My mom was the sixth of eight children in a rural family striving to make ends meet. It can be very easy for a young child, especially a girl, to get lost in a crowded, struggling household; but as a teenager Mom earned a college scholarship, making her the first member of her family to advance beyond high school. Stop and reflect for a moment on the fortitude and determination that must have taken—not to mention the sheer hard work. Janice St. Onge clearly had character.
Her college career was cut short by marriage and motherhood, as was often the case in the 1950s. Once again Mom found herself in a crowded household, this time one for which she was chiefly responsible. Six children before she was thirty; it must have been a round-the-clock job. But from what we know of her, it seems certain that when her kids were grown and her job done, she would have found the strength of will once again to remake herself, to choose a new destiny and follow it.
But something else happened. At the age of 33, she was diagnosed with cancer. And she spent the remaining forty years of her life battling repeated occurrences of that disease, fighting literally for survival. Breast cancer…uterine cancer…colon cancer…and finally anaplastic cancer, the one she went two rounds with, and lost.
It’s a difficult task to look back on a life so altered by illness; we can’t help lamenting what might have been. Certainly Mom always viewed the cancer as something separate from herself, even though it was bonded to the very cells of her body; and she did her best to try to subdue it and move past it.
She’d want us to move beyond it as well, and to look between the vast stretches of her life claimed by surgeries and hospital stays, to the strands of beauty and sanctity that twined together to form her lifeline.
She loved the Church and drew tremendous solace from the mass and the sacraments.
She loved music, especially the Romantics, Chopin and Debussy and Rachmaninoff. She played the piano herself, and it was always kind of magical when out of nowhere you’d hear the strains of “Clair de Lune” wafting through the house.
She loved travel, and felt a lifelong affinity for France. In fact she made her last trip there just a year ago.
She loved to cook; many of you here will have fond memories of her garlic roast beef, her duck a l’orange, her vast platters of ravioli, and my sister Lori’s favorite, her Grand Marnier soufflé.
She loved to entertain, and did so in grand style during most of my childhood. Tycoons, statesmen, heiresses, dignitaries—she hosted them all, and she managed to look beautiful while doing it.
She loved gardening; she loved dogs; she loved games; she loved to laugh; and most of all she loved her children and her grandchildren. We were the great gift of her life, the thing that redeemed all her trials. I’m sure that privately, this woman who so identified with the passion of Christ believed that she suffered so we wouldn’t have to.
On behalf of her family, I thank you for joining us in saying goodbye to her today, and ask that you always remember her with joy and with love—and with one thing more: humility. If I had to choose the quality that defined her more than any other, it would be that. Not only did this trait not pass down to any of her six children, I think there may have been times when we criticized her for it; I know I did. Now that she’s gone, I hope we can begin to see her more clearly, and to reassess that humility for what it was: a reflection of the divine—an expression of God’s grace. Maybe each of us can inherit it now that she has no more need of it; maybe we can, as she did, learn to give more in kindness and respect than we would ever dream of claiming in return. Maybe, like Mom, we can learn to look at a room filled with people and ask ourselves, “Who here is more important than I am?”—and answer, “Everyone.”