May 3, 2011
Weddings and funerals bring me back to my familiar. The Mid-Atlantic. The home of my people.
I sit in the quiet church where my best friends were both married, and watch as new faces replace us as the “young people.” A generation of nieces and nephews come of age, gathering to say goodbye to their grandma, the mother of my dear friend, Lou.
I feel the wheel turning, and notice an elder woman sitting in a pew off to the side. Will that be me some day?
I like funerals. I like the ritual of tending the passing of a loved one. And even though I’m not a Catholic, my days in parochial schools make the swinging of the thurible above the coffin a warm familiar, as I take in the smell of incense.
The deceased apparently liked funerals too. Once she lost her faculties. “We had to stop taking Mom to funerals,” Lou tells me. “She thought they were parties.”
I gulp, wondering about my own affinity. Despite the loss, I am filled with joy to see so many dearly familiar faces from my past; and grief is something I can’t typically shed in public.
It’s hard to imagine a world without Mrs. O, and so I don’t. I keep her here, in my heart, welcoming me into her home –from 14 to 47 and beyond.
I have to admit that I am a little disappointed to find that I wasn’t the only one who was so warmly received. Apparently Mrs. O. was a second Mom to many more than me.
“She forgot how to do everything,” my friend says, on the morning after her mother’s passing. “…how to get to get dressed; how to eat. But every time she saw me, she told me that I was perfect.
She forget how to do everything… except how to love.”
What a legacy. To loose everything, but your ability to love.
My eyes turn from the altar to the pews where the grandchildren weep with loss. What a testimony of her love, I think, and of the family she nurtured. I have watched this family love for over 30 years–through their guilt and worry and attachment–never failing to be in awe of their undying devotion.
My friend is the most devoted daughter, sister and mother that I know; and even on this day of burying her mother, she tends to the grief of others. She remains strong. She returns to her kindergarteners the next morning.
I have been infinitely blessed by this friendship.
When her brother steps up to the altar to read the intercessions, I am delighted by how fully Italian he is, and then tickled when his thick New York accent delivers an Irish poem,
May the road rise to meet ya. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, May the Lord hold you in the palm of His hand.
My hometown holds me in the palm of its hand this weekend. I drive by the ocean and the marsh and the homes where my family once lived. I soak up time with my sister and her children. I sit beside my father and let his leg brush mine. I hug my stepmother, pet my canine step-sister. This is enough, I think. Once I needed so much more.
I gobble up boardwalk pizza and Italian hoagies. I sniff the salt air. I visit with my in-laws. I unearth memories. I sense the absence of my mother like a shard of glass through my heart.
I look up at the beautiful stain glass art of the Gospel and wonder why they don’t make the floors more captivating. How are we to keep our heads bowed when there is so much color above?
I notice that a nun in street clothes has replaced the altar boys beside the priest. I wonder if this is due to school (it’s a weekday) or scandal? As the elderly priest raises the Communion above his head, there is an almost imperceptible shutter at the presence of a woman on this stage which has long belonged to men.
I notice how much of the language of these familiar rites, excludes. “Those who believe…” and “He who follows in the name of the Lord...” and “We of the faith…”
I make a mental note to be sure my own funeral is inclusive, even of those who feel it necessary to separate. I realize that this will be tricky.
When it comes time to stand up for the bread and the wine, the separation is clearer. Those who remain in the pews have either missed confession–or worse–don’t belong. Even the name-tagged attendants from the funeral parlor bow their heads for the Body of Christ, making me wonder if “Catholicism” is a requirement of the job.
25 years ago, when I sat through the weekly Masses at Wildwood Catholic, I could hardly bear the length of it; but approaching 50, I know what a gift it is to sit and ponder.
And so, I take in the Homily, word for word, while opening myself up to all I know that is connected. Father talks of the inability of the disciples to recognize Jesus after He is risen. He contrasts their limited view with that of the women who were the first to speak of the Resurrection. Outside, a car horn punctuates the gift of feminine receptivity.
He reminds us that we must embrace suffering, just as Mary stood at the foot of her son’s cross. And the church bells ring, marking the top of the hour–and the gift of this mother’s devotion.
“This was the inspiration for Geri’s life,” the priest says, and I have no doubt it is true of Mrs. O.
My own loss is comforted when we are prompted to come to our knees on the familiar cushioned benches beneath each pew. For awhile I thought perhaps the Catholics had given up on the kneeling which once accompanied the standing and the sitting and the standing again.
I notice that the nun is the one who models what it is we are supposed to do–when we are to stand, to bow our heads, to kneel down. Once this next generations passes, I wonder who will be left to guide us.
I decide to have recycling at my own funeral, and even compost. I make a mental note to request potted plants so that there will be less waste. The lillies wrapped in pink foil at the foot of the altar are beautiful.
These reveries are disrupted when the priest tells us that it is time to “take our leave” of Geri. I don’t know how Lou will do it. I don’t know how we got to be the grownups–burying our parents–whose lives in ours we once took for granted. We proceed out of the church silent.
I watch my friend walk ahead, alongside her father, toward the limo at the head of the funeral procession, slipping her hand inside his.
Tears slide down my face, as I walk toward my own car with the Green Mountain tags and head “home.”
Kelly Salasin, May 2011
Me & "my familiars", 2009.