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A Eulogy for Alice Rodden Zimmermann, 1924-2021

By Patricia Rodden Zimmermann

In Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, New York, my mother cascaded into what the doctors diagnosed as a state of delirium. But in my Scots Irish heritage, she was speaking with the spirits, because there is no border between the living and the dead, the past and the present. Those who had passed comforted her: my father Byron; her brothers Jimmy, Barney, Johnny; her parents John and Sarah; Angus, Margaret, and more. Alice was scrubbing the house from top to bottom, vacuuming behind the piano, and polishing all the silver. She had no time, she declared. She was planning a big family party with ham, rolls from Fingerhut Bakery, watermelon, lemonade, and her homemade pies. She screamed “get out, get out, god damn it.” My son Sean and I knew it was a party to which the living were not invited. Those spirits of the dead were welcoming her. Over the decades, she shipped me maybe fifty white Irish linen napkins. She instructed: you must always iron and starch the napkins because the creases and wrinkles attract all the bad luck. Start at the edges. Iron slowly. My mother believed the color white possessed special mystical powers, a talisman, a totem for the spirit world, a blessing. White doves perched on the boughs of the Christmas tree. White orchids. A white angel Christmas tree topper. White in all flower arrangements. White linen tablecloths. White mums for her wedding bouquet. A spray of white flowers on her white casket. Alice was the only daughter of John Rodden, a Scottish immigrant from Stirling, Scotland, a coal miner and union activist. Her mother was Sarah Hughes, a first-generation Irish woman whose family hailed from Cork and Tyrone. British soldiers came to cut Alice’s grandmother’s long white-blond hair for Tory wigs in Parliament. She beat them off with a broom. She shouted no Irishwoman’s hair would ever sit atop any Brit. In 1929, the stock market crashed, and a scarlet fever epidemic surged. Alice was five. She contracted scarlet fever. It permanently damaged her hearing. She believed that although God had taken away her hearing, he gifted her a more powerful replacement: the sixth sense, a heightened capacity for intuition and insight. At the start of World War II, she moved north to Chicago. She was 17. She lived in the southside Scots Irish ghetto with brogues as thick as the rocks jumbled on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked at Western Electric—the men were at war. On weekends, she took the El to the Aragon Ballroom to swing dance to big bands. In the elevator at one of these dances, she met my father Byron, a dancer so light on his feet he seemed to glide on air. To marry her, my father converted to Catholicism not out of any religious fervor, but because he loved her. Ferocious, fiery passions stoked Alice’s obsessions: Her children Her grandchildren Democrats Laughter Fun The Cubs Irish Catholicism Bowling Golf Card and board games The nightly news The Chicago Tribune The New York Times Travel across the US and Europe Baking Sewing Needlepoint Theater Opera Dancing Lakes and oceans and waterfalls Container gardening with red geraniums, pink petunias, striped begonias, and white sweet alyssum. My mother loved to talk and to tell stories. Alice picked blackberries with my grandfather in the woods in Southern Illinois to make jam. She told me my grandmother, from a long line of Irish seamstresses, could transform anything with just needle and thread: Flour sacks into aprons. Old coats into dresses. Navy uniforms into civilian suits. She told me about anti-union thugs ramming guns up my union organizer grandfather’s back on the steps of the church in West Frankfort. My mother hid in the basement of her family’s bungalow in West Frankfort while white hooded Ku Klux Klansmen burned crosses on their lawn and invaded their home carrying guns. The KKK attacked African Americans, Irish, Scots, immigrants, Catholics, and unions. During the Trump Presidency, Alice insisted that the KKK had infiltrated the White House. She declared that unlike the old days, they now worked out in the open during the day, their white hoods hidden in the trunks of their Chevrolets and Buicks. Alice lived in West Frankfort, Chicago, Westchester, Houston, and Ithaca New York. Her wish was to return to Chicago to be buried next to my father, blessed by a Catholic mass with music. Alice lived almost a century: 97 years. The shattering events of the 20th and 21st century entwined within her: The Great Tornado of 1925 in southern Illinois, The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, The Great Depression in 1929, The Scarlet Fever Outbreak of 1928-1929, World War II, The Cold War, The Vietnam War, The 1968 Democratic Convention, The Anti-War Movement, 9/11, The elections of President Kennedy whom she loved because he was Catholic and President Obama whom she adored because he was a Chicagoan, And, finally, the COVID pandemic. On Thursday, March 12, 2020, COVID raged across the United States and the world. Governor Andrew Cuomo closed all access to nursing homes in New York state. I rushed to see her. Nurses, families, aides swarmed. In anguish, my mother cried out: What is going on? What will happen to me? So that Alice could read our lips, we set up weekly Zooms. We held up whiteboards and wrote I miss you and I love you and throw me a kiss. I sent her letters every day. By summer 2020, I could sit six feet away outside with a barrier between us after a negative COVID test. She asked me: Is this a World War? Could I please, please, break her free from this prison? She told me that Ithaca had the whitest, most beautiful clouds on earth. On November 13, she contracted COVID. She tested positive for forty-eight days. Every single resident and worker at Oak Hill Nursing Home was infected. 25% of the residents died. Alice survived COVID, but never recovered from it. During the unbearable crisis of the outbreak, her hearing aids were lost. For six months, I advocated for their replacement. I believe my mother endured long COVID, with joint pain, total deafness now in her right ear, and intensified dementia hallucinations. The recorded COVID deaths in the United States are only part of this pandemic’s history. My mother’s death is among the uncounted of COVID, just as her own grandparents were buried in unmarked graves in Stirling Scotland on the slope beneath the Catholic Church. Byron and I believe an Irish fighting spirit possessed our mother to the very end as she ripped out the IVs, fought the doctors and nurses, and planned her last family party. My son Sean insisted we read the Irish Blessing together over her. I held her hand. When she awoke, we wrote the names of her children and grandchildren on our whiteboards—Patty, Stewart, Bryon, Sean, Nicole, Crystal, Danielle. In large purple letters, I penned: you are loved. I was looking north on Lake Cayuga when the IVs were removed and the priest administered the last rites. A week later on Sunday morning, when the nurse phoned to notify me she had died, I was down on the lake again. A gentle wind rippled across the water. I sensed her. She is here with us now, spiriting through these stories, the Celtic song of farewell at the Catholic mass, the Parting Glass song you will hear after this eulogy on the bagpipes. She is here through all of us gathered together today to share her funeral mass, music, lunch, stories, and toasts for a true Irish Wake. Dearest Alice, Dearest Aunt, Dearest Grandmother, Dearest Mother, Sláinte * * Sláinte means “health” or “safety” or “blessing” in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and is a drinking toast (Pronounced SLAN JE)

– Patricia Zimmermann, New York