Mother Blue

I photo. I take day trips. I lightsaber battle. I analyze the stuffing out of myself.

Category: Funeral

Spinning Spirals at the Passing Planes: Tension and Release

The end of fall

I realize haven’t written an entry this blog in a very long time. No excuses, just life and the participation in an extremely long two months, filled with too many distractions/projects/illness. Time and a reoccurring flu became the very personification of an enemy. But even when the clock and toxic phlegm keeps a person from their written thoughts, those thoughts still manage to emerge, just in a less linear, more imperfect fashion. Over these past few months, my brain did a lot of scattered thinking and I experienced a few random moments that seemed much more linear at the time.

• • •

View from the Mausoleum

I watched them lower the coffin into its casing before lowering it into the sealed structure into the ground for all eternity. Another funeral. My seventh for the year. I am running out of black clothing. (That is something that this normally dark attired person never thought would transpire.)

I marveled at my shoes in the reflection of the hearse’s hub caps, as I pondered whether or not to take its picture. I didn’t…

I guess this seemed an appropriate ending to this year. It began with a death in the second month and ended with another death in the second to the last month. Little did I know there would be yet another death only a few weeks after this one.

Roadside Flower

I watched my husband and his brother witness the sealing of the coffin into a larger cement box. The process reminded me of Russian stacking dolls. The deceased’s name was etched on the top of the outer box. I didn’t photograph that either… My not photographing these moments is something I regretted at the time but I now realize they weren’t the moments I was meant to/needed to capture. The air was thick with enough final goodbyes and tension. Theses “photo moments” were merely insignificant interruptions no one should dwell on. Someone whispered over my shoulder about the sadness of “said and done” and “being left with nothing but a casket.”

The “box” was transported by a small crane driven by one of the grave diggers, lifted far too high and descended far too quickly into it’s final resting place. I had never seen anything like this set up and delivery. The cement encasing was carried along by nothing but two ropes looped around the left and right sides of the lid. The ropes were taught but could be removed easily. I asked my husband how on earth did he think that casket was being suspended without a hook, wire, or other apparatus securely affixed to it.

What’s holding it up?

“Tension.”

I exhaled as he walked over to someone. That word hung there. There couldn’t have been more perfect utterance of syllables in that moment though neither one of us realized it’s significance but later discussed on the car ride home.

Picking a direction

…I lost track of time and got bogged down in the process. In my quest for simplicity, the simple became complex… Missed opportunities. Missed moments…

After eight funerals and eight funeral home visits and eight reflections and eight observances, I realized the words that were being uttered there were the same words I was uttering to myself.

If we’re lucky, we choose to build our lives on ourselves first, and then on something or someone substantial. Relationships are led by our choices and finding joy within the company you keep. But sometimes we thrive on tensions, and those tensions are the only thing holding our everything together. We can not remove the tension without removing the supportive ropes. And the ropes are our only connective tissue. Observing things now, I have seen tension in place of too much for far too long for far too many, all bubbling underneath the surface.

• • •

Passenger planes outside my window

I watched the planes take off at the tiny restaurant beside the tiny airport. We dined in the Frank Sinatra room. There were pictures of Ol’ Blue Eyes everywhere. I couldn’t imagine Sinatra hanging out in Latrobe. But there he was, looking right at me in glossy black and white. We were the only ones dining that afternoon. The sky was beautiful. I was moving from window to window trying to see as much as I could. I had arrived at a restless sense of peace for a moment for the first time in a long year.

I watched my niece make faces in the kitschy wall-sized mirrors. I knew this transition year was coming to a close, and the Pandora’s box of revelations that have simultaneously surprised, and empowered, and exhausted me on an almost daily basis were temporarily at bay. The recognition of those I love and those who love me were coming into focus.

The food was delicious and the company calming. We drove home full and ready to nap.

Frank Sinatra Room

There are so many other thoughts to have, but they all seem distant and stale. So for now, I leave behind some imagery relating to this entry as well as a few random moments of “somethings” from the last two months. Hopefully I am leaving death behind and coming into newfound words and images in the weeks to come.

• • •

OTHER MOMENTS TOO “SOMETHING”  TO DEFINE:

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Nothing Gold Can Stay Clever

My Grandmother (left) and Aunt Rose (right) as teenagers.

What happens when you spend every waking moment waiting for the moment when your life is about to change? That was the random thought that awoke me from my sleep this morning. These are just the types of ridiculously clever words that usually creep into a person subconscious only after spending a lifetime watching and absorbing the language of too many “hipster” indie flicks. The ones that explain a lifetime of circumstance in 20 words or less.

I went to bed watching Me and You and Everyone We Know. Almost every word in that film oozes clever.

Clever words…

This past year, among other things, I have been searching for clever: clever words and clever images; clever words and clever subtext; clever words and clever meaning; Clever words in order to figure myself out, and more immediately, cleverness in order to write this blog. Things, events and moments keep coming full circle, however fast and furious. My indie upbringing has left me with clever and for me, clever equals clarity.

——————————

A few weeks ago, I attended on of my favorite Aunt’s funeral. She was just shy of 101 years old when she passed. When I think of my Aunt Rose, the first thing that always comes to my mind is her voice. It was a very unique in tone and sound, almost too difficult to describe. I always thought it sounded like what an aged elf might sound like but not annoying in that helium, Wizard of Oz munchkin type way; more like a soft toned, closed throat sound, as if her vocal chords were struggling to get all the air it expelled. It had resonance but was still slightly muffled. Her laugh was similar. Both gave me comfort and made me smile. I was told that she was the only adult, other than my mother, who had the ability to quell me in her arms. I cried for almost everyone else. I suppose her amazing voice had something to do with it. I was deemed as somewhat of  a “cold” baby because of my lack of calmness and inner peace.

I was compelled to write a few words in Rose’s honor due in part to this early bond. I wrote few random thoughts on some vacant scraps of paper. The pages were filled with scribbles, scratched out words and prose that, due to my penmanship, was quite indecipherable to most everyone else but me. After about 20 minutes, I was able to make my thoughts cohesive enough to complete my passage, so I folded the dog-eared, messy memoriam and placed them in my purse. The next day I walked into the viewing, said my hellos, gave my hugs, and handed the folded text to Rose’s daughter, Judy. My intention was have my words placed in the casket as a kind of silent remembrance.

“You should read these at the repass.”

——————————

Public speaking is quite daunting for me. I have done it on many occasions, but it is unnerving to say the least. I spent the whole next day thinking: people call me the Kim Reaper™, I am REALLY associated with death so I should REALLY feel more comfortable in this whole dearly departed/remembrance realm.

The Funeral Procession

Storm Approaching

I am fascinated with eulogies. I am also a huge fan of pop culture. For a period of time in my youth, our household was subscribed to People magazine. I always jumped to the celebrity death/obit/remembrance section first. My two hobbies in one fell swoop. WOO HOO! It was always fascinating (and a little heartbreaking) to me how a writer, who probably did not even know the deceased, could sum up a whole lifetime of achievements in a few small paragraphs. That a lifetime of work filled with blood, sweat and tears could be condensed into a few hundred characters, in a column format right next to an ad for baby formula or shoes. It almost felt like a Greek tragedy to me. I would read and reread each death notice trying to memorize who they were and reflect on impact they left behind. I would ask my mother detailed questions about select dearly departed if it was an actor/artist from before my time or whose work I was unfamiliar with. For a time, I would even cut the notices out and save them in a folder. I don’t know why I felt so obligated, I just felt sad that after these words were printed, the forgetting would begin. I knew it wasn’t the celebrity thing that left the impact, it was the horror of forgetting or being forgotten.

These days, I no longer clip and snip obits manually, instead I inform the masses through my Facebook page, posting the death notices as I find them. I have a reputation as the “you heard it here first” merchant of death. I have been dubbed the Kim Reaper™ because of these posts. In fact, I have hopes that my “reapering” will be mention in my eulogy at least listed as one of my occupations in my obituary. How poetic?

Crooked Jesus

Exiting the cemetery

Words… Remembering

I spent the whole night before the funeral reworking and agonizing over the honest words I had written in private for my Aunt. I was almost bastardizing the spirit in which they were written due to my insecurity over their weight. I felt that they somehow HAD to be changed, they had to be better, they had to have bells and whistles, they had to have more of an impact. I wanted people to remember. I wanted my words to almost rematerialize this person in front of the familial onlookers.

In the end, I found there were no better words than the ones I wrote for my Aunt the night before. The simplicity of them made sense. Relationships should be simple, honest, quiet and meaningful. The bells and whistles usually lack substance.

I read my words as my voice crackled and stammered and stumbled. My throat tightened as the prose spilled out. I spoke of endurance and perseverance. I spoke of family devotion and togetherness. I thought of how she called me “my Kimmy” every time she hugged me. Were these the right words? They lacked chutzpah, they lacked the cleverness-clarity. My aunt and I had not seen much of each other over the last few years. I said to my sister that something to the effect of, “there are so many more people here today WAY more qualified to honor her.”

The room was silent when I exited the stage. As I made it back to my seat, my sister hugged me with tears in her eyes. They meant something to her.

Despite the tears, I still debated in my mind whether my words were an adequate enough memoriam or even if I had the right to be on that stage at all. We began to say our goodbyes. The last hug I gave that day was to a woman, a distant cousin, someone who I had not seen in years. She grabbed my hands and uttered the phrase, “How beautiful.” I smiled. I think her words were one final gesture of love from my dear Aunt, spoken through my cousin.

Aunt Judy and Uncle Bob dancing with me (at my wedding) for our version of a father daughter dance to the song Rainbow Connection.

I spent the rest of the day remembering. Scattered, lovely, sad, happy thoughts swirled around as I drove home:

We had to be in bed by 8 or so my mother and Judy could enjoy their nightly telephone ritual… Rose was widowed so early in life… There were no pensions in those days… She cleaned the neighborhood church to make ends meet because that is “just what you did”…  The doctors feared Judy and Bob’s daughter’s leukemia may have been a result of the Agent Orange used in Vietnam… What would it be like to be drafted… Duquesne Rummy nights in our house were legendary… They always smiled. I knew all their laughs very well… I need to listen to the Rainbow Connection again… My niece called Rose her Uncle Rose. “If that’s what she wants to call me then I am ok with that”… They watched a lot of M*A*S*H … Bob, Judy and Rose lived in that tiny house in Duquesne  for as long as I can remember. It smelled like cookies and a department store. That smell always reminds me of family. 

Aunt Rose on her 100th

I ended my remembrance with two statements I felt appropriate. This was the first:

At the end of Rose’s life, when she could no longer get around, my Uncle Bob had to carry her from room to room. Aunt Judy was worried that Rose was far too heavy for him to carry. To this Uncle Bob replied, “I will let you know when it’s too heavy.” I thought to myself, “How beautiful.” That phrase sums up everything you ever needed to know about Rose, Judy and Bob.

I realized on that car ride home that is was not important whether my words were significant or not. The significance lies in a life well lived. And my words, however unpoetical or unclever, couldn’t give or take away from any of the italics.

The second statement was this: I could not get the words of Robert Frost out of my head throughout most of the funeral service, so I decided to end my eulogy the same way I am ending this blog. These perfect, simple words that seemed to make all the sense in the world. The universe had been giving me cues all day, so I figured it was best for me to oblige.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down today.
Nothing gold can stay.

FAMILY PHOTOS, Courtesy of my cousin, Donna

Aunt Rose (right) and relatives from New Jersey

Aunt Rose and Judy

Aunt Rose

My mother (left), Judy (right)

Front Row: Judy and my mother, Back Row: My mother's brother, sister and cousin.

Lost and Found, Part 2: Belonging

My purse is filled with funeral cards.

My purse is filled with funeral cards. It seems as if I had been averaging a funeral home visit twice a month for the last six months. I guess that is the trappings of aging with an aged family.

I headed out the next day, triple checking the viewing schedule on all my smart phones and electronic devices. With my constant travel partner in tow, we set off on an encore performance of the previous day’s plans. I debated on wearing the same dress from the day before, but after revealing myself at Burgerfest I thought better of it. Me arriving in town in similar fashion and appearance from the day before came across to me as too deja vu, too trapped in limbo. It was like adding another ghost to this ghost town.

It was strange venturing out to the same location. The day before, I felt this weird sense of loss and reflection and today everything felt a little forced. I think I may have been exhausted from yesterday’s circumstance. As I drove, my mind drifted back and forth to past and present and the limitations of yesterday.

I arrived at my cousin’s funeral, just as I did every other funeral this past year, not knowing what to expect. I was the outsider and I knew it. I almost felt I did not have a right to be there, like a ghost or relic from the past. I was interrupting the grieving of family who spent the last 17 years together, celebrating birthdays, backyard BBQs, life, death and day-to-day struggles together. Maybe I should have adorned yesterday’s clothing.

Wow, we have not seen you in ages… I am such and such’s daughter…

Entering the room, I saw familiar faces that had aged slightly since I last laid eyes on them. I walked in and was recognized by a few, to other’s I explained my lineage. I offered my condolences. We began chatting about our shared histories.

August 1964. Aunt Lilly, top row, 4th person. I think Linda is next to her. My Grandma, second row, last person. Photo courtesy of my cousin, Donna.

I remember my cousin being one of the kindest women I had ever known. She had always seemed to make family appearances and miscellaneous functions with my other, equally kind aunt. Aunt Linda and Aunt Lilly, they always seemed so inseparable, like soulmates. In fact their names merged into one entity when referred to by the family. AuntLindaandAuntLilly. It seems so sad to me now that death separates them.

Growing up, there were two or three houses of cousins all in a row. Our neighborhood not being the greatest and my mother’s fear of the decline that had taken over the town led us elsewhere on certain holidays. As an alternate to the traditional door to door tricks and treats, every Halloween we would get dressed up in our costumes, walk over to grandparent’s apartment to show off our costumes and get some treats. Then we would pile into our Oldsmobile and drive to the trifecta of houses my cousin’s lived in. The most glorious bags of candy would be waiting there for us. They were packed to capacity. It was more candy than you could EVER collect in one night even if you scoured five neighborhoods. At least that is what I speculated in my young mind.

I don’t remember when the Halloween adventures ended, just as I can’t pinpoint when we all eventually lost touch. My grandfather died in 1990. Four years later mother died. Then my grandmother passed away four years after that. My closest connective tissue to that part of the family had rapidly started dying off and my siblings and I were trying to navigate in our own little “brave new world” that existed without the parents and grandparents that had guided us. Time simply marched on.

My grandparents on their wedding day.

I made my way around the room as Jack made friends with another cousin. They shared some goldfish crackers and talked shop. I began reintroducing myself to everyone and repeatedly telling my Halloween story. I get nervous in crowds and tend to talk… a lot. I think I was also trying to prove to myself (and others) that I had a right to be there, even when my cousins showed no signs of thinking I was out of place. In fact it was quite the opposite.

I began talking to another cousin’s wife and started to tell the Halloween story again. For some reason, I began to reflect on my words as I talked. It became less the rehearsed speech of a nervous person and more a story and heartfelt memory. I began to tear up as I repeated the same words of that same story. I thought of how AuntLindaandAuntLilly remembered to send us birthday cards every year without fail. I remembered being baby sat by another cousin, the cherry tomatoes we used to munch on laughing and talking in my living room, TV glowing in the background. I remembered the warmth I felt every time I was around those people.

We noticed the sounds of our respective sons cavorting in the back room and chuckled. I mentioned how sad it was that we all lost touch. How sad it was that most of my immediate family had passed away and that for my siblings, baring a few exceptions, there was not much of an immediate family left. She looked at me as if she understood my longing and feeling of loss of family on so many levels. Of course that may have been my perception of the moment, but in that instant, I felt a connectivity.

Goldfish crackers with cousins.

I gave my family a few more hugs and condolences as I was getting ready to leave. We were extended an invitation to their 4th of July celebration. Unfortunately, we were not able to attend because my husband had some major dental work done and needed cared for that weekend. I was sad we could not make it, but I hope to reconnect at their Labor Day extravaganza.

We got in the car and headed for home. We made one last stop at my old place on the way out. Jack wanted to see where I grew up.

Jack hamming it up.

Serious Jack.

Took a different route home than I normally do from this area. Instead of taking the parkway, I took the back roads through West Mifflin towards Century III Mall. There was one last place I wanted to see.

I wanted to live in that house. I constantly curious about the goings on there. The brick footbridge complete with the flowing creek underneath was always so romantic to me. Especially on our nighttime drives back from the mall. I stared longingly at this place each and every time we passed it. The warm glowing orange lights the space omitted at evening time was so inviting. On one of our nighttime travels, I passionately proclaimed how much I would love to live there one day. To this my mother responded, “Yeah it is lovely, but they probably have rats (because of that creek).” My mother had this gift of being both sharply acute and unknowingly obtuse all in one sentence. I think sometimes her overinflated sense of reality and practicality prohibited her from seeing the space in the gloriousness only my 13-year-old eyes could conjure and imagine.

I was irritated that my mother was so cautious, at times. But my mother’s love, fear, and harsh realities led to some brilliant Halloweens. I never tricked or treated until my son was born, but I thank her for giving us such a beautiful memory.

My "dream" house.

The creek below.

I made one last pilgrimage to my hometown the week following my cousin’s funeral. It was for the death of my godmother’s father who also happened to be my next door neighbor. He was the first person I ever knew to have tattoos. I think he got them while he was in the war. A blunt and funny man. They had a German Shepherd named Thor. He taught everyone in the neighborhood, including my mother, how to drive. My godmother asked if he taught me as well. I told her that he tried. He took me out on the highway to teach the basic rules of the road, but I guess my skill set was sorely lacking. He clutched the passenger seat with purpose. When we arrived back in Duquesne, he asked me to pull over at the local “Moose” so he could get out and grab a drink. I patiently waited in the car. Through all his years serving our country and his stature as the neighborhood driving guru, this 16 year old girl had somehow broken him. My godmother, her brother, and a few other funeral attendees laughed heartily at my story.

My godmother holding me as my parents looked on at my baptism.

I spoke to the director of the funeral home for a few moments after that. He had buried most of my family including my mother. I always promised myself I would thank him for being so kind to us in the days after my mother’s death so I set out to do just that. He remembered me once I mentioned my last name. We talked a lot about our town’s decline and some of the residents that were no longer there. After a few moments, I shook his hand and made my way home. I recounted the past few weeks of mourning and revisiting the past. I always had a sense of not feeling like I belonged to anything on so many occasions. These few weeks of retelling bits and pieces of my childhood gave me a sense of being tied to something; of being part of a shared memory of a collected group of people; of being part of a town’s history, and the documenter of my own, still developing… something…

The funeral home waiting area that I felt compelled to photograph. It looked so different from what I remembered.

Finding the right chair.

Still searching.

Receipts and funeral cards from the past several months finally expelled from my purse.

Jack horsing around with the camera while trying to take my pic. He told me later that if he took my photo he would like to be in the pic as well. Hence his two fingers. He did not explain this before taking the photo. I was nervous that someone may exit the house and complain about us being on the property. Jack captured my face at the height of my nervousness. We laughed heartily after this photo was taken when he explained what he was doing.

Lost and Found, Part 1: Father’s Day

Navigating my way.

I had to use the GPS to find my cousin’s funeral. The same roads where I once “cut my teeth” as a young driver were now all a little suspect, within my memory, at least. Kennedy Street or Grant Avenue? Kennedy Street or Grant Avenue? I have always interchanged the names of those two roads for as long as I can remember.

The monotoned electronic commands (and my severely atrophied muscle memory) signaled me to the correct street. Dressed in my Sunday best, I pulled into the empty parking lot and exited my car. The neighborhood always had it’s quaint charm harkened back from another era, but was never the very safest one for as long as I knew it. It is another casualty of the steel mill industry. Because of this, I expected a slight uneasiness when I arrived. But today was vastly different from anything I had anticipated. I exited the car into nothing, literally no one. The streets were dead, quiet, like a ghost town. I have never seen Duquesne in such a state. I used to pass by people all the time when I was growing up there. People driving their cars, people entering the tiny little grocery store, complete with a butcher that always resembled Sam from the Brady Bunch to my young eyes, the local pharmacy complete with soda fountain and a wall of black and white images documenting the town’s history. But after a decade’s absence, all was silent and askew. Burnt out buildings and abandoned businesses aligned part of my route as I turned towards my destination.

Moving towards home

Quick photo while driving across the bridge

I walked towards the stairs of the funeral home. I could hear my heels click on the brick surface of the road and echo off the leftover buildings. I felt nervous. It felt like a a nuclear holocaust had engulfed the town. I reached for the door. Locked! I slumped to the stairs calling my sister. The newspaper obituary had listed the times wrong.

The funeral home welcome mat

The brick road out front

Irritated, I hung up the phone and headed out. I ventured towards my old street. I don’t know what I was looking for but I wanted to find some reason to be in town on that day. I wanted to find something else other than the nothing I was given in that moment. I parked along side the neighbor’s house on 4th Street. I sat in my car for what felt like forever. I eventually got out to take some pics but was extremely timid about my approach. Now I regret not snapping a few more. The street was more active than any other spot in the town, but I felt a disconnect. I felt like an outsider. I was no longer on what was once my turf. I became distracted by the happenings in the church across the street.

I got back in my car and tried to decipher what was going on. I smelled food grilling. My need to pee overrode everything in that moment. I walked over to the tables and chairs that were set up on the parish lawn and asked what was going on. A burger benefit for the church was the reply. I began asking questions about my old neighborhood and in particular my old neighbor who was the priest at that particular church. I was told they were away, then the kindly gentleman cooking the burgers invited me to eat. I promised I would eat if I could use their restroom.

Burgerfest at the church across the street

As I gathered my burger and chips, they engaged me in small talk, asked me my last name, and asked me about my house across the street. Of course after being away for 17 years, a last name means very little to most town dwellers who never knew you. As the pleasantries ended, I found an empty table and began to eat my church cooked burger and store bought Lays potato chips. I was keenly aware of the irony of that moment, sitting at a table placed on the lawn of my father’s old Lutheran parish, on the day before father’s day, facing my old residence. Chewing and staring, chewing and staring, chewing and staring at this place that was once so familiar but now lies there askew, worn, and even more disconnected to me than I had ever imagined. A place that my grandfather built right after the second world war. A place that housed several generations of our clan and hosted numerous family get togethers, backyard BBQs and family picnics. In that moment, I felt so very small. I lost any sense I ever felt of belonging to that place, to the people, and to anything else resembling “home”. I imagined this as my final family picnic, laying to rest the ghosts of all who used to inhabit that space.

Old house number.

On the car ride back, I set Little River Band to play on repeat. I was looking for something that resembled WJAS radio to suit the distance, my melancholy, and to take me back to other memories. (“Reminiscing” was always a little too hokey for my taste, especially in this moment.) But the sound of the opening piano chord of “Lady” always takes me back inside the old Pizza Hut my family would frequent. I can still feel the texture of those tacky vinyl checkered tablecloths and see those tiny jukeboxes filled with soft hits of the 70s and 80s that sat on every table. Bad lyrics and melodic chorus crescendos always bring me back home.

I returned to the funeral home the next day with a new found sense of something but I was not sure of what.

continued next week: Lost and Found, Part 2: Belonging

One last photo before I leave.

Returning. Preview for next week.