Monday, January 12, 2015

Ann Tagan Gillis

January 6, 1930 - January 4, 2015

A few weeks before her final decline, Mom's dear friend and neighbor, Elaine, sent her an amaryllis bulb. My brother Jack planted it for her and watered it, under her supervision. Then she was hospitalized and we abandoned her house for three weeks, including her plants. When we returned to the house the day after the end, this is what Jack found.

The official obituary is HERE.


Ann Tagan Gillis (Jack's Eulogy)
I'm going to start with a very famous poem about death.
Even though it's famous and about death, it's so jarring it's not heard very often at funerals--but in the case of our Mom I think it works.
Do not go gentle into that good night
by Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It works for our Mom for a couple of reasons. First because she went out a fighter--fearless. For 84 years 360 days, she fought to live. For five days she fought to die. She won both fights, an absolute trooper to the end.

The other reason it works is simply because she loved Dylan Thomas. I remember her showing me that poem when I was ten or twelve. She loved reading, she loved literature, she loved words.So for her tribute today, first her children picked words to describe her, then we asked everyone we could over the last few days for words, too, resulting in the crossword puzzle we built as a tribute. The word Jeanne picked was about words.


We were such word nerds growing up that my Mom would give us, or occasionally one of us would discover, a new word and then we'd spend the rest of the day competing over who could work it into conversation the most. Mom's attitude was always: why use a 5-cent word when there was a 50-cent word that was ten times better?

I remember the year she resolved to read a book a week.

She didn't quite make it. Got to 50 and a half or so. If it was me, I'd have rounded up and called it done and dusted, but she couldn't because she had carefully recorded every book, with start and finish date, in a little spiral notebook which I think is still upstairs. She was detailed-oriented .... okay, okay, she was a little OCD, but in a good way. Just enough to keep her life in order and to help everyone she saw who needed help. One of the reasons why she was capable of anything, the big things, is because she was always in command of the little things.

Anyway, she read those 50 books that year, and hundreds of more since,  and loved them for the learning, a true philomath. For her, literature and learning and words were exciting.


For our Mom, as soon as her life was settled so she could be adventurous, she was, and remained so to the end. You would think we should talk about her eight day trip down the white waters of the Colorado River. The camping out, the cooking by the fire, the carrying out everything they brought, leaving nothing, and I mean nothing, behind. It's an adventure most of us will probably never take. Or we should talk about the trips to New York on the Eastern Shuttle to visit the famously secret 56th floor of Rockefeller Center where the Rockefellers kept their family offices.

But it's a non-adventure that shows how adventurous she was. Days before Linda's high school graduation, she was shopping for the party, and stepped off the curb in the parking lot and sprained her wrist, and spent the party in a sling. Mortified that people would see the sling and ask, "Ann! What happened to your arm?" And she'd have to answer "I fell off the curb at Stop and Shop," she decided to joke around that she had sprained it parasailing. People believed her. And the fact that no one batted an eye at her spraining her wrist parasailing ... Well, that's the mark of an adventure-filled life.

That was funny. She was funny and she especially loved dark humor, which I've heard tell is a Tagan family trait. She was compassionate enough to know when it was "too soon" for those outside the family, but for those of us inside the family, all the tragedy of life was fair game for a joke. Here's a funny tale from one of her favorite writers, W. Somerset Maugham:

"The Appointment in Samarra"

The speaker is Death
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there
Death will not find me.
The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating gesture to my servant when you
saw him this morning?

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Last week, LAST WEEK, on her deathbed, our Mom was weak but alert, her eyes were twinkling and she bore a mischievous smile and I couldn't bear it so I asked, "Mom, what are you thinking about?

"Appointment in Samarra," she chuckled, with what remained of her breath. I giggled, too. After all that careful planning to stay at home, Death caught up to her in the wrong place. So she laughed.

That was oh so witty. But it was not only her wit that was elegant, it was also her style, her manner, her bearing. Everything about her was perfectly appointed, her kitchen, her scarves, her hair her yard, her ears. She was a real lady.

Which reminds me, I have to excuse something—we have to give our Mom one last excuse after a lifetime of them. Those of you who were at visitation may have noticed that her earrings didn’t match. In fact, not only were her earrings unmatched with each other, they didn’t even match her outfit.

Now ordinarily, our Mom wouldn’t be caught dead out in public like that . . . (Don’t say I didn’t warn you . . .) but in this case, each earring was a handmade gift by Jeanne and Linda. Mom gave her girls the love and enjoyment of craft. Digital or analog, papercutting or photoshop—and frequently both, as you see in the hundreds of personalized cards she created and sent over the years.

But it wasn’t just her daughters and not just craft; our Mom was a mentor to everyone who needed it--and that was pretty much everyone she met, even the medical professionals she spent too much time with these last few years.  She taught us things, inspiring things, that helped us live better lives.


Mom was as tough a person as we’ve ever known.  What initially came to mind while searching for words was that Mom was “tough... tough as nails” which brought up “galvanized nails,”... which sparked “galvanized.”  Sure, we know as a good liberal Mom was a Hillary supporter back in ‘08, but when she got an idea and wanted to act on it she followed Obama’s “fired-up, ready-to-go!” advice, explaining her motivation to any listener. She was so strikingly articulate they almost always got on the same page.She was ALL ABOUT righting a wrong and not only for her own self-interest, for instance with being unfairly labeled in “observation” after her fall and her subsequent assignment to a rehab. 

Even in her fragile state, she did the work, she networked, she EVEN asked for (or we should say “allowed folks to”) help. Senator Ed Markey even invited her last Summer to testify to Congress on the issue.

She did all she could to produce desired results, in any endeavor, big or small. It’s a good thing Andy’s new job isn’t customer support, if it were, he’d know to just put Mom on the “just-refund-her-money-in-full-and-give-her-a-coupon-after-you-hang-up” list.“Galvanized” is sort of a two-pronged (dual-meaning) word, too, which our Mom would’ve liked, and it fits perfectly with the word I chose.

Because once she got fired up and determined to act, she went about it in a special way. Our Mom never violated the law and very rarely broke a rule. But when a rule was manifestly unjust or pointless, she fought it. But why violate the law when there’s a technicality to exploit? Why break a rule when you can bend it?

Two instances. When she returned to college she took the CLEP life experience test, which is like the SATs for adults—it’s run by the same people, actually. So she took the test and she was so intelligent she earned the maximum allowed credits. She started at UMass Boston before discovering that they didn’t accept CLEP credits.

She thought that was uncommonly stupid. The whole point of that school at the time was as school for commuters and returners and the CLEP credits were created for returners. She told them that but they wouldn’t listen. At first. But over the years she wore ‘em down, she pulled strings, wrote letters, showed up at meetings were she was the only member of the public present, and eventually they gave in. The trustees of the University of Massachusetts surrendered to this feisty little lady. And now every student with CLEP credits can use them.But then a new problem popped up. In the meantime she had acquired so many classroom credits she hardly needed the CLEP credits anymore. But like those customer-support folks with their refund-and-coupon list, some Dean over their was smart enough to realize that it would be a really bad idea to try to tell Mom that now that she could get those credits, she wouldn’t. So they said, “Oh, hey, now you have so many credits we could almost award you an Masters. So how about you throw in a thesis and we call it a deal?” She did and they did.

The other instance is one of her own stupid rules. Once when I was 14, on May 31, 1967 just before midnight (I know the exact date because I googled it), Mom stuck her head through the doorway at the bottom of the stairs to my room and stage-whispered, “Jacky? You’re still up? It’s a school night! Turn off the lights and the radio and go to sleep.”

“But Mom” I whimpered, “The new Beatles album is coming out at midnight.”

“Well, you can’t listen to it up there because you’ll wake people up.” She said nothing for a minute as I was thinking, how the hell does she know I had the radio on AGAIN? She confessed later that the duct work went from my room down through her closet and acted as an echo chamber. After that minute she whispered, “Come down to the kitchen and we’ll listen to it together.

We listened to the whole thing through and looked at each other at the end and just said “Wow.” That was cool. She knew in that moment that her own rule was pointless—we had a million school nights in our lives but there was only one Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. So she subverted her own authority, because what was important to me was more important than some dumb rule.

What was important to her was injustice, and humane values, which is why the word we picked for Jimmy is

Whenever she saw the weak, the sick, the small, or the untutored struggling, she always protected them as best she could, from the songbirds in her yard threatened by those nasty neighborhood cats, Jimmy trying to cope with the world that was destined to hurt him. Or one of her friends up at the computer group desperately trying to figure out how to use this e-mail thingy to download a picture of a grandchild. She was a mother to all of us, and she was like a mother to all of you, and to countless others.

She was always there to help, and help she always did.


If the video doesn't work, click here for Jeanne's video.

1 comment:

  1. This was such a wonderful eulogy for your mom. Jack sure has a way with words, but I see all the love in it by all of you. The crossword puzzle was a stroke of brilliance. Don't know how you managed to put it all together, but it was definitely a special tribute. Thank you so much for sharing this.