I am blessed to live to Céline’s ripe old age, I want the kind of legacy she left behind and to be remembered with the fondness I witnessed at her home going.

One thing I do know for sure is that, just like her, I look forward to standing at the pearly gates and hearing the Father’s voice say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!”

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