Sunday Morning ~ Life, Death, and In Between
Pacoka mnzako pali mphata. ~ When your friend is gone, there is a void.
March 1, 2020
This weekend we said goodbye to my Aunt Pierina, who died three months before her 109th birthday. At her funeral mass yesterday the priest said she was the oldest person he’d ever said a funeral mass for and he’s been a priest for forty-five years. She was certainly the oldest person I ever knew. Imagine what changes in the world she saw.
A few years ago Pierina told me she wasn’t afraid to die but didn’t want to leave her daughter Janice. She said, “Janice needs me.” This past October, the last time I saw her, her tone had changed. She was sharp as ever, though not walking anymore. She said, “I’m ready to die but every morning I wake up!” as if there was some malfunction in the universe. She smiled when she said this but there was a resignation I hadn’t seen before. My cousin took such loving care of her. She said in the eulogy yesterday that everyone credited her with her mother’s longevity but it was her mother that did the giving. At Thanksgiving she was still asking Janice what she could do to help with the meal, never wanting to be a burden. Janice gave her the recipe box to search and sort and Pierina did it with determination, grateful to be useful.
A week ago I went to be with Janice as she planned the funeral. I learned when my mother died how much goes into planning a traditional funeral. It’s like a wedding with only a week to plan and I wanted to be close to help. So after dropping Amelia back home last week, I continued another three hours to Vermont where I knew there would be a big void but warm loving arms. Janice is an only child born late in her parents’ life. Being one of five children, I worried about her growing up, wondering how she’d survive in our family without siblings. She is two years older than me but we were very close as kids. We only visited a few times each year but we faithfully wrote letters to each other, reliable and devoted pen pals. We’d put a five cent stamp on the envelope, mail it, and wait for a response which always came a few days later. (The mailman was very important back then.) Phone calls were out of the question, an expensive luxury I wouldn’t have dared ask for. We were overcome with anticipation when a visit was imminent and cried each time we parted. My aunt’s passing brought us right back there.
I value the tradition of a funeral ritual. I wanted to get to the wake early to see Pierina before they closed the casket. It’s important to me, and when a friend asked me why, I had to stop and think. I find it an act of respect, like not turning away from a person with a handicap. It is witnessing and acknowledging the spirit as separate from the shell. For this, I find the wake important. The gathering of friends and family is important. Paying respect, catching up, acknowledging the good times past, and inevitably lamenting that this is the only time we see each other, is important. I have vivid childhood memories of wakes. “Weddings and Funerals! That’s the only time we get together anymore!” my mother would laughingly say to some distant relative I’d met at the viewing of a deceased loved one I’d barely known. I went to lots of wakes with my mother as a child, probably because her extended family lived closer and we could drive there and home in one day. I have vivid memories of dark wool and crepe de chine clad elders kneeling in a velvety room with an embalmed backdrop. They’d enter and kneel and pray at the casket for a few moments, and I would stare at them, wondering if everyone said the same prayer. No one seemed very sad to me. It was a room that reminded me of gypsy parlors. I felt like we should be getting our palms read behind some curtain. I was dressed in a party dress with either tights or ankle socks depending on the season, and my mother seemed a fluid, confident, hostess no matter who was laid out. She became a movie star to me, very different from the beaten-down role she played at home. At the wake she wore pearls and stiletto heels, her waist cinched in a belt and she glided around the room talking to people with such grace and confidence. It was always remarkable for me to see this transformation and the gay mood of people visiting. There was laughter and jolly making all around; the deceased lying there holding their rosary beads a silent, motionless guest. I liked wandering through the small dark rooms seeing people at waist level. They’d stoop to pat my head or shake my hand, the wrinkled faces coming into focus, Estée Lauder emanating from the deep creases caked with powder. They were like big old flowers you could smell as you put your face near them. And I still associate Old Spice with close up views of tie clips and cuff links.
Aunt Pierina was my father’s sister. We didn’t go to wakes on his side of the family when we were little. They lived a three hour drive away and for solemn events we were not included, probably because it meant missing school. We did, however, go to lots of weddings on that side of the family and my Italian aunts would cry, sobbing and sharing tissues in the church while beautiful young women walked down the aisle with flowers and veils. I remember asking my mother, “Why do people laugh when someone dies, but cry when they get married?” I remember her laughing at this question but don’t remember her ever answering.
As I entered the funeral parlor Friday afternoon, I braced myself to see Pierina laid out in the blue jacket she’d worn to her grandson’s wedding after her 100th birthday. I could imagine her saying, “Oh my gaaad! Look at you!” when I walked in. She was always so happy to see me. I knelt and said a Hail Mary, which seemed appropriate. I thought, Wow. She’s really gone. She’d seemed immortal up until now. As people arrived and we exclaimed and hugged and talked and visited, Janice came over and said in my ear, “My mother would have loved this.” The weekend was a reunion. It was the first time I’d been with all my brothers since my mother died nine years ago. I hadn’t seen other cousins since Pierina’s 100th birthday party, also nine years ago. Who’d have thought it would be nine years before we’d gather again? We looked through old photos, laughed at the styles and hairdos, wondered who some of the Brylcreemed boys were. We shared memories of growing up in this immigrant family, reflecting on how difficult life must have been for them as we said goodbye to the last of a generation. We went to dinner in a local restaurant, a big table had been reserved for a big extended family, just like the old days. We, the kids in all those photos, are the oldest generation now.
On Saturday my brothers and male cousins carried her casket into the church. I cried for the fact that she’s gone, but also for the beauty of the ritual and the bond we all share. She had to die sometime, and 109 years is a good long run, but I was still sad. The sight of her casket brought to mind up all the other losses: my mother, my friends, my friend’s children. It’s like saying goodbye to them all over again. I thought about the next stage of saying goodbye, the solemn mass, the music, the readings, the tissues, the holy water sprinkled on the casket, and thought about the culture of death and finality. There isn’t a right or wrong way, but this is my culture and I’m grateful for it. I know it will change over the next generation as all things do, but I am glad I had this. I looked around the church grateful for everyone there, for the richness of the tradition, and for the acceptance of being who we are.
I visited Pierina as often as I could and had said what I needed to say to her. Every time I saw her I imagined it would be the last. I’d thanked her for loving me, for the great meals, for taking care of us when my mother was in the hospital, for being interested in my life, for sticking up for me when my father was on my case. I loved how she had the upper hand as his older sister. I appreciate her role model. She made a good life despite many hardships and lack of opportunity. She wasted nothing. She considered love and forgiveness as the most important things in life. Godspeed.
Love to all,