Monday, July 06, 2009

Gerry McNamee 1942-2009

As promised here is a written version of the eulogy I gave at Gerry's memorial service a week ago. The eulogy was inspired and informed in part by the time I spent sitting in Gerry's private office in the home he shared with his longtime partner, Sandy Sorrels. I composed a series of notes in a journal in the two days time I had to prepare. The version I gave at the memorial while extemporized here and there is pretty close to this one. The link provided above takes you to a website created by Gerry's son Dylan in memory of his father.

Eulogy for Gerry McNamee
June 27, 2009

Lean forward. Let your forearms rest against the edge of the desk. The space for writing has been appropriated by relics and the accoutrement of travel: two or three cameras, a shaving kit, three pairs of reading glasses, a pocket watch, a cigarette lighter, a box of postcards (some postmarked others not yet composed). Hanging from the old desk lamp a few inches from an ancient Blitz Weinhart sticker are seven rosaries brought back from a recent trip to Mexico. Beneath the rosaries are a couple of boxes of tea and three prayer candles in glass bearing the icons of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost. There are several packets of developed 4x6 photos - anachronistic to my eyes but perfectly in context on this desktop.

Lean back now in the chair and let your eyes float up ever so slightly to a gallery of images on the wall. The cheese factory, a postcard bearing the image of subcommandante Marcos titled, "Mexico exporta dignidad", another postcard of a Mayan ruin, a photo of himself stripped to the waist, reclining in a river raft, his eyes shaded by a cowboy hat, while at his side his toeheaded son, Aaron, sits looking gravely at the water. There are portraits of Mao, Castro and Che, a sketch of Don Quixote, a photo of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, a New Age print of a mystic man with his palm open and upturned and on his breast a naked woman attended by a horse. Finally, there is a a cover of the New Yorker, 1998. On it we see two old men on beach chairs sitting next to one another on a beach. They look out over a tranquil sea and a setting sun. One of the men wears the papal mitre on his head and behind him, leaning on the back of his chair is the sceptre off the Church. The other man wears a long beard and a proletariat cap. He relaxes with a cigar while a machine gun rests against the side of his chair.

Swivel about on the chair. There are hundreds of books here. Books of fiction, novels, short stories and poetry. Books of nonfiction too, language reference books, culture studies, histories. Prominent among them are Ireland, Mexico, Chile and Cuba. Atop one book case sits a baseball on a plastic pedestal. It is stamped "El Hombre: 487 home runs". I'm a baseball fan but I have no idea who El Hombre was. It reminds me that like other worlds, the world of baseball extended beyond my own known universe.

Climb down the ladder that leads to Gerry's office and go to his bedside. At his bedside table are two books: one a tract on the foundations of Catholic faith, the other the Koran. In the bathroom nearby is Mao's little red book of thoughts. Some of you here today are probably thinking that Gerry in his final days had chosen to cover all of his bets a la Pascal's wager, and that he had even up the ante a bit. Equally plausible to me is the suggestion that all of these things are nothing more or less than the outward signs of a man whose mind and heart were both restless and ever charged with hope and expectation. Gerry relished the polarities of experience and of ideas. The geography of human striving was to him an invitation. It was intimately local and profoundly universal. It planted him here in Northeast Oregon and it propelled him abroad on numerous forays into the wider world.

What did all that striving yield Gerry? I can't say for sure but once when a good friend asked him whether or not he had ever met any great persons in his life, Gerry responded without even a moment's hesitation and said without the slightest trace of irony, "I have great friends!" Herein resides a truth about how Gerry measured greatness and what he felt to be most important in this life. The truth is that Gerry had many great friends, it is no less true that Gerry was a great friend to each of us who remember him today.

Gerry was assigned to me as a student teacher at La Grande High School in 1993. He was 50 and I was 38. He had earned his Masters in English at the University of Oregon many years prior and had decided to pursue certification in order to become a teacher.

Now there are certain things that one is well advised to put off undertaking until the age of 50. Among these things I might suggest are certain literary works like Proust's seven volume "Remembrance of Times Past" or it's more recent title, "In Search of Lost Time". Being a work which is both about and steeped in the labrynthine workings of memory, it is wasted on the young who have for the most part not yet become affected much by the practice of forgetting.

Then there are certain things which one might do well to avoid undertaking at the age of 50. Teaching high school freshmen English comes to mind. The daily encounters with the adolescent mind, not to mention the hormonal tempests of the adolescent creature, render exceedingly difficult the essential teacherly task, both counter intuitive and somewhat perverse, of trying to re-imagine ignorance and taking that as a beginning point from which to plot a course out of the desert and into the promised land. Gerry gave it a go.

Here's the thing I learned about Gerry. When things went awry in the classroom, when his best laid plans were being undone or even subverted by the students, he never blamed the kids. He always turned the glass on himself. His humility was as genuine as it was deep. He rooted for his students, especially the ones who seemed somehow out of step with the mainstream, outside the norm. He rooted for kids in the same way that many of us love to root for the underdog. In his core, Gerry believed that every kid is doing all that he or she can at any given moment to somehow survive the exigencies of the moment. He believed that the teacher's job was to honor that fact and to respond in kind. Gerry had no illusions about this work being easy or even possible. We used to sit around after a lesson had come apart. We'd shake our heads in tacit admission that not only did we not have the answers but that probably there were no answers. I remember, Gerry being alternately awed and exhausted by the enormity of it all. Pablo Neruda, one of Gerry's favorite poets, wrote in his Book of Questions,
Why is it so hard
the sweetness of the heart of the cherry?
Is it because it must die
or because it must carry on?
Gerry's response to difficulty was always idealistic. One had to carry on. The stakes were too high to do otherwise.

I was not surprised therefore to learn that Gerry had, after completing his certification, taken a position at Eastern Oregon University as a writing instructor. Nor was I surprised by the way in which I put his stamp on people and programs over there. How he became an ambassador of sorts for EOU in his work with international students here on campus and in his stints in Chile. It was exactly the sort of work he had imagined he would do, and it suited him.

After Gerry's final diagnosis of colon cancer, and after he became increasingly weak physically, he undertook a rigorous reading regime - Proust's In Search of Lost Time and Balzac's The Human Comedy. His life ended before he could finish. He ran out of time so to speak.

I believe, however, that Gerry in his lifelong vocation as a reader, found time to be more pliant and spacious inside works of fiction than you or I might imagine. We are so often yoked to our to do lists and sundry benchmarks and data points that ostensibly mark our progress toward the place where we stand today and the place where each of us will one day reside. In any case, I hope this was true...that Gerry found lost time in his pursuit of reading. It may well be that he passed several lifetimes in the one span of time alloted to him. We should all be so fortunate.

A few days before he died, Gerry said to Sandy, "When this is over, we're going to Mexico." That intention captures the man. It was no idle statement. He was going one way or another.

Gerry and I are ethnically and genetically Irish Catholic. As such we are susceptible to magical thinking. My own sense of the miraculous has changed over the years, become less religious and more quirky. Last fall while walking home from school, I passed beneath a large chestnut tree. I was walking at a comfortable pace, my legs and arms swinging in rhythm. A small dark object dropped in a vertical line in front of me. It rebounded from the sidewalk and landed softly, perfectly, in the palm of hand which had swung out coincidentally at just that moment and suppliied a soft landing for the smooth chestnut. I never broke stride. A moment earlier I had been walking alone with my thoughts; the next moment I was walking with a small, hard miracle in my hands. I put it in my pocket. I have it still. That's what passes for a miracle in my life these days. I've wondered what purpose that seed my have stowed in my pocket or my dresser drawer. And then as I prepared for this eulogy I came across Neruda's Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground. As you listen to this poem, think of Gerry alternately as both the chestnut and the chestnut tree. It offers a perspective that I think Gerry would have liked.

Ode To a Chestnut on the Ground by Pablo Neruda
From bristly foliage
you fell
complete, polished wood, gleaming mahogany,
as perfect
as a violin newly
born of the treetops,
that falling
offers its sealed-in gifts,
the hidden sweetness
that grew in secret
amid birds and leaves,
a model of form,
kin to wood and flour,
an oval instrument
that holds within it
intact delight, an edible rose.
In the heights you abandoned
the sea-urchin burr
that parted its spines
in the light of the chestnut tree;
through that slit
you glimpsed the world,
bursting with syllables,
the heads of boys
and girls,
grasses stirring restlessly,
smoke rising, rising.
You made your decision,
chestnut, and leaped to earth,
burnished and ready,
firm and smooth
as the small breasts
of the islands of America.
You fell,
you struck
the ground,
nothing happened,
the grass
still stirred, the old
chestnut sighed with the mouths
of a forest of trees,
a red leaf of autumn fell,
resolutely, the hours marched on
across the earth.
Because you are
a seed,
chestnut tree, autumn, earth,
water, heights, silence
prepared the germ,
the floury density,
the maternal eyelids
that buried will again
open toward the heights
the simple majesty of foliage,
the dark damp plan
of new roots,
the ancient but new dimensions
of another chestnut tree in the earth.


Anonymous Elizabeth Howard Larvik said...

I am so glad to have the chance to read your writings on Gerry. My husband and I both have memories of him from living in this community. Jason had him as a teacher his first year of college. To read this, brings many emotions from the depths of our own loss. Jason's mother passed away in November from colon cancer. Both of these lives were much to young. Thank you for your beautiful words.

6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've come back several times to read this again. It really is an inspired tribute to Gerry on many levels. Thanks.


4:44 PM  

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