Today is a very difficult day, as I’ll be at the service for Judy Bagshaw, who passed away May 24, 2015.
It shouldn’t be difficult, she wouldn’t want it to be. She always told me she wanted a big celebration instead of a funeral (as opposed to me, who wants everyone dressed in black and professional mourners hired to throw themselves weeping upon my grave), with lots of laughter and music. (She always liked the idea of the New Orleans jazz funeral procession.)
She was my mentor, my friend, and my family. She reassured me when I was a ten-year-old who thought she looked too fat in a dress that there was nothing wrong with the way I was built. She sent me poetry contest listings and let me type up my entries on her computer. She gave me vocal lessons and taught me about music. She read the chapters of River every day as I wrote first wrote them. She gave me somewhere to live when I was homeless. She was always the first person to support me in anything I chose to do, and her absence has left an void I don’t think will ever go away.
Aunt Judy was a singer and actress in local plays; she was a teacher at an inner city school for decades; she wrote books to inspire women; she worked as an editor and mentor with various writers. Even though she left us too soon, she lived a tremendously full life of love and kindness we should all aspire to (really, GO ASPIRE TO IT).
I’ll be saying a few words today at her service and I thought I’d share them here as well.
The nurses likely thought I’d lost my mind when I visited Aunt Judy in the hospital a few weeks ago, because I wore a tiara.
This tiara was one of the last gifts Aunt Judy gave me, along with a Princess Skyla My Little Pony, because she knew I always wanted to be a princess (or evil queen…it all works). And wearing that tiara, that gift, had its intended effect: it made Aunt Judy laugh.
That’s what I want to talk about today, during the celebration of her life—the gifts she gave us.
She always gave the very best presents. Every Christmas and birthday, I was so excited to see what she got me. They’d be individually wrapped and sometimes have a theme. She took an incredible amount of joy in giving them.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized what her gifts actually were. Whether they were arts and craft supplies, cookbooks, a film or book she enjoyed, none of them were about the actual wrapped object themselves.
A few years ago, she gave me one such gift. Her eyes lit up as I was about to open it, a smile tugging at her lips, and she told me it was a joke but it also served a larger purpose. It was a book.
A terrible book.
No exaggeration. Just…terrible. Poorly written, riddled with errors, released by a well-known bad publisher, and it was a paranormal romance about a vegetarian werewolf—and my first published book was also about a vegetarian werewolf, hence the joke.
In it, she said that I was my own worst critic and hardest on myself, much to her bafflement, but that if I ever had doubts, I could read a few pages of this book and remember that even on my worst day, I was a zillion times better that this.
That was what Aunt Judy’s gifts were really about.
Not the wrapped object. The idea.
Fostering literacy and creativity. Sharing something that brought her joy. Celebrating our beauty. Seeing that beneath the woman lay a little girl with dreams. Encouragement, support, and her unwavering belief that we were all worthy of the tremendous love she had for us. And that terrible werewolf book means more to me than any other gift could (other than the tiara).
My close friend from Oregon sadly never got to meet Aunt Judy, but she remarked on how, even in pictures, she could see Aunt Judy’s Light. I think all of us know what she means; Aunt Judy’s light was so bright, it was perhaps too much for one person to contain. And I know for everyone here right now, the world seems so much darker in her absence.
But the thing about Aunt Judy is that she shared that light. Freely and unquestioningly. It was a gift she gave to us every day of her life. All of us has a part of it, not just those in this room, but all the students she taught, the people she worked with, the readers who loved her books, and the many lives she touched.
And if we cultivate that light and all the qualities of hers it entails—her generosity, warmth; her infectious laugh and joy; her ability to see the specialness and potential in anyone—and we share that with our friends, our children, and the world around us…that light will burn almost as bright as when she was here. And the world will be less dark again.
I’m going to read with the Prayer of St. Francis, which is excellent even if you’re a godless heathen like me. Part of the reason I choose to live my life by it is due to the example Aunt Judy provided me.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Goodbye, Aunt Judy. I’ll be seeing you.
My wonderful(ly evil) friend Dina James has immortalized Aunt Judy in fiction.
You can read Judy’s last ride with Billy here.