a lantern for all of us: remembering Catherine

December 6, 2021 | 725 Ponce de Leon, Atlanta

On behalf of my father and my mother, on behalf of my family, aunts and uncles and cousins, and because this is Catherine, on behalf of all their dogs, I want to thank you all for taking the time to be with us today to remember and celebrate my wonderful sister. Many of my Jewish friends have reached out to say, “May her memory be a blessing.” To each of you, I want to say that your friendship and your presence is a blessing to Catherine.

One of my first thoughts about Catherine as I began to emerge from the shock of losing her was that though she didn’t have preconceptions about eternity, we can now say with some confidence that in heaven, shit’s now getting done.  One of those who she now joins is George Moore, a deeply loving Presbyterian minister who had a vision of a camp where children and youth could experience something sacred while serving the people of rural Appalachia. After decades of building this place, which he named Glory Ridge, George met a late-teens – early -20’s Catherine, and when he did, he said, “I have never seen anyone work as hard as that girl with red hair.”

Catherine and I spoke often, and when we weren’t working through some of the heavier things of life we would riff on each other and just laugh together…we had our own language and our own way of speaking together, and we had so many inside jokes, most of which aren’t appropriate for public consumption. But this wasn’t just for me: if you, too, were able to riff with Catherine, then that means congratulations: you, my friend, are good people.

As the words of support started to roll in, I noticed a pattern of my close friends from college and young adulthood, most of whom only knew her from her visits but even then got a picture of how special she was.  I’ve realized now what pride I took in introducing my sister to my friends and then my future wife, and I have to admit that I loved the look on their faces when they realized, “oh my God, there are two of them.” 

But I know that this works the other way around, because roundabout our mid-twenties when I would visit her, I would meet her friends and they would call me – and this felt like a shift – “boy Catherine.” (later to be revised to Father Brother) At first I thought, “well, that’s backwards” but it didn’t take long at all for me to internalize what a high compliment that was, and perhaps that was the moment when I came to realize just how much I admired and respected her. And of course, how much I loved her.

After thinking for two weeks about what I could share about Catherine, the words that surface are warmth, wisdom, and integrity.  I’ll bet these are words that say something to each you of Catherine Owens.

We all know her warmth.  When her obituary mentions bear-hugs right out the gate, then it’s clear that we all felt this.  She was generous and fun and thoughtful and wanted to be with you.  You always ate well around Catherine, whether in her home or out on the town. Her restaurant and hotel picks were not to be missed; she could turn a small space in to a mansion between the food she prepared and the warm sense of home she radiated.  One of my favorite memories was visiting her in midtown Atlanta: I texted to say I’d found a parking space a few blocks away and she hurried out to meet me, barefoot on city streets, to give me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Warmth.

She wasn’t so much a campfire or a hearth, rooted in one common place, as she was a lantern that carried warmth and light wherever she went. Each time I took a new job or moved to a new place, I wanted her to come visit – and she always did – in part because the Catherine Owens seal of approval always meant more to me than anyone else’s.  But I realize now it was because to me a place wasn’t a home until Catherine had come to warm it up a bit, until she had brought the blessing of her presence and the life of her infectious laughter.

The second word to describe Catherine is wisdom. Over the past weeks I haven’t been able to take my eyes off all those photos of Catherine, and I know it’s been the same way for many of us. What I see today, and it’s a pattern from her whole life, is that she tends to have a different look in her eye in those pictures than everyone else. It’s a calm, a knowing presence, an awareness of who she was, a grounded-ness, a deeper wisdom.  Where the rest of us often vamp for the camera or put our most amplified selves forward, Catherine seems in all those pictures to simply be smiling, present, warm, and more than a little bit wise.

As we got older, she became for me one of the greatest sources of wisdom in my life. I loved the way she saw the world: what was good, what was broken, and what was possible. She could be serious and playful in the same paragraph, and both were about getting to the heart of the matter. She could call BS on me better than anyone else.

Catherine knew instinctively how to read the room: I don’t mean to gain advantage, but to know what folks were really bringing to the table…if folks weren’t telling the whole story, or had an agenda, or were looking out for themselves only, she knew it. But she also had the wisdom to see goodness and to celebrate it when she saw it. She was patient and insightful, and knew what work needed to be done. If you were a loving, supportive, hard-working colleague or friend or community leader, Catherine saw that too, and if you’re here today it’s probably in part because Catherine, in her warmth and wisdom, saw in you what was beautiful and good.

And that’s where we get to the third thing to describe Catherine Owens, and that is integrity. Integrity is when your words and your actions line up, in every sphere of your life. Lee told me that one of the first things that came to her colleagues’ minds was that Catherine Owens got shit done (see my above comments about project management in heaven), and the fact that I could give independent attestation to that from a thousand miles and two decades away tells you that Catherine was true.

Catherine was true.

Whether we knew Catherine as a colleague or a sister or friend or civic leader, the fact is we all knew the same Catherine. I know she was radically committed to living a life of truth and honesty, to not offloading her burdens onto others, because that kind of courage is how you build beautiful things. With Catherine, there were no games, no hidden agenda, (directness, sure, because reasons) but no grandstanding or knocking on others to build her own ego. No, Catherine brought people up. She celebrated their success.  She brought people along to work towards a goal that was bigger than her and bigger than the moment.

And with that integrity, Catherine took something old and turned it into a legacy, a pathway for connection and life and joy in the midst of the city she loved. And that is the path we’ll walk together, and I can think of no better way to honor her.

I’m going to thank a few people and then I’m going to sit down. Some are with us, some are not, and I’m not getting to everyone, just the people I know. I want to thank Robert Payne and George Moore, both of blessed memory, for creating sacred spaces of unconditional love that had an indelible mark on Catherine’s life.  I want to thank Daniele Lorio for being Catherine’s friend and support from middle school until today, I want to thank Lee Harrop for seeing and knowing and valuing her for her work, but more importantly for valuing Catherine not just for her work but for who she was. And I want to thank Nathan for being her husband and partner and friend, for loving her and for being a part of how Catherine saw beauty in the world.

To my sister Catherine, I love you, I miss you very much, and I’m grateful to know that in your warmth and you wisdom you saw something beautiful in me, too.

In remembering Catherine, please consider giving to the Catherine Macpherson Owens Beltline Fund and / or Glory Ridge.

Lee Harrop’s wonderful eulogy – mostly about Catherine being a badass – can be found here.

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