The following is a eulogy given by Layla Isis Ellison, at the memorial service of our beloved mother Marsha Rhein.
Hello everyone, my name is Layla, Marsha’s daughter, and I am honored to be giving voice to her some of her story with you today in remembrance and celebration of her life. A story that my brothers Frisco, Jason and I share.
“The Christmas lights are pretty
Oh How I want to dance
Oh how I wish I could clean the nitty gritty
How I would like to prance”
I love this poem of Mom’s, that captures the quality of childlike innocence and purity in her nature that felt so rare. It was a gift in a life that was not easy for her, and us. It is so very hard to let her go, but there’s a comfort in knowing her gentle soul is now free from the struggle of this life. For she knew the pain of poverty, the sorrow of loss, and the suffering of physical and emotional illness.
And as she survived these hardships with astonishing resilience, she taught us courage. As she tackled every obstacle, including her long battle with cancer, with a remarkable hopefulness, she taught us optimism. And through all the adversity, with a smile and enthusiasm that could light up the world, she spoke endlessly of being grateful for the blessings she had, and the joy and pride she felt in being our mama and in helping others.
Quite simply, she believed in being good.
Imprinting us with these values that she lived by example with the utmost integrity, fueled by a boundless supply of love and kindness is the profound treasure in having been so lucky to be her daughter.
Her story is as rich and colorful and unforgettable as she was.
Mom was born in New York City in 1947 to Jewish immigrant parents from Russia, Austria and Poland. She talked to us often of her roots and told us stories about family gatherings with her Yiddish speaking Bubby and Zadie, and learning folk dances at the youth gatherings at the synagogue.
Her parents were academics, with ties to the political and intellectual circles of New York as she grew up in the 1950’s. Her father served on the board of The Society for Ethical Culture and also played the guitar in Pete Seeger’s band The Almanacs. In her soothing high voice, she sang us her favorite folk songs she learned from her father. “If I Had a Hammer” and “Greensleeves” were the lullabies of our childhood.
His influence and her love for him contributed to her youthful idealism and early interest in philosophy, poetry, and the arts. She was a quiet, sensitive, and deep other-worldly beauty and spoke often of how jarring city life was for her; her early poetry expressing a yearning for peace and harmony with nature.
But it was dance, the more corporeal expression of the soul that became her passion and pursuit. She studied ballet and modern dance at Harper College and went on to attend Brooklyn College and graduate with BA degree in Dance in 1971. And when she danced…she was free. Ethereal and fluid, with the calm precision of a trained athlete and the grace and beauty of true artist with her own unique voice.
I remember her teaching me ballet exercises and her process of choreographing a dance for performances when I was little. And I eventually became a dancer myself, naturally following what was so familiar and innate to me. I know she was so proud that I followed in her dancing shoes.
In healthier years it was tradition that Mama danced for us whenever we came together as a family – in her cramped living room, or at a social gathering. Later in life she performed her interpretive and liturgical dances at The Unity Church, The Red Shoes, Cancer Services, Yoga and Dance workshops, in Sunday School, whenever she could and through whatever physical limitations she had. The music would come on and she would be transformed in an instant. Nothing else mattered but the authenticity of this offering.
She met our father, the late Gregory Ellison, a New Orleans native, in 1972 and soon after was pulled from her NYC life and off on an adventure that produced her 3 children, the great loves of her life. Our Dad was a bit of an eccentric, and a rare kind of soul that could never quite fit in with mainstream society – much like her. They fell in love, and within a year fled New York in the middle of the night by bus during her 8th month of pregnancy with Frisco due to our Dad being wanted by the FBI for questioning. But that’s another story.
They wound up in Hollywood, CA on a macrobiotic commune, and then later in Hammond, LA on Sally Kinchen’s farm where Jason was born. Dad initiated the Lotus Temple – a kung-fu school and type of esoteric commune in the rural south. He went by the name Shiva and Mom was Kali, teaching acupressure and Do-in to the group and finding creative ways to cook and nurture her two small babies in such a far-out environment.
It was during these years that Mom first delved deeply into her studies in natural health, a pursuit that became the backbone of her existence and belief system. She had also been raised on passed down folk remedies and natural cures by her mother who didn’t believe in the use of modern medicine. But having a natural affinity for herbs and foods from the earth, she found a true calling in studying the power of nature to heal the body.
These past weeks, in connecting with the many people whose lives she touched, one of the things I hear most often is “She always told me what herbs to take and what to eat” or “She was always after me about my diet” I’m really going to miss those constant urgent phone calls and emails about my health and what supplements I should be taking and a slew of other Mom concerns….she worried about everyone so much.
Over the course of her life she amassed such an impressive estate of knowledge in natural health and a variety of spiritual and mind-body practices. And one of her favorite things in life was to share her knowledge and genuinely connect with like-minded friends on these shared interests. Many of whom are here with us today, and I know she’d be so delighted to see this gathering of friends who turned out to honor her.
Mom and Dad moved to Baton Rouge in 1979, where she remained for the rest of her life. I was born and just weeks later she went through a trauma that irrevocably changed her. She suffered with PTSD, anxiety and paranoia and ultimately abandonment. At the age of 34, Mom was a single mother of 3, with a mental health disability with no income and little family support. Armed with food stamps, a small disability check, and connections she made with a Baptist church and local services for the poor, she provided for us. These were very hard years.
Her main concern was making sure we had enough food to eat and we did – even if it meant she sometimes pulled leafy greens called dock from the side of the road and us eating donated cans of fruit cocktail and ramen noodles for days. Because of her resourcefulness, I had a childhood that didn’t feel all that unusual to me despite the constant uproot. She was able to give us wrapped Christmas presents to open because she got them donated from charities. She enrolled us in the Big Buddy programs and other after school programs and found ways of getting us all to church, all of which helped us survive without falling through the cracks.
This ability to build a support network around her continued to the end of her life, and we are so grateful to those of you here with us today, as well as those who could not be, who’ve looked after her, given support, been a treasured friend, especially in this last year.
The amount of strength it must have taken her to raise us under those conditions is beyond imagining. She bore the desperation of those times so that we didn’t have to. I’ll never be able to understand the depths of her sacrifice to give us every ounce of what she had. And the fact that we turned out intact, instilled with the best of her qualities is her legacy of love that will live on for generations to come.
In 1989, the pressures became too much to bear, and she broke down. We were taken from her when I was 9 years old – a life changing tragedy for all us, especially for her. Due to timing more than anything else, we were dumped into our father’s hands rather than the system’s. A flawed system that fails so many in her position. She, and I, never quite recovered from this split and in many ways the loss we feel now echoes this first heartbreaking loss. I couldn’t have known how much it would hurt to lose her again.
But mama did not give up. Not then, not ever. On her primary role of nurturing us and being our mom, or on her own personal growth and healing. She set to work on improving her life as well as the lives of other’s who’s suffering she could so closely identify with.
And she found love. During this time she met her second husband John Hindle and she had many happy years of stable domesticity as well as adventures in the great outdoors and travels around the country with him, all of which nourished her spirit and helped her healing process. Though that marriage ended, their friendship and mutual support continued to the end.
In the early nineties, she began volunteering at the Advocacy Center for the Elderly and Disabled, and after years of service, she was publicly awarded for her work, written about in the newspaper, and taken on as staff. She was devoted to helping other mental health consumers at places like the Alliance House and the Bridges Program, helping to empower those who are so often invisible and overlooked.
Her entire life, often in the simplest of ways and without recognition, she was doing very advanced and important work on this earth as an instrument of service and compassion. As I begin to process the depths of what my mama gave me – this is what I cling to the most right now in connecting with her true self that shined so brightly here. This is what I hope I can live up to in my own life, to honor her and keep her with me always.
She also worked for some years as an elementary school teachers aide. She had such a special touch with children. She loved getting down on the floor and playing with her grandchildren and neighbor’s children and they adored her. Being a doting Grandma was one of her greatest joys as well as playing a nurturing role in the lives of the underserved children around her at Sharlo Terrace where she lived – tutoring and encouraging them and offering assistance in whatever way she could – a ride, a meal, books or toys she got from Goodwill.
She worked for many years at Loewe’s in the plant department, and flourished in her element as a lover of all things green and growing. Most of you here, especially her neighbors, will remember how she loved to just to lay in the grass, soaking in the sun and absorbing the energy from the earth. These last months as she became weaker, that’s often where she’d be for hours…I’d call her as I did every day and she’d say “I just seem to like the fresh air and the sun” It’s hard to accept there will be no more of those calls.
In her sixties, Mom came full circle in her work life, combining her passions for movement, health, and helping marginalized communities. She became a certified yoga teacher and senior fitness instructor and taught classes at O’Brien House rehabilitation center, Sunrise Assisted Living, Southside Gardens, The Haven and others. This pivotal achievement meant so much to her and filled her with immense pride. I believe she felt it meant she had finally made it, and had triumphed the struggles of her past. And she did.
But the cancer she battled off and on for 20 years, eventually returned with a terminal diagnosis. She faced this final foe with bravery, grace, and determination and entirely on her own terms, never giving up and remaining hopeful until her final hours. All the while wanting to make things easier on her children – she even ordered her own cremation andfilled out her own death certificate so we wouldn’t have to!
We will always remember her sweet soul and how unforgettable she was in her unique and sometimes rather eccentric way of interfacing with the world. She was one of kind.
Some of the little things I’ll miss the most in her absence now is the phone call I’d make every time I got in the car to drive to my first gig, and she’d ask what time would I be done (she hated that I worked at night) and say “be careful driving home sweetie”. I’m sure I will still reach for the phone to call her for a long time. I’ll miss the way she planned ahead for everything – setting the menu and shopping for what she’d serve for lunch when we came to visit 2 months ahead of time. And how she collected and saved little items throughout the year to give to me on our visits, and sent us our birthday presents several months ahead of our actual birthday. She was so beyond excited about these little exchanges of love, and I hope that I told her enough how much I appreciated them.
I’ll miss her reminding me to do my taxes and go to the dentist and to stay away from alcohol at parties. I’ll miss the way she voraciously ate her food, while talking, as it spilled out of her mouth making a mess everywhere. And I’ll miss her insights and wisdom, as she had such a gift In seeing beneath the surface and straight to the heart of a person or a situation. She could tell right away if someone was being phony or dishonest, a quality she detested and felt like an assault on her being. She once was racked with guilt for days after realizing a can of sardines in her shopping cart had gone home with her unnoticed by the check out person that she didn’t pay for.
And I will miss her telling me ever since I was little that “the angels are watching over you and protecting you.” And her telling me to put everything in God’s hands. God, please hold us in your light and raise our sweet mama up to heaven in your arms. She is now one of those angels she loved and talked about so much, and she will watch us over always.
Thank you for listening to me tell her story. I will end with one of her favorite selected quotes
“We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love” – Mother Theresa.