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Elsie

Elsie Jane Brownell at 11 months


Elsie Jane Sullivan
was honored with 
Salem's Service to Mankind Award in 1980 
for her volunteer work -- notably, her 
efforts on behalf of Vietnamese and Laotian 
refugees and her 18 years as coordinator of 
the Salem Meals On Wheels program.




Elsie and her daughter, Nancy, at the beach. 




Eulogy for My Mother
Elsie Jane Sullivan
by David Sullivan
September 25, 1993


On behalf of the Sullivan family, I want to thank you for taking the time to come here today to pay your respects to my Mother, Elsie Jane Sullivan.

I'm not used to talking to so many people or talking about a topic so close to my heart, so I brought two props to help. First, I brought a detailed script, in case my brain tries to lock up. Second, I brought a handkerchief. Actually, I'm hoping the handkerchief will work like an umbrella . . . it never seems to rain when you have an umbrella.

When I found out earlier this week that I would be giving a short talk about my Mother today, I spent a sleepless night thinking about what to say. How could I do justice to the task? I don't know how to pack a whole, active lifetime into a few minutes of words.

The task seemed all the more daunting because we are not talking about an ordinary person here. My Mother was the original SuperMom . . . she came before the term had even been invented. She was, quite simply, the best mother in the whole world.

In a moment of panic, I thought maybe I should say just that . . . that they don't make people any better than my Mother, and then sit down. But I knew that wouldn't be adequate. Among other things, I could hardly expect you to accept my opinion as unbiased. You would probably guess that I think my children are the best kids in the world . . . and you would be right.

I lay awake, thinking about Mom's life. Naturally, the most prominent memories were the recent ones. But these didn't make sense to focus on . . . because Alzheimer's disease is a terribly cruel disease, and over a period of years it slowly took away her mental abilities.

I decided to try thinking back to my childhood. Honestly, I didn't expect to find many relevant memories; I have an absolutely lousy memory system, and I don't spend much time thinking about my youth. During the night as events resurfaced about my early days, I found they were all tied to Mother. She was always there for me.

Some of my first memories of life are of the year-long family trip we took to Boston when I was five. Mother organized this trip with precision . . . just as she organized all our family outings. For example, later, when were going to take a trip to Mexico, she borrowed an overhead projector, and we traced all of Mexico onto a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood, and drew in all the cities and roads, and colored the provinces. Then we planned our exact route and studied the language, culture, and history -- all before starting the trip.

Anyway, the trip to Boston involved cramming the six of us into a 1957 Ford station wagon, along with as many of our belongings as would fit. Mom used ingenious methods to keep us distracted from the long hours of driving in close quarters. She bought dozens of tiny toys, trinkets, and stocking stuffers, and wrapped each on in its own tiny box. Every day each of us four kids were allowed to pick out one present and open it. We spent many hours examining the presents, deciding which ones to choose, playing with our choices, and trading back and forth. The ploy worked to perfection.

Mom made sure we stopped at a motel with a swimming pool each afternoon. During that trip, she taught my younger brother, Bill, and me to swim. By the time we reached Boston, Bill and I were paddling around like seals.

When we arrived in Boston, Mom enrolled me in first grade. It is my general understanding that Mom had done such an extensive job of prepping my older brother and sister, Steve and Nancy, for their first grade classes-- by teaching them the alphabet, how to read, about simple math -- that their teachers had complained. So Mom accepted this advice and she left my mind as a blank slate, unpolluted by knowledge about reading or numbers.

On the first parent visitation day, Mom saw most of the kids in my first-grade class sitting at their desks, working away. I was at the back of the classroom, with a couple of other kids, quietly playing with blocks or drawing. The teacher explained, "When Dave is ready to learn, he will do fine."

Guess what? Mom and I started reading books together after school each day. At the next parent visitation day, the teacher said, "See, I told you, Dave has been making remarkable progress."

It is strange the things you remember. One of the clearest memories comes from the second grade. For a party, my second grade teacher invited mothers to come and make taffy for the class. Three moms showed up for the cook-off, and of course, Elsie was one of them. I don't remember exactly why, but the batches of taffy that the other two moms cooked were dismal failures. Mom's batch was the only one to work, but this was no surprise to me . . . Mom was always taking care of one thing or another . . . like the little belt-loop pouch she sewed me to keep my glasses, so I wouldn't lose them quite so often.

With only one batch of taffy and about 30 kids, everyone got only a tiny piece, not much bigger than a rubber band. I made mine into a bow tie. The point of the story is: I could always count on Mom. She always came through. It really does something for a kid to have his Mom come to class and be the only one whose batch of taffy is stretchable.

A couple of years later, the school wanted to test my younger brother, Bill, to see if he would qualify for the EA, Educationally Advanced, program. Bill was a rambunctious and precocious kid, an obvious choice for testing. I was much quieter, less noticeable, and I'd already been passed over for testing the year before. Mom said they could only test Bill if they would test me as well. We both ended up passing the test . . . with basically the same score. So I began the EA program, and it placed me on a path to become a college professor.

So as I was lying awake, I thought maybe I could tell these stories, and then I could explain how Mom brought me into this world, how she taught me what I needed to know to get started in life, how she gave me the self-confidence to succeed. Surely I owe my professional success to my Mother . . . maybe this was the right message to deliver.

As I tossed and turned, this message felt so incomplete. Something was wrong and I couldn't put my finger on it.

The next day, I began to realize where I had missed the point. Mother would not have cared whether I became a college professor and textbook author, or a forester, or a garbage collector. (In the first grade I thought being a garbage collector would be a really neat job because you could take your pick of all the cool stuff I was sure people were throwing away.)

Mother's life wasn't about status or prestige or outside recognition. She lived her life based on simple values that revolve around family, duty, and respect and service to others. She was a deeply religious woman, but she didn't talk about God or Christianity a lot. As a family, we went to church each Sunday, but the way she expressed her beliefs was through her actions.

Mother was not a philosopher -- she was a doer, and she was a finisher. She had strong sense of right and wrong, and once she decided something ought to be done, then it would get done. You wouldn't want to be a tansy plant in a pasture that she had decided should be tansy-free. Years ago the family's 20-acre Siletz pasture was covered with yellow tansy tops, swaying in the wind. When Mom began fighting this vast expanse with hand tools. I thought the job was hopeless, but she kept at it, year after year. Each year there were fewer tansy plants to fight. Eventually she got them all, and I don't remember seeing a single tansy plant in the pasture this year. In just the same way, you wouldn't want to be a beaver trying to build a damn that caused water to stand on the entrance road to the Siletz. After a while, even the beavers seemed to understand it would be useless to rebuild a damn that Mother thought was in the wrong place.

Mother felt strongly about the importance of family. She grew up in the close-knit Brownell family where she acquired a love of the outdoors. She built her family around similar principles.

Raising four children could not have been easy. All her kids went through toilet training before Pampers. She lived in a time when hardwood floors were cleaned with a mop and then shined by spreading Johnson Paste Wax while on her hands and knees. Organizing back-packing trips before the days of freeze-dried foods or light-weight nylon tents wasn't easy either. I remember her standing at the frying pan, cooking hamburger to remove the fat and moisture, sealing the result in tin foil to make our dinners. And when Dad got home from work, everything would be ready for us to pile in the car and be off.

Mother taught us how to live by example. She kept herself fit, stayed away from drugs and alcohol, and prepared a balanced diet according to the standards of the day. In addition to running the house, she kept an active schedule of working with others and the community. For her, life wasn't meant to be wasted away through laziness. If she caught me slouching, I was told to "Sit up straight." It was good advice then, and some of you might want to consider it now.

The center of our family life was at dinnertime. She made sure we all sat down to a good meal, and lively conversations would result. If anyone got too carried away with one topic of discussion, she would pick up her fork and tap her glass (tap, tap, tap), and announce "Not of general interest." Just as it doesn't make sense to argue with a basketball referee, it didn't pay to argue about this judgment call, so someone would introduce another topic, and we would be off talking about something else.

Mother participated in the many games we played as a family, but for her the games weren't primarily about competition. She valued cooperation and interaction more than winning. This came across with devastating effect if I got too carried away in negotiating or arguing and just thought I had won a victory. She would say, "I hope you are happy." Her way of saying this killed any smugness and made me take a new look at the situation.

So what is the purpose of these stories? I want to say that with Mom's passing, I have lost more than the person who brought me into this world, I have lost more than the person who taught me how to navigate through the complexities of modern life, and I have lost more than a best friend. I have lost the person who taught me -- by example -- what is important and what to value.

I expect this will be Mother's greatest legacy . . . the wholesome basic values about respect, honor, duty, family, right-and-wrong, and responsibility that she inspired in others through her work. So now it is my job to take those lessons and try to reflect them in my life and pass them on to my children. Out of respect for her, I will do my best to stand up straight and walk forward into the rest of my life.


Left:  Elsie's parents, Ruth and Austin B. Brownell with Steve Sullivan.
Right: Elsie with sister, Nancy.
 Elsie and Nancy Brownell holding crabs