Jean Tangren Alexander was a dear friend, landlady, and honorary grandma. When my two oldest were little, they would walk up to Tangren’s house to play dolls with her, setting up elaborate scenes and photographing them. Jean Tangren Alexander, who we always called Tangren, was buried in the natural burial ground at Willow Witt Ranch. There was a celebration of life for Jean Tangren Alexander on Friday, July 10, 2021. Her daughter, Marcella, gave this eulogy. She gave me permission to reprint it here.
Eulogy for Jean Tangren Alexander
By Marcella Alexander
July 10, 2021 (Ashland, Ore.) —How does one choose what to say about a mother? There are so many things I could talk about regarding mine. How do I sum such a complicated person who I knew literally all of my life? Should I discuss her love of the stars? Or our middle of the night forays to my grandparents’ house to watch Deborah Kerr movies on TV in the 70s (because that was the only way to see them)? After much deliberation, I landed on dolls.
My mother, Jean Tangren Alexander, loved dolls
If anyone here is not familiar with the Raggedy Ann stories, they are the original idea behind Toy Story. In these stories, the dolls have adventures while the people are asleep or away, and always try to get back to their left positions just before the humans return. Raggedy Anne’s human is a little girl named Marcella.
In a piece from the late 90s entitled What Dolls Do my mother wrote, “For me, long before there was George Berkeley there was Raggedy Ann.”
George Berkley was a philosopher my mother was particularly fond of. He was famous for advancing the theory that the material world only exists as an idea perceived by the mind. In such a world if matter exists at all, who’s to say what it’s doing when not being perceived?
My great grandmother Pearl loved dolls and taught my mother to love them as much. When my mother was two and already well versed in the Raggedy Ann stories, Pearl made a Raggedy Ann doll for my mom. In What Dolls Do, my mother tells the story of the first night she spent with Raggedy.
The grownups thought it would be better if my mother did not sleep in the same bed with her. So they set up two chairs next to my mom’s crib and tucked her in under my mom’s bathrobe. When the lights went out my mom began to worry. She wrote, “What if someone should come in the night and steel her? If I were a thief stealing valuable things, I would certainly take her.”
So, my mom reached through the bars of her crib and held Raggedy’s hand tight all night to make sure that didn’t happen. That Raggedy Anne doll remained my mother’s constant companion throughout her life. And now she is buried here with my mom wrapped in the same beautiful shroud made by Gwen and Susan.
A magical world
When my mother made the decision to go on hospice, I posted about it on Facebook. My childhood best friend messaged me: “Seeing these pictures is to revisit a magical person and the magical world she created for you as a child.” My mother did indeed create a magical world for me. For example, when I was four, my parents and I spent the summer in Germany together. The Germans made the best toys then. Beautiful things you could not buy in the States. I got a stuffed kitty that was partially beanbag, so you could pose her in different positions. Often in the afternoons we would go for a family walk, and often we would leave a saucer of milk out for Kitty.
For some reason one of my parents often seemed to forget something and would have to run back inside to get whatever it was. We’d journey on our walk and inevitably upon our return, we’d find that kitty had snuck over and drank the milk while we were gone. Sometimes she’d even still be next to the saucer!
As life went on and I grew older, along with the understanding that there is no Santa Claus or tooth fairy, of course, toys sort of stopped being alive for me. Eventually I became a grown up. Although we always talked and wrote letters, my mother and my lives became quite separate.
At one point when I was in my early 20s and was living in Europe, she sent me a card in which she wrote about a dream she’d had. I was with a bunch of kids on a playground and she’d lost track of where I was and became concerned. She was looking for me, when she thought, “Wait, didn’t she grow up?” But then she saw me playing with the other kids and thought, “Oh no, not yet.” Upon waking, she said she that she’d thought about the dream and decided that indeed I was off with a bunch of kids playing and having fun. And that I was loved and taken care of.
Loved and taken care of
I felt similarly about her life. From the time my mom moved out of my family house, she surrounded herself with the most amazing groups of women. Many became lifelong friends. So I always knew that she had friends to play with and that she was loved and taken care of.
However, I didn’t really realize until I attended her 70th birthday party how much she meant to so many people. All these women were coming up to me, telling me what an honor it was to meet me, telling me how amazing my mother was, and how lucky I was to have her as a mother. I felt like I was the child of some famous guru. I’ve actually said as much to some of her friends over the last few months—and they agree with me.
Jean Tangren Alexander taught people to question the world
That party changed my perception of her. She wasn’t just someone who had a lot of friends. She was a pillar of her community, someone who was an important part of bringing sexual equality into the mainstream of our society. And who taught young minds to think in ways they had not previously; to question the world. Whether that be to question whether it was ethical to eat animals, or whether a table still exists when no one is perceiving it, or whether we can really know what dolls do when we aren’t watching. I’ve come to really appreciate my mother on another level. Beyond the person who was my mother.
Over the past decade, I sold the vast majority of my old toys on eBay. I felt a bit guilty about it, and had to keep reminding myself that they’d be happier anywhere else than stuffed away in a box. (I have Toy Story to thank for that.)
Still believing they’re real
However, I simply cannot get rid of Kitty, or the Winnie the Pooh I’ve had since I was a baby, or the Snoopy I got for leaving my crib behind, or the Laura Ingalls Wilder rag doll I got when I was five. They all live at my dad’s house, and I feel bad that I grew up and don’t pay them enough attention anymore.
I was bemoaning this fact to my mom not long ago. As the daughter of two Philosophy professors, I had a pretty thoughtful childhood. And had plenty of time to figure out what I believed while growing up. I like to think of myself as a logical person. My world is one governed by science, reason, and facts. I know perfectly well that they are just cotton stuffing and fabric. This feeling guilty is completely irrational.
My mom laughed and agreed with me that of course they are just cotton and fabric.
“Ah ha,” she said. “But, see? The fact that you feel guilty proves that deep down inside a little part of you still believes that they are real.”
I said, “Oh, you’re right!”
Thank you all for being here. I know that my mother and Raggedy would be so appreciative and thankful to see each and every one of you here today. Enjoy this beautiful summer afternoon. Remember to look up at the stars, and to give your old toys a hug.
Published: July 12, 2021