On Saturday, Oct. 17, Sarah Neff Fisher Goodrich died. Maybe some of you felt a little disturbance in the universe, because she created worlds of joy and laughter wherever she went.
Sarah Jane Neff was born in 1935 in Indiana, the only child of John Wesley Neff and Gertrude Farrington Neff, both of whom were musicians. She went to Vassar College in 1953, where she made some of the best friends of her life. She cut her time at Vassar short to marry John Fisher, also from Indiana, whom she had had a bit of a crush on since she was a little girl. They married in 1956, and, in short succession, had four daughters.
Raising these four girls would have been work enough for anyone, but Sarah always engaged with the world outside her home. In Indiana, she was a member of the Junior Women’s Civic Club and sat on the board of the United Ministry. She also managed to finish college, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1975, the same year her oldest daughter graduated from high school.
She took her first paying job (aside from part-time jobs when she was young) teaching social studies at Indiana Area Junior High School. She loved teaching and, unlike many, truly enjoyed middle-school-aged children.
Her life was changed, in an instant, by the tragic death in 1977 of her husband, John Fisher. She remarried and moved to Wilmington, Del. There she became active in the local Vassar Club and was an important leader in the American Association of University Women, where she became chairwoman of the book sale, and lobbied successfully for the organization to get 501c3 status, which dramatically increased book donations and fundraising for the organization.
When her second marriage failed, she, for the first time in her life, became the mistress of her own universe. She bought her own house, became a docent at Winterthur and, of all things, took up rowing. She was an early member of the Wilmington Rowing Club (now the Wilmington Rowing Center), joining in 1986. Never one to sit in the background, she became president of the club the next year.
In 1988 she married Thomas Goodrich, a professor of history at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who brought two sons into the family. This marriage took her back to her hometown for a few years, where she, in typical fashion, became involved in a variety of activities. She and Tom both loved music, sang in choirs and often went to Pittsburgh for concerts. They both loved to travel, and, when Tom got a Fulbright to do research in Turkey, she went with him, spending a year filled with new experiences and adventures. She quickly picked up the art of bargaining in the marketplace, despite not knowing Turkish. When Tom retired from teaching, they moved back to Wilmington. With many grandchildren and children nearby, they continued their practice of being enthusiastic concert goers, including all of the musical performances of their grandchildren and one son-in-law, and devotedly attended countless soccer games and swim meets.
Both Sarah and Tom were very active at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, where Sarah taught recorder. In fact, one of her great joys in recent years was the recorder group she played with. When she and Tom moved to Country House, a retirement community, Sarah, to no one’s surprise, became active on several committees.
She became a widow again in 2015, but spent the years since as she had spent all the years before, loving her family, organizing family gatherings, keeping up with her many friends, teaching, playing music, going to concerts and museums, and getting things done. Among the last clear words she spoke were, “We need to talk to somebody about organizing some activities.” We are sure that she is, even now, doing just that.
The family wishes to thank the staff at Country House, especially Jane Rigg, the social worker, and nurses Kaitlyn Guidash, Shakira Webster and Miriam Walker. Our mother was also especially fond of Sikai Sellars and Sandy Kenney, members of the dining staff. We are particularly grateful for the loving care that Becky Davidson and Charity Wamae-Wantoike gave to her, and to us.
It is a testament to our mother, and the staff at Country House, that, in the last hours of her life, her caretakers came in to say goodbye to her. We asked one of the nurses why she was so overcome, and she said that our mother always asked about her and her family, and listened to her hardships. That our mother was a friend, not just a patient.
Sarah leaves behind her four daughters, Elizabeth Fisher Gray (John), of Wilmington; Ann Fisher-Ives (Russell), of Bernalillo, N.M.; Caroline Fisher Queale, of Middle River, Md.; and Sarah Fisher Rogatz (Jeffrey), of Wilmington. She also leaves a stepson who loved her dearly, Derek Goodrich (Sandra), of Enterprise, Ala., and another stepson, Keith Goodrich, of Bar Harbor, Maine. Her grandchildren, the source of so much delight for her, are Lydia Gray Durham (Tyler), Ian Gray, Hannah Gray, Dillon Fisher-Ives (Micayla), Keegan Fisher-Ives, Julia Queale, Elliot Queale, Alison Queale, Nathan Rogatz, Henry Rogatz, Laiken Goodrich and Garrett Goodrich. Three weeks before Sarah died, her first great-grandchild, John Everett Durham, was born. She could not meet him in person, but was thrilled to see him and listen to his gurgles over the phone. He was the first in a little wave of great-grandchildren coming into our family. And so, we hope, her legacy of joy goes into the future.
We, her children and grandchildren, were the center of her universe, but her consistent message to us, as you may gather, was that we are not the center of the universe. And so we quote this bit of advice from her in reference to people near the end of life: “Don’t send flowers afterwards. Show up when it counts.”
So, in lieu of flowers, we ask that you do these things:
Show up. Don’t sit in the back row. Use your talents to improve your community. Vote. Play music, or listen to music. Make art. Stand up for social justice. Greet everyone you meet with a smile and careful attention. Plant beautiful flowers. Take your children and grandchildren to museums and concerts. Teach them how to cook. Put work and other obligations aside to make mud patties in the rain, and break the rules to have root beer floats for lunch. Make each of your children and grandchildren feel as though they are the most loved. Pull the car over when you see a milkweed patch so you can touch the magical softness inside the pod. Take the back roads. Keep a jar of Peanut M&Ms on the table, in seasonal colors, for all who might want to partake. Send your grandchildren Peanut M&M’s when they are in college. In honor of her, travel and see the world. Language is no barrier. The best gazpacho recipe we have is from a trip our parents took to Spain, where Sarah marched into the kitchen of a tiny parador and gleaned, based on gestures, the essential proportions and ingredients. Learn new skills like pottery and paper-marbling. When you find yourself, in the middle of life, in a whole new world, take up rowing. Call each other, repeatedly, about recipes and how to make them better. Feed the people you love. Never stop dancing, even if you have to do it sitting down. And never allow a drag queen to pass by without stealing a smooch. Make friends everywhere, of every class and color. Do not be afraid to admit when you have done wrong, and have hurt the people you love. Don’t put off celebration. As one of her sons-in-law has often said: “Your mother is coming over. I will bring up our best champagne.” The time for creating a better world is now. The time for the best champagne is now. Do not wait to celebrate life. Celebrate now. Throw your head back, open your mouth and give a full-throated, joyful out-loud laugh in honor of our mother.
The family is planning a private celebration. It will be the best party ever.