I’m not much of a Quaker. I grew up Methodist, spent fifteen years hardly thinking about religion, and for about twenty years have been a not too conspicuously fervent or involved member of the Religious Society of Friends. But I was gut-pummeled in 2016 by the death of three authoritative or “weighty” Friends, members of our meeting in central Connecticut. Everyone else felt the same. So sustaining for us had these three Quakers been that their passing inspired grave consideration of how our community could keep going without them.
Connie was the first loss to knock the wind out of us. As a young Jewish girl she had escaped Nazi Germany in a Kindertransport. Finding refuge in Britain, she took up again her earnest study of the violin. Later, as a Quaker convert in America, she taught an extraordinary number of music students, while she was also an activist and homemaker. Her house was flowered and bowered and fragrant with cooking; the winsome low hallways and curious windows of old rural New England glowed with restoration and cleanliness. But she wasn’t about material things. She’d gone to jail during the Vietnam era. She’d been at the center of all the meeting’s charities, all of its peace lobbying.
Our second great loss was Mary Connie, who had a bewilderingly long list of achievements but was most celebrated for having founded the first Planned Parenthood in the region; this seemed to all of us a natural modern Quaker witness, as no religious sect has been more strongly feminist over the centuries than ours. We also grieved for Mary Connie’s husband Wistar, a mathematics professor and an extremely fine person, but one I regarded mainly as Mary’s companion and advocate. He was given a conventional service in the chapel of Wesleyan University, where he’d taught; friends, family and colleagues delivered prepared tributes. But Connie and Mary Connie’s services were the traditional Quaker kind, with seats all on one level and facing inward, and an appreciative outpouring from anyone who was moved to offer one.
It was hard to do the two women justice. They both always reminded me of what had impressed me about the Quakers years before, when I found myself living among them as a young adult, jobless, nearly homeless, dangling between continents, damning institutions, atomizing my bridges. Connie’s and Mary Connie’s was a Quakerism embodied as service, as defense of civilization, whether through arts and culture, business and nonprofit administration, politics and intellectualism, spiritual exploration, or whatever other effort seemed important. For those of us in the generation that is burying them, these things are more or less only about us. Responses I understand to being raised as a Quaker nowadays include joining the Marines and fighting in Iraq, converting local Quaker organizations into a sprawling (but then soon vanishing) New Age spa, and becoming a Catholic. Young-adult “birthright Friends,” who come from Quaker households and have stuck to the religion, are practically unknown, probably because they understand how immense and intense it has to be to continue as anything like what it was.