As G-File readers — or followers of my twitter feed know — I’ve been up in Alaska for the last week to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral. I wrote something about her in the G-File, but as it comes after the usual jocularity and whatnot, I wanted to offer a clean version of it elsewhere — just so friends and family have a less awkward link. Please indulge me. Thanks. Here it is.
I came up to Alaska this week to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral (please forgive the sudden change in topic and tone, but respect must be paid). I was always going to write something about Donna (here’s the obituary, written by my wife, the Fair Jessica), but I feel particularly compelled to because I feel so guilty about this week’s GLoP podcast.
On the podcast, John Podhoretz asked me to talk about my father-in-law, Paul. And, as anyone who knows me personally can attest, I love talking about Paul. He’s lived a larger-than-life life. He’s brilliant, curmudgeonly to the point of parody, and incredibly generous all at once. A Slovakian Horatio Alger — who looks like a member of the Ukrainian politburo circa 1974, who swam the Danube to escape the Communists, and got a degree from Milton Friedman — is easy to talk about in an entertaining way, which is what I did.
But I didn’t come to Alaska to celebrate Paul, but to remember Donna. And Donna was different. First of all, she was lovely.
But more important, perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever met, she was a person of love. I’m Jewish, and pretty secular at that. I’m also more than a bit cynical and snarky and writing about love comes as easily to me as figure skating did to Dom DeLouise. (I was delighted when my sister-in-law Carrie married an Indian-American guy from Baton Rouge. It took some of the weight off of me as the exotic son-in-law.)
Intellectually, I’ve always had at least a vague understanding of the Christian idea of “God is love.” And I always felt I had a better grasp of the Catholic relationship between faith and good works, perhaps because it lines up pretty closely with Jewish notions about repairing the world and all that. I bring this up because I’ve never seen both ideas personified more in a person than in Donna. Her whole life was defined by love and the good deeds (and hard work) that flowed from that love. Love for God. Love for the Church. Love for the community. Love for music and the students she taught it to. Love, most obviously, for her family. She gave of herself, constantly. Every time I visited, it seemed she was continually coming and going to visit the sick or the lonely, to console the grieving, to play the organ at a church service, to help with the church garden, or take the grandkids somewhere.
My most poignant memory of Donna is from 14 years ago, when my wife was pregnant with our daughter. Donna came down to Washington, planning to help take care of the new baby. But my wife ended up needing an emergency C-section (I’ll tell the story of her epidural not working another day). Very long story short: At one point, I ran back to the house to get something and found Donna, on her knees praying for Jessica and the baby. As far as I could tell, she’d been that way since I had left hours before.
Little of this should matter to most of you, but there are three points that I think are relevant for everyone.
In speeches, I often talk about the importance of family and marriage to civil society. The decline of volunteerism and social trust is, in my view, most attributable to the decline of the family in America. (As Charles Murray likes to note, single men rarely coach Little League — we do that kind of thing because our wives make us.) When I look at how much good work — better work than the state could ever do — was done by Donna, it reminds me how even the best government programs are a poor substitute for the organic work of communities. And people who want to strip religion from public life risk ripping the heart out of the kind of social solidarity they claim to crave.
Second, technically speaking, Alaska isn’t “flyover” country because it’s way past where the planes that fly over “flyover country” stop. But culturally, it is exactly the type of place that people on the coasts look down on with condescension or contempt. Alaska may arouse a bit more fascination than, say, Nebraska. Grizzly bears (and Sarah Palin) will do that. But the point remains. And when I hear people deride traditional or religious or “white” America, I often think of my wife’s family and get angry. When I hear pro-lifers denigrated as people of evil intent, I think of Donna in particular, whose pro-life views barely touched ideology but were enveloped in thick layers of love. Feel free to disagree with her position, but her motivations could not have been more decent or loving.
The last point is both terribly personal and entirely universal.
In the first G-File after my brother died, I wrote:
In terms of my own internal response, the most glaring continuity between my dad’s death and my brother’s is loneliness. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got lots of company. I have lots of people who care for me more than I realized. I’m richer in friends and family than I could ever possibly expect or deserve.
But there’s a kind of loneliness that comes with death that cannot be compensated for. Tolstoy’s famous line in Anna Karenina was half right. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, but so are all happy ones. At least insofar as all families are ultimately unique.
Unique is a misunderstood word. Pedants like to say there’s no such thing as “very unique.” I don’t think that’s true. For instance, we say that each snowflake is unique. That’s true. No two snowflakes are alike. But that doesn’t mean that pretty much all snowflakes aren’t very similar. But, imagine if you found a snowflake that was ten feet in diameter and hot to the touch, I think it’d be fair to say it was very unique. Meanwhile, each normal snowflake has its own contours, its own one-in-a-billion-trillion characteristics, that will never be found again.
Families are similarly unique. Each has its own cultural contours and configurations. The uniqueness might be hard to discern from the outside and it certainly might seem trivial to the casual observer. Just as one platoon of Marines might look like another to a civilian or one business might seem indistinguishable from the one next door. But, we all know the reality is different. Every meaningful institution has a culture all its own. Every family has its inside jokes, its peculiar way of doing things, its habits and mores developed around a specific shared experience.
One of the things that keeps slugging me in the face is the fact that the cultural memory of our little family has been dealt a terrible blow. Sure, my mom’s around, but sons have a different memory of family life than parents. And Josh’s recall for such things was always not only better than mine, but different than mine as well. I remembered things he’d forgotten and vice versa. In what seems like the blink of an eye, whole volumes of institutional memory have simply vanished. And that is a terribly lonely thought, that no amount of company and condolence can ease or erase.
I’ve always been very jealous of my wife’s family. Not because it is “better” than mine — but because it is so large and so close. It is a whole sprawling community in its own right. At the funeral this week, it hit me quite hard that the culture of the Gavora clan will live on, not just because of love, but because of scale. They have stories that won’t be forgotten because there will always be someone around who remembers them. My oldest brother-in-law Danny delivered the eulogy (drafted by my speechwriter wife) and it was full of stories. About how Donna used to put a couple of the kids in the trunk of the car as ballast so they could get up the icy road to their house. Stories about driving 6,000 miles round-trip, with a half-dozen kids in a station wagon, to visit her family in Colorado every summer.
The Gavoras came to Fairbanks with little and they prospered because they never forgot that. My favorite story about Donna was how when my wife was a kid, she and her siblings would ask for some sugary cereal at the grocery store. Donna would say, “I’m not going to get you that, you’ll just eat it.”
Bear in mind: The Gavoras owned the grocery store.
Stories are what make a culture and a civilization. Memory is what sustains both. The Gavoras are rich in a way money can’t buy because they are swimming in memories of love, shared.