Roy Peter Clark wrote the February 2014 article “Last Writes” for The Writer. When his mother Shirley Hope Clark passed away March 13, 2015, he wrote the eulogy for her service. We asked if we could share it with our readers as yet another example for the guidance he originally gave in “Last Writes.”
Eulogy for Shirley Hope Clark
Delivered by Roy Peter Clark
St. Aidan’s Church
Williston Park, New York
March 23, 2015
I stand before you for the first time ever in the presence of my mother without the fear of being interrupted. Knowing Shirley, I may be wrong about that. My phone is turned off. But if it suddenly rings, who knows, it might be mom on the hot line from heaven wanting to chime in.
Let’s have a show of hands: Who thinks Shirley Clark was a world-class talker? OK. Remember you are in church: Who thinks Shirley Clark was a world-class listener? Hmm. Not as many.
For someone who was as smart, funny, charismatic and beloved as my mother, it may surprise you to learn that she was a needy person. She needed approval. She needed attention. She needed constant reassurance. She needed a microphone, an audience and applause. Thank goodness there is no one else in the family like that! [said ironically]
There is nothing I can say about Shirley Hope Marino Clark that she had not already said about herself. At the age of 95, as a two-time cancer survivor, she would say again and again, “I come from a family of long livers. My Uncle Nunzio had a liver that was this long.”
She would grade herself on her own report card. “When I look at you boys,” she said, “and see the men you have become, and see the wonderful families that you have created, and look at all my brilliant and beautiful grandchildren, I say to myself ‘Well done, Shirley.’” My dad used to say that to mom all the time: “Well done, Shirley.” But he was talking about how he wanted her to cook his steak.
Like other famous performers, mom had attained, at least in this place, one-name status: The public-at-large had Elvis, Cher and Madonna. We had SHIRLEY.
No matter where we were, she felt to many of us like the most talented person in the room: singer, dancer, director, lyricist, an improvisational comic genius. But that was not enough. There were other times when she felt like the best person in the room, the best mother, a comforting friend, the most fervent Catholic, a tireless volunteer, a teacher of children, someone who, like a female Tony Bennett, could connect with people of all generations.
She even had a name for this: She called herself St. Shirley of Albertson. [town on Long Island where we grew up] My brothers Vincent, Ted and I think that Pope Francis should canonize her. We will be able to attest to dozens of miracles in her name, not the least of which was, on occasion, her willingness to hand over the microphone.
Imagine if you will, a stained glass window here at St. Aidan’s devoted to her. Her eyes looking to heaven for inspiration from the real Madonna, our Blessed Mother, St. Shirley would wear a feather boa. In one hand she would clutch a mike, in the other a telephone. Scattered at her feet would be roses: second-hand roses, of course. [reference to a favorite song “Second Hand Rose”]
Pilgrims would journey to her shrine, all wearing boas, and all singing her favorite hymn: “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.” Now wait, you may be thinking, that’s not a hymn, that’s a saloon ballad from the 1940s. But Christianity has always had the power of transforming secular symbols into something holy.
The last time I saw her in person was at her 95th birthday party at DiMaggio’s restaurant in Port Washington. She was singing and swaying and began with her favorite song: I’m going to recite it, but feel free to sing along: “You’re nobody till somebody loves you. You’re nobody till somebody cares. You may be rich. You may possess the world and its gold, but gold won’t give you happiness when you’re growing old. [Now singing] The world’s still the same, you’ll never change it. As sure as the stars shine above. You’re nobody till somebody loves you. So find yourself somebody to love.”
Wow. It’s a miracle. A saloon song becomes a hymn on the transformative power of love. Love is the thing that makes you human, makes you SOMEBODY. And don’t wait around moping. Go out and FIND somebody – not to love you – but for you to love.
By the time of that party, mom’s short term memory was next to nothing. Five minutes after she sang that song, she wanted to sing it again. She sang it seven times, each time as if it was the song’s very first performance.
Think of the arc of her life, from 1919 to 2015. Think of the world she entered, and the one she left behind.
In 1942 Shirley, who had dreamed of a big Italian church wedding in New York City, surrounded by her 34 first cousins, got on a train all by herself and traveled to Fort Benning, Georgia, to marry a first lieutenant named Theodore Roosevelt Clark. In 1943, she would suffer a devastating miscarriage. A few months ago, Shirley had fallen again, nothing too serious at age 95, just a couple of days in the hospital and then rehab. When she woke in a hospital bed, having already forgotten the fall, she wondered why she was there. Loopy on medication, she told her youngest son that she had just had a baby. “Have you seen the baby?” It was 1943, she thought, 70 years ago, the year of her first pregnancy and her miscarriage. Our older brother – who was never born.
Five years later, Shirley was persuaded by her own amazing mother, our Nanny, Grandma Sadie, to overcome her fears, to give it another try, and on Easter Saturday in 1948, I was born, and aren’t we all grateful for that?
Shirley was the first member of her family to graduate from high school. I believe I was the first to graduate from college. I think at the age of 66, I am the oldest member of our generation of Clarks, Marinos, DuMonts, Donahues and Zeyens. When she died on Friday the 13th, I realized that in a single moment I had become both an orphan and a patriarch.
Shirley prepared me for this role over the years in very specific terms, almost in the form of marching orders. “Remember what Papa [our grandfather] told you, Roy. The most important thing is family. When I’m gone, it will be your turn to keep the family together.” Not my turn, mom. But our turn. My brother Vincent and I met last night and decided to hand over the torch as head of the family to our youngest brother Ted. Ted, no son could have taken better care of a mother. If you are ready to carry the torch, Vinny and I will hold the connolis.
But what kind of family are we? We are Catholics of all kinds. But we are also Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists. We are saints and sinners. We are Italian and Irish and Jewish. We are light skinned and dark. We are conservatives and liberals. We are straight as arrows. And we are proudly gay. We are Yankee fans (Derek Jeter retired and Shirley expired), and yes, we even love the Mets fans among us. (Somebody has to love them.) No matter our differences, Shirley embraced us all.
Let’s make a promise here in front of the shrine of St. Shirley of Albertson that we remain bonded in her memory as a living, growing community of love and care. That every year on her birthday, July 1, we will celebrate her feast day.
Shirley joined St. Aidan’s parish in 1955 when I entered the first grade. For 60 years she served this place of love. Mothers Club. Rosary Society. Funny Mothers. She performed shows and hosted communion breakfasts at St. Aidan’s in SEVEN different decades. She changed children’s lives.
Pastors, priests, brothers, the good sisters have come and gone, leaving their special legacy. But it was the MOTHERS of St. Aidan’s who built here a foundation of community, child by child, brick by brick, that will never crumble. If there is another person who has added more life, more joy, more humor, more memories, more humanity to this place than Shirley Clark, I want to meet her because she must be a magnificent person.
Well done, Shirley. Well done, indeed. We rise together as your family to send you off in the way you deserve. With the reward you always craved the most. You are the eternal show-stopper, mom. Here’s your standing ovation.