I knew my mother had a file in her desk labeled "My Funeral," where she had made her choices known. The trick was to find that folder since her desk and her whole house were gone--the latter bashed down, no less--when she sold her Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Usonian home to pay for her assisted living.
After I told one of my brothers about the file, his wife found it in storage, and we saw what my mother wanted. My three siblings and I worked by phone and email for a couple weeks arranging things. I've learned a lot about funerals in that time.
One is that all the arranging helps keep you distracted from the idea you'll never get to talk to the departed again. Even so, I had the urge to call Mom and say, "With all these songs you listed, how many do you really want?"
Two is that all the arranging forces everyone together--meaning my siblings and their spouses--and not everyone's needs matches everyone else's. Two of us thought a springtime memorial would have been better. We were overruled by most everyone else saying delaying the grieving process was no good. They were right. Still, the mix of personalities didn't always go smoothly, and there were times I wanted to call my mother and ask such things as "Did you really want to donate money to such-and-such place?"
In the end, I could see that funerals aren't for the departed. They're gone and I doubt if they're looking on. Rather, funerals are for the living as a way to help guide people over the rocky shoals of existence--even if the shoals feel like burning coals in the sand. The way I looked at our mother's funeral was if the choices we made helped people, then it was for the good. If going to the cemetery at ten degrees above zero and seventeen inches of fresh snow was good, let's do it. (And it was good.)
Her wishes included a Unitarian Universalist minister, her kids speaking, and the song "Amazing Grace." She offered some other songs to choose from, too, such as "I'll Be Seeing You," which Frank Sinatra made famous. That made me laugh because that was her wink to reincarnation, which she believed in.
Our mother hadn't attended her local UU church in Wayzata in about a decade, and her church had a new minister, Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska, who had never met Mom. He was happy to officiate, however, so I made arrangements to meet him a few days before the service.
After my family and I flew to Minneapolis last week, our first order of business was to meet Reverend Saleska. His photo on the church's website looked staid, but when I walked in and saw him wearing a thick Scandinavian-looking sweater and a pony tail, I knew I'd like him. He said to call him Kent.
One of my mother's wishes is that the UU minister "talk about the UU belief in reincarnation." Kent said there is no such belief. Unitarian Universalists, much as in Judaism, focus a lot on living life rather than center on an afterlife. However, Kent said rather than edit himself in advance, he wanted to learn all he could about my mother, and from three of us, he learned not only what made her wonderful but also what made her challenging.
In his pastoral reflection on the day of the service, Kent mentioned how he'd discovered my mother believed in astrology. He preceded to tell us what he'd learned in research about her sign, Cancer, such as her enjoying art, writing, and drama. She'd been an art major at Brown and took classes at the Rhode Island School of Design, and she was an avid reader all her life. She and I once flew to London primarily to see plays.
He also said Cancers love to want what they want and can be nearly unstoppable-which can be good in career and bad for husbands and kids. Kent said when she wanted to be an executive in business in the sixties, less than one percent of women in the work force were doing that. She made her goal. She married twice and divorced twice. Yet, I'll say, we all came out well.
While I've never believed in astrology--a plane flying overhead must have more gravitational influence on me than Pluto--I have to give it to Kent for investigating her beliefs. He gave a balanced view of my mother, and he was an amazing and lyrical orator.
The service had four other speakers. Her brother Jerry, a retired surgeon, talked about her pleasant childhood room that had four closet doors, each with a mural-size panel from the children's story The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear. The poem begins, "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea / In a beautiful pea-green boat. / They took some honey, and plenty of money / Wrapped up in a five pound note." Her closet door showed an owl and a pussycat at sea. I slept in that room as a child, and I could never understand why an owl and a cat were together and lost at sea. Were they part of the Swiss Family Robinson?
More troubling for me was a dark oil painting next to the bed of a small boat tossed in a stormy, dark sea. Was that the Owl and the Pussycat, too? I didn't find it pleasant, but you can't dictate a kid's imagination.
My sister Laura spoke about the huge gap between herself and my mother over the years that left Laura feeling distant until recent years. It had been painful for Laura until she found a way to talk with Mom.
My cousin Liz, unlike anyone else in the family, felt totally relaxed around my mother and, in fact, found her so funny that the two of them often laughed until their stomach's hurt. Liz told of story of how, after my mother came out of the ICU after heart surgery three years ago, Liz had to buy my mother clothes for exercising. Liz said she hated buying underwear for herself let alone for anyone else. Add to that that Liz had forgotten to ask my mother's size when she went to Target. Thus, she bought Mom a thong. When my mother went to change, she literally screamed and two nurses came running in. Once Liz pulled out more underwear, "granny underwear," only then did my mother realize the thong had been a joke. Mom laughed for her first time, post-surgery.
I spoke about the challenges her children and society gave her, and yet she loved so much about her life and passed that love on. I quoted from a letter that I found addressed to me to be opened at her death. She wrote it in 1961 when she was 32. I'll have to save that for another blog.
After Reverend Kent's prayer and the two musicians played Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," six of my mother's seven grandchildren came up front, touched her urn, and then led the congregation to lunch in the next room. An hour later, we were driving to the cemetery where we gathered around a frozen hole in the ground and where we placed her urn into a vault with trinkets that meant things to her and us, along with four yellow roses, one for each of her children.
Reverend Kent then read the following poem:
I Must Go Down to the Sea
by John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
* * *
So closed a most amazing event. While the funeral may be over, my mother continues on in memory. It is our remembrances of her that truly gives her more life.
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