Ellen Sung Sook Cha Lee

EllenI’m not sure why I felt so compelled to attend Ellen’s memorial – after all, I didn’t know her all that well & our connection might be seen as tenuous (Ellen was my fiancé Steve’s son Lee’s grandmother). But she was a central figure in this admittedly unconventional family I’m part of, and somehow I needed to be there.

We gathered in a circle on the lanai of her Honolulu home (now her
daughter Elizabeth’s) for the ceremony, 30-40 people of varied ages,
races, cultures – each as it turned out reflecting a vital piece of the
whole. As we spoke, Quaker-style, about her life – Ellen Sung Sook Cha
Lee’s life – a picture of this unique being began to form
through our collective memory’s speaking.

There in the center of the lanai with the small round table (upon which
her ashes were held in a mango-wood box strewn with lei and surrounded by candles), dimensions of her life and personality began to emerge that
no one of us had known about before we gathered.

Slowly a composite image revealed itself… a rather glamorous
figure who was envied by her less exotic cousins, Ellen Sung Sook Cha
Lee was more than a little vain in her youth (proof that Lee’s
mirror-gazing didn’t ALL come from Steve 🙂 and we learned that she carefully made up her
face for work each day, rolling her hair in the elaborate pompadour
that was the style then. She was pretty in an educated way (meaning she unashamedly wore glasses); a
well-informed intellectual with a degree in English Lit and a mind that
stayed crisp and clear until death in her 92nd year.

Solitary, self-sufficient, unsentimental and frugal, Ellen
had the prescience to save for her grandson’s college
education, a priceless gift to Lee for which all three of his parents are also eternally

She was a thoughtful neighbor, according to the elderly woman who
joined us to say that Ellen was the first to greet her and her husband
when they moved in, although no one could remember her inviting them
to anything or accepting an invitation.

However unsocial she may have been personally, she was seemingly unconcerned about sharing her home, TV, and the
contents of her refrigerator with a gang of rambunctious kids as Lee
and his friends grew into teenagers and young men & women. She
smoked cigarettes and drank a largish glass of red wine each day; she loved the
little pond in her back garden and spent many hours caring for the
potted bougainvillea that graced it. The stories friends family and neighbors told about her went
on and on…

The morning after the memorial Steve was messing around in the
basement and found a whole pile of photographs we’d missed earlier –
wedding portraits of an incandescent bride with an impossibly long
train, smiling happily at her joy-filled groom (they were both in their
30s when they found each other). As we poured over the pictures I had
the sense that there will always be new dimensions to discover about
each of us, and that each of us sees each other with our own eyes, calling forth different views and perspectives.

Death doesn’t stop the ongoing revelations either; it reveals things that may have been hidden, and may even release inhibition in sharing our thoughts. It made me start to think about my own life, and how different people would see it. Kind of makes me want to burn my diaries, actually. 🙂 But on the other hand I trust that as was true here around the circle of Ellen’s life, the people I love would see me and all my foibles kindly. Which is as we each would wish to be seen and held – in life and in death.

Fare well, Ellen Sun Sook Cha Lee. You were seen and loved.

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