Eulogy for Alicia Polk Withers

Encomia

Delivered 28 May 2011 at the St Joseph’s Catholic Church by her son-in-law Ralph Kalish.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR COMING THIS MORNING TO OUR CELEBRATION OF A LIFE WELL LIVED, THE LIFE OF ALICIA POLK WITHERS OR BOBBY AS I KNEW HER. I’M RALPH KALISH, BOBBY’S SON-IN-LAW, MARRIED TO BOBBY’S DAUGHTER, ELEANOR WITHERS. SPEAKING FOR NOT JUST ELEANOR AND HER SISTERS, ANNE AND SARAH AND ALL OF OUR FAMILIES, BUT THE ENTIRE POLK CLAN, WE ARE VERY APPRECIATIVE THAT YOU ARE HERE WITH US THIS MORNING. THANK YOU.


IT IS FITTING AND PROPER THAT WE GATHER TOGETHER FOR BOBBY ON MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND. NOT ONLY ARE WE BLESSED BY HAVING THE FAR-FLUNG GATCH AND SKINNER CLANS WITH US, BUT ALSO BECAUSE:
* IT IS A TIME WHEN WE HONOR THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED AND ARE SERVING OUR COUNTRY;
* IT’S ANOTHER REASON TO HONOR BOBBY AND HER SERVICE IN THE RED CROSS DURING WORLD WAR II; AND,
* AS BOBBY WOULD DO IF SHE WERE SITTING WITH US TODAY, IT’S A TIME TO HONOR YOUNG CALVIN GATCH AND OUR SON, MANNING, WHO ARE SERVING IN AFGHANISTAN, AS WELL AS MOLLY HOLLO VAN OWEN, WHO ALONG WITH HER HUSBAND, GARETH, WHO ARE SERVING THEIR COUNTRY ON THE DIPLOMATIC SIDE OF THE STREET IN ARMENIA.


SPEAKING OF MOLLY AND MANNING I WOULD LIKE TO QUOTE FROM THEIR RECENT LETTERS ABOUT BOBBY. MOLLY’S BEAUTIFUL LETTER WAS TO BOBBY ON THE OCCASION OF THE BIRTH OF ALICIA ROSE VAN OWEN, WHO WAS NAMED FOR BOBBY:
* THROUGHOUT MY YEARS, YOU HAVE BEEN A GUIDING STAR IN MY LIFE. YOU HAVE PROVIDED ME WITH AN EXAMPLE OF COURAGE AND STRENGTH, AND A TRUE BELIEF IN THE HUMAN SPIRIT TO ENDURE.
* WE WISH HER YOUR COURAGE AND STRENGTH, IN ORDER TO NAVIGATE A WORLD THAT IS OFTEN CRISSCROSSED WITH HARDSHIP. WE WISH ER YOU SENSE OF HUMOUR, THAT IS WICKEDLY FUNNY AND SAVES MANY A DREARY DAY. WE WISH HER YOUR LOYALTY AND LOVE, FOR THOSE WHO WILL SURROUND HER.


MANNING WROTE A WONDERFUL LETTER TO ELEANOR FOR MOTHER’S DAY:
* WHILE IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING I WILL SAY IT ANYWAY THAT I LOVED BOBBY VERY MUCH. I THINK HER STRENGTH AND LOYALTY FORMED HER CORE THAT WAS WRAPPED IN CARE, COMPASSION, LOVE, HUMOR AND A SENSE OF ADVENTURE.
* I NEVER REALLY EXPERIENCED HER SENSE OF ADVENTURE BUT BECAME QUITE AWARE OF ITS PRESENCE THESE LAST FEW YEARS WHEN I GOT TO KNOW HER THE BEST. I REALLY LOVED HER AND WILL GREATLY MISS HER.


I AM NOT UNMINDFUL OF THE FACT, THAT EXCEPT FOR ELEANOR’S AND MY BOYS, EVERY OTHER FAMILY MEMBER KNEW BOBBY LONGER THAN I DID. THUS, I NEED TO THANK EVERYONE IN THE WITHERS FAMILY WHO HAS SHARED THEIR MEMORIES AND IMAGES OF BOBBY WITH ME AND THOSE WHO HAVE WRITTEN SUCH WARM & LOVING NOTES. I WILL DO MY BEST THIS MORNING TO ARTICULATE THESE WONDERFUL TRIBUTES TO BOBBY. BUT, PLEASE FORGIVE THE LACK OF ATTRIBUTION, EVEN THOUGH I AM SURE MANY OF YOU WILL RECOGNIZE YOUR CONTRIBUTIONS. AND, OF COURSE, I WILL SHARE SOME OF MY OWN REFLECTIONS ON THIS GRAND LADY. WHILE ALL THE WORDS MAY NOT BE MINE, YOU CAN BET THE EMOTION IS.


IF BOBBY HAD HER WAY, I WOULD DO THIS VERY QUICKLY SO THAT WE COULD MOVE ONTO THE PICNIC AT OUR HOME IN SHORT ORDER. IN THE TRUE POLK SPIRIT, BOBBY DID LOVE HER PICNICS. AND YOU ARE ALL INVITED TO JOIN US FOR A PICNIC TO HONOR AND CELEBRATE BOBBY AT 6237 MCPHERSON, ON THE WEST SIDE OF SKINKER, RIGHT AFTER THE SERVICE.


BUT, NOW, LET’S NOT HURRY; RATHER LET’S PAUSE, CLOSE OUR EYES AND CONJURE UP OUR FAVORITE IMAGES OF BOBBY – BEAUTIFUL, ELEGANT, DRESSED IMPECCABLY AND LOVELY – WHETHER DRESSED FOR A MOONE ATHY WORKDAY OR A DAY IN THE GARDEN, IN THE MOST STYLISH OUTFIT AS ONE MIGHT FIND IN SOME PARISIAN BOUTIQUE, OR IN AN EVENING GOWN. NO QUESTION ABOUT IT, BOBBY HAD A FASHION SENSE THAT ROCKED – SHE LOOKED BETTER THAN MOST 30 YEAR OLDS AND PEOPLE NOTICED HER WHEN SHE ENTERED A ROOM, WHICH SHE DID IN A QUIET, DIGNIFIED AND UNDERSTATED WAY. WHETHER SHE WAS GOING TO A HIGH BROW SOCIAL EVENT OR DINNER IN OUR KITCHEN, SHE WAS SARTORIAL ELEGANCE.


AS WE EACH HOLD OUR IMAGE OF BOBBY, LET’S NOW IMAGINE A TRAVELOGUE OF SORTS AND PICTURE BOBBY IN VARIOUS SETTINGS:
* TAILLE DE NOYE AND MOONE ATHY;
* COUSIN JOE’S POOL AT VOUZIER;
* ITALY DURING THE WAR;
* DRIVING AROUND PARIS WITH HER DAUGHTERS, DACHSHUNDS & DELIRIUM WITH A STUCK CAR HORN;
* SHAW’S GARDEN WITH HER GRANDCHILDREN;
* HER HOMES IN ST. LOUIS, ATLANTA AND COLUMBUS;
* HAVING SLEEP OVERS FOR HER GRANDHILDREN
* HER VW OR PT CRUISER PICKING UP HER GRANDCHILDREN FROM SCHOOL WITH A SNACK;
* SKATING WITH HER GRANDCHILDREN AT STEINBERG OR BRENTWOOD;
* CULTIVATING HER GARDEN AND ARRANGING FLOWERS FOR ONE OF HER OR HER DAUGHTERS’ PARTIES; AND
* SITTING AT HER EASEL, PAINTING ANOTHER MASTERPIECE WATER COLOR FOR SOME ONE IN THE FAMILY TO TREASURE.
AND IN ALL THESE SCENCES, BOBBY ADDS A SPLASH A COLOR AND SPIRIT THAT QUIETLY DOMINATES AND ENHANCES THE SCENE.


WHEN YOU COME TO OUR HOME FOR THE PICNIC, BE SURE TO NOTE ONE OF ELEANOR’S FAVORITE PICTURES OF BOBBY – FROM WORLD WAR II, IN HER RED CROSS UNIFORM, WHICH WAS CHIC ON HER, STANDING NEXT TO A JEEP, WITH HER PAINTED NAILS AND A RADIANT LOOK OF CONFIDENCE. WHEN I LOOK AT BOBBY IN THAT PHOTOGRAPH, I WANT TO BE WITH HER AND BASK IN HER GLOW.

ONE OF THE KALISH-WITHERS’ FAVORITE BOBBY IMAGE IS FROM OUR TRIP TO WILLIAMSBURG FOR CHRISTMAS IN 2003. BECAUSE OF ALL THE WALKING, BOBBY HAD HER OWN SCOOTER. IT WAS AN ATTRACTIVE NUISANCE FOR ALL OF US, ESPECIALLY BOBBY. I’VE ALWAYS BELIEVED SHE PERSUADED THE RENTAL SHOP TO TURN UP THE THROTTLE TO GIVE HER MAXIMUM THRUST AND POWER. IT WAS ALL WE COULD DO TO KEEP UP WITH HER. ONE TIME, WE WERE HEADED FOR THE MAGAZINE AND THERE’S A LITTLE HOLLOW OR DOWNHILL SLOPE ALONG THE WAY. WELL, AS WAS HER BENT, SHE WAS AHEAD OF US AND THEN SHE DID HER IMITATION OF STAN KAHN AFTER HE FINISHED PLAYING THE MIGHTY WURLITZER AT THE FOX – SHE BEGAN TO SINK AND THEN WE HEARD, WHOAAAAAAA. BY THE TIME WE CAUGHT UP WITH HER SHE HAD LUCKILY STOPPED HER DESCENT BEFORE SHE WAS CONSUMED BY A GROVE OF TREES.

BOBBY WAS A WONDERFULLY RICH TEXTURE OF CONTRASTS:
* BECAUSE BOBBY KNEW MIDNIGHT AS WELL AS HIGH NOON, SHE UNDERSTOOD THE ORDEAL AS WELL AS THE TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT AND SHE GAVE MANY OF US THE STRENGTH TO OVERCOME DESPAIR. SHE OFTEN REASSURED US WITH THE WORDS THAT “THIS TOO SHALL PASS” AND THE ADMONITION THAT ONE MUST PERSEVERE.
* BOBBY WAS THE EMBODIMENT OF EMILY POST AS THE REPOSITORY OF ALL WISDOM WHEN IT CAME TO ETIQUETTE AND OUR FIRST CALL WHEN WE WERE UNCERTAIN. SHE STEERED US THROUGH THE SHOALS OF SOCIAL INTERCOURSE AND SAVED US FROM ALL SORTS OF FAUX PAS. NO DOUBT SHE DID THE SAME FOR LEGIONS OF ST. LOUISANS THROUGH HER WORK AT THE SERVICE BUREAU. YET, BOBBY HAD A WICKED SENSE OF HUMOR THAT WAS OFTEN IRREVERENT. THIS HALLOWED VENUE PRECLUDES ME FROM SHARING EXAMPLES, SAVE ONE, A MILD ONE. I WAS TOLD THAT WHEN SHE WAS IN THE HOSPITAL AFTER HER STROKE, ONE OF THE ATTENDING PHYSICIANS ASKED IF SHE KNEW WHO WAS PRESIDENT. SHE RESPONDED, O-BAM-A, (SAID WITH DISGUST) IN THAT GERTIE EMMA WAY OF HERS, CONFIRMING SHE WAS STILL IN CONTROL OF HER FACULTIES.
* BOBBY’S DISAPPOINTMENTS WERE NOT REFLECTED IN HER ART. LOOKING AT LIFE THROUGH HER OWN PRISM, HER WONDROUS WATER COLORS ONLY CAPTURED LIFE’S BEAUTY. WE ALL TREASURE HER HAND-PAINTED BIRTHDAY CARDS AND MASTER-PIECES OF ART THAT PROUDLY HANG IN OUR HOMES.
* BOBBY COULD BE STERN, NOT MISSING ANY TEACHING OPPORTUNITY, TO MAKE SURE HER DAUGHTERS, SONS-IN-LAW AND GRANDCHILDREN STOOD UP STRAIGHT, LOOKED YOU IN THE EYE, HAD A STRONG HANDSHAKE AND BEHAVED APPROPRIATELY. CLEARLY, WE ARE ALL A WORK IN PROGRESS. I AM REMINDED OF ONE OCCASION, WHEN BOBBY TOOK SARAH LAW AND OUR SON, MANNING, TO SHAW’S GARDEN AND BROUGHT THEM HOME EARLY BECAUSE THEY HAD JUMPED INTO ONE OF THE FOUNTAINS AND GOTTEN ALL WET. I WAS SITTING ON OUR BACK PORCH, WHEN BOBBY PULLED MANNING BY HIS EAR THROUGH THE HOUSE TO THE BACK PORCH TO ANNOUNCE WHY HE WAS BEING RETURNED. I DON’T KNOW WHO THE INSTIGATOR WAS BECAUSE, TO THIS DAY SARAH AND MANNING DUMMY UP. I WANTED TO LAUGH IN THE WORST WAY, BUT DIDN’T DARE TO IN FRONT OF BOBBY. SHE LOOKED RIGHT THROUGH ME AND COULD SEE I WAS STIFLING IT, WHICH CONFIRMED TO HER THAT MANNING WAS SUFFERING FROM BELOW PAR PARENTING.
* WHILE SHE LIVED ALONE FOR MANY YEARS, SHE WAS INTIMATELY CONNECTED WITH LIFE LONG FRIENDS AND WAS THE CRITICAL LINK IN THE FAMILY, TO THOSE WHO HAD ALREADY GONE ONTO THEIR REWARDS WITH WONDERFUL FAMILY STORIES AND HISTORY AND TO THOSE OF US WHO ARE FOLLOWING.
* IN MANY WAYS, BOBBY WAS A PRODUCT OF THE VICTORIAN ERA, WITH AN UNFLINCHING COMMITMENT TO PROPRIETY AND SOCIAL GRACE, AND YET SHE WAS THOROUGHLY MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY WITH HER CAREER AT THE SERVICE BUREAU, PT CRUISER, TACKLING TECHNOLOGY WITH EXTENSIVE EMAILING AND HER THOUGHTFUL VIEWS ON THE ISSUES OF THE DAY.
* I OFTEN THINK OF BOBBY IN CONNECTION WITH LAND BECAUSE OF THE FAMILY FARMS, BECAUSE LIKE HER, IT IS OF ENDURING VALUE, BECAUSE SHE WAS PROBABLY THE MOST GROUNDED PERSON I KNEW, WITH A ROCK SOLID FAITH, UNDIMINISHED BY DISAPPOINTMENTS IN HER LIFE. YET, SHE WAS UNTEATHERED AS MANIFESTED BY HER ADVENTURES WITH HER GIRLS IN FRANCE, HER SERVICE DURING THE WAR AND HER TRIPS ABROAD.
* BOBBY HAD READY ADVICE FOR ALMOST ANY SITUATION OR CONDITION. SHE COULD BE STERN ABOUT LEARNING TO APPRECIATE ASPIC: SHE WOULD SAY, “YOUR FUTURE MOTHER-IN-LAW MAY ADORE ASPIC!” DON’T KNOW IF THAT HAS HAPPENED TO ANY OF THE JUDY OR HOLLO GRANDCHILDREN, ALL OF WHOM ARE MARRIED, BUT YOU CAN BET THEY ARE READY IF THAT MOMENT COMES. ON A MORE SERIOUS NOTE SHE HAS TOLD MEN IN THE FAMILY: “IF YOU DO ONE THING TO MAKE SURE YOUR CHILDREN ARE HAPPY – AND FEEL SAFE AND SECURE – LOVE THEIR MOTHER WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND MAKE SURE YOUR CHILDREN KNOW YOU DO.” BY THE SAME TOKEN, SHE TOLD HER DAUGHTERS TO TAKE CARE OF THE HUSBANDS.

I THINK I ALMOST FORGOT ANOTHER GREAT MEMORY OF BOBBY FROM WILLIAMSBURG TRIP. ANOTHER TIME ON THE SCOOTER, SHE GOT AWAY FROM US GOING DOWN THE DUKE OF GLOUCESTER STREET, COMING UP BEHIND A GAGGLE OF UNSUSPECTING TOURISTS. WE COULDN’T KEEP UP. ONE OF THE BOYS YELLED, INCOMING! AND THE CROWD DIVIDED, SOME GOING LEFT, SOME GOING RIGHT. IT WOULD HAVE MADE MOSES PROUD. BOBBY PLOWED THROUGH, WITH THAT TRADEMARK POLK ATTITUDE, WONDERING WHY THE PEDESTRIANS WERE BLOCKING HER WAY — DIDN’T THEY KNOW SHE HAD SOME PLACE TO GO?


WHEN I THINK OF BOBBY, I ALSO THINK OF FLOWERS, ART, PETS, LOYALTY AND FOOD. FLOWERS, BECAUSE SHE WAS A CONSUMMATE GARDENER AND SO OFTEN ARRANGED FLOWERS FOR OUR PARTIES – OFTEN WHEN SHE WAS NOT AN INVITED GUEST. ART, BECAUSE OF HER BEAUTIFUL WATER COLORS. PETS, BECAUSE SHE WAS OFTEN THE REFUGE FOR FAMILY PETS, TAKING THEM IN WHEN THERE WAS A PROBLEM. SHE WAS ST. BOBBY TO OUR PETS AS ST. FRANCIS OF ASISI WAS TO BIRDS. THEN THERE’S LOYALTY: HER UNSHAKABLE LOYALTY TO FRIENDS AND FAMILY. ELEANOR SCHLAFLY SHARED WITH ME HOW SHE AND BOBBY BECAME FRIENDS IN 1926 IN FIRST GRADE AT CITY HOUSE AND HOW THEY HAVE REMAINED STEADFAST TO EACH OTHER FOR 85 YEARS, THROUGH DISAGREEMENTS AND SEPARATIONS — AND YET, AN ENDURING AND UNBREAKABLE FRIENDSHIP. AND THERE ARE MANY OTHER LIFE-LONG FRIENDS I COULD MENTION; PLEASE FORGIVE THE OMISSION. AS FOR FAMILY, BOBBY WOULD OFTEN GIVE UP SOMETHING IN THE SPIRIT OF LENT WHILE A FAMILY MEMBER WAS GOING THROUGH A DIFFICULT TIME. TURNING TO FOOD, FUDGE CAKE, BROWNIES, AVOCADO SALAD, AND BEAN DIP ARE LEGENDS IN THE FAMILY AND SHE ALWAYS HAD A SNACK FOR THE GRANDCHILDREN WHEN SHE PICKED THEM UP FROM SCHOOL OR TOOK THEM SKATING. FOOD IS IMPORTANT IN OUR FAMILY!


SOME TIME AGO, I FOUND A QUOTE THAT I THOUGHT WAS PARTICULARLY APT FOR BOBBY, EVEN THOUGH IT CAME FROM AN UNLIKELY SOURCE: A SPEECH BY FORMER U.S. SENATOR FROM ILLINOIS, EVERETT DIRKSEN, ON THE FLOOR OF THE SENATE IN 1965 IN HIS FAILED ATTEMPT TO HAVE THE MARIGOLD SELECTED AS NATIONAL FLOWER. [THE ROSE WAS SELECTED.] DIRKSEN’S DESCRIPTION OF THE MARIGOLD SEEMS TO CAPTURE BOBBY, TOO. I THINK WE COULD THINK OF BOBBY AS OUR NATIONAL FLOWER:
AS SPRIGHTLY AS A DAFFODIL, AS COLORFUL AS THE ROSE, AS RESOLUTE AS THE ZINNIA, AS DELICATE AS THE CARNATION, AS HAUGHTY AS THE CHRYSANTHEMUM, AS AGGRESSIVE AS THE PETUNIA, AS UBIQUITOUS AS THE VIOLET, AND AS STATELY AS THE SNAPDRAGON.


BOBBY, WE TAKE COMFORT FROM KNOWING YOUR ARE IN GOD’S SWEET EMBRACE WITH YOUR SON, LEE, YOUR SIBLINGS, GRIZELDA, POLKY AND DELPHINE, YOUR PARENTS, GRANNY AND BEAU PAW AND OF COURSE YOUR CHERISHED PETS, INCLUDING WILLIE, SYDNEY, RUFUS, MARY AND MANY OTHERS. AS THE LAST OF GRANNY’S CHILDREN, MANY HAVE NOTED THAT BOBBY’S PASSING MARKS THE END OF ERA. WHILE THAT MAY SEEM TRUE IN MANY WAYS, I THINK WE WOULD DO A DISSERVICE TO BOBBY’S MEMORY AND TO OURSELVES AND OUR CHILDREN TO ASSUME THAT WE SHALL NEVER LOOK UPON HER LIKE AGAIN. IT IS UP TO US TO ASPIRE TO HER HIGH STANDARDS OF INTEGRITY, HER ABIDING FAITH, HER IRREVOCABLE COMMITMENT TO FRIENDS AND FAMILY AND HER EFFORTS TO BEHOLD THE BEAUTY IN THE WORLD. WE WERE BLESSED TO HAVE YOU IN OUR LIVES – YOU TOUCHED US OFTEN AND PROFOUNDLY – AND WE WILL KEEP YOUR SPIRIT ALIVE AS WE FACE LIFE’S TRAVAILS WITH INTEGRITY AND PERSEVERANCE, AS WE DECIDE WHICH FORK TO USE, WHEN WE PLAY WITH OUR PETS, GAZE UPON FLOWERS AND WATER COLORS AND WHEN WE NURTURE THE EARTH TO BRING FORTH ITS BOUNTY. BOBBY, WE LOVE YOU.

RALPH KALISH