RALEIGH, N.C. – Elizabeth Edwards
was remembered as a loving mother and loyal friend in a memorial service that acknowledged the turmoil she confronted with "grace and strength," in the words of her daughter, Cate Edwards. Politicians with headline names joined the public in saying goodbye Saturday at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in this city she called home years before she became a national figure and symbol.
On Tuesday, Elizabeth Edwards, 61, died of cancer. On a gray, rainy Saturday, lifelong friends and family gathered to mourn and remember Edwards' intelligence, sense of humor and uncompromising attitude. Following her mother's draped casket into the church, Cate, 28, held hands in a line with her 10-year-old brother, Jack, their father, John Edwards, and sister, Emma Claire, 12.
In her tribute, Cate called her mother "feisty and smart as a whip." She never held that against people, said Cate, "unless she was right and they were wrong." She said her mother was a "consistent source of wisdom," about everything from wearing solid colors to never marrying the first boy you date. ("You would never buy the first pair of shoes you try on.")
"She's been a lighthouse to all of us, a point of guidance when we all feel lost," Cate said of her mother. "Even in her last days, she was comforting us." She quoted from the letter to her children Elizabeth Edwards had long been working on: "All I ever really needed was you," it said, "your love, your presence, to make my life complete."
At the same church in 1996, a 14-year-old Cate Edwards had eulogized her 16-year-old brother, Wade, killed in an automobile accident. "Wade and mom are still a part of this family," Cate said, and will always be.
Among the more than 1,000 people listening to Cate in the church was her father, John Edwards
, former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate, the estranged husband who was with Elizabeth "pretty much around the clock" in her final days, according to friends. He did not speak at the service, assuring a focus on Elizabeth's life and work, not his own achievements and failings. Glenn Bergenfield, a friend of the couple since law school, praised him as a "loving and very attentive dad." Edwards "is strong," Bergenfield said, "and will take great care of his kids."
The political world was well-represented by, among others, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry -- at the top of Democratic presidential ticket in 2004 – N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue and members of the state's Democratic congressional delegation. Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, was there, as well.
Friends spoke of an Elizabeth Edwards who was more than the political wife the world first got to know. Hargrave McElroy met her when both were young mothers, moving into an apartment complex in Raleigh. The friend who often traveled with her on the campaign trail described Navy brat Elizabeth as an expert in "living out of boxes and looking on the bright side."
With Elizabeth, said McElroy, there was "no holding back," even when sometimes she should. She was someone with a "fairly intense competitive streak," who would turn solving crossword puzzles into a contest. McElroy, who is Cate Edwards' godmother, said Elizabeth Edwards "never knew a stranger" and would sign books for fans and listen to stories for hours. She "really wanted to know about their struggles and dreams."
Bergenfield, a lawyer in Princeton, N.J., recalled a "big-world, head-turning, walk-into-the-pole gorgeous" Elizabeth Edwards at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law school, who early on turned the tables on a tough professor, giving the other students hope that "one day we would understand all this odd stuff." In Elizabeth, he "never detected even a tiny dollop of ego." Bergenfield, godfather to both Wade and Jack, said his friend was someone who loved "hugely and profoundly" and wasn't afraid "to be herself, even if it was exhausting."
As outsized in their passions were many other mourners who traveled hours to attend Saturday's service. Claudia Bliss left at 6 a.m. to drive the five hours from Anderson, S.C. "She was such a shining star," Bliss said, "my hero," someone who has handled her trials with "grace and resilience, like her book." Bliss, who is going through a divorce from her husband of 10 years, said she could also relate to Elizabeth Edwards' marital problems.
In "Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers," Elizabeth Edwards wrote about her grief following the death of her son and her struggles dealing with a 2004 diagnosis of breast cancer. "Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities" followed the recurrence of her cancer and the revelation of her husband's infidelity with a campaign worker.
Verlanda Dawson, 42, is a full-time student at Shaw University, but she wore a Carolina blue Tar Heel sweatshirt, "in memory of Elizabeth." She wished "all the luck and success to her children."
Though she leaned on a walker for support for her arthritis, Phyllis Sowle, 64, drove from Bristol, Va., to honor the woman she called "precious, an inspiration to all women."
As promised, five members of Westboro Baptist Church
, an unaffiliated congregation in Topeka, Kan., that protests at the funerals of soldiers and AIDS victims, showed up to demonstrate two blocks from the funeral. They were drowned out in volume, spirit and number by Edwards' supporters who stood across the street and held signs that read "compassion," "mother" and "peace."
The N.C. Council of Churches
had received overwhelming support for its statement condemning Westboro's actions, and the Raleigh-based Line of Love
had urged people to show support.
"This kind of hate-speech is not tolerated in Raleigh, and that goes for any family," said Jennifer Hill of nearby Cary, N.C. Hill, 33, and her mother, Betty Hildreth, wore pink ribbons in support of breast cancer research. "She deserves a lot of respect and kind thoughts," Hildreth said of Edwards.
Eric Oxenford, 37, who works in construction, got to know the Edwards family when he worked on their Raleigh home after the death of Wade. "It's a wonderful family," he said. "It was shocking to hear the political strife that came out." Oxenford said he hates what the Westboro protesters stand for. "It's sure not the Bible." His wife, Nancy, who held up a sign with Scripture verses, said, "If these people are Christian, then I'm Santa Claus." She didn't come for them, she said, but for the Edwards children. "People came out in the rain and the cold," she said she wanted them to know. "This is how much they loved your mom."
Dr. Roger V. Elliott, one of the ministers who spoke, took slight notice of the protesters when he said it "must bring the Lord great sadness to see people promoting hate in his name." He described Elizabeth Edwards' path to accept Christ after Wade's death. She "did not come to faith easily," Elliott said. Her doubts and questions gave way to hope "that her beloved son was in the Lord's care."
Elliott appealed to "Christian charity" and the "common decency" that he said he believes "still resides in our national character" to let the Edwards family have "some peace and time."
The Edwards family turned to the Edenton Street United Methodist Church after Wade's death. Following the service, which was broadcast live, Elizabeth Edwards was to be buried next to Wade at Oakwood Cemetery in a private ceremony. The family has said donations can be made to the Wade Edwards Foundation
, a nonprofit that supports educational outreach.