In Memoriam: Mary Chu Moon, 1919-2008
When I arrived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, as a twenty-four year old Methodist pastor, I found, among several neighborhood institutions in the middle of the Twentieth Century, a Chinese hand laundry. It was a storefront, with flowers in the window, around the corner from the Norwegian-American church I had been appointed to serve, "just from February to June," I was told by the District Superintendent. Seventeen years later those two institutions, church and laundry, were intimately intertwined in a way I certainly never imagined and I never fully understood until twenty-five years later.
I knew, of course, about storefront laundries. My parents operated one for the better part of twenty years at a small mall in the Turn-of-River corner of Stamford, Connecticut. I still have in my dresser drawer a handkerchief or two with other people's initials on them (the Moon offspring will understand). Mary's husband was a first generation immigrant; same for my father's wife. When pressed for a connection between the laundry business and church business, I sometimes explained, albeit a little flippantly, "My parents clean clothes; I clean souls." That is, I felt an immediate affinity toward that storefront down the block from the church.
Mary inherited the laundry from her parents. All told she cleaned and ironed shirts and sheets for most of her seventy-five working years; and she did it, the labor and the child-raising, pretty much on her own. Her husband and father of her children worked as a handyman in Manhattan's Chinatown and was home only on weekends. Mary retired at eighty years of age and lived (comfortably and contentedly, her children report) in a senior residence on Shore Road in Bay Ridge; and, more recently, moved to a more financially doable residence in Queens. She was taken ill a few weeks ago, was admitted to Booth Memorial Hospital, and died there. She was 89 years old.
The funeral service was held in Flushing Queens. The children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, a surviving sister, and family friends gathered Wednesday, March 4th, late afternoon and early evening at the Chun Fook Funeral Home on Northern Blvd. Missing from the proceedings was Mary's oldest child, Virginia, who fell and broke her ankle between the time of Mary's passing and the funeral services. The burial, the following morning, was at Cypress Hills Cemetery. It was my privilege to preside at these solemn, yet celebratory, rites.
Herewith are the message and prayer offered at the funeral service, along with photos from the gathering.
I’ve repeated this story a dozen times. Most of you have heard me tell it, but I’m going to tell it again because… well, because there has been paid me no finer compliment than the one Mary paid me the night of Tommy’s 60th birthday, celebrated on the old Lobskaus Blvd, Brooklyn, the Norwegian 8th Avenue, now better named Beijing Blvd. It was toward the end of the evening as I was getting ready to leave to return home to Valley Stream on Long Island. I went to Mary and said to her words to this effect, “Mary, you did a great job.” She corrected me: “No, Pastor Howard, we did a great job.” I was surprised and flattered. To tell the truth I had never thought about Brooklyn, Sunset Park Church, and the young people who had gathered there in quite that way; but, yes, Mary saw what I hadn’t seen clearly until that night at the restaurant on Beijing Blvd, Brooklyn, that this Connecticut Yankee had in God’s Providence been sent to the Borough of Churches to be something of a surrogate father to many children, some of Mary’s included.
I’m not sure you want me to take credit; but I shall anyway!
With me in or out of the picture, Mary can still take credit for seeing her children – Virginia, Tommy, Marion, Artie, and Carol - into good maturities, every one of you. That’s a lot of shirts and sheets ironed! Take it from the son of parents who had their own hand and machine laundry in Stamford CT. Your Mom worked and cooked and watched over you, disciplined you, made sure you did your homework, insisted you get a good dose of higher education, and found the right spouses. Did she also make sure you went to church? Or did you do it on your own?
Moreover, there was always room in her store, her kitchen, and her heart for other children, including a couple of my own. I phoned Gwen down in Baltimore to tell her of Mary’s passing and to ask her for her recollections. Gwen found her way into the laundry with Shirley Tom. Shirley’s grandmother who spoke no English would sit in the store on an afternoon. Shirley taught Gwen to count to ten in Cantonese. Grandma was very impressed. How much more impressed would she be to learn that Gwen’s daughter spent the past summer in Beijing and is on her way to being fluent in Mandarin. Mary welcomed all the neighborhood children. Right, Sonny? Gave you a place to practice your house painting?
Back in those days in Brooklyn a frequent visitor to our home was a classmate from seminary working on his doctoral degree. Doug Hall, now soon to be 80, author of two dozen books, lecturer around the world. Back in the late 1950’s Doug was the one who got a free Frostick from Eli, owner of the local candy story next to Mary's laundry. I never got any free ice cream. But Doug wore a turned around collar. I didn’t. Eli knew what Christian group populated the neighborhood, and it wasn't Methodists. I recently read a passage in Dr. Hall’s book appropriate for this moment. That if we cannot be certain as to the shape and details of heaven, we can take comfort, great comfort, in the observation of the Psalmist, that “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Mary has, fivefold, a hundredfold… seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Dear Mary, she sheds bright light on the Beatitude of Jesus as in the NEB version: “How blest are those of a gentle spirit; they shall have the earth for their possession.” Well, Mary wasn’t always that gentle. How could she be, virtually a single mom with five kids? What I mean to suggest is that she never asked very much out of life for herself. She plugged away to make a living and a life for her children. And, consequently, she lived long enough to see them all prosper, buy into their share of the American dream. Ditto for her adopted children.
I can readily imagine what the Lord said to Mary when she arrived at the Father’s House with many rooms. It’s a benediction he reserves for those who have taken what talents they have and multiplied them many times over mostly for the benefit of others, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And a special place at the great banquet feast of heaven where there will be fourteen courses ending, certainly, with almond soup Now that’s an excellent way not only to celebrate a wedding but an eternity in the sunshine of God’s favor.
Great and loving God, who like a mother with many children watches over us and provides for us in ways we cannot measure, we thank and praise you for the providence that made Mary a part of our lives and ours a part of hers. Mother, grandmother, great grandmother, friend, she took what you gave her and made the most of it, made the best of it and, looking back on it, was grateful for all of it. You blessed her with children, and though sometimes she thought it a mixed blessing indeed, when tempers flared and duties went undone, she put her whole being into the task, disciplining, encouraging, feeding, working, day in and out year after year after year. We thank you that for all this toil she was granted to see in this life the consequence, the happy consequences, of her diligence in five children to be proud of, her doing, with your grace, and help from her friends. We thank you most of all for the anchor she was to those given to her care and those who chose it, a certainty in a world of change, a source of strength always there. If we tend to celebrate those who blaze with the glory of their deeds, we would, at the coaxing of our Lord Jesus, honor the widow and her pennies, the children with their innocence, the friend in her loyalty, the Marys of this world, who make the better day dawn for the most of us. Draw her in, God, we pray; draw her in with your everlasting arms. Give her a seat of honor at the great banquet feast of heaven. Assure us that in you and through your son Jesus we shall be connected with her and with each other world without end. Amen.
Mary's funeral started me thinking about the ways of acculturation in these United States. I witnessed it firsthand and in the front of my mind with second and third generation Norwegian Americans. They did splendidly, got college educations, scattered in their maturity to suburban greenery, and prospered beyond their parents' fondest dreams. But there, just down the block from what was once called Sunset Park Norwegian Methodist Church, another ethnic strand in the great rainbow of ethnicity that is the United States, a family of Chinese-Americans was forging its own brighter future. Mary's children live now in Florida (Marion and Carol), California (Tommy), Staten Island (Virginia), and Long Island (Artie). And the ten grandchildren? More scattered and even more prosperous. Brooklyn was not so much a melting pot as it was a launching pad. Even better, educational, financial, and material attainment has been matched, from what I saw in a somber day of remembering Mary, with an excellence of soul.
Yes, Mary, you did a great job.