When I was in speech class in high school one of the funniest speeches I’d ever heard was a piece of comedy gold written and delivered by one of my best friends. Sally was the daughter of a mortician and her extemporaneous speech was an award winner and a hit at several competitions. I wish I could remember the speech but I’ve never forgotten one of her punch lines as (she said) was delivered by her father: “Remember kids, the first three letters in funeral are F-U-N!” I couldn’t help but remember her speech today.
What follows are a few random observations from today’s events, in which we attended the funeral for my wife’s grandmother. And yes, as a whole it WAS fun. It was the celebration of a life well-lived until Alzheimer’s in the final decade stole seventy years of memories.
Aileen was born in 1923 “near Heartwell, Nebraska. It occurred to me today that I used to see that a lot when I went to the funerals of people of that generation. People born “near” a location. We’re only two generations removed from a time when it was common for children not to be born in sterile hospital environments, but birthed instead on the farm. A tough lot of people, they were.
The tiny church at Assumption, which isn’t a town but a spot of dwelling at the end of a blacktop highway, holds at full capacity 250 or so people…300 tops. It was filled to the rafters today. When her husband had died in 2003 it was also filled beyond capacity. This couple had been born, lived, raised a family, and died all within a few miles of the same spot of ground. They had helped build the first school, drive the school bus, cook school meals, grade roads, and farm the land. There is very little within this tri-county area they didn’t have a hand in helping to establish.
Entering the church we passed by the open casket and I realized that this was a new experience for my kids. It was open at the rosary the night before as well, but up front and the children didn’t pass by it. My seven year old was with my wife when they walked by, and I was carrying my young daughter. All she said was “She’s sleeping, dad”. She made that same remark to me when we walked out into the cemetery that sits alongside the church. Under gray, cold windy winter skies we accompanied the casket to its final resting place and while huddled against me in the cold my daughter again told me that “she’s sleeping dad.” By the time I was my middle child’s age I had been to two or three family funerals…among them my great uncle and my grandfather. By the time I was a little older than my oldest I had buried my best friend. I hope today’s funeral was the extent of their experience with this for awhile yet. But dying is as much a part of living.
The reception hall in the basement of the building next door today had all of those 250 plus people packed inside. During the two years we dated and the first six years of our marriage we attended at least two family events per year in that hall. Always an Easter and/or Thanksgiving celebration with Pete and Aileen, their 13 children and spouses, and the grandchildren. Once Aileen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s the final gathering was to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. Pete died a few years later in 2003, partially due to exhaustion in taking care of and worrying about his bride, ten years his junior. Being there today brought back a flood of memories. Most of the grandchildren have grown up and married. Today was about remembering old faces, and trying hard to learn all of the new.
Of course I sought out Uncle Frank. Frank is the husband of the eldest daughter and my favorite of my wife’s uncles. When I was first brought to meet the family and surrounded by a circle of her aunts and relatives in the kitchen, it was Frank who tugged on my arm after five minutes and backed me into a corner behind the front door. He handed me a beer and introduced himself. He then informed me that this had been his hiding spot for twenty years. I loved the guy from day one. Frank is the man who introduced the concept of smoking meats to me, and today we spent a few minutes comparing techniques with rubs and marinades, and he told me to look for the tri-tip loin. You know that’s exactly what I’m going to do next time I’m shopping for something to cook.
The backbone of so many church or parish communities are the Altar Societies or various women’s organizations who make and serve the food served at funerals. Back in the kitchen at the hall today were about a dozen of these women (and not a few men) who worked tirelessly to feed this very large crowd. They did a great job today. I’ve often joked that the best food I eat is often at a country church funeral. This is no longer said in jest. It is a fact.
My wife’s father is the oldest of the thirteen children. Her Aunt Mary is the youngest. Mary is a few years older than my wife. Her children are among the youngest of the forty-one grandchildren that survive Aileen. My son Nolan is the oldest of the forty-one great-grandchildren. So today when Mary’s son Ethan served as an altar boy with Nolan during the funeral mass we had grandson and great-grandson (both freshman in high school together) assisting with the Rite of Christian Burial. Two generations, yet the same age.
But we’re not done yet. We learned today that great-grandchild number forty-two will arrive in April. My wife’s brother Kevin announced the news today. Life goes ever on.