My mother passed away on Tuesday, May 14. Her obituary is published here. What follows are the words I struggled to speak at her memorial on Sunday, May 19.
My mom was called “Pat.” But of course that name was just a cover for a much fancier name and a more storied past.
Patricia West Lessig was the daughter of William West, who was the son Larry B. West — an icon of Chattanooga, founder of Simplicity Systems, one of the first companies to develop a technology for laying asphalt on highways. (When we were growing up, we were told he had invented highways; that probably was an exaggeration.) Simplicity was enormously successful. Larry B. West became incredibly, for the time, wealthy. He died in 1957, at the age of 88 — the same age that my mother passed on Tuesday. He had founded a southern family in the heart of Tennessee. The gift of his success would burden that family for many years after.
My mom would just tease us with tiny snippets from her childhood. Four years ago, I was invited to speak in Chattanooga — the mayor is a former student — and so we made that event a kind of reunion. We got to see the extraordinary house that my mom grew up in. I imagined her and her beautiful sister, the quintessential belles of a southern city, coming home late, after laughing loud and dancing long. I remember thinking then how difficult it must have been to be pulled north by my dad just a few years after Larry West passed. And by north, I mean really north — Rapid City, South Dakota, Minot, North Dakota, before settling for a time in Pittsburgh, and then for my childhood, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Yet as I discovered just a few years ago, the North was actually hiding, discretely, in my mother’s blood. It was an apparently well-kept secret in Chattanooga, but Larry B. West, one of the South’s great entrepreneurs, had actually moved to Chattanooga from Michigan. (Tell no one!)
The mom I remember was an icon of her own in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, not because of wealth or social standing — there wasn’t much of either in Williamsport. She was an icon because of her love and generosity to everyone — including at least sometimes, to us, her children. We would joke often about how often her love turned to others outside of our house. At every Thanksgiving, there were strangers at the table. And when we’d ask, why are they here? She’d reply: “they had no place to go.” Always she was volunteering for everything there was, helping everyone she could, to show us that humans could be more than who we fear we are: Meals on Wheels, the Red Cross, the March of Dimes — everything. For a few years, maybe 10 years, she was a real estate agent in Williamsport. She was the most successful real estate agent in her office because she didn’t need to sell anything; what she needed was to help people. That need was the key to her sales success. I remember, whenever she sold a house, whether big or small, we would deliver a turkey dinner to the family, a huge cooked turkey in an unwieldy aluminum pan, which I dropped, at least once. Some of the houses were glorious. Most were incredibly modest. Her joy was greater the smaller the house, for the smaller the house, the greater the need. I remember once she actually bought a house for a couple who couldn’t get a mortgage. They rented it from her, rent to own. I was appalled. How could you buy them a house?, I asked her. Why would you do that? She said: “Because they had no place to go.”
This was my mom. And everyone here certainly saw this in her. The Rosebuds, Ladies Bridge, and so much else at Rose Hill — where they lived for almost 30 years — and the Bridge Group at Bayshore. This was the constant lesson that this woman would teach — how can I help others? And in our jealousy, us, the kids, in our jealousy of those who shared our mother’s love, we learned from her the most important lesson. She was not a religious woman, but she practiced a love that Jesus would have recognized: “Do they,” she asked in everything she did, “do they have a place to go?”
Now she could practice this kind of love because at the core of her life there was a love beyond measure — the love she shared with my father. She had met my dad when he was building a bridge in Chattanooga. She had fallen for him enough to be drawn north — and again, really north. And for almost 60 years, they were husband and wife.
I idolize my dad. I always have. No one worked harder; no one laughed with greater joy. He taught me right, in what he did, not just in what he said. And there isn’t a single day when I don’t think about how I could love my own family better, by thinking of how he and my mom practiced their own love together. She made him. He gave her the space — and confidence — to be her own skeptical, playful, sometimes, let’s say, sarcastic, wit, to build that complex love. Nothing is more than the love they shared; nothing could be more important than showing children that such love is possible.
Last month, I published a book. I had been working on that book for almost 25 years. It’s a book about our Constitution — specifically, about how much in our Constitution and its tradition we take for granted. How much about how it defines us and makes us, we don’t even see.
What I came to realize as I wrote that book was that the book was a metaphor for my life with my mom. There was so much about who I was that came from her that I couldn’t ever see. Some of the bad, maybe. So much of the good.
And so, as I wrote in the final sentence, “this book is dedicated to a woman whose love and influence I have taken for granted, in ways I’m not sure I will ever really understand.”
I don’t understand it still. It has defined me in ways I can see, and in ways I won’t. It has defined who I could love — only someone who is likewise always focused intently on helping others too. And now that she is gone, I know that all there is is to continue to practice that complex love, because so deep in all of us does she lie that that is all that we can do.
“Do they have a place to go.” What better question could there be for ordering life, and teaching love?