Leota Bisland: August 33, 1963 - June 6, 2014
Today we are here to celebrate, remember, and honor Leota Bisland. Leota was beloved by many as a friend; to me, she was my mother and the best friend anyone could wish for.
I know I am not alone in my grief. Many family friends and loved ones have expressed their sympathies about my mother’s long, difficult battle with Lupus and the numerous complications she experienced as a result. After she passed, I finally realized how grateful I am to have spent hours on end with her during this final chapter of her exceptional life.
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My mother worked hard throughout her life, sometimes 50 or 60 hours per week. She often traveled for business as well. However, she always found time for her family and took great pleasure in playing games and sharing meals with the rest of us.
My mother’s work was difficult and complicated. After receiving her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Tulane University, she worked long hours at our own Natural History Museum. The museum sent her to remote parts of the globe to decode hieroglyphics and prepare ruins and remains for display. A secret to many, my mother was also one of the major translators of an important artifact, a Mayan codex from Guatemala’s Petén region.
This was largely a secret due to her humility. Throughout all of her travel, high level of education, and seemingly endless work, my mother never believed herself to be superior to others.
You may also be unaware that my mother gave generously to numerous Central American, Caribbean, South American, and Central African non-government organizations to further the work of improving the health of malnourished children. In her support, she prioritized access to potable water.
Through her studies in graduate school and her visits to many developing nations, my mother learned about the specific and detrimental effects of malnutrition. Even by supporting these efforts, she remained humble, and instead quietly spread the word about supporting the causes she believed in.
With all of this said, there were two things about which my mother was not quiet. These included her love for her family and her pride in her children’s accomplishments. My own academic background was heavily informed by my mother’s work ethic.
Consider, for example, an anecdote from when I was approximately eight years old. At the time, my mother was working on a special collection at the Natural History Museum, which took up most of her time. In addition, she was serving on the board of a Guatemalan non-government organization, which was raising money to purchase goats for a Mayan community.
I knew nothing of this; all I knew was that Halloween was coming up and I wanted to wear a peacock costume for my school’s Halloween parade. Rather than giving up and finding a witch costume at a big-box store, my mother painstakingly crafted a beautiful, intricate peacock costume. Imagine – when I opened my arms, beautiful blue wings unfurled; my tail was iridescent and utterly stunning; and she even helped me paint my face teal the day of the parade.
In retrospect, I could not tell you where she found the time to create such a beautiful costume, which ultimately won a prize at my school’s event. But that was my mother to the core. She worked the hardest for her family.
She often brought my father, my brother Vincent, and me on her trips abroad during our school vacations, whether to Kenya, El Salvador, or somewhere in between. Those travels were designed to be fully educational. Although she rarely allowed us to join her on field expeditions, we were always required to learn something about the culture of the location where we stayed. According to my mother, it was the only respectful way to travel.
My father would take Vincent and me to beaches or important tourist destinations, but always with the caveat that we had to learn something – as mandated by my mother. As a result, I now have what seems to be infinite knowledge about certain coral reefs, African animals, and, of course, numerous world cultures. I can say “good morning” in Lingala, a Central African language, and identify rare South American beetles.
There is so much else to say about my mother. I could list her awards and certifications – such as a Translation Certificate from New York University, as well as an Andrew W. Mellon Anthropology Fellowship – but we would be here all day. And her many associations, positions held on various boards, and volunteer efforts would take yet another day. My mother believed in the power of knowledge and shared hers without hesitation or any hint of superiority. It was her greatest hope that more people would adopt this attitude and better our world.
My mother brought her seemingly boundless knowledge and tender humility and care to every task at hand. Her coworkers described her as a silent powerhouse, the type of person who would keep working after everyone had left. Once, she was entirely unable to return home because she was locked in the museum, processing a series of Namibian dream arrows.
Still, she never complained. Even when it was evident that she was in pain from chronic illness, my mother remained quiet and true to each task. As a result, she left behind a legacy the museum will benefit from for many years to come. She also left my brother Vincent, my father, and me with endless fond memories, both at home and abroad.
I have spoken about the lessons my mother taught me about hard work and intellectual pursuits; what I have not yet touched upon is her kindness. She gave a great deal of herself to everyone she met.
I recall one moment from my late teen years. Vincent was in junior high school at the time, and my mother caught him making prank phone calls to some of the girls in his class. My mother, always kind and rarely angry, was furious. She reprimanded Vincent for doing such an unkind and irresponsible thing, and also disciplined me failing to stop him.
What my mother left behind in this case was her example. Many don’t know that as a result of her incurable autoimmune condition, she also struggled with depression. Even so, she never let it affect her family or divulged there was something under the surface. She continually emphasized the importance of compassion throughout difficult times.
She was a woman of great faith. My mother rarely failed to attend a Sunday church service, though we have all joked that we never knew her denomination. Through all her travels, my mother took great pride in visiting a number of different churches and observing services conducted in languages she didn’t understand. According to my mother, the spirit was there regardless of language.
When she was home, she was a faithful churchgoer at St. Catherine’s. She sold many of the crafts she picked up on her travels at various church fairs, and always donated the proceeds to the aforementioned non-government organizations. Through her faith, she continued to provide support to the world around her and to learn about people other than herself.
I think that was where she found her solace: in giving back. In her last few years, when the illness made it too difficult to travel, she still gave the best of herself to her faith and to her family. She continued to work at the museum until she was physically incapable of doing so, and continued to offer donations to organizations that support mothers and their children throughout the world.
When her health began to deteriorate rapidly, she made sure to provide a list for us of organizations that she wanted to continue to support after she passed on. This is her final gift to the world. Through her will, she will continue to support these causes. She hopes that her loved ones will provide similar support as well if they find themselves able to do so.
I feel inspired by my mother’s life and the way she chose to live it. To quote the Dalai Lama, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
My mother’s greatest gift was just that: her kindness. She offered kindness in words and in giving. In the spirit of my mother, I try to carry out random acts of kindness at least once per day. She never expected to be rewarded for her efforts, yet I think she believed the love her family and friends felt for her was its own reward.
Tender, loving, and caring mother and wife, Leota Bisland lives on in our memories. She lives on in the quiet joys and lessons she brought to her life and relationships. Above all else, her wisdom, kindness, and compassion will be with us forever. Just as she provided guidance to her colleagues at the museum, so too will her guidance remain with us – her family and friends – throughout the rest of our lives.