Memorial for Carolyn Graham
November 20th, 2010
Rev. Greg Ward
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula





A funeral service is being held for a man who passed away. At the end of the service the pallbearers are carrying the casket out, when they accidentally bump into a pole, jarring the casket.


To their amazement, they hear a faint moan. They open the casket and were astonished to find that the man was actually alive.


It turns out he lives for ten more years, most of them spent at home with his wife.  The day comes when he dies - again.  Another ceremony is held at the same church and – again – at the end of the ceremony, the pallbearers carry out the casket.


Only this time as they are walking out, they hear the man’s wife cry out, "Watch out for that pole!"




HYMN # 83  “Winds be Still”



A woman died in a car accident while driving home a restaurant with her husband.  The next thing she realized, she was walking toward the light.  It got brighter and brighter as she walked until she arrived at the Pearly Gates.


“My dear!  Welcome! Called out St. Peter.  "You have proved yourself to be a kind and generous soul. You are worthy of passing through these gates. In order for you to enter heaven, I ask only one thing: that you spell one simple word, a word that represents the philosophy of heaven. The word is 'love'."


      "That's easy," said the woman. "L-O-V-E."


      And St. Peter opened the Pearly Gates, enabling her to enter.


      Just as she stepped into the kingdom of heaven, St. Peter's pager went off. God needed him for an emergency meeting. "Excuse me," said St. Peter to the man he had just admitted, "could you watch the gates for me while I'm in this meeting" I shouldn't be more than ten minutes. All I ask of you is that you let nobody in unless they spell the word correctly."


      She agreed, and St. Peter vanished, leaving her with a bright silver key to the gates.


      A few minutes, the woman’s husband appeared in front of the gates.


      "Hello, dear," he said.


      "What are you doing here?" she asked.


      "Well, they rushed me to the hospital, but I didn't make it.


      “Well, okay,” she said prepared to obey the instructions St. Peter had given her.  "Darling, in order for you to pass through the gates of heaven and join me in bliss forever, you only need to spell one simple word. And the word is... 'antidisestablishmentarianism’


What do we have to learn from these jokes that help us today?   All our lives we deal with great changes.  Unexpected changes that help us come to terms with the impermanence of things – of people – and time – and circumstances we become attached to.  We turn to religion – to communities like this – to help us make sense of change.  And to not shrink back – but to repeatedly bring the best of ourselves forward.  To cultivate acceptance, and curiosity, and appreciation with the world.  And whenever and however we can, to offer whatever influence we are able to make those transitions more graceful, or at least more meaningful.  In the process, we grow an understanding of what makes life precious to us – and what makes us precious to life.  In other words, our job as religious people is to look for the light.  To see the light which emanates from all things – people, places, community – and to always walk toward it, and try to lift up that light in others.  In that way, Carolyn Graham was a remarkably religious woman.  She had an unbelievable curiosity and fascination with life that enabled her to see past the ordinary.  To see the light in people and things around her and call it out.  She always – no matter how dark things became – had a knack for seeing the bright side.  And she liked best of all to share that with the people beside her. 


Perhaps that was the source of her insatiable sense of humor.  She accepted and appreciated the unexpected – in others – and even in herself.  They say that angels learn to fly when they figure out how to take themselves lightly.  Carolyn not only learned to fly, she was something of an air-traffic controller. 


These are the great tasks before us today. 

    1. To take what has become precious to us;
    2. Accept gracefully the change that life requires of us;
    3. To always look for the light; and
    4. To understand that the magic word for having more light in our lives is LOVE.  Not antidisestablishmentarianism.  


Those who teach us that great lesson teach us to become like angels.  For they help us move through the world more easily by teaching us to take ourselves lightly. 


ANTHEM – “Toffee Song”

Music by John Bacchus Dykes

Words by Carol Collin



Most everyone who knew Carolyn, knew that she loved a good joke.  She loved to make people laugh.  But more than anything else, I think, she loved that delicious sigh that followed the laughter.  That moment of quiet appreciation which might linger for a second or two but brought about  such a clear sense of connection.  An understanding that in people coming together, there is joy and amusement.  And all we need to be happy. 


But Carolyn was very clear that every good joke – to get to the laughter, and the sweet feeling which followed – needed a good set up. 


Carolyn Stanley Brunton was born in Santa Monica on December 14th, 1922.  Her parents, Arthur and Caroline Brunton, met while working together at Security First National Bank in Santa Monica.  Arthur had been the janitor before going off to serve in World War I.  When he returned to his job after the war, Caroline was a clerk at the bank. 


Arthur was the kind of man who said he always knew the job ahead of him.  He worked his way up to bank manager.  And, although they had asked him to sit on the board of trustees at the bank, he had been going to USC law school at night with plans to become a lawyer, which he did. 


Carolyn’s mother was from a Quaker family and was very smart.  Though her own parents were of modest means and couldn’t afford it, a high school teacher encouraged her to think about college.  The president of Swarthmore college came to her home and offered her a scholarship.  But her parents did not accept because they also had two older sons who had not gone to college. 


Carolyn was the first born, followed a few years later by her sister Shirley.  Carolyn remembers sometimes liking to tease her little sister, saying she came along and interrupted her perfect childhood.  But the truth was she adored and admired her.  And throughout their lives, there were probably not anyone either of them could think of – aside from their mother - who shared such a clear and common set of values, or such a strong commitment to them.   And it was this unquestionable adoration which later prompted Carolyn to always tell her own daughters to be nice to one another.


Carolyn was diagnosed with rheumatic fever as a child – a chronic condition which meant she was never good at sports and couldn’t take gym.  But she made a great many friends – especially those who were involved in a performing arts group, called, among other names, “The Marquee Club.”  This group stayed in close contact all her life.


Carolyn said she wasn’t particularly good in school.  But she was an avid reader and found everything so interesting.  She attended Stephens College in Missouri and then completed her bachelors in English Literature at USC.  It was during the second world war.  The day after she graduated she joined the Navy.  Then, she came home and told her parents (who were quite supportive)


But before she reported for duty, there was time for a little adventure.   She took a trip to Mexico.  The official story – as I’ve heard it – is because she wanted to learn Spanish.  Yet from one of her many scrapbooks comes this passage:


“There was romance… for there were Cuba Libres and Bob’s guitar.  I remember a night when we were gathered about a little fire somewhere in the woods, and Bob disappeared.  Suddenly, in a very quiet moment, from the distance, we could hear Bob singing and strumming on his guitar in his high-pitched, mellow, Cliff Edwards voice.   We played, for we were young and healthy, and we found that nothing made us feel younger and healthier than to dance until dawn – have a picnic every weekend and a party every night.  We invented and christened “Magia Blanca” which consisted of Tequilla and Milk.”


As you can tell, some Spanish was certainly studied and learned.  There were more stories of adventure described – all of which left me regretting that I hadn’t  asked her a million more questions.


When Carolyn returned to report to duty, she became one of the first women in the Navy inducted into a group called, ‘the WAVES’ (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).  After boot camp in the Bronx and training in Georgia, she reported for duty in Washington DC on May 8th – the day the war ended. 


After VJ day they asked her to re-up for a year which she did, but when it was finally all over and she was discharged, she returned home and used the GI bill to get a second degree in journalism.  There she sat in classes at USC where students were placed row by row in alphabetical order according to last name.  Her last name, Brunton, placed her next to a young man with whom she became good friends and with whom she regretted not staying in closer touch over the years.  His name was Art Buchwald.  


On advice from someone she respected, she went to Wright-McMann School to become an executive secretary which led her to work for Carlton Beale in Bel Aire California.   It as a great job as she remembered it.  Beale was part of the Hollywood glitterati and the job came with a lot of perks.  He took half the office to a dude ranch for a week.  He was also active in the Hollywood Polo scene on Sundays, and when the Polo matches played, she got to go to the grounds and meet the likes of Kirk Douglass and Randolph Scott.  Clark Gable was often there and he once motioned for Carolyn to come sit next to him, but she was too shy to go.


Then, on  one rather dull Saturday, she sat with her mother reading the society page of the Times.  In her scrapbook, Carolyn describes the encounter this way:


“Doesn’t this job sound interesting to you?” And [Mother] read an excerpt from the paper about jobs in recreation overseas.


“Oh, it sounds Okay,” was my unimaginative answer.  “but I’m a secretary.  That job is for someone else.”


“But they’re interviewing now.  Wouldn’t you just like to talk to them about it?” 


“Oh maybe.”  (This meant, “But I won’t”)


I forgot about it for five minutes, for Mother had left the room.  When she came back she said, “You have an appointment for 3:00 this afternoon.”


Carolyn got the job and later wrote this:

“This was the beginning of a job that I love… a way of life I love.  It brought a great deal into my life.


“It also brought me an almost incurable restlessness and wanderlust… a dissatisfaction with any ordinary way of life…. A yearning to find something new… to see all there is to see… to live life as fully as possible.”


The job was special services with the Army where she helped produce entertainment for the troops.  They recruited talent among the men, worked up routines.  She described one show like this:


“…we put on a top notch show.  Even (I) did a pantomime number to “Never Been Kissed”…


“We had fun working on it, but never have I had a greater thrill than putting it on.  Those kids down there in the hold were starving for some kind of entertainment… something just for them.  They packed the deck and waited an hour in the drizzle to watch.  And they loved it… They whooped and hollered and applauded for all they were worth… just as if we were Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe.  Standing there on the windy deck in a lace dress sounded by beaming faces, I never felt so warm.” 


Returning from that tour of duty she returned to Santa Monica and worked at the Rand Corporation – a military think tank.  She served as a secretary in a locked down, highly secure war game room.  Her job was to pass messages back and forth between strategists. 


She signed up for special services with the Air Force where she was assigned to Tripoli in Libya which she chose because they promised her hardship pay.  But after she arrived they decided it wasn’t hardship enough – so she got regular pay, even though it was between 115-130 degrees with flies everywhere. 


She wrote many letters back home to her mother.  She talked about how the women were far outnumbered by the men on the base and how they were so possessive of the women they dated.


“Oh mommy,” she wrote in one letter,  “you know I’m not a party girl – but I had nine dates this week – five of them with different people.” 


She had a lot of girlfriends and a lot of dates and she found them all so interesting.    And no matter what other news she reported, she always wrote about this little cottage in Carmel that she dreamed about buying with her two aunts.  It was a little place where they would be able to retire.   She ended up purchasing the house on terms that would make most investors very nervous.  She borrowed the entire amount up front and paid monthly with one big balloon payment scheduled at the end.  But when all was said and done she got her cottage – which she dearly hoped her aunts would love, and which she would live in for the last 22 years of her life – for $12,000.


It was while she was in Tripoli she met ‘Walt’ – a Lt. who managed the airport.  Carolyn was helping to manage the service club for the G.I’s.  Carolyn describes the encounter:

“I was the ‘new’ girl in town.  My attention was drawn to a very good looking guy in the corner.  He looked me up and down and had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.  I thought he was rude and I was not interested. 


“The next time I saw Walt… he sat down with me and started talking about politics and religion.  He was a democrat.  I was a republican.  He was a fallen away Catholic and I wasn’t attached to any particular religion. 


They eventually went out and she found him fun and witty.  They fell in love and eventually married.  But it wasn’t a simple story – the best ones never are.


After Walt died and Carolyn went to the minister’s office to help prepare his service, the minister asked,


“Now Mrs. Graham, when you met Walt, was it love at first sight?” 

“Oh, no!” she said.  “We fell in love by arguing about politics.” 


But arguing and holding grudges was not Carolyn’s style.  Her need to give and to serve was much stronger than her need to ‘be right.’


Carolyn and Walt got an apartment in Santa Monica in the same building as Carolyn’s mother.  Seana was born while they were there and a year and a half later, Stephanie came.   They needed a bigger apartment and moved to Venice where, four years later, Julie was born. 


As a mom she was a big supporter of the girls – and the whole family – in almost everything they did.  Except become Girlscouts or brownies.  She didn’t like the uniforms –they were too ‘military,’ she thought.  So she became the bluebird troop leader. 


She was the one mom of all moms who let girls do anything – jump off the couch and pretend they were Mary Poppins with umbrellas.  She loved to see imagination and creativity.  Other friends loved that and loved to come over.  Over the years the girls marveled at the encouragement they received.  They all said they could change their mind about who they wanted to be when they grew up every five minutes and their feelings were completely supported over the years. 


All three girls are, to this day, remain amazed that they never got yelled at.  Or spanked.  Although they remember Carolyn yelling from across the house to, ‘stop fighting’.


Carolyn used to say that when the girls were born, she just sort of thought they knew as much about growing up as she did so she just let them do it.


The family moved to Buena Park, and then up north to Dublin.  And when Walt graduated from school in Economics and Finance and was offered a job in Denver they moved there for a short time.  It’s there they became acquainted with Unitarian Universalism at Jefferson Unitarian Church.  Carolyn learned there all about the Circle 7 dinners which she eventually brought down to this church.


When the family returned to Dublin, she volunteered as a nurse’s aid in an MS clinic and a psychiatric ward.  When her mother became frail, she moved her up to live with them and did all the caretaking.  And even with all of that, she found time to pursue some of her other life-long goals. 


Some here might be surprised to know that she wrote three romance novels during this time.  The first was set in Germany and called, “To Capture a Dream” under the pen name, Carolyn Gray.  Her second, set in Mexico, was called, “Let Other’s Dream.”  It was under the name Carri Stanley.  Her third book, also under the name of Carri Stanley, was set in Carmel and was left untitled.  She was also published in Readers Digest.


In 1987 Walt took a job in Illinois and they even separated for a short time.  But when he was diagnosed with cancer, he returned and Carolyn cared for him in the last few months of his life. 


In 1988 she realized her cherished dream of moving herself down to Carmel.  She immediately got involved with the Neighborhood association and did the newsletter for Gentrain.  And she joined this church. 


Throughout all these activities she was compelled with the notion of bringing people together.  “We should all be getting together more” was her motto – which led her to start the circle seven suppers here. 


She continued to develop crushes on men in her later years.  One prominent crush being with Joe Montana.  “I wish I could be on a football team – any team except the 49rs – so I could run at Joe Montana and tackle him in my arms.”


She also liked Michael J. Fox.  And to tease her, her daughters got her a poster from a Teen-Beat magazine and put it on her wall.  But she embarrassed them right back by insisting that it stay up right where they placed it – in the entry way of the house – much to the bewilderment of people who came to the door. 


She had a number of falls over the years.  But she didn’t mind them as much as you’d think because it meant the firemen would show up.  She loved that they would pick her up and liked talking about how handsome they were.  She also loved the notoriety that came when her name appeared in the local paper, the Pine Cone. 


And she loved to flirt with the minister.  Besides the joke she would bring each Sunday, she invited me to Denny’s each week and enjoyed taking me out on occasion.  She kept saying that she wanted to have me over to dinner when her sister visited so she could make her jealous. 


When Carolyn’s eye sight started to go she lost two of her great loves –reading and writing.  But she never complained.   Once, after living with macular degeneration in one eye for several years she mentioned to Stephanie,  “…there is one thing I should probably tell you – It turns out that I have macular degeneration in the other eye.”  “What does that mean?”  “It might mean that I go totally blind,” she said.  But, within the very same thought she mused, “But, you know, I always wanted to study Braille.


When her second eye failed, it came on suddenly.  But instead of despair setting in, her indominatable spirit won out.  “Now I realize,” she said, “I need to ask more people for more help – that’s what I need to learn – people love to help you – it makes them happy.  I can make people happy.”


And if there was one person – more than any other – who Carolyn made happy by letting them help her, it is Gale Winfield.   Originally she was called in just to clean windows, Gale eventually became her bookkeeper, her driver, her cook and one of her dearest and most trusted friends.  Carolyn always knew how lucky she was to have Gale.  But as Gale can attest, it was impossible not to feel lucky in the process.  


When Carolyn got the infection that would eventually take her life, she continued to bring out the best in people.  A group of people from the church gathered together to sing to her – something I’m convinced meant as much to us as it did to her. 


In one of my last conversations with Carolyn a couple days before she died, she said this: she’d had a wonderful life.  But that she was really ready to go. She knew it would be sad for others.  But she was not sad.  She had done everything she had ever wanted to do.  And she was immensely proud of what she had done with her life. But nothing gave her more pride than her three daughters. 


“They are quite wonderful young women.  Intelligent, capable, thoughtful, kind and funny.  I love being with them – and I have since they were born.” 


And she loved and her three grandchildren.  Evan, Liam and Olivia.


“I have watched them like a show,” she said, “like the most amazing show.”


In her last few days, although she was so uncomfortable and ready to go, she waited for those she loved to arrive.  Her sister, Shirley, who came to hold her hand (and bring a joke book); her daughters who surrounded her with love and appreciation.  And Gale who made sure she had everything she needed. 


So, there is the set up to one of the best jokes of all time.  One worth telling and retelling.  If we missed the punch-line, maybe it’s because I told it wrong.  Or maybe its because it’s one of those rare – and very special – jokes where the humor doesn’t come all at the end.  Where the laughter and the lightness of spirit that was intended was delivered in small parcels of joy every day and was best delivered in its original telling. 


Either way, we are together now – in that time of delicious sighs – where we share a moment of quiet appreciation which lingers but a moment or two and brings about a clear sense of connection.  An understanding that in people coming together, there is joy.  And all we need to be happy. 


That is the part Carolyn loved best.  And if we didn’t get that… the joke’s on us. 









Spirit of Life and Love
We gather together
In sorrow and celebration both
Hoping you might reveal the meaning in this moment
We ask as Robert Frost did before us,
“Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee,
and I'll forgive Thy great big joke on me.”
Help explain the punch line
That comes with the loss of a person
who brought us so much love and laughter.
Help explain the great riddle of life,
That we may learn,
Like Carolyn,
How to smile
Even in the face of loss.

Give us, in the days to come
Her sense of adventure.
Her sense of humor.
Her sense of values.
Her common sense.
And her ability to lead an uncommon life.

Open us to the larger life she lived
Help us to see that defeat and despair
Are only necessary when we lose our sense of humor
Give us the grace to see the mirth beyond the mayhem
The joy beyond the judgment
The imagination of all that could be
Beyond the insanity of what sometimes appears around us.

If we are to be stopped in this life
Let it be by awe and amazement
Not by our failure to see past its challenges.

In that way, lead us not in to the dull and mundane
But into the realm of mystery and fascination
That makes of life a miraculous adventure
And all who accept it adventurous miracle workers

Let us not forget her example
That call for us to do more than step into the sun
but appreciate the light
And to find out what it means to shine.


HYMN # 101 “This Little Light of Mine”