This is a transcript of the remarks by Elisha Flagg Lee, Jr. and myself delivered at Helen Swain Burgin’s memorial service, held Friday, December 14, 2001.
No more introduction is needed.
I like to think that there is a porch in Heaven somewhat like the one on the house in South Bristol that our Grandparents rented for so many years, and that Nana is finally sitting once again with Gramps, watching all of this and muttering in disgust at the thought of being eulogized.
In the days following Nana’s death many of us have reminisced about Sunday lunches at 138 Central Avenue, the chaos of unwrapping Christmas presents at 87 Morton Road, picking blueberries by the little cemetery on Pleasant Point, and her trademark breakfast of scrambled eggs cooked in a battered double boiler. Today, however, I would rather recall several aspects of Nana’s character for which I have become increasingly appreciative as I settle reluctantly into my own adulthood.
Nana was the only person I have ever known whose loyalty was absolute. I know this because my brother Ned and I spent the first decade of our lives testing it in one way or another. We managed to find Gramps’ limit once or twice, but we never found Nana’s. One of our favorite pastimes involved going into her pantry and creating what we loosely called a “mixture”. These were horrible foaming combinations of flour, vinegar, baking soda, molasses, sugar, Worcestershire sauce, and occasionally, plastic spoons melted over a candle. We made a great many “mixtures” but I have absolutely no memories of cleaning one up, nor do I remember Nana saying a word about them. Other favored activities included unrolling all of her shelf paper and tape so that our cousin Jane could make a suit of paper armor, and telling our younger cousins to retrieve something from the bottom of the laundry chute so that we could drop water on their heads. Whatever the extent of our misdeeds, when it came time to go home and Mother asked the obligatory Mother Question as to how we had behaved, we knew that Nana could be counted upon to provide a glowing misrepresentation. It remains one of the few absolute certainties of my life.
That loyalty went beyond her grandchildren. Nana was a person of rather decided opinions, and she was not generally hesitant about expressing them. Whether it was the hippie we passed on the street or President Nixon, Nana told us exactly what she thought of that sort of behavior. For all that, I never once heard her say an unkind or disapproving word about a family member or a friend, and their house was frequently filled with both.
Nana’s self-deprecation was the source of many family jokes, but she was truly and unquestionably the most selfless person I ever met. I remember coming into the kitchen in Maine one night when I was quite young and telling her that I had lost my pillow. If one of my children came to me under similar circumstances, I would have told them to roll up their clothes, pretend they were on a camping trip, and go back to bed. Nana stopped what she was doing and brought me another pillow. It was not until much later that I learned the pillow she brought me was her own. That was a typical Nana gesture.
Her dedication to us was evident in other ways. Throughout the first two decades of my life, and I know, well before that point, Nana was the central figure within our extended family. If a meal needed to be cooked, or dishes needed to be washed, Nana was in the kitchen. If laundry needed washing, it was generally Nana who washed it or, if we were in Maine, drove 15 miles to the laundromat. It must have been extraordinarily difficult for her to accept the limitations imposed by advancing age, and yet in this, as in all other aspects of her life, Nana bore up with astonishing fortitude. If her final years were a trial, both her life and ours were made immensely more comfortable by a cadre of helpers whose dedication rivaled her own. We are forever grateful to Margaret, Teresa, Anne, Sally, Mary, Maureen and of course Kaye, each of whom has been in their own right an example of compassion and commitment – I speak for our entire family in saying that we will be forever grateful to you.
When I was very young, I assumed that all Grandparents were like ours, and I took it as a matter of course that over five or six decades each of us was somehow going to evolve into their facsimiles. Later, when I was somewhat less naïve, I hoped that if I worked at it long enough, I might eventually become the sort of person that they were. Standing on the far side of 40 I can still say this, however I am increasingly conscious of my limitations. As we say goodbye to Nana, it is clear to me that she was unique and we will not see her like again. There are many of us here today, however, who will go through our lives as parents and grandparents trying to live up to the memories we have of Nana and our ideal of what a grandmother ought to be. In the final measure, she could leave no better legacy.
Elisha Flagg Lee, Jr.
December 14, 2001
Helen Burgin was my grandmother. I called her Nana, and in my opinion she was one of the great unknown, unfamous people.
Often an enigma to those around her, to start to grasp who she was, you had to realize that there was, beneath that crusty, gnarled exterior, immense heroic love, breathtaking loyalty, near super-human restraint, and tragic sacrifice. And you had to freely accept that in the house of her soul, there were rooms you would just never see.
I don’t know too much about her childhood. She and her family lived in a house on Commonwealth Avenue when those buildings were still whole homes. In later years, her thoughts often returned to that house, and its inhabitants. She adored her father, and was popular at school.
As a young woman, photos attest that she was stunning. As handsome as she was beautiful.
She was president of her class at Winsor (’23); a chemistry major and again president of her class at Vassar (’27). Both institutions were lifelong loves.
After college she lived at home, according to the custom of the time, and worked (at least periodically) as an assistant to her father in his clinical practice of obstetrics, accompanying him on house calls. She told me once she wished she’d become a doctor, but never really returned to discuss it in detail. I believe that wish was a passionate one, and reflected one of the great misgivings of her life. She finished the topic saying, “…But, I had a good family.” She decided instead to marry my grandfather, and forego a professional career, but she did so at a relatively mature age. Perhaps she was just a little ahead of her time. One could speculate that if the social climate had been a bit more forgiving of a woman with those ambitions, she might have done it.
She was a devoted wife, and as a mother, she worked hard to raise her children.
She participated in numerous volunteer organizations. Unfortunately, many of the names of these have been forgotten. I remember in my early childhood she would routinely drive veterans to dialysis. She was also an avid gardener and horticulturist. She was a member and one-time president of the Milton Garden Club, as well as a member of the Garden Club of America. She gave a lot of time to the Trustees of Reservations.
As Grampa used to say, there were no flies on Nana.
She had an amazing knack for just looking down, wherever she was, and picking up a four-leaf clover.
Few, if any, ever bested her in Scrabble.
My clearest and best memories of her include the time I spent with her in my very early childhood, when she called me “Friendy-Mendy” and would squat down to hug me when I went running to her; and later, the times in Maine. As we played in the water, or fished off the dock, she would carefully walk the beach, gathering small sun-bleached crab claws, muscle shells, and bits of sea-glass. She would put these collections in jam jars and send them home with us. In Baltimore, in February, we would look at them, and think of a different life, that was once—and might once-again be—possible. And I would think of the friend who loved me in Boston. At night in Maine, as Grampa read to us by the fire, she would tirelessly work at the dishes, after having tirelessly cooked for anywhere from four to sixteen people. Truly happy to do so. In the afternoons, while we sailed, she would do the laundry—going down and up that hill, with load after load. While we shopped for comics in town, she gathered supplies at the Yellow-Front market. —Love as service. — When we left, she would stand at the end of the driveway and wave until we were out of sight.
Nana was one of the toughest people I’ve ever met. She was legendary for her physical stamina. In her middle years, at some point, she accidentally sliced her wrist with a kitchen knife, and drove herself to the hospital, all the while maintaining the presence of mind to refrain from contracting the muscles of her arm, out of concern that the loose tendons would withdraw. Later, she spilled a pot of Indian pudding on her legs, scalding the skin entirely. Never uttered a sound, just said she should probably get them looked at.
She faced her death with the same utter fearlessness. As Nana lay dying, I felt the almost physical sensation of her father, Boopie’s, hand on my shoulder. “Take care of my girl,” I imagined him saying to us.
There’s an image that I can’t get out of my head. It’s the type of thing you usually see in a dream. A lone swimmer shooting down rapids, almost overwhelmed in the current, pops up in front of a raft, and is pulled aboard by its helpful passengers, where he is warmed and dried. If they are kind, and wise, they show the swimmer how to steer the raft, and run the river. The swimmer, now dry, eventually learns enough to help others plucked from the river. Then, one by one, his original helpers jump back into the current, only to disappear downstream, out of sight. Eventually, the day comes when the former swimmer, now himself the captain, jumps in as well, leaving behind only those whom he has dried out and taught to steer. Why do any of them jump? Perhaps to catch up to those friends, or to eventually be pulled up onto another raft, or perhaps just because the water calls.
Nana was one of the people who pulled me from the river, and now she’s returned to it.
I can’t stand up here and explain her; only thank her.
I’ll miss her. I can only hope that, wherever she is, she’s as happy as she made me sitting on the porch in South Bristol at sunset.
Langdon S. Lawrence
December 14, 2001