A Eulogy for Esther Summers

I delivered this eulogy on Saturday at the funeral for Esther Summers.


My name is Jeffrey Carter.  Esther Summers was the sister of my grandmother, Ruth.  I was asked to prepare a few remarks for today, and I’m so pleased to be able to pay public tribute to this aunt I loved so dearly.

How does one become a saint?  I’d propose in much the same way that Aunt Esther did.  This woman was happy . . . content . . . satisfied with the life she was given . . .empowered by grace . . . sure in her faith and convictions.

That this childless aunt we all love became the pseudo-matriarch of a far-flung clan of Gutshall descendents is surely no accident of history.  Her role in later life was to be the anchor that brought us together once a year for a birthday party and reunion. She loved us each, even when in her twilight she didn’t remember names, and certainly didn’t remember connections and who belonged to whom.

Uncle John is in the photo to the top right.
Uncle John is in the photo to the top right.

Aunt Esther married Uncle John in 1951.  He had served in World War II.  She was a social worker in Macon, Missouri, 60 miles or so north of Columbia.  They lived in the same boarding house, and she figured out that he was courting others, so she was always working on papers in the common room when he was ready to go out for the evening.  One evening he just stayed and talked with her.  They had 33 years of marriage before his untimely death.

Aunt Esther was gracious and kind.  I suppose riding a mule to school as a child will either lead to extraordinary kindness or bitter resentment.

. . . and she was a wonderful cook, as many of us can attest.

After the death of her beloved husband 30 years ago this coming Tuesday [April 15, 1984], she took on the task of finding her own way in life, but she had already found that way, in working for the State, in teaching church classes, in surrogate parenting grad students who lived in her basement.

Not many years after Uncle John died, Aunt Esther faced the fearsome task of total reinvention in a new place, with new friends, in a much-downsized apartment.  She tackled this task with magnanimity, without any outward fear, and with the clear-minded devotion she brought to so much of her life.  She was methodical in her choices and decisions.

Esther and Ruth were each named after strong Old Testament characters. I have no doubt that their considerable strength of character, exhibited over and over throughout long lives, owes in part to their namesakes from antiquity.

A friend wrote me the other day: “she shouldn’t have a tombstone.  She should have a trophy.”  He was right.  Anyone who hits 101 years old deserves something more than a granite marker.  If she hadn’t already planned for her marker, as she planned for this entire gathering today, I’d suggest we take up a collection and put out the biggest trophy ever!….

Some of my earliest memories are of days – and nights – at Aunt Esther and Uncle John’s house.  My parents and my sister Karen and I moved to Columbia when I was three.  Their house at 110 Clinton is as much a part of me early memory as the first house my parents ever owned  in Columbia.

When my youngest sister was born, Aunt Esther and Uncle John kept Karen and me overnight.  It was on their floor that I threw a bit of a fit over having a new sister, rather than a new brother.  (I’ve since gotten over it.)

During most of the 1960′s and into the 1970′s, my parents had season tickets to Mizzou football games.  We three kids would get deposited with Aunt Esther and Uncle John on Saturday prior to noon.  I’d ‘help’ Aunt Esther cook, and help set the table for dinner.  After a great meal we’d depart for Hannibal, and later for Lee’s Summit.

I first drank coffee, with pounds of sugar and cream, at Aunt Esther’s house.  My parents started taking mission trips with the church youth group in 1972.  I was too young to go then, so I’d be shipped off to Columbia for ten days to stay with the Summers relations.  These were great days!  I’d help mow the yard, learn more about cooking, go to Arrow Rock with Aunt Esther, get books from the library, walk to the nearby Nowell’s grocery store, stay up late watching Johnny Carson, and listen to LP recordings of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Aunt Esther used to tell the story of me climbing up on the ottoman, madly conducting to the sound of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on the LP player.  I was already honing my craft, but with a wooden spoon from the kitchen as a baton.

Years later, when I was in financial straits, Aunt Esther helped me out.  The dresser and chest of drawers in my bedroom are from one of her own bedrooms, given to me when she downsized and moved to Raymore.

Aunt Esther was an artist.  She made candles at home, big tall ones with plastic flowers in them.  She painted in oils.  Many of us have several of her paintings.  She worked on found objects too, painting me a Tom Sawyer on a wooden trash can, or painting Grandma Blocher’s greenhouse on an old saw.

I’m keenly aware of how much I learned from her about the kitchen.  In fact, next to my mother, Aunt Esther taught me more about cooking than anyone else in my life.  She was in her time a fabulous cook.  I regret now that my taste buds in my teens didn’t extend to things like broccoli and such, since she was a decidely unparochial cook.  Many of us here today have happy memories of Thanksgiving dinners with Aunt Esther and Uncle John at the tidy white house in Columbia.

Me with my great-aunt Esther Gutshall Summers at 96.
Me with my great-aunt Esther Gutshall Summers at 96.

As an adult, I delighted to stop by to see her, and spend the night if I could, whenever I was in Columbia.  I traveled in my college admissions job in the mid-80′s, and I know that Aunt Esther appreciated my visits in her new and unexpected widowhood.

Aunt Esther was a liberal-minded person.  She’s a sainted Christian, for sure, and Baptist to the core, but in the moderate way that I think I remember from my childhood and teenage years, long before everything became so damn polarized.  And until her last slow decline, she still went to church unless the weather was too bad.

Age takes tolls on all of us.  In Aunt Esther’s case, she used a walker, moved slowly, spoke with hoarseness, and didn’t always hear that well.  I loved how she showed me, with a bit of glee, her new motorized buggy last year.  She had a new toy. And her mind stayed sharp, though, until these final latter days.  She read a lot, and she had spicy comments to share about the occasional politician.

George Eliot pens the story of an unsuspecting heroine in the novel MIDDLEMARCH.  The leading character dies quietly, not knowing how her life had fueled good in those around her.

Eliot ended MIDDLEMARCH with these words:

“. . . the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully their hidden lives, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

I doubt that, as long as any of us are alive, Aunt Esther will rest in an unvisited tomb.  But Eliot could have been speaking of Esther Summers when she spoke of those who lived faithfully their quiet lives, and through their apparently unhistoric acts provided a growing good in this world.

This is indeed Aunt Esther’s story.  Her influence as humanitarian, teacher, social worker, prayerful partner, and indeed untraditional matriarch has literally reached around the world.

We are all better off for Esther Summers’ presence in our lives.  We give thanks for her today with sorrow, fondness, and love.

Rest in peace, Aunt Esther.  May flights of angels lead you to glory.  You have fought the good fight, and you have kept the faith. Your rest is won.

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