The Week Ahead
July 30, 2023
Today, I'm writing just a short personal note to you. Thursday night, we lost my mom. She passed away peacefully in her sleep, after a long struggle following a debilitating stroke. I've now lost the two women who I loved the most in this world following tough illnesses, my mom and my mother-in-law. I am left with an incredible sense of their strength, their grace, and their humor in the face of challenges. Most of us will live through this unbearable experience of losing our parents. This week, I’m determined to remember the fun and the love we shared, and you’ll forgive me if I write a bit less than usual. I am still not quite ready, even though I had a very long time to prepare for this.
My mom told me once that she did not think people should “mope” after a parent died. “It’s not what you want to see your kids do,” she told me. And I know she was proud of the work I was doing. She had harsh words for the former president when he appeared on her TV screen, something that, despite her living in Birmingham near us, endeared her to her caregivers. So, I intend to just keep putting one foot in front of the other this week, because I know she would have liked that. She would have liked seeing the country finally arrive at this moment, although she was patient. She believed her prosecutor daughter when I told her the Justice Department would get its job done, just not as quickly as any of us might like.
Mourning my mom has reminded me of one of my favorite stories about my mother-in-law. The story was told to me after her death by a federal judge, Clifford Fulford, who had been a close friend of both hers and my father-in-law’s since their university days together. My father-in-law was involved in Alabama's Democratic Party and played a big role in integrating it. As you can imagine, in that role, he found himself in opposition with George Wallace a great deal. But occasionally, they had to share a stage together, and on one occasion, my father-in-law was in the position of introducing Governor Wallace before he spoke to the audience. Judge Fulford told me he was sitting next to my mother-in-law in the audience when my father-in-law gave that introduction, which she apparently thought was a too generous introduction of the man. As the rest of the crowd stood up to give Governor Wallace a standing ovation, Judge Fulford looked down and saw that my mother-in-law was still seated, arms crossed, glaring at her husband. “What did you do?” I asked him. “Oh,” he assured me. “I sat right back down next to Miss Helen.”
My mother-in-law was a force of nature in all things with a strong streak of what was right, what was wrong, and of the importance of standing up—or, as the case may be, sitting down—for what was right. My mom was a preschool teacher, who taught in one of President Johnson's Great Society program-funded schools for kids from low income and one-parent families in East Los Angeles. She loved her kids passionately, and she was a fierce advocate, in a time before the resources that exist today for dealing with domestic violence and child abuse were present. My mom opened my eyes to the beauty of the world and to wide-ranging interests in things like archaeology, history, cooking, travel, and sports (she was a loyal Lakers fan and liked to watch football games with my husband). I learned so much and am so fortunate to have had both of these women in my life.
My mom, her own person to the end, will get her wishes. There will not be a big religious ceremony, just a small gathering of family to spread her ashes— she insisted on being cremated—in her beloved Pacific Ocean. She made a big sacrifice to spend the last 15 years of her life with my family in Alabama, leaving behind the mountains and deserts and beaches that she had loved. I know I am going to miss my mom desperately, even though we've had a long time to come to terms with her situation. If I'm honest, I still miss my mother-in-law and occasionally catch myself picking up my phone and starting to dial her phone number to share something I know she would find amusing with her before I realize she's not there to answer.
We live our lives and then we leave behind our legacies. Theirs are both very big for me. Something I am guided by, and hope I’ll always be guided by, is doing what can I to make them proud. I’m certain my mother-in-law would have been proud, and I know my mom was, that I didn't sit on the sidelines when Donald Trump came to power. I think about that a lot. What do we owe the ancestors? There are a lot of answers. The one that's accessible for me right now is that we owe them the work it is going to take to preserve the country they believed it was a blessing to live in. We owe them a future for our children that means living in a democracy and making sure more and more people are fully included in the promise of America.
I’ll be back, soon.
We’re in this together,