By Riverdave Owen

Shared at her Memorial Service 

Epworth Methodist Church, Durham NC

July 10, 2021 


With the recent passing of my mother Phyllis Owen, I have taken the occasion to attempt to summarize the essence of my mother's character. Some have suggested that she was an exemplary artist, homemaker, church worker, grandmother and all around community friend. But an often overlooked aspect of her being, reflecting her inner emotive life as much as anything else, was her compassion and love for animals.  


In the wild I observed her attraction to birds, dolphin, fish, turtles, beaver, raccoon, possum, bear, deer, canines and various other critters. She has been on wildlife safaris in East Africa and Amazonia. Perhaps her hesitancy around snakes was an exception, although I took the responsibility to help her with this lone shortcoming!  But in my observation, Phyllis's attraction to domestic cats and wild squirrels stands out as particularly noteworthy.  


I believe her love for cats was an inheritance from her mother Bessie Merwin.  At one point my grandmother Merwin was feeding as many as thirty abandoned and stray cats at her home in Palatka, Florida where Phyllis grew up. As a child I have vivid images of cat feeding time during Christmas visits to the Merwin home.  A herd of cats with tails raised in expectation would swarm around my grandmother's feet as she set out table scraps by the back porch.


Phyllis also inherited from her mother the art of speaking to cats and other animals in an altered, sweet, child-like tone as if she was fondly speaking to a human infant under her care. This was the language of her heart, an anthropomorphism of the most affectionate kind that placed these animals on a level equal to humans and deserving of her compassion and care.  


There were occasions when I detected a sense of jealousy from my father when he heard Phyllis speak so affectionally to animals.  This could evoke from him a joke or even sarcasm detectable in his verbal response. Although never directed toward her in an unkind manner, this was my father's way of both coping and having fun. In reality my father also loved animals but was just not as emotive or demonstrative as my mother.


The second animal that received special attention from Phyllis was the squirrel. Foremost was the common gray squirrel of the eastern U.S.  But it also included chipmunks and red squirrels of the Appalachians and ground squirrels and prairie dogs of the western plains where we enjoyed family camping experiences together. Feeding these rodents by hand was irresistible for Phyllis. She was delighted by the way squirrels would take seeds or cookies from her hand and then pose in front of her while chomping away.


In the final years of her life at the Forest at Duke retirement center, Phyllis eschewed all forms of electronic entertainment, claiming she was not able to remember how to press the right buttons to make them work. Instead, her main form of amusement became observing a bird feeder attached to her window.  My sister and I filled this feeder with seeds several times a week as a constant stream of cardinals, titmice, house finches, Carolina wrens and gray squirrels swooped in to partake of Phyllis's humble offerings of nourishment and love.


And although at times the persistent squirrels were able to completely commandeer the feeder, even knocking it to the ground with their leaping weight, Phyllis never failed to forgive them. She often assured us that she enjoyed watching the maneuvers and antics of these furry creatures with human like faces more than that of birds. 


As an adult I am aware that I absorbed my mother's compassion, love and wonder for the animal world.  As an outdoor guide and nature essayist I often employ an anthropomorphic style when describing my encounters with wildlife, as if these creatures were my personal friends. And in my more private experiences with both animals and plants, my mother's influence has permeated to an even deeper level, evolving into an animistic relationship with Nature, an arena filled with magical wonders and Spirit directed omens.


Instead of becoming an avid fisherman like my father, I have turned out more like my mother.  When reeling in a flounder while surf fishing at the coast, my father had no problem with dropping the fish into a bucket of shallow water to slowly suffocate before eventually carving it up for dinner. When walking on the beach Phyllis would often come by to check on my father's latest catch. Peering into his bucket with an expression of anguish on her face, she would often comment "I feel so sorry for this poor fish! Can't you let this one go?  My father prepared most of the meat consumed in our home while my mother prepared the vegetables ...


As an adult I have become a snorkeler, an observer of the beauty of fish thriving in their natural underwater habitat. I am not an extractive fisherman like my father.  I lean towards vegetarianism in my eating habits. I have also come to understand that within each one of us there resides both a masculine and a feminine side to our own individual temperament.  My mother's love for animals has evidently passed on to me, thereby nourishing and balancing my own feminine side ...


Photo - Phyllis with her last rescue cat "Jazzy"