Greta Lee Ray: 10/19/28 – 11/9/2008

Greta Lee Ray



Greta died painlessly on November ninth, 2008. Her lungs, damaged by a lifetime of smoking, gave up slowly over the last two months of her life. When she was admitted to the hospital, it rapidly became obvious that healing her was beyond the reach of medical science. Her family respected her desire to die without pain or fuss, and took her off a ventilator, dialing up a morphine drip until she she drifted away. Her heart gave up ten hours later and she slipped away silently.

The birth date above should have said ’19 or 20′. Because Greta had to tell a story whenever asked a question.

She was born on one of the above dates. For whatever reason, the other was listed on her birth certificate. Maybe because she was born just before or just after midnight, or maybe because the nurses in Long Beach hospital made a clerical error. But for whatever reason, when asked when she was born, she never once simply replied with one or the other, but gave both and explained why.

That, in a nutshell, is who my mother was. No one thing in her world was black and white. Nothing was simple. And every word in the english language was something to be played with and puzzled over.

She had a brilliant, self-educated literary mind; she lived and breathed books, working most of her career in book stores and libraries. She was a poet (though she dismissed her work as ‘doggerel’), a gifted editor, and in truth, was at least half responsible for my father’s success in academia. She edited every single paper he ever wrote, and should be considered the coauthor of his master’s thesis and his dissertation.

She was playing word games on the vary last day of her life; she couldn’t stop, even in distress. When asked to rate her pain on a scale of ten, every single time, she insisted on dissecting the meaning of the question instead of answering it.

She never, ever stopped talking. Just using an asthma inhaler was painful for her, because it meant she had to shut up for two minutes.

What linguistic gifts I have, I credit largely to her; both the genetic gifts, and the environment in which I was raised. Language was the lifeblood of our family.

Greta cared passionately about popular music. She listened to jazz in the thirties and fourties, and in the sixties, was a beatles fan when the beatles were still new. In the seventies, she took her teenage childern to rock concerts because she wanted to see bands like genesis and jethro tull, not because we needed a parent. She continued to listen to new pop music up until her last few weeks of life; her collection contained everything from funk to punk to gamelan to classical to pro rock. She smoked pot and drank beer with us at rock concerts, never drawing a parent/child line once we were able to express ourselves as adults. Last week my cousin went to the Bridge concert in san francisco, and held up her phone so my mother could hear Neil Young, perhaps her all time favorite musician, play part of his set.

She was a socialist, a radical; she marched for farm workers rights, she registered, voted, and campaigned for the peace and freedom party. She raised her children to question – and to disrespect – authority, and and vocally stand up for what they believed in. That she lived to see a black man as president meant more to her than she was able to express; ‘we won’, she said to me, while we watched post-epection coverage in her hospital room.

Greta lived with mental illness her entire life, though I doubt she’d have called it that. She described herself as fucked up. But depression and madness was thick in her family tree. She had one of the fiercest, most violent tempers I’ve ever seen, and until I was an adult, I never realized how physically small she was; her personality was enormous. She felt, though, that every interaction she ever had with people outside her tiny circle of intimates was a put-on, a performance. She felt there was a persona she must keep up. She was still doing this her last days in the hospital, only letting it slip when in full panic, or when medicated nearly insensible. She suffered social and panic disorders; she described them as ‘agoraphobia’ and ‘manic depression’, but I think these were words she looked up in a book.

The great tragedy of Greta’s life, I think, is that she never had any idea she was brilliant. She tallied the things she felt she couldn’t do, added up failings, cataloged excuses for things she was afraid to do. She could have been a writer – she could have taught english or linguistics. With her aptitude for language and her abiding interest in the natural world, her love of animals and plants, she would have been an asset to zoos, museums, schools.

She should have made an impact on the world far beyond what she allowed herself; her legacy is one of wasted potential.

Yet, she was able to give some portion of this as both genetic and environmental gift. Her love of words, of literature, of nature, her love of music, all are passed on to me via both nature and nurture. I grew up with music playing, and books ever-present in my life. I grew up with playful use of language. And my daughters share those gifts, again both in their blood and in their environment.

Despite her fears, my mother lived a long, rich, full life. She traveled, cooked, gardened, hiked, swam in oceans. She mentored young writers and artists. She was the parent my teenage friends came to for help. She touched and infuriated people til her last lucid day.

My deepest regret is that, at the end, the fears loomed larger in her life than anything else, and she cut herself off from a young generation who would have loved her. My children know her only a little; my cousins children not at all. Her friends, like writer Lewis Buzbee, were never able to introduce their young children to the woman who made such a huge impact on their lives.

0 thoughts on “Greta Lee Ray: 10/19/28 – 11/9/2008”

  1. Thank you for sharing your mom with us. She sounds like an incredible woman, and you knew her well. The insights that you shared showed how well you really knew her and few others do. Family.

    I’m amazed that you can write this powerfully right now.

  2. i am so touched by the love and respect you have for your mom. you saw her failings, but hold up her victories.

    she clearly was an amazing woman, and you are an amazing son. i am truly sorry for your loss.

    with much affection,

  3. My friend, I’ve got a glass of Knob Creek downstairs waiting to toast your mother’s memory, and to toast your comfort. And because I’m me, and you’re you, you’ll understand why the toast I’ll be saying in my mind is “To absent friends, lost loves, old gods and the seasons of mists. And may each and everyone of us always give the devil his due.”

    Big hugs — you’ve done a man’s job easing your mother’s passing. Now find a quiet place and let it out.

  4. Song of the Builders

    On a summer morning
    I sat down
    on a hillside
    to think about God –

    a worthy pastime.
    Near me, I saw
    a single cricket;
    it was moving the grains of the hillside

    this way and that way.
    How great was its energy,
    how humble its effort.
    Let us hope

    it will always be like this,
    each of us going on
    in our inexplicable ways
    building the universe.

    – Mary Oliver

    Your mother, it seems, was one of the great builders.

    Much love to you.


  5. I just woke up to find this news. I’m so, so sorry, Karl.

    Massive hugs to you today–and in the days ahead.

    Beyond that, I find I’m pretty much speechless in the face of this lovely tribute and of your loss. But you know I’m always there if you want to talk.


  6. A beautiful picture to help us picture the wonderful woman you’ve shared with us.

    But her greatest triumph: You

    Sending you love x

  7. DBD, the cocktail of national origins contains french, dutch, english, irish, scottish, german, and and possibly cherokee. I don’t know which of those were moms, aside from the cherokee (her dad always claimed indian blood).

    I don’t really see much resemblance between me and her; I look more like my father. Possibly the nose, but that’s the only think I can see of me in her.

  8. What you wrote is a stunning testament to the amazing man you are and the remarkable woman she was.

    I hope that the days soon get lighter and easier for you and your family, and that your memories spark and rediscover joys long forgotten.

  9. Wow sure is our week for death.

    I remember when my mother died- I was just 14. It was so easy because her pain had been so long. She was another one who chose to end a career and stay home with the kids… and die at a relatively young age of cancer.

    I awoke this morning remembering the sound of Athena’s laughter and her rubbing her cheek gently upon mine. It was ok.

    Accomplishments aren’t about glories won in the world- when it comes down to it it’s just about the moments they enjoyed and those that they touched. You say here your mother touched many.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing as much as you did about your mother’s health and passing. I watched my father die of colon cancer a few years ago and I could honestly identify with a lot of what you were going through. I held his hand and sang his favorite songs to him as he passed on. I can tell you that I didn’t cry until I had the time. That was several months later after plans were done, wills were settled and everyone had stopped asking me how I was feeling. I didn’t really grieve the loss for over a year and I think I’m just now getting to that part about acceptance. I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t give this a time limit. Go through it the way you need to.

    Best wishes and prayers,


  11. What a beautiful memorial, KE. Thank you for sharing your memories of your mother with us. She indeed sounded like a remarkable woman. Much like her son.

    I’m keeping you and your family in my thoughts and my heart, Karl.

    *huge hug*

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