The memorial service for Helen Toribio last night was beautiful and moving, a fitting tribute to this amazing woman who touched so many people's lives so deeply. I myself did not know Helen very well, not nearly so well as many of the people that attended the service last night, but she did affect me deeply, and left a lasting impression on me that has made me think a lot about how I carry myself in the world, who I choose to build with, and what community really means.
I experienced a powerful sense, last night, of the community that Helen built in her lifetime. I saw people from the movement, from my days at Cal, from Filipino community work, that I hadn't seen in many days. And while I was sad at the reason we were coming together, I knew that Helen would want us to see this as a time to build with each other, to (gasp!) network even, to hold each other in community in order to, as the Reverend said last night, "give us a glimpse of heaven" on earth.
I saw old KDPers, folks from FilCRA and FAA, saw a couple I knew back at Cal who are now married, met A.'s baby for the first time, finally met Leny in person, connected with D. and J. and M. and too many other people whose first-name initials I won't bother you with.
Having my mom there was nice too---I'm actually related to Helen by marriage through my father. Indeed, Helen's greatest contribution to my life did not manifest in any time I spent with her, but in the time she spent with my mother. I met Helen several years ago when I was interning at FilCRA, but it wasn't until years later that I found out we were related. At that point she had just moved to Alameda, less than a block away from my mom's house! Helen and my mom became fast neighbor-friends (my mom is known in her neighborhood as the unofficial Mayor because she knows so many people), and my mom used to cut Helen's hair. After my mom and Helen started to hang out more, I noticed subtle changes in my mom's attitudes about my political and organizing work. She had always been a bit skeptical of it, sometimes downright hostile. My mom thought I was too smart and too educated to be making peanuts at some rinky-dink non-profit, and often told me to run for Senator or some other public office (yeah, right).
But somehow, through a combination of her brilliant wit, intelligence and down-home graciousness, Helen worked on my mom little by little, softening her up to my radical ideas and work, and coaxing my mom (perhaps without even realizing she was doing it) into being more accepting of my life's work, of the vocation that I chose to follow.
Now, when I take my mom to movement celebration dinners, she goes up to people and says, "Do you know my daughter, Rona?" She is so proud of me now, instead of just being uncomfortable and maybe a little embarassed by a scene she doesn't know or understand. And although I know that my mom's change of heart has come about partially because of my own increasing openness to her, I also know that without Helen's subtle but powerful charms, my mom would've been a much tougher nut to crack.
Thank you, Helen, and bless you.