Eulogy for Virginia Henney Fox Swenson (link to video, eulogy at time code 40:15) given January 20, 2011, First Congregational Church, Topeka, Kansas.
Genealogy of the Soul
If there is not joy in your heart today, you are at the wrong funeral. If you don’t have a big band bounce, or a little swing in your step; appreciation for tight four-part harmony with a silky smooth baritone as the soundtrack of life; if you can’t appreciate life’s simple pleasures – family, friends, laughter, love – you’re at the wrong funeral. If you think America’s best days are behind her, that we won’t see our way through challenging times; then you don’t understand the unflinching optimism that lives in the spirit of an American classic, my stepmother, Virginia Henney Fox Swenson.
I will not say that Virginia was a rock because that suggests her physical presence is her strength. Virginia is a rock. Her stability, fortitude, determination and focus are the strength of her spirit, now living in the heart of each life she touched. Virginia could stare down adversity, see through life’s most shocking moments with her legendary, quiet, resolve. Virginia would tell us these characteristics are nothing special. It’s who we are as a people, as Americans, no matter where we come from, no matter how we got here.
Just as Virginia’s strength is in her spirit, not dependent on her physical presence, her patriotism had nothing to do with territory or empire, and everything to do with the idea that is America. Virginia loved the idea of America because it is humanity’s most successful and enduring experiment in self-governance.
In this way, America and Virginia are a lot alike, for Virginia governed her self well. Always positive, Virginia was no Polly Anna pushover. She knew things worked out better when you started any encounter with a smile, kind word, and maintained a positive attitude. She wasn’t given to wild mood swings or extremes. Moderation was her hallmark, and from her unshakable center she could withstand anything.
You never wanted to cross Virginia, backing down wasn’t something she did easily, but she held her ground with resolve and determination, not anger, not negativity. I’ve seen Virginia mad, I’ve seen her hurt. I never saw her negative.
She governed her self, and that self-assurance gave her strength, and her strength was something we all grew to rely on. We still can. By governing the self first, taking responsibility for our own happiness, as Virginia’s life demonstrates, makes us stronger to help others, to pursue happiness, enjoy life, embody liberty.
Virginia loved America because she studied how and why people came to this country. She cared about the influences on who we are today, traced through bloodlines 17-plus generations back on human pedigree charts, where “pedigree” is very broadly interpreted. These genealogy charts represent order, they make seemingly random events of who marries whom, who gives birth to whom, and the fact that, if it weren’t for this boat not sinking like the others it set sail with, or that distant relative not taking a risk to head west, we might not be here – all that chaos, for Virginia, becomes order.
As the very roots of our family tree, Virginia’s character is solid, tangible. Even as I’ve lived away these past 20 years, I always felt like I could hold onto Virginia’s character. No matter what was going on in the world, no matter where you were, you knew somewhere in Topeka, Virginia was doing something, and whatever it was, it would strike each of us as being authentically Virginia. She was always doing. And she was definitely, always, happy. There is a structure to her happiness. Like the lines on her charts, flowing ever onward, connecting the generations, making life make sense makes Virginia happy. Structure makes her happy.
Virginia’s spirit honors family and country as foundations for a happy life, especially where family and country are inclusive and welcoming. I have the blessing of four wonderful parents to learn life with. We learned, and Virginia was instrumental in this, families do not begin and end with marriages, they extend and grow through marriage. We recognized that love, circumstances, and people change. Virginia always said when working on her genealogy charts, “when it comes to family, white out is a genealogists best friend.”
Order. Structure. Foundation.
When the white out dried out on the lines that became our ever-expanding family, Virginia and I were both 5’2” with eyes of blue. She and I picked out the house on Westwood. It wasn’t until Dad arrived from work to see the house Virginia and I chose that he decided they should get married. As we settled in on Westwood my growth spurt continued and that wasn’t the only reason Virginia and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye. It wasn’t typical pre-teen drama, nor was I projecting my wicked stepmother nightmares onto her when Virginia and I had our first test of our wills; a test that shaped us both over the lifetime we shared.
It was a sunny summer day and I was out shooting baskets when the mailman waved and I ran down the drive to get the mail. There was this strange magazine among the bills and actual letters people still wrote back then. The cover had a picture of Phyllis Schlaffley wearing a tiara and a sash emblazoned with militaristic medals. It was 1974, I was 11 and cutting my political teeth watching the women’s liberation movement unfold, certain it meant something for me, but as a boy, not certain what that was. Yet. I knew Mrs. Schlaffley as a vocal opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, and thus, in my mind, something of an oddity. A woman opposed to equality.
I walked the mail into the room where Virginia spent her days working on genealogy. Somewhat incredulously I asked, “What’s this?” After a brief explanation about the Daughters of the American Revolution, and my quickly silenced protests about Schlaffley’s conservatism, I marched to my room, no longer masking my dismay, called Dad’s office and asked, “Did you know Virginia is a Republican? Worse, she’s conservative! This DAR thing looks like a cult. She opposes the ERA for God’s sake, what were you thinking?” To my mind this was the worst kind of mixed marriage. For Virginia and I, the honeymoon was over.
For Dad and Virginia, the honeymoon lasted another 37 years, and while the last few months weren’t always easy, their love was never more on display, as when together they worked through the different challenges each faced, and everyday made the choice to honor Virginia’s desire to be at home. Dad and I both learned early on, Virginia usually gets her way, and the truth is that was good by us. Turns out, it was also good for us.
Politically, Virginia became the whetstone upon which I sharpened my persuasive skills, certain I could change her views over the course of a few dinner conversations and definitely before the 1974 election. But Virginia didn’t care much for politics back then, and never had an appetite for confrontation. She believed what she believed to her core. No explanation required or offered, not a whiff of defensiveness when challenged. If you disagreed with her, so be it, pass the cheese plate, freshen the cocktail and change the subject. It’s America; people can disagree without being disagreeable. She never said that, she embodied it. The lessons of her life best learned by watching the grace with which she lived.
Born an only child at the end of World War I and the same year women won the right to vote, Virginia was also quintessentially Topekan. The rest of the world was fine to visit and she was okay living elsewhere for short spurts, but Topeka was always home. In a city famous for segregated schools, as a child Virginia didn’t like not being able to play with the black children who lived across the street. As she got older she made their acquaintance and friendship. This was the 1920’s and 30’s, long before Brown v. Board, but something in Virginia’s spirit, even as a little girl, allowed her to see the world differently.
A graduate of Topeka High and Washburn University, she met airman Chet Fox at a sorority dance in Kansas City, and on their first official date they decided to get married one day. Virginia joined Chet, then stationed at Mitchell Field on Long Island and gave birth to Charlotte, then moved back to Topeka to be closer to her parents before having Bob. And in one of those only-in-Topeka stories, Chet and Virginia’s daughter Charlotte would baby-sit Swede and Marge’s younger kids, Debbie and Mike, Charlotte and Bob’s future step siblings. I came to Swede and Marge a little later, so that meant Charlotte, Bob and I met the old fashioned way, at our parents wedding.
In 1972 Chet’s sudden death shook Virginia, Charlotte, and Bob, no doubt. Sudden and untimely deaths do that. Dad and Virginia were staying with me in Washington, DC, when another sudden and untimely death, Virginia’s beloved grandson Sean, rocked the entire family. In each case, Virginia’s strength allowed her to grieve, release, and move on. Not easily, not quickly, always respectfully. Privately she may have broken down, but when I picked her up outside Constitution Hall after Dad called with the news of Sean’s death, I wasn’t sure what I’d find. She got in the car, held me close in a hug a little tighter, lasting a few seconds longer than normal, then sat back and said, “I’m okay, I don’t understand, but I’m okay.”
I do not know where her strength came from, or how she taught it, but I know I face life today more confidently because I learned it watching her. I’ve also learned to let go of my need to understand everything and everyone, by watching Virginia’s example. If she had something troubling her, she’d speak her mind then let go, but letting go of the challenges life presents each of us, for Virginia, never meant letting go of love or respect. Each of us has this same opportunity, to take with us from this day forward, the strength we all admire in Virginia’s spirit. We can allow her spirit to inspire us to know our own strength as she knew hers.
Over the years Virginia and I came to a truce of sorts on politics. I didn’t question her, and she feigned interest in what I had to say before changing the subject. I knew debating Reagan with her was a lost cause, and though Dad suggested she might vote for Clinton, I always figured when she got behind the curtain, she voted straight Republican. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when the political became personal, when I told Dad and Virginia I was gay. She didn’t flinch. She smiled, hugged me, sat down and started asking questions based on church classes they’d taken about faith and sexuality.
Unlike Phyllis Schlaffley, who rejected her gay son and whose DAR Magazine portrait still haunts me, Virginia embraced me, and opened her heart to a more expansive idea of family. As the quintessential Topekan, Virginia taught me to ignore the local crazy anti-gay picketers who shall not be named, because she knew that love is the ultimate commandment, and sometimes ignoring someone is the only way you can demonstrate love.
It wasn’t until I worked supporting Oregon’s Death with Dignity law that Virginia really understood what I did for a living. Virginia said to me, “That’s important,” poking her finger at me with the passion of an advocate. What she intuitively understood is that whatever our individual wishes may be about how we’ll face death we must do it on our terms. Virginia’s terms were to be at home with Swede. Be home. With Swede. If she had to endure being bed-ridden; facing whatever her mind was calling on her to deal with as her physical body shut down and her spirit prepared for the next phase of its journey; then it seems her requests were not only simple, they were profound. In the end, few things matter. Home. Family. Dignity. In Virginia’s world these are synonyms for, order, structure, foundation.
I felt I’d won some small achievement that Virginia seemed more passionate about a political issue, that we finally had something in common politically. But after decades of my subtle persuasion, quiet cajoling, nudging her along a progressive path, all my efforts were eclipsed by one book. When I wanted Dad and Virginia to put bumper-stickers on the car, or yard signs in the yard, for three decades the answer was “no.” When I suggested a small political contribution, Virginia turned her nose up. Until he came along.
The way Virginia told it was that she read this young man’s book, a little faster than most, and when she read the last page, she closed it, sat it down and said, “He’s going to be the smartest President we’ve ever had.” It was long before any candidates had announced, but I knew if my stepmother was saying that about Barack Obama, the 2008 election was already over.
Somehow it’s fitting we memorialize Virginia today, January 20th, the second anniversary of President Obama’s first Inauguration. In my wildest dreams I never imagined Virginia becoming as enthusiastic about a politician as she did Barack Obama. I wish I could say my years of persuasion made her a liberal, I didn’t. Like everything else about Virginia, her enthusiasm came from her center, from her understanding of America’s tragic and triumphal history, and in this man she saw something steady, strong. She saw the idea of America extending to new generations in new ways, a continuation of the story she lovingly preserved and nurtured in her own way as one of America’s great daughters.
As much as family and church will miss Virginia’s physical presence, so too will her sisters in the DAR. When I visited Margaret Bates’ Facebook page to read her very sweet tribute to Virginia, several women commented, “She was a real LADY.” They wrote LADY in all caps, and I thought that was perfect. An all caps LADY, is not someone you mess with.
Lady wasn’t a stuffy title to Virginia, nor was it a pretense. It was in her DNA, she was genetically predisposed to having doors opened for her. Her respect came from within, respect she offered everyone she met because that was how she expected to be treated. No, far from being stuffy, Virginia was a lady who liked to party.
Whether going out or hosting, be it a Sunday picnic sailing at Lake Shawnee Yacht Club, having friends and neighbors to the pool, dancing the night away, playing games with friends, or enjoying a quiet evening of cribbage or cards at home, Virginia got the most out of every moment of 91 years of life. Her travels took her to Spain and other exotic places with her gal pals, Hawaii and countless cross-country trips to Barbershop Chorus or DAR Conventions, always planning extra time to get off the beaten path and do research in any library or graveyard that held the promise of one more birth, marriage or death record; one more piece to the multi-generational puzzle where Virginia found comfort in order, structure, foundation. These are the cornerstones of Virginia’s spirit, the certainty upon which she lived this life, in this generation, as an American Lady, who likes to party.
God bless and keep you Virginia Henney Fox Swenson, for God surely blessed all of us with your gracious spirit.