Articles

Sep 20, 2015

Eulogy for Sarah Bergen, delivered by Peter Bergen on September 15, 2015 at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, Washington DC.

Eulogy for Sarah Bergen, delivered by Peter Bergen on September 15, 2015 at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, Washington DC.

Sarah Elizabeth Lampert Bergen was born in Minnesota on April 24, 1936. Sarah was also known as “Sally” and in France she was known as “Sallie.” She was also both Mum and Grandma. Today I will refer to her as Sarah.

If I cry during this discussion of Sarah’s life, please understand they are tears of joy as much as they are tears of grief. Sarah was a person of great joy and she would expect us to be joyful today as we celebrate her life.

The great English architect, Christopher Wren, was the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Wren is buried in St. Paul’s and on his grave it says: “Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.”

If you seek Sarah Bergen’s monument, “look around you,” not at the church but at the people gathered here. Sarah built not a physical church, but a great metaphysical church of love and friendship. And that is why we are here today.

I’m here to try in a few short minutes to say something about her very rich 79 years and how she lived them. So I will answer one question and make a number of observations about her.

First, the question: Why Holy Trinity Church? Within a few blocks of this church happened many of things that were of great importance to her:

-This is where three of her beloved grandchildren Charlie, Bella and Brendan went to school, next door at Holy Trinity School.

-A couple of blocks away from here is where she went to graduate school at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

-Three blocks away is where her mother, Geraldine O’Shaughnessy Lampert, went to the Georgetown Visitation Convent for boarding school towards the end of World War 1. That is also where she taught French to Sister Mary Roberta every Sunday afternoon.

-It’s also a few blocks away from her favorite restaurant, 1789, named for the year that Georgetown was founded. Many happy family occasions were celebrated there.

And the year 1789 had a special resonance for her because that was the year of the French Revolution, which is celebrated every year on the anniversary of the mob storming the Bastille prison in the east of Paris. Every year she would celebrate with great élan the “Quatorze Juillet” as it combined two of her great passions: France and the celebration of holidays.

Holidays, birthdays and anniversaries were of particular significance to her:

She started planning for Christmas in August.

-She was an ardent celebrant of the Feast of the Three Kings on the 6th of January as that meant you could do a mini-celebration of Christmas all over again and it meant you went to the French bakery to buy a galette cake as the French do, and for the kids that meant finding a little treat inside the cake.

-Valentine’s Day meant a flood of cards to everyone in the family.

-Easter was of great significance to her as a devout Catholic, in particular, the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday. (She was a particular fan of the Easter egg hunt on Easter Sunday at the Cosmos Club in Washington and had the satisfaction of participating in that event with all five of her grandkids).

-She celebrated both Mother’s Day in the U.K. and Mother’s Day in the U.S. as they fall on different days and so she could get two bites at the apple. Father’s Day was big too.

-July 4th was, of course, huge and every year she lived in London she made sure to host a July 4th party.

-Thanksgiving; she didn’t cook but she loved to be with her family on that day.

-She kept track of many scores of birthdays and anniversaries and always called on the day. Her friend Patricia Larson in London knew something was wrong when she didn’t call on her birthday this year in August.

She was an ardent Francophile and taught French for many years of her life both in London and Washington. Occasionally she would speak in French in the imperfect subjunctive, which no one has done in France since Charles de Gaulle was alive.

-She loved the Louvre, the Tuileries Gardens, paintings by Monet, the Parc Ranelagh and the Bois du Bologne, castles in the Loire Valley, plays by Moliere and Racine, novels by Balzac, Boulevard Suchet in the Seizieme in Paris where she lived with her family for three years in the late 1960s, the Pol family and the Mezin family. Her godson, Jacques Mezin, is here today.

-Mademoiselle Six was her her husband’s secretary in the late 1960’s and she maintained a many-decades-long friendship with her.

-She was particularly happy that she could converse in French with my mother-in-law who is from the Cajun part of Louisiana and she always referred to my father-in-law by his full French name, Clebert.

-She loved conversing in French with anyone who she thought spoke French, including restaurant waiters from Greece or other non-Francophone countries who had no idea what she was talking about. 

She was a great Anglophile and Britain is where she lived for almost three decades. She was more royalist than Charles I; the royal family could do no wrong and the Queen was her ideal woman. She also admired Margaret Thatcher.

-She loved the opera at Glyndebourne, Holland Park where her kids grew up, the schools and universities where her children went: Ampleforth, St. Mary’s Ascot, Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh.

-She loved the paintings of Constable and of Turner and the music of Handel.

–She loved her friendships with the Noels, de Lisles, McDonalds, Brenninkmeyers, Railings, Astors, Coughlins, and Larson families.

-She loved the Wallace collection, Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, teatime, Hampton Court, the National Gallery, and Sadler Wells theatre. No one ever saw her drinking beer.

-She was enormously fond of the McCann family in Ireland.

-It was a great satisfaction to her that Katherine and Con and Bella and Charlie organized her final trip to the U.K. in June where she saw all her old friends and went to all of her old haunts.

She loved Italy: Florence, the Uffizi gallery, Venice, Rome, the music of Verdi, Vivaldi, Rossini and Puccini, Lake Como, and in particular the hotel Villa Serbollini on Lake Como (where she celebrated her 70th birthday). She loved the paintings of Raphael and Botticelli and the terracotta of della Robbia.

She loved Minnesota where she grew up: She often talked about “the land of ten-thousand lakes;” the deep winters there; Lake Harriet where she was raised and Summit Avenue in St Paul where she lived her first years. She loved the cartoons of Charles Schultz and, in particular, Snoopy. She loved the friends she made teaching French at the University of Minnesota such as Virginia Schubert and Dolores Schaefer who are here today.

She was full of joy and always saw the best in people. If you had a hobby such as jogging soon she would upgrade you to an Olympic-level runner. Even when she was writing notes to herself she would write exclamation marks next to people’s achievements!

-Colleen Gabor, her friend at the Friendship Terrace retirement home who took her to hospital on August 2, wrote to say that “she was one of God’s angels on earth, so gentle and warm and free with her compliments. I didn’t realize how many assets I have until Sarah drew my attention to them. Actually, most I did know about, but had discounted them because they were shared by all my sisters and therefore not the least unique, but Sarah taught me to see them differently.”

-If you wrote for a magazine or newspaper she would deluge family members with your clippings. She would also send the writer multiple clippings of his or her own work. If you had a passing interest in a topic she soon would send you sheaves of clippings.

She also practiced the difficult art of forgiveness: With her husband, Tom, from whom she was divorced, she maintained a lasting and deep relationship that lasted longer than their 16 years of marriage. She looked after him in ways large and small when he moved to Washington DC in the final eight years of his life and she was at his bedside as he lay dying in 2009.

She was conservative with a small c. This was not the conservatism of the Republican right, but a deep conservatism about institutions that have been with us for many centuries.

-She loved the Pope and the papacy.

-She had a deep love of the Jesuit order studying at Georgetown when it was very much still a Jesuit-run institution and for many years she worshipped at Farm Street in Mayfair, a Jesuit church in London. Kevin Regan, a Jesuit, is officiating at this funeral mass.

-She had a deep love for the Order of St Benedict. I was sent to Ampleforth, a Benedictine monastery and boarding school. She taught at the Benedictine Abbey School of St. Anselm’s in Washingtion DC.  Fr. Peter Wigand, a celebrant of this mass is a Benedictine.

-She loved the nuns of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and sent her daughters to St. Mary’s Ascot, outside of London.

-She had a deep love for the Sacred Heart order, attending Manhattanville for college. She also studied to be a nun, but she decided that life was not for her; for which her children and grandchildren are grateful! She also confided to friends that she couldn’t be a nun as the vow of silence would have been problematic.

-Several of her Manhattanville friends are here today: Sheila DeCosse, Robin Loughman, Emily Donahue and Cathy Lewis. She also had close friends at Georgetown Visitation, a Sacred Heart institution. Indeed her friend since the age of five, Sister Jacqueline “Sugar” Burke is here today. So is Sister Mary Roberta to whom she was teaching French every Sunday.

Things she didn’t like: Almost all art and music from the 1920s forward, except, very occasionally, Frank Sinatra as well as a small number of musicals.

She had very little interest in food (other than dessert) so she really loved eating and staying at clubs where food wasn’t really the point: She was a devotee of the Cosmos Club in Washington and the Sloane Club in London.

Things she did poorly: She was a terrible cook and she was a terrible driver. One day she asked innocently: “Why is that when I drive everybody is always honking at me?”

She was a micromanager and tended to try and boss people around. This extended even to this funeral service for which she left instructions that no one should wear black. We modified that to say that it was her wish that no one need feel obliged to wear black, since most people don’t like being micromanaged. (Sorry Mum!)

She had small vices: She would occasionally pilfer ashtrays if she was staying at a particularly grand hotel. This venial sin will likely earn her a few hours in Purgatory, but she was a woman of deep faith and many of those who know her have told us they believe she is with God in Heaven. Indeed an expert on the subject, Sister Burke, told us that this is the case.

Her life was filled with music: She loved the ballet (and had the good fortune to see Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn perform together many times in London). She also loved opera; operettas; The Sound of Music was her all time favorite film, followed by Mary Poppins. She loved the music of Bach, in particular the St Matthew’s Passion, which she used to go to hear at Easter every year that she could. Ditto for Handel’s Messiah.

Despite that fact that she was a conservative she was also a proto-feminist, a description she would not have embraced. She had three separate masters degrees: an M.A. in French from the University of Minnesota, an M. Phil. from the University of London in French literature and a masters in foreign service from Georgetown. She was one of the first women to graduate from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. She was contemplating doing her doctorate in the early 1970s, but at the time had three young children and after obtaining her M. Phil didn’t go further in her studies at the University of London.

She had a great talent for friendship. This involved a voluminous correspondence with many people. She kept three institutions alive: the US Post Office, ATT and Hallmark cards. She was the only person who could run out the tape back in the days when answering machines had tapes. She was also the only person who could fill up up your electronic voice mail with only one message during the present era. Most people learned not to listen to her messages as you could save a lot of time by just calling her back.

Her friend Woody who she met at her retirement home, Friendship Terrace, –and who she always called by his full name Sherwood and who died only 24 hours after her–wrote her a note while she was sick in hospital saying, “Like everyone at Friendship Terrace I think about you often and wish for your speedy return to us. I receive many inquiries about you everyday. In the short time that you have been here you have made more friends and admirers than many of us have done in years. Very fondly, Sherwood.”

She adopted people. When our Afghan friend Khalid Mafton, who I have known since the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, finally fulfilled his dream of attending college in the States on a Fulbright she befriended him and he called her “Grandma.” And it was a great source of satisfaction that Khalid landed a job at the Voice of America (VOA), with a little assist from David Ensor who then ran VOA who no doubt intuited that Sarah would harass him forever on the subject if Khalid wasn’t hired. Khalid moved his family here to DC and the last holiday Sarah celebrated was on July 4th this year and she had the pleasure of having dinner with Khalid and his wife and three kids and they watched the July 4th fireworks together.

She was very big on thank yous. So I want on her behalf to thank Fr. Peter Wigand for preaching the homily and also anointing her as she lay gravely ill in hospital. Fr. Peter is Sarah’s longtime friend and was the headmaster at St. Anselm’s Abbey School here in DC where she taught French for many happy years. Thank you also to Fr. Kevin Regan for saying this mass. Thanks to Holy Trinity and the music director here, Dr. Katherine Dejardin, for the music.

No one will be surprised to hear that Sarah left very elaborate and precise instructions about the music and order of service for her funeral. This turned out to be a real blessing as all we had to do was execute her wishes.

Thanks to all of you who came a long way on very short notice to attend this funeral mass: Andrea Brenninkmeyer from London, Bill and Diana Bergen from Arizona, Ritzy Weld from Connecticut, Dee Schaefer and Virginia Schubert from Minneapolis, Chris Theisen from Chicago, Robin Loughman from South Carolina, Sheila DeCosse and John Fielding from New York, my in-laws Alberta and CJ Mabile from Louisiana; Gerry Lampert who came from California, our Afghan friend Yusuf who never met Sarah but came down from Syracuse to express his respects, Sarah’s godson, Jacques Mezin, who came from Florida, and all of you here. Thank you from Sarah and all of her family.

She was a very involved Grandparent. She loved taking her grandkids to ballet lessons around the corner from this church and spent a great deal of time corresponding with a shop in London about precisely the right kind of ballet shoes to buy them.

-When Charlie went to Oxford to read History, she kvelled (a useful Yiddish word meaning to be seized with joy and pride.)

-When Bella was accepted into Bath University to study engineering she was enormously proud.

-When Brendan recently received an A in history she told everyone she knew and others she didn’t.

-She loved running after Pierre and she and Tresha had plans to begin teach him French so he could live up to his Cajun French name.

-And she has a special place in her heart for Grace because she knew that Grace had started life with problems and she had a deep sympathy for her. Grace was born deaf and Sarah would attend her sign language lessons. The first day she attended those lessons Sarah wore all black—which she had almost never done in her life—because when she had seen people signing on TV they had worn black clothes so that what they were wearing wasn’t distracting from their signing. Brenda, Graces’s sign language teacher, told us that she had never seen a grandparent who had taken such an interest in learning how to communicate with a deaf grandchild.

She had a rich life in Washington. She loved the cherry blossom season, the Kennedy Center, the National Gallery, the Philips Collection, the Washington Post, and CNN. Did I mention the Cosmos Club? And her two decades here at the end of her life were greatly enriched by the Carlisles, the Blacks, the Hamiltons, the Ausbrooks, the Shortells, the Debussmans, the Harwoods, the Ensors, and the extended families she found at the Westchester apartment building where she lived for many years and then at the Thomas Circle home and finally at Friendship Terrace, many of whom are here today.

She was a lady. I don’t think I need to say much more than that.

Finally, she was a woman of deep Catholic faith and she was prepared for death. In the past several years she spent countless hours planning her funeral and this service. She also gave away many of her things to her family.

Sometime during the 1920s, the headmaster of Ampleforth, Fr. Paul Nevill, was asked: “What are you preparing your boys for?” He replied, “I’m preparing them for death.” In today’s world this is quite a radical notion, but in an earlier era, to which Sarah belonged, this was a more common view and one she deeply believed in.

My wife Tresha and I and all of our family want to invite you to what Sarah would almost have certainly referred to as a “luncheon” at 4508, 17th Street NW. We were hoping that we would soon be celebrating her 80th birthday there, but instead we will still be celebrating someone who led a very rich life and had come to a great deal of peace and happiness in recent years.

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