My obituary for my mother and sister who died August, 2012, a day apart.
Mom and Su have left us together at peace. It is a perfect ending to their magnificent lives on this earth. Being a Christian was no ideal for them; it was a “living, working reality.” For two people who could seem a little other worldly, they were utterly down to earth. They profoundly affected countless people with their kindness, their humor, and, perhaps, a little less known, their art: in each, they revealed the underlying beauty in us all, in which they so firmly believed.
Su’s all-too-rare rare faith, apparent from when we were young children sitting every Sunday in these pews, and her extraordinary energy and courage, lead her to scholarship and teaching – focusing on the Creeds – those texts that lay the groundwork for Christianity and lie at the foundation of Christian faith. How was it that they came to convert paganism into Christianity? What was in the heart and mind of a 7thcentury monk who was responsible for writing these creeds and what inspired him to write these creeds, which rendered religious and social change?
Of particular interest was what the creeds had to say about baptism as that was the first step in this conversion. And so – not thwarted by space or time – this lead her to search for the primary texts and baptismal fonts, located all around the Mediterranean rim. Funded by leading research institutions, Su made probably more than 30 trips to that arena: including Turkey, where she discovered a baptismal font in a Club Med – causing her guide for that trip, Turkey’s Director of Cultural Affairs, to initiate a national policy for building sites that included checking them for historic relics. She astonished friars in small towns from Tunisia to Eastern Europe, knocking on their ancient doors, with her letter of introduction: excuse me, I am so sorry to bother you (spoken of course in their language) may I please look at the following books which I believe are in your cellar – touching pages that opened a window into another world – but could physically blow away in a moment. The records of this research, our family was told, exists in no other place but Su’s heart and mind – and – in her office, which Duke Divinity will organize and bring to light. We were told she was the world’s greatest Carolingian scholar of this time.
Su’s love for her work and her love of teaching and her students were inextricably linked, as she was excited to help lead them to this wonderful world she was unearthing. This love was such, that, for example, when she gave them an exam, she went into the hall and prayed for each of the students individually – not stopping until they were done. And when, we were told by her students, at the end of the semester of her famous lecture course on early European history, the class stood on their desks and cheered, Su looked up – bewildered, wondering – why everyone was standing on their desks? – she so believed, I think, that she was just an instrument of The Lord – and herself had nothing to do with it. I don’t think she ever knew how she affected people and brought out the best in each and every one of us –
And I would be remiss not to say something about Su’s art – as Rob, Tory and Annie observed, her art and her scholarship were indistinguishable – as each searched and found – the essential goodness – in humanity. Her birthday cards, each a work of art, warmly and humoursly, holding up a mirror that reflected the best in us –
Where did this angel come from? – Well, from Nancy Hunter Keefe of course-whose dedication to those who were suffering – wherever she saw it – was as apparent in her charitable work as it is in her poetry.
Rob, Tor and Annie observed as well that Nanny believed that the spirit was born and lived within friendship and family – And – her solace for those who suffered, her inborn, unfailing faith in the people and institutions she loved (probably best exemplified for me in the Yale-Harvard game of around 1997, when Yale, yet to win a game that season, and down probably 21 – nuthin’ against Harvard in the fourth quarter, in freezing rain, which caused fans to leave the Bowl in droves, remarked, when asked if she would like shelter: I am staying right here to watch Yale win) will endear us to her forever.
Su and Mom: your smiles, your warmth, your wit and wisdom were our “ace the hole” and I believe we all will try to live our lives in the spirit you created.