EULOGY TO MOTHER
My name is Bill Griffin, and on behalf of the Griffin family, I would like to thank you for coming to this website and welcome you all to this memorial celebrating the life of Maria de la Caridad, whom you all knew as Bebita.
She was wife and lifetime companion of 54 years to Henry Griffin; mother to me and my four sisters, Carol, Madeline, Janette and Laura; and grandmother to seven grandchildren: Christina and Camille; Alessa and Robert; Whitney, Griffin, and Reed; and our dear little Maile.
She was also sister to Maria Magdalena "Nenetica" whose presence at our mother's memorial, represented the nephews, nieces, first, second, and third cousins of Bebita girdling the world in nearly every major continent.
My mother was born in Havana, Cuba in the year 1933. Her full name was Maria de la Caridad Del Monte y Herrera. She was the younger child of two daughters. Her nickname “Bebita” was a diminutive of the word “Beba” which meant “little baby girl”.
Her father, Luis Del Monte, was a romantic revolutionary who lost his life in the struggle against a tyrant named Machado. Bebita was only a year old when she lost him. Despite this tragedy, Bebita had a very happy and colorful childhood. She was raised in San Mariano, which was the name of her grandfather’s house.
Bebita and Nenetica were surrounded by an eccentric array of aunts and uncles and cousins who loved to play the piano, sing opera, and dance. Her neighborhood was full of children she used to play with, including the cute boy with the big ears and thick glasses that lived a couple of blocks away. You can all guess that the boy’s name was Henry Griffin. They never thought that they would fall in love.
Henry and Bebita had a storybook wedding. We still have the photos. After the ceremony, they spontaneously decided to forego the limousine and walk to their reception. I can imagine what a sight it must have been in Havana to see such a stunningly beautiful bride in a long white dress floating down the streets of the city. Soon after, Henry launched a successful career as a young architect in Havana, and Bebita got down to the business of making a home and raising babies.
As fate would have it, the history of the Cuban Revolution intervened and interrupted the lives of many young and old families. In 1960, when Castro took over Cuba, our parents had to flee their beautiful new home in Havana without their children and without money. That was the only way they could get us out before the iron curtain clamped down around the island. That story has become family legend.
Bebita had managed to smuggle just enough of her family jewels to survive in Europe, but soon that money began to run out and there were nights that the two had to snuggle together under newspapers on a London bench in Hyde Park. But good fortune intervened: my father landed a job in the United States.
Grandmother Griffin managed to smuggle us children out of Cuba and soon we were reunited in Lakewood.
My mother made quite an impression on Tacoma society with her beautiful handmade dresses and gracious manners. In 1961, the Tacoma News Tribune was impressed enough to write an article titled “Ex-Cuban Family Puts Roots Down in Tacoma (circa 1961)” The article has two pictures. One shows my mother serving her husband a cup of coffee with the following caption:
“Mrs. Griffin pours American coffee from a modern percolator which the Griffins find ‘terrific’. In Havana, coffee, black as ink and ‘strong enough to melt a spoon’ is served in tiny demitasse cups”.
Little did the author of that article know that 50 years later, that kind of coffee would be the norm in the Pacific Northwest! The other picture shows my mother in a beautiful evening dress with the caption:
“CUBAN SEÑORA COMES TO TACOMA —Mrs. Henry Griffin, the former Señorita Maria Caridad del Monte y Herrera, finds life exciting and extremely different in the Pacific Northwest than in Havana where she presided over an Italian Renaissance villa with a courtyard of royal palms and tropical flowers.
This is the stuff that legends are made of. These are the legends that we Griffin children grew up with. When the kids used to beat me up at school and call me names, my mother used to say, “Remember who you are and what you are made of. You are the son of Maria de la Caridad Del Monte Herrera Lorenzo y Vaillant de Watheville. You are a prince of royal blood.”
Yes, Mami, in your loving eyes I shall always be that prince. You gave me and my sisters the gift of self-confidence, a magical suit of armor that allows us to face an army of dragons, or a classroom full of Fifth Graders. We Griffin children may be “over-the-top”, as my British friends would say, but one thing that we are definitely are not…and that is “shy”. Have you ever met a shy Griffin?…I don’t think so.
Despite all the accolades that my mother used to receive on her beauty and her fine taste, there was something that used to gnaw deep inside her: the lack of a formal university education. She was raised by strict Spanish nuns in a very traditional way. Her sister, Nenetica was a rebel to this tradition and went on to get a doctorate in Metaphysics.
Bebita always dreamt of getting a university degree. Many of her new American friends were like her sister: educated women with degrees from universities. Bebita’s charming smile, impeccable dress and gracious manners used to mask the fact that it was really hard for her to keep up with the English conversation at the ladies’ club when the subject would turn to economics and politics.
The eloquence of these independently-minded women fascinated my mother and inspired her to re-educate herself and make her own voice be heard.
In the early seventies, a new revolution in adult education was sweeping across the United States in the form of Community Colleges. People suddenly had a second chance at getting an education. My mother was one of the first to jump at this golden opportunity. She became one of the first students to enroll at Ft Steilacoom Community College, which is now the beautiful campus called Pierce College.
While taking care of five wild and crazy teenagers, my mother managed over a period of ten years, to take evening courses in History, Art, Literature, and Anthropology, which was her favorite subject). She eventually earned an Associate of Arts Degree with FT Steilacoom Community College. My favorite photo of my mother is not the one in which she is dressed to the nines, it is the one where she is wearing a cap and gown and is shown shouting in pure unfettered joy!
That formal education did a lot for my mother. Her improved ability to read in English opened up a new world for her. She was the model of courage and persistence during our college years, for she encouraged us to study and to love learning. The motto “one is never too old to learn” has become the premise of my life thanks to her. During my college years, she would converse with us for hours on arts and the humanities.
When our family ran into financial difficulties during the crisis of the Eighties, my mother was the pillar of strength and inspiration that held us together. Nothing stopped her from being the good grandmother she wanted to be; she continued to pour unconditional love on her husband, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, friends, acquaintances and even strangers who happened to touch her heart.
We are not so sure if it was the heart attack in Honolulu that awakened the monster inside her, whatever that monster was, Alzheimer’s, dementia, or a series of strokes. The details of that story are best untold for the time being, but we all know how much she suffered when she started to get lost driving back home from the supermarket, or the panic she would feel in public if Henry left her alone for a second, or the weird hallucinations she had to endure while she was wide awake.
Fortunately, through medication and good care, the suffering gratefully stopped and Bebita became a child again. Her ability to talk and her personality deteriorated, yet she remained the bundle of love she always was. We all as a family, accepted her new condition like a new baby born into the family and we were always happy to laugh, dance and giggle with her.
It was my father who suffered the most, especially in those first couple of years in which he was the sole caregiver. Taking care of my mother while trying to run his business became too much to handle. We finally convinced him to get some outside help.
It was Sheila Gallegos who came to the rescue. Her devoted service to my mother and father has made her a member of our family for life. She helped usher in a golden sunset for my mother and helped create a garden in which she could play in, and feel loved.
On the eve of May 31st, 2009, she died peacefully in her sleep and was set free…
If there is one word that summarizes the life of my mother, that word would be “elegance” and all its derivatives. There are people from all walks of life who do not remember her name, but can identify her as the “elegant” lady with the “elegant” manners, who was “elegantly” dressed and who was a model of “elegance”.
Elegance was such an integral part of my mother that not even old man Alzheimer could rob her of that quality. It was the unconditional love of my father and the hard work of her caregiver Sheila that helped maintain that elegance and dignity all the way to her very last breath.
She may have lost her ability to reason and her ability to speak, but she never lost that charm, that elegance. At 10:00 AM sharp, she would emerge from her room, dressed and groomed like a storybook princess, as fragrant and fresh as a field of lilies wearing jeweled beads of morning dew.
May she live forever in our hearts. Amen.