My mother’s funeral was on Sunday, January 21. While it was a somber affair, the fact that I had my entire family around me helped buffer the sadness. We all held up well by leaning on each other.
I have to thank my wife and kids for being so supportive and understanding throughout this whole experience, and I’m especially proud of how my brother and sisters and I banded together to help Mom out in her final weeks and days—and how well we worked together once she was gone too.
Over a hundred people braved the cold Wisconsin weather to join us for Mom’s funeral. Her sister Joanie spoke first and did a wonderful, heartbreaking job. My nephews Henry and Leo played a few songs in her honor, including a haunting rendition of “Danny Boy” on the guitar. Their father—my sister Kim’s husband Todd—spoke second and brought some smiles to faces that badly needed them.
I wrapped it up with a longer eulogy, and I want to post it here for you to read.
I actually wrote two eulogies. The first was a fine piece of writing, with a clear progression and theme. In the end, though, it was drier and less personal than I wanted it to be, so I scrapped it and wrote a new piece from scratch. Here’s what I wound up with:
Hi. My name is Matt Forbeck. I’m Helen’s eldest child.
I want to thank you all for coming here this afternoon to remember my mom with my family and me. It’s no surprise that you all showed up to send her off. She made so many wonderful friends over the years and treasured every one of them.
I especially want to thank my mom’s sister Joanie and her brothers Tom and John, and my brother Mark and my sisters Kim and Jody and their families, plus my wife Ann and our kids, for all their support over the past several weeks. It was a rough time, and I couldn’t have picked a better family to weather it with.
I’d like to tell you about my mom.
She was a spitfire. She always believed that if you weren’t part of the solution, you were part of the problem. And she set out to solve problems.
She was one of the fiercest, strongest people I ever met, and I had the privilege of knowing her my entire life. By every account, even from folks who knew long her before I was born, she’d always been a force of nature, ready for anything at any time.
She was always ready for a discussion — an argument, even — and never failed to speak her mind. At the same time, she always kept her mind open, and she always remembered to treat people who disagreed with her with respect. She was a card-carrying Democrat, but she counted many Republicans as her lifelong friends. She learned how to manage that at her childhood home in Menasha, where she was the lone liberal, arguing for women’s rights, even as a girl.
She took time to teach us about the history of women’s rights, and she put those lessons into practice. When there wasn’t a local equivalent of Cub Scout softball for girls, she helped set up the Beloit Girls Softball league. She served as the president of the League of Women Voters here in town, and she was the first woman president of the Beloit city council too. She always fought for equality and fairness for people of all kinds.
Nothing stopped her. Ever.
When I was a kid, we needed a coach for our soccer team, which was a new sport for us at the time. No one around here was up for it, so Mom stepped forward to volunteer, even though she’d never played the game. She just got herself a book from the library, read the rules, and set to it.
She loved to play games of all sorts. She was a champion tennis player when she was younger, although she took it a little easier later on. Moe Carroll reminded me recently about how they made their way to the championship round of a mixed-doubles tournament here in town. Mom kept taking a smoke break between sets, and despite winning to that point, they forfeited the final match because they were too beat to keep at it!
She played games like Farkle — which we called Dice — and Thirty-One with us and her grandkids for money, which was a family tradition from my father’s side. But if anyone happened to be shy of the quarters we needed, she’d pay for every pot.
Still, she never let us win. We had to earn it. When she won, she’d smile and give us the chance to win it back.
She loved this game called Speed Solitaire, in which you each play with your own deck and have to slap down cards on each other’s piles in the middle of the table. She was so sharp at it that my wife gave up playing because she wanted to keep her fingers.
Mom believed that politics were the way to change the world. When my brother and sisters and I were little kids, some of us barely able to walk, she used to cart us around Beloit with a little red wagon full of political campaign literature and have us stuff it into doorways across the city with her.
When she worked at the Department of Defense under President Clinton, the people in her office called her the Conscience. She was their own Jiminy Cricket, always speaking up whenever they considered doing something potentially sketchy. They knew they could run things past her to see if they passed the Helen test.
When Governor Walker set out to destroy the public unions here, she joined the protests. My wife and kids and I marched with her both here and in Madison, with the kids carrying signs that pointed down to clearly mark them as Union Thugs.
She was always engaged. Never distant or removed. She was passionate and intense. She ran hot.
While my wife Ann and I lived in Virginia in the mid-‘90s, Mom invited us to Bill Clinton’s second inauguration. That night, we went to the Midwest Inaugural Ball, held in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The highlight for her was when Stevie Wonder came through, and she snapped several pictures of him. I can still hear her shouting at him as his security team swept him past us. “We love you, Stevie!”
When my wife Ann became pregnant with our quadruplets, we were terrified, of course, but Mom — who was living in Virginia at the time — knew exactly what she had to do. She came straight back to Wisconsin to help out full-time with all five kids. As part of that, she slept on an old twin bed in my unfinished basement for six months.
Most kids worry they might someday wind up sleeping in their parent’s basement. She volunteered to sleep in her kid’s basement to help out with her grandchildren, and she didn’t hesitate about it for a second.
She loved with a wild abandon that knew no limits. You saw that with her family and friends, but also with her Irish heritage. She loved Irish music, Irish beer, and the place where you got them both: Irish Fest.
Maybe the only thing outside of her family that equaled that was her love for the Packers. You knew where to find her on game days.
She loved us all so much — her family and her friends — that she strove make the world a better place for us to live in. She dedicated her whole life to that in every way.
We should all do our best to live up to her legacy.
I’d like to leave you with an Irish blessing that hung in a frame by her door. It reads:
May there always be work for your hands to do.
May your purse always hold a coin or two.
May the sun always shine on your windowpane.
May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain.
May the hand of a friend always be near you.
May God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.