The One and Only Mary Fung Koehler
December 26, 1933 - April 26, 2016
I haven't answered phone calls. Or returned emails or texts. I've just stayed in the cocoon of our close family. My sisters and brother, our children and in laws have been grieving together and working together in preparation for mom's celebration of life this weekend. It has all been quite hideous and wonderful all at the same time.
Mom's obituary details an amazing life. Chinese immigrant parents. The seventh of eleven children. Third woman to graduate in chemical engineering from the U of Illinois. Going to UW Law school with two babies and graduating three years later with two more plus being 7 months pregnant with the fifth.
This is mom's law school class. She received an offer from a big downtown firm upon graduation, but wanted to be closer to her family. She first worked for a grumpy old man lawyer who pretty much terrified me. After a few years she left him and opened her own general practice a few miles from our house. She was very high energy and slept 3 to 4 hours a night. Her favorite time to do laundry was at 2:00 a.m.
Mom was the most untraditional person I've ever known. The phrase: she walked to the beat of her own drum - is an understatement. She was a true Maverick in every sense of the word. She always believed she was right. She never gave up. And she fought like heck for everything. I once watched her sock a lawyer in court because he pushed her. The judge heard about it and after emerging from recess scolded the two of them.
In the 60s through the 80s when mom practiced law, she experienced racism and sexism. She could care less unless it was from a judge. This is because the judge was supposed to be fair and impartial. And because he had the final say like it or not. Otherwise if it was from opposing counsel or their clients she either ignored it or went into attack mode.
She loved people and would not give a second thought to starting up a conversation with a total stranger. To the contrary, she would attend any public meeting or function where she could go meet even more people. When we were children this embarrassed us to no end. As we grew into adults it still did periodically. She felt completely connected to people and did not need time to warm up to them. She had no boundaries whatsoever and would talk about whatever was on her immediate agenda. Whether the recipients liked it or not.
As she grew older mom became more unique. She introduced a bit of magical thinking into the equation. Being such a brilliant person, it was interesting to watch people trying to follow her train of thought. She felt she was on another sphere of intellectual and spiritual being and she was right.
Three lessons I learned from mom were: 1) tell the truth even if bluntly; 2) be strong enough to fight for what is right; and 3) always be there for your family.
Mom had many other sayings and pieces of advice. This collection comes from memories of my childhood:
- sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never harm me
- to be Eurasian means you are the best of both worlds
- ignore them - they don't know what they're talking about
- eat everything on your plate - there are children starving in (fill in the blank)
- your hair needs to be cut
- what is that stuff (makeup) on your face - you don't need anything
- beauty is skin deep
- women can do anything men can do and usually better
- stand up straight
- don't slouch or you'll grow a hump
- you have your grandmother's hands
- tell them you can see better with your four eyes than they can with their two eyes
- next time he socks you, sock him back as hard as you can
- it's a natural bodily function
Perhaps the most wonderful quality of mom was her brightness. I cannot remember seeing her depressed. If she felt down she didn't show it. If she was unhappy or upset she did not cry or mope. Instead she came out swinging as hard as she could. Granted if you were a victim of her wrath, it was no fun. But mainly mom was elated with life. Whether it was beating someone in a game, winning a motion, playing with her grandkids, getting a great deal during her bargain hunting, predicting something correctly or eating an ice cream cone - she laughed and crowed and whooped in utter delight.
We will miss her forever.
Photos: (1) our family archives; (2) my partner Paul Whelan dug this up for me the day after she died; (3) mom and the five kids.