#1 This may come as a surprise to some of you, but Rita was a fan and devotee of Ms. Manners.
o “Ms. Manners” was a column in the local paper devoted to teaching proper etiquette to its readers. Rita often made reference to Ms. Manners around our dinner table – she was fascinated by the nuances of etiquette and used our children as a teaching opportunity to discuss elbows on the table or chewing with your mouth closed. Apparently, the cheese tray only goes around the table once, when in France. She loved sharing obscure facts like this.
#2 Rita had a huge heart
o Rita would carry the prayers and concerns of her loved ones and the world in her heart. At our Friday night services when it was time to offer our prayers out loud, Rita was mindful about remembering the struggles and celebrations of her family and friends and suffering in various parts of the world. Rita sat with our family as we said goodbye to our cat of 18 years. Not naturally a pet person, Rita was clearly moved by the grieving of our family. She embraced our suffering and felt it with us.
o Rita always made a point of expressing her gratitude. She once took an extra chair home with her from our place. The next day we got an email. Subject line read: “Message From My Bum” Email read: “The chair is great”.
#3 Rita shocked us into honesty:
o Rita had no use for mind reading nor for filtering her opinions or expectations. A fellow member of Daybreak had approached Rita about babysitting her young son and daughter. She received a note from Rita in response saying that she was open to being available but wanted to make some things clear. #1 Do NOT expect a tidy house. #2. There is a sliding-scale rate-of-pay and that depends on what you can afford. #3 meals are most welcome, preferably of the take-out variety. Sincerely, Rita O’Connor CEO of Childcare with Character.
o Because Rita had the gift of direct speech she called us into our own assertiveness. My youngest daughter Tessa is Rita’s goddaughter. She is the most introverted, shy, soft spoken member of our family. Over the years, Tessa has learned that she would need to develop some “balls” in order to engage with this woman who had claimed her as “the apple of her eye”. The last time Rita was in our home on her regular Thursday night visit, we were sitting around the table eating supper. The male members of the family were out for their Scout meeting. The dinner conversation became loud and heated as the 3 girls vied for a spot in the discussion – suddenly Rita, who was becoming increasingly impatient with the bickering, yelled over all of them, “Would everyone on that side of the table please be quiet!” After a moment to recover, Tessa slowly got up from her chair, walked over to Rita’s side of the table and crossed her arms. Clearly she needed to be on this side of the table to have a voice.
#4 Rita was a great story and joke teller
o Rita had an amazing capacity to remember and tell jokes, stories, share songs and jingles and she would pull them out with synchronicity when the moment called for it. Other times she just needed to share her latest favourite joke. The last one she shared was, “What do you get when you cross the Atlantic with the Titanic? About halfway.”
o She had a fun way of sharing information about her life. One thing people may remember about Rita is the state of her previous car. Pieces were hanging off of it and parts of the interior of the car were exposed because of missing parts. She finally saved enough money to go out and purchase a newer car. She was so grateful to Karl, Wendy and Queen Mum for going with her to the car dealerships to test drive and haggle prices. When she finally took her new car home she sent out this message:Sunburst Orange is:
She was so excited about all the things that worked in her new car.
#5 Rita loved children.
o Rita had an affinity for children. As a supply teacher she would swoop into the classroom to the bewilderment of the children there. She was always recounting stories of students who would say the funniest things. One outspoken student raised their hand and ask why she wasn’t like other teachers. She would bribe them to do their work with the promise of a joke or two.
o Rita had a way of being present with children. She took time to hear their accounts of the day, to sit and cuddle and tickle. She took the time to find books that reflected what they were living or just quirky and fun – weekly she huddled with the children on the couch to read the latest finds. She found relationships of mutuality in her encounter with children – they fed her soul and children accepted her. Our children have learned that love is not perfect but it can be deep and rich and colourful and sometimes heartbreaking.
#6 Rita loved Women.
o As a woman who identified as a Lesbian, Rita was a believer in creating safe places where love is not bound by gender, race or religion. The world holds up Romantic love as the ideal – that we must find our perfect love. Rita desired that special kind of love and courageously tried to find romantic love later in life – but instead she found a different kind of love – found in her relationships with many of us and in particular in the love she shared with our daughter Tessa. She poured her love and adoration into her goddaughter and her love was returned. Many was the time Rita sang to Tessa “A Bushel and a Peck”. Those words sunk into Tessa’s heart. She cried fiercely at losing her beloved Rita – she now sings those same words to our new cat Piper as she cradles her in her arms. Rita’s heart cried out to be beloved – and she was.
#7 Relating to Rita wasn’t always easy
o Sometimes Rita’s boldness could be misunderstood and hurtful. I struggled at times with my inability to know how to be a good friend to her. She was not afraid to ask about the tension that sometimes existed. Some tensions we worked out. Others are yet to be. A friend reminded me this week that there is still time to do so.
#8 Rita knew she needed community.
o I had once introduced Rita to my good friend Larry. Later, Larry characterized Rita as a “good community person”. I was struck by this description of her. It’s true. Rita was surrounded by communities. She had her family community: 4 sisters, a brother, inlaws, nieces & nephews and their children, Aunts & Stepmom – people with whom Rita shared the earliest memories of her life. She had her community of scattered friends for whom she stayed faithfully connected with by phone, facebook or email – Sam, Pat, Inge are names I recognize – people she met along the way who felt a mutual kinship with Rita. Most recently, in the last 15 years of her life, L’Arche Daybreak was where she met many of us. She found her community of women –WOGS, as they call themselves – Women of God – who gather to celebrate and mark one another’s life passages together. She met a community of people for whom she house sat, dog or cat sat. People who trusted her with their precious homes and companions. She felt drawn to the many families in our community with young children whom she always engaged with like no other adult in their lives. As Rita’s various communities, we collectively celebrated with her the joyful events of her life; we reveled in her stories; we laughed and were uplifted by her humourous take on the world; and collectively we held Rita in her sometimes deep sorrow and struggle.
#9 As much as Rita needed community, we needed her.
o Rita’s “being” made us think outside the box. As an Associate Member at Daybreak Rita believed wholeheartedly in the mission of L’Arche but didn’t get caught up in a “Saviour Complex” like many of us can. She could clearly state her limits and was so faithful to her commitments within those limits. She brought the gospel alive for us on Friday nights with her robust voice and thoughtful inflections. She took her place on the Pastoral Team as part of the welcome ministry on Friday nights. She would always stop an unfamiliar face and get the story on who they were, where they came from and why they came. Rita shared her gifts generously with us. Her generosity sometimes reached absurd proportions. For the past 10 years Rita swept into our family home with her boisterous greetings, bigger than life personality, books in hand ready to face the chaos of our house without judgement. Who would be crazy enough to do such a thing. Rita was a light who was not going to be hid under a bushel. How lucky were we.
#10 Rita was a part of our Village and we a Part of hers
o One of my favourite quotes is an African Proverb that would be very familiar to you. It states: “It takes a village to raise a child”.
o As a young family with four small children we were in need. Rita was looking for a place to belong and to share her love. We found each other. Here was this wild, unpredictable, totally whacky, loveable woman who did not fit any mold – having so much to give – and this young chaotic family with an overwhelmed stay-at-home mom. A match made in heaven. We were constantly learning to accept one another which drew us closer together.
o After one of the children’s birthday celebrations I sent a message out to the Adults who attended, thanking them for being part of the “village” raising our children. Rita wrote back the following:
“About an hour before I got your message about ‘a village raising children’ I had realized – decided – I am a villager. That feels so right. So when the kids’ friends or cousins ask who I am, the kids can say “Oh, she’s a villager”. I am a villager and I love it.” ~ Rita
Rita O’Connor was a long-time and treasured Associate Member of L’Arche Daybreak. She faithfully attended Friday evening worship at the Dayspring where she often served as a reader, sharing scripture with great feeling and enthusiasm. A former assistant at our Center Street home and at the Club, Rita was a dear friend to many throughout the Daybreak community. Rita was also a beloved teacher, and she was endeared to many children in our community and in her extended family. She will be deeply missed. Rita died at her home on March 15, 2015. This eulogy was given at her funeral on March 21 by her friend Clara Frascetti.