Sunday, November 20, 2011

The After Party

We returned to the church basement for the reception (Personally, I tend to see those as things you do after weddings, but I guess it was a reception, when you get right down to it.) and the starving hordes dug into the food that was arrayed before us. There was talk, plans for the day, discussions of who was doing what currently, how they'd all been, and how big all of the children were getting.

Time passed, pleasantly enough, and then the guests drifted away. As we wrapped up, we carted out loads of food, cards of condolences, and huge vases filled with flowers. Some were sent on to the nursing home in thanks, some went home with us. I carried an enormous vase overflowing with gorgeous flowers that were cut from someone's yard.

I didn't take any pictures of the reception, but when we got back to mom's house with our arms full of flowers, children, and food, I pulled out my camera for just a moment.

They were just so quiet and happy to be together, I couldn't resist taking the shot.

Dawn, Maddie and Emma hang out in the kitchen. 

We "adults" sat on the screened in porch and chatted. The "girls", as we refer to my cousins (Doesn't matter how old any of them will ever be, we'll always refer to them as the girls. I feel certain that my siblings and I are referred to as "the kids".), were chatting with mom about their mother when the subject of letters came up. Mom pulled out a bag filled with old letters from my paternal grandmother, Alice; letters from my father's older sister, Thelma; letters from my father to my mother.

We laughed at how Nanny and Thelma were so thrifty that they'd use every possible inch on the front and back of any postcard or letter ever sent. Words would curl around the manufacturer's name and copyright date in a clockwise manner, the crabbed handwriting getting in as much news as possible in a very limited space. They are all fascinating glimpses of times long past: the cost of stamps, the images of vacation spots here and there, the prices of common goods mentioned fleetingly.

The most amazing letters of all, though, were those from my father to my mother. Mom didn't realize that she'd handed us one of dad's letter until we started trying to read it aloud. The paper was so very thin, to keep the cost of airmail down, the paper so fragile. The script was lovely, although occasionally it was hard to decipher. Marilyn was reading the letter when she stopped abruptly. It was a private letter from my father to my mother in their year long separation from one another, after he left the island and returned to Canada at the end of his shift in Jamaica.

I'm not allowed to talk about what was in that letter. I'm also not allowed to read all the rest of those letters until my mother passes away (A million, billion years from now.), and my kid sister suggested strenuously that I shouldn't even want to read them then. I, however, look at it very differently.

This letter, the way it was written, the very formal wording used, the script displayed upon it, and the very carefully relayed feelings it talked of are the very reasons we should get to read them, way into the future. The paper was so amazingly thin, it's called onion skin. It felt almost like parchment, or a stiff tissue paper. I had never seen a sample of my father's script before. All my life I only remember his heavy printed handwriting. The letter never talked of love. It never mentioned that my father was missing my future mother. The language was so incredibly formal that it could have been in one of Jane Austen's books. It was impossibly romantic in way that I never expected. It opened my eyes to a piece of my family history that was never mentioned, never talked about. It felt beautiful, delicate, and mysterious. My parents love story.

We had heard the stories about how he serenaded my mother; how he referred to her as his wife brazenly in the bank waaaaaay before they were ever dating; how she thought he was a "stuffed shirt"; how he fell into the pool filled with icy mountain water at her house, but the time between his leaving Jamaica and sending her the engagement ring is still a mystery.

Only my mother knows what happened and she's not telling. She promised we'd get to have the letters eventually, but not now. The mystery will have to wait. Piecing together their love story, and epic love story it certainly was, will wait. I only regret that by the time I find more pieces to the puzzle, I'll just come up with more questions and there will be no one left to answer them. (Let's face it, I'm the defacto family storyteller. My curiosity trumps all others. Besides, I've learned how to continue typing while crying and that takes skill, baby!)

Setting aside the 45 year old letter, I turned back to the folks on the porch. As they started making leaving noises, it struck me that many of my cousins were leaving that very day. I was about to miss my chance at any photos if I didn't hop to it. I shook off the sleepiness that was creeping up on me, there on the sun warmed porch, and grabbed my camera.
Nancy holds the letter in her hands. The paper was so thin that the script on one side interfered with reading the other side of the letter. We had to pore over it for quite awhile to make some of the words out. Everyone exclaimed over the beauty of it.

Some of the girls pose for a picture before they take off.
Marilyn, Ruth, Dawn holding Maddie, Mom, Cindy and Nancy the Younger down in front.

I got in on the act before my opportunity was gone.

Pat (on the left) and George (on the right). 

Pat is the man that brought the engagement ring from my father in Canada to my mother in Jamaica. My dad just handed him a package in a completely unassuming manner, never revealing what was in it. Pat was stunned when my mother opened it up and found the ring tucked inside a folded piece of cardboard. He says he retroactively panicked over the fact that he hadn't taken any great care with it when carrying it, not realizing how important the contents were.

My dad was such a stinker.

My cousin Ron.

More talking and reminiscing went on after the first wave of friends and family left. Naps were had by young and older not quite as young more mature alike. The day was emotionally draining, yet uplifting at the same time. I hardly ever get to see my cousins and the stories they told that day broke my heart, made me laugh, and helped me to know my father a little more. Each one has their favorite story about my father. Each one a different perspective, another facet, holding another piece of the puzzle. They talk about sneaking in to peek at my gorgeous, exotic mother napping on the sofa in their house, in the days before the wedding. How dad would light up their mother and their whole house when he walked into it. How he'd taken them fishing and hunting. How he'd bake for them, making a huge mess in their mother's kitchen.

We wandered down into my mother's garden, filled with gorgeous blooms indifferent to the importance of the day. Peonies, roses, daylilies. Explosions of color and scent. Hummingbirds zipped along, sipping nectar.

It was a beautiful day. A day filled with warmth and sunshine; the sky clear and blue; the air warm and still. It was the day we buried my father. It was a good day to be alive and to love one another, just a little more, just a little while longer.

Life can't always be filled with pathos. Pain and suffering and illness eventually come to an end. Remember to sniff the roses. If not for yourself, then for those that have gone before.

As ever, my love to you.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Into the Earth

Today would have been my parents 45th wedding anniversary. My gift may be slightly macabre, but it's been rattling around in my head and freezing my hands for months. Here's what happened on July 6th, 2011.

The day we buried my father finally dawned on us. It was sunny, clear, and warm. Considering it was early July the warmth shouldn't have been surprising, but since it had been relatively cool all of the days prior the warmth was unexpected.

We got all dressed up in our fancy clothes and headed to the church. There we met up with my passel of cousins, young and not quite as young. As happy as we were to see each other, we were a little stilted and withdrawn. Do you perk up at the sight of someone you wouldn't even be seeing if your common relative hadn't died? I do, but it came and went in waves. I was pleased to see everyone, but it was hard to continue accepting condolences. Lining up, shaking hands. Who are these people? Church members, old friends, members of the choir all shuffle into the church and greet us using sad, tender voices.

After we greet the crowd, we wait in a small room with my cousins until the witnesses? audience? attendees are all seated. I took a few pictures to keep from thinking too much. The brightest spot of the whole ordeal was right here:
Maddie was as cute as a button.

Emma was fascinated by the 7 month old Maddie and spent a lot of time holding her tiny hands and stroking her soft cheeks.
Smooches for Maddie.

One portion of my cousins. An initial serving, as it were. These are the children of my dad's eldest sister, Thelma. These are the cousins I grew up knowing and they knew all of the best stories about my dad.
Marilyn, holding Logan, Ron, my own dark self, Nancy standing next to/behind Eric, who is holding Emma and Caitlin.

In the waiting room waited another serving of cousins, my brother and his sweetheart.
Ian, Deb, Maddie in the stroller, Ruth in the background, Nancy (the younger), and Marilyn again.

The priest and the undertaker sorted out their business and stepped to the front of the procession. We fell into line behind them and solemnly walked in, all eyes on the stainless steel urn held by the man at the front of the line. We finally made it to the front row, where all of the family spread into a thin, dark line and seated ourselves.

The formalities began.

Here's the part where I will be honest with you: I really couldn't concentrate on the funeral. I wasn't crying. I'm not sure if anyone was. I felt disjointed and distant. It wasn't a mass, since dad wasn't Catholic, but it was filled with singing songs I didn't know and some readings I didn't recognize save for one. I felt twitchy, overly warm, and out of place. I don't know if it was the kind of service he would have chosen for himself if you'd asked him. It seemed way too formal, bound by odd church strictures and laws. It did, however, begin to tell me what kind of funeral that I'd like, when that day comes for me.

Imagine a garden, my garden of the future, maybe. Perhaps a gorgeous park. Somehow I'm assuming I'll die when it's warm, but that may just be because of the current circumstances. A few concentric rings of chairs and a table with my urn on it in the center.  I'd like to be flash frozen and shattered instead of cremated. I'd become instant compost. (In fact, the process is called corpse composting. Eco unto death, that's me.) The group of folks would then tell stories about me. No singing, unless someone really wanted to. No music, unless it would make the mourners feel better. Instead, a circle of friends and family, telling stories, laughing and crying. That's what I want. Outside the circles, food and drink, photos and the rare video of me. Maybe. When the party is over (and it is intended to be a party), my remaining family gets to take the package of my remains home. Put me up on the shelf with the ancient remains of my long dead cats. Put me out in the garden and let me feed a beloved tree. I don't know. I don't care. But don't bury me in a box, in a hole in the ground, and walk away from me. For some reason, that image makes me deeply sad. Plant a new tree, just for me, and bury me under it. Toss my dust out over a forest, but make use of me in some fashion that helps the Earth and the plants I love so well.

Finally, back in reality, the service is over and the majority of the family and my dad's closest friend Joan, pile into cars and head over to the grave site. Here's the plot that mom had purchased. An undistinguished section of grass with a small, rectangular hole cut into it. "Grass" carpeting covers the pile of soil next to the hole. Note that it's big enough for 6 cremains...apparently mom is planning on throwing an eternal party there in the ground. The undertaker pulls out a blue velvet bag, puts dad's cremains into it and lowers it into the hole. Then he pulls out a second bag that holds the purple cloisonne urn that contains all that remains of my maternal grandmother. Mom had her on the mantel at home and had been waiting to bury grandma with dad. There's room in this spacious plot for mom, one day far off into the future. She's planned ahead, my mother has.

The priest says a few more things. I think the line ashes to ashes comes up, but I can't remember now.

Suddenly, the first note of a bagpipe hangs in the air, and the funeral party turns, as one, in surprise to face him. I have no idea what song he's playing, but this might be a close match.

And damn! but didn't every single one of us who hadn't cried in the church and had been toughing it out, we all started to cry. Me, my cousins, my sisters, all of us. My mom turned to Joan, and they hugged and laughed through the tears. It was Joan's idea to have a piper, just as she was the one who arranged for a piper at Cindy's wedding, years before. It was beautiful, haunting, sad and just perfect. One small thing. A man alone in a graveyard, playing a haunting tune.

When it ended, we wiped our tears away and leaving my dad and grandma there in the plot meant for six, we drove off to the church.

To the after party.

Well, what else do you call the part where you get together with the other mourners and eat food at banquet tables in the basement of a church? That, my friends, is an after party.

The funny thing is that there was an after, after party back at my mom's house afterwards, but I have to run. I'll finish this post and include those pictures tomorrow. I just didn't want to break my monthly posting "streak".

My love to you.

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