The Mass is Ended ...
©2001 Celeste Billhartz
©2001 Celeste Billhartz
This week I escorted my dear aunt (age 96) to her final resting place. I had the honor of being a pallbearer, my first such experience. It was a rainy, cold day and, after the Mass, we had the option of holding the graveside service inside a small chapel at the cemetery, but we chose to carry her up the hill and through the trees. She was our matriarch and she would have insisted on that, rain or shine, for any of us.
The casket was very heavy and our shoes sank into the muddy grass as we each did our part to carry her safely there. With quiet tears and runny noses, we said goodbye. I was so thankful for the opportunity to give something back to her for the many kindnesses she had extended to me all my life.
She was the classy one. From her I learned how to lead, how to follow, how to entertain, and how to speak up for what I wanted, how to insist and persist ... and how to stay on good terms with the disagreeable.
The priest said some wonderful things about her and he reminded us that she lived almost an entire century ... through two world wars, numerous conflicts, the Depression, and saw the marvels of science and invention. We found out that she started a hot lunch program for the parish children ... almost 60 years ago. Our whispered ... "Wow!" echoed in the big old church.
At the funeral home, before the Mass, we welcomed the visitors. My cousins didn't think anybody but the immediate family would be there, because my aunt hadn't lived in that little town for many years ... but, that's where her husband is buried and that's where we all gathered to bury her.
We said our goodbyes to her, the doors opened, and soon the room filled with elderly cousins and friends from far places, former neighbors from other towns where they had lived, and people none of us remembered, but who had been in her life. They had read the obituaries in their local papers and they came to pay their respects. My aunt would have done that, yes.
Later, someone asked if I remember when funeral announcement cards were posted in every store ... and tavern. I didn't remember that. I remember my adoptive father's tavern and the brass spitoons I polished, when I went with him to open the place, at 6am ... and how men gathered there for "pool" (billiards) tournements ... and that my dad had a special child-size pool cue made for me! I bet I can still make a bank shot.
I rode back to the house with two of her grandsons, in their late 30's. Ah, what is it about synchronicity. They were teenagers when I last saw them. We hardly had any time together before the service, but they had insisted that they should drive me back. I thought that was rather sweet of them ... wanting to cart around an old lady for a two-hour drive through what's left of farmland and prairie.
As we passed farms and shopping malls, I told them about the taste of real pork sausage, about all the things I learned in a 1940's rural world, about butchering, about tractors and general stores, about a town marshal, about learning to use a rifle, how their aunts ... all of us ... knew how to shoot. They grew up in an "anti-this and anti-that" world; my world was ... different.
We had the best time! I found out e v e r y t h i n g I ever wanted to know ... and some of what I, surely, didn't need to know. Of course, we gleefully made a secrecy pact. Evidently, there are no big secrets in the family .. I just never was around to hear about any of it. Our pact was to not discuss our discussion; probably best.
1. They both left the church ... yeah, I know .. I did, too. You DID????...:) The driver feels really bad to have put his mother through that. He shook his head and marvelled at her willingness to be right there with him as they thrashed it out. He loves her for that and for accepting his religion and being there for the baptism of his children. My God, I thought, she is a strong and loving woman! (In her house there is a photograph of herself, her twin sister and me .. all spindly and squinting in the sunlight, in our Sunday dresses, probably from 1948. I looked at us and wondered ... when did we get old?)
2. The other fellow is struggling, terribly, with the Catholic thing ... he is searching for a welcoming place for worship.
3. The driver announced, sheepishly, and somewhat proudly, that he has become his father, after all; and, like his dad, he insisted on stopping for a huge bag of beer nuts and a Coke, after promising his mother that we would not eat anything before we get back to her house for lunch! She had smiled at me with that "And you will see to it, won't you?" look. And I had smiled, "Of course, dear." Oh well...:)
We took the long way back, driving past their grandmother's house ... oh, it used to be so much bigger, they said .. and, remember how grandpa used to back out of the garage and bump into that fence ... see? It's still bent! We laughed and sat there awhile, smiling, remembering.
Then, we tried to find my school, a beautiful old building that held so many memories and housed an order of nuns, but it had been torn down and a shopping mall is there. What a shame. They tried so hard to find it for me. Their mothers had gone there too, and they wanted to tell them they saw it.
We talked about their careers, their aspirations, and, woven through all of it, their boundless love for their grandmother ... and how she made them each .. and all of her grandchildren and nieces and nephews, feel powerful and special. Lots of kleenex and patpatpats. We agreed that we are glad it is over and very glad we did it the right way. Their shoes and trousers were caked with mud. They were pallbearers, too; it was their first time, too.
Church kept coming up. "How did you do it?" they asked. I told them the very brief version .... felt a need for a deeper spirituality, something was missing, had tried different parishes, etc; went on a two-year search for the right fit, the right religion, the right church. Tried 'em all ... everything from holy roller to Quaker. Really? Yep. Well, they had to hear every detail.
I told them I believe the search was spirit-inspired: two weeks after I found the right church, I found out I had cancer, and that little church congregation was a gift ... direct care for me in one of their homes and spiritual support. Then, one of them asked, "What does that feel like ... you know, I mean ... to find that out? Were you scared?" I said, "Yes, but, at first, all I felt was disbelief. I just couldn't believe it." (And I was thinking, they don't need to know all this! Do they?) Then I realized, this family doesn't talk about .... things...:)
Well, now they know everything there is to know about mastectomies and ... breast implants. (I could just see my dear aunt making a quarter-turn in that grave!)
During this short visit, I watched these wonderful men, and the other adults, interact with the twin girls (age 4) and their sister (age 10), who are the children of driver's sister. I was amazed at the respectful way they talked with them, how all of them accepted the interruptions in their adult conversations to comment on the proud little coloring projects, how their father took time to help the older girl with her math assignments, etc. I was ... amazed. I must have said that several times. I had experienced so little of that ... respectful talking, discipline with respect, expectations with respect ... but, I did get it from my aunts and uncles.
I had an opportunity to talk with the twins' mother and I told her how proud I am of her and her husband for their parenting. She thanked me and said that before they drove here, they told the girls, "Now, you will be having to do a lot of coloring this week and you must behave and mind your sister (age 10) because we will be very busy with the funeral."
And, they were ... with the exception of one very squeaky exchange ... when one of them drank from the other's cup. They are identical twins, and their grandfather cannot tell them apart. He asked, many times, "Which one are you?" They always said the other one's name... then laughed, jumped around and ran off.
Their "Papa" is retired and delights in going to his "building" ... this wonderful garage-of-sorts on the outskirts of town where he refinishes furniture he promises to sell ... but, keeps giving away to his daughter and son when they come to visit. He tells me, off to the side, "My wife thinks it's too cold in here and it's all junk" ... but he sees the treasure. He really loves showing off his woodworking tools and I loved seeing them. I told him, "Well, yeah, some people might think it's just an old shed, but I know it's your 'building'." Just then, my cousin walked in and said, "So, what do you think of his shed?" We all laughed.
When it was time to leave, Nanna and Papa drove me to the airport and insisted on going inside and waiting with me, just in case there's a problem with ... you know, "all this security business." We never talked about the 9/11 events, but we stood there, silent, knowing we share a profound love for our country. I grinned and told them I was careful not to wear my jacket with the Glock emblem. He knew what a Glock is, but my cousin wasn't sure ... and probably wouldn't want to know.
And I know, to the depths of my being, I know ... they love me and accept me ... all the oddball aspects of me. .. And they know I loved my aunt, who gave me the few ... truly, the few snippets of respect I had, as a child. I never knew I was loved and part of a family, until this visit. I know that I can tell them anything, be anything and still be loved, cherished. I am so grateful for that.
On the way to the airport, we talked about family things. I told them, again, about my amazement at how healthy and sweet their grown kids are, what good parents they are ... and how they had to have learned that from them. I decided to snip a little corner off the secrecy pact I had made with their son and told them how cute it was when he gave a long sigh and said he had become his father... and about the beer nuts and cokes. They laughed, and Papa's cheeks got red and he just ... beamed, his hands shifting and clasping the wheel.
We talked about all the grandkids. I told them that I really like the wildest one ... the glib, edgy, tell-it-like-it-is- one, with bright red hair ... this week; the one who carried her grandmother with me.
She was poised and careful and knew exactly what to do in church...which is a lot more than I knew. Besides, it was she, the hard one, who slipped her arm through mine at the cemetery and said, "I was at the hospice when your birthday card came last week for Grandma and I read it to her .. she was in a coma, but I read it really loud so she could hear it ... and I made sure she knew it was from you."
I will always love her for that ... and for creating the collective gasp that shot the through the livingroom when she suggested to Papa, quite seriously, that we settle this silly identity question ... by having the twins tattooed.