A more somber post today. The writing prompt that struck me in Old Friend from Far Away was “Tell me about a funeral you attended in winter,” so I went for it. For those of you who have read my previous post, Memories with my grandmother, this story is not about her – it’s about my other grandmother, my father’s mother.
My grandma died in 2004, in January, just days after the New Year. Few of us had come home for the holidays that year. Not me or my cousins; not my sister, her kids, or my uncle. It was a smaller gathering than normal at Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think she minded. She was proud of all of us for the lives we lived in faraway places she’d never seen, doing complicated jobs she never understood. She’d lived through The Great Depression, some of her childhood spent in an orphanage when her widowed mother couldn’t raise enough money to provide for her and her brother. She understood that people didn’t always have money to spare, and never wanted us to feel badly on those years we didn’t make the trek back to Wisconsin.
We minded, though. We minded a lot. We had been too busy or too broke to come home just a week and a half earlier, yet here we all were, travelling for a funeral instead of a holiday. It seemed fitting punishment that we experience her death in the darkest, windiest and most wickedly cold days of the year.
In the first couple days after her death, my aunt was a wreck, unable to decide what to put in Grandma’s obituary, afraid she’d left someone out of the “survived by” list, but by the time we got to the wake, she’d stopped torturing herself and decided she’d done the best she could. The mood at the wake was somber, but not excessively so. She was 90, had lived a long life, and she was ready to go. In many ways, she had been ready since the day her husband died thirteen years earlier. We were sad, but we knew her last days had been full of joy, despite some of us missing the festivities.
I remember being astonished at the vigor in her voice when I called her on Christmas Eve. We talked for a half hour, about everything and nothing. She told me about the latest electronics my aunt bought her, laughing her infectious golden laugh at how she’d never be able to figure out how to use them. She chuckled that still no one visiting could outlast her in the evening. For years, she’d kept late hours, watching TV and doing crossword puzzles until 4am, sleeping into the afternoon. She was eager to hear anything I could think of to tell her. I spoke with my dad after we finished. “She sounds great, Dad! It’s like she’s ten years younger! She hasn’t sounded so good in such a long time. I just can’t get over it!” He agreed, with a smile in his voice, and I hung up a minute later to sounds of laughter and music in the background. They say that happens for some people right before they die – they feel wonderful and alive and healthy for no reason anyone can point to. It’s the body’s way of sending you off with a parting gift. I hope that happens to me.
The day after the wake, we held her funeral. We drove in a few cars to the cemetery and gathered in the snow next to a dark and frozen hole in the ground. Everything was gray that day. The sky, the bare trees, the casket, the light, my father’s face. I don’t remember what words were said. I don’t remember who stood where. In those moments, in the punishing cold, surrounded by my family, I was alone with only my thoughts, and even they were fleeting. I simply stood and existed in the whipping wind and desperate cold for what seemed like both an instant and a day all at once. The wind went through me and I didn’t fight it. I just felt it in every bone in my body.
After the funeral and lunch at a nearby restaurant, we all gathered at Grandma’s house, determined to deal with her things as a family, as a team, so my aunt wouldn’t have to handle it all alone. Everyone was encouraged to find something of Grandma’s they wanted to keep, whether for practical or sentimental reasons. We packed boxes of bedding and dishes, marking them with the name of whoever it was that would take them home. Her furniture and jewelry was split among family members, and her clothes packed away to give to Goodwill. After everyone else had claimed what they wanted, I chose a print that I’d always admired. It was a Picasso print, something that stood out in my mind when I thought of her house. It hangs on my dining room wall now, a happy reminder of my grandmother that I look at every day.
Piles of papers had to be reviewed and lists made of who needed to be contacted with the news that she was no longer with us. Social security, a realtor to list the house, her credit card company. As I rummaged through odd notes and papers in Grandma’s bedroom, I found an obituary she’d written for herself. When I realized what it was, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I couldn’t comprehend writing my own obituary. I read it a few times, slowly, imagining her lying in bed in the wee hours of the morning, jotting a few paragraphs in a pocket-sized notebook, writing her own brief summary of her life. It was simple, not very wordy, written with pride about those she would be leaving behind, and focused mostly on the idea that she’d gone to be with her husband. Though I don’t believe in heaven, when I read her handwritten notes, I sincerely hoped I was wrong, and that she had found Grandpa again.