Image: A portrait of my mother. Photo courtesy of my niece, Ashley Parkes. Unfortunately I do not know the name of the original artist.
Baruch Dayan emet. [Blessed is the True Judge.]
The blog will be silent this week, as I observe shivah for my mother, Valere Potter Menefee. Her funeral will be Monday, July 3 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville TN. Because of my recent health difficulties, I am unable to travel. I will be observing shivah here in California beginning Monday evening.
Jewish mourning practice dictates that I spend a several days quietly doing the work of grief. Therefore this blog will be silent while I am busy with that work.
A few words about my mother:
Valere Potter Menefee was born June 21, 1931, the youngest of three children. She was predeceased by her parents, her brother Justin Potter, Jr., her sister, Anne Potter Wilson, and husband, Albert L. Menefee, Jr. Mama attended the Peabody Demonstration School, Ward Belmont Preparatory School, and Vassar College.
Mama studied dance with Albertine Maxwell from a very early age and danced as an adult with the St. Louis Ballet Company and with Adolph Bolm in Los Angeles. She also danced with a company that performed traditional Indian dance to the accompaniment of Ravi Shankar. Mama’s high standards for professional behavior in the arts were a major influence on me growing up. I wasn’t built to be a dancer, but her disdain for what she called “tricks” and cheapness in performance have stayed with me all my life. She used to say that the most miserable days of dance rehearsal were by far the most productive, a maxim that has carried me through many a challenge.
After her graduation from Vassar and her time as a dancer, she went to work for WSIX (now WKRN) in Nashville, TN. Her job, she used to say, was “chief cook and bottle washer” – she did a little of everything, writing ad copy, marketing, voice-overs, and a bit of on-air work in a pinch.
Mama married my father, Albert Menefee, Jr., in June of 1954. She used to tell the story that she met him on a blind date set up by their mutual friend, Bill Baird. She loved raw onions, and forgot to skip them when she ate dinner before he arrived. So she greeted him at the front door with a green onion, saying, “Eat this.” He liked green onions, and he liked the woman offering the the green onion – it was a match.
Mama had five children in eight years. I cannot really fathom how exhausting that must have been, to have so many little ones and be pregnant yet again, to drive all those children all the places they needed to be, and to keep up with all of us.
Mama loved the arts. She was emphatic that literacy meant being able to read English and music, so we all had piano lessons. I was terrible at the piano but when I switched to playing classical guitar, she was very supportive.
Mama converted to Roman Catholicism while she was a student at Vassar. She was deeply serious about it, serving as president of the Nashville chapter of the Ladies of Charity, and in later life serving as an Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister for the Cathedral of the Incarnation, taking communion to parishioners at Baptist Hospital and area nursing homes. She insisted on Catholic educations for all three daughters, and drove us from our home in Williamson County to St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville every day. That was a round trip of 25 miles, twice a day, often including stops to chase the neighbors’ livestock out of the road and back onto their property.
She was devoted to the Dominican Sisters who owned the school. One rainy day she lent her raincoat to a bedraggled young sister. Only later did she realize that she had left a pack of Camels with a lighter in the pocket. She was horrified, and so was Sister Assumpta when she got to the Motherhouse and found she had a pocket full of contraband!
Mama taught me how to let the air out of tires. We had a problem with “city people” who’d come to the farm to hunt without permission, or just to torment the livestock. We’d find buckshot in the cows’ rumps, and occasionally the visitors would start a forest fire. Mama’s approach was indirect but effective: people soon learned that if they left their vehicle parked on our land, they’d come back to four flat tires. The offenders never returned, and word got around – an elegant solution, really.
Mama had her imperfections, as we all do. Many of hers came from a lonesome childhood with troubles no child would have survived unscathed. She once turned up at my dorm room in college, demanding (that’s the only way to put it) that I take her to the library to look up “something” in the newspaper files. It turned out that what she was after were the newspaper accounts of her brother’s suicide in 1941. “Weebuddy” was 15 when he died; I knew she had worshiped him. It turned out that the adults had chosen not to tell her why he disappeared. I guess they couldn’t figure out what to tell a 10 year old or were so lost in their own pain that they couldn’t tell her. The topic of his death was forbidden at home, so she had only scraps of information about it until we read the story in the microfiche of The Tennessean archive at UTK.
Mama and I had a difficult relationship. I’m not going to get into that, out of respect. I just want to acknowledge it. I loved her, and I’m glad that the last time I saw her I had the opportunity to tell her so.
So this week I’m grieving. Obviously I’m no longer a Catholic, I’m a Jew, so I’m mourning as a Jew. Sitting shivah is what we do. It’s elective if the parent who died was not Jewish, but I learned when my father died that it is a mistake to skip shivah. Big losses need big acknowledgement.
So this blog will be silent until next Shabbat. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading.