Heaven gained another blue eyed angel last week. Her name was Clare Rich.
At the funeral home as we all gathered to say our last good byes before heading to the church, the funeral director said, "You are all invited to come up to the casket to pay your respects to Clare." As a way to keep things running smoothly he then said, " Friends first please, followed by family members." As I looked around, I marveled that everyone in the room, close to fifty of us, stayed still as we waited for friends to go first. No one in the whole room considered themselves a mere "friend" of Clare's, despite the biological fact that not one of us had any blood relationship to her.
My husband gave a beautiful eulogy for Clare. In his tribute to her he said, " I am not sure exactly when a close friend becomes part of the family, but Clare was my family for as long as I can remember." Growing up, my husband lived across the street from Clare and her sister Barbara. They had lost both of their parents when they were young adults. The two sisters lived together in their family home until Barbara died fourteen years ago. My generous and loving mother and father in law invited Clare and Barbara to holidays and special occasions so that they wouldn't be alone. Clare had a great rapport with children and took on the role of "aunt Clare" to my husband and his four siblings. She was a "cool" aunt who took the kids skiing in the winter and out for ice cream in the summer. As the kids grew up, Aunt Clare and Aunt Barbara attended highschool and college graduations. Then they could be seen at weddings which were soon followed by births, baptisms, birthday parties, and confirmations. The family grew bigger and bigger and made sure that Clare and Barbara were included at every family function. And believe me, in an Italian family with five siblings, eighteen grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren, there are a lot of them!
Clare was a lover of good food and wine. She created a tradition of treating family members to a delicious and decadent meal at Peter Lugar's Steakhouse for special occasions. I have fond memories of my first meal with Clare and my initial experience of getting to know her. According to Clare, my son Ace's first birthday was a celebration that warranted a nice juicy steak. Although he couldn't appreciate the steak, he did appreciate the balloons and gifts that she brought him. Looking back, I realize that Clare took us to dinner to show us how important and special we were to her.
Clare was the kind of person who made everyone around her feel comfortable. Not because she was gregarious and outgoing, but because she was relaxed and kind.
For many years, Clare hosted fifty adults, children, and the occasional dog for Christmas Eve in her beautiful home. She alway made sure each of us felt welcome. My husband called Clare's holiday parties "legendary", and they were. Christmas Eve was always noisy, chaotic, and joyful. Clare's house was beautifully decorated with white rugs and light colored couches, but you never had to worry that your toddler might leave sticky finger prints or spill his milk, because Clare would never get upset about little things like that. I remember asking Clare once how she remained so calm in the midst of the Christmas Eve chaos, and she replied, "What's the worst that can happen, a little stain on my rug? Things can always be replaced." To quote my husband in his tribute to Clare, "She was never about the things that she had. What was most important to Clare were the people that she loved."
Many might look at Clare's life as tragic, having lost her parents when she was young and then losing her only sister some years later. An experience like Clare's might cause a person to become bitter, isolated, and alone. But despite her losses, Clare lived life to the fullest with a positive attitude and a fun loving spirit. With her generous and open heart, she chose to cultivate friendships that felt like family instead of lament the family that she lost.
They say that the love of a family is life's greatest blessing. I feel blessed and honored to have had Clare in my family. I will miss her gentle presence and twinkling blue eyes. Our family will never be the same without Clare, but her memory will live on in the hearts of the friends and family that loved her.
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