"And in the end, it is not the years in your life that count,
On my mother's last day she went out to mow the fields, ran out of gas, and collapsed on the way in. Recorded in my mother's backyard and written around the time of her passing, this writing and video show how I imagine my mother's last day. I generated these things as a personal expression of my grief and also to show how this remarkable woman "died the way she lived." Some of the writing and video are dark and focus on the nature of the death itself, but ultimately this post is about joy. It is not my intention to offend anyone, so if you think it will upset you to read/view, please consider not reading or viewing. The pieces do include darker elements but ultimately are about her joy- such was her life.
Is it nature’s cruel plan to forge a mother and child together thru birth and childhood only to sever them apart thru death or alienation? Where else does this pattern occur? When is something forged together so permanently and completely and then torn apart again? Only thru demolition or destruction. We see Mother Nature bonding herself together and then thru natural disasters tears herself apart again. Or perhaps that is the wrong perspective- perhaps the bond is not meant to be so forged and we should be born via eggs to parents, like sea turtles, that have long deserted us. This would surely breed a different kind of civilization- one even more violent than currently exists. Studies show time after time that mother-infant bonding is critical to the healthy development of the child. The child, the child... ah so when do we become the adult? How are we supposed to leave the role of the child and forgo yearning for that mother-child bond as long as the mother is still present? Perhaps we only truly enter adulthood after we are forced thru the painful process of howling out childhood via loss of the beloved mother.
3 abdominal scars. For someone who hated going to the doctors and didn’t consider herself sick or in the hospital a lot, she sure had a lot of surgical scars. Multiple small linear scars on the abdomen. One due to cesarean surgery with her 2nd of 6 children due to full Placenta Previa, which I'd asked her about when I was on bedrest with my 2nd child due to full Placenta Previa as well. Her condition went undiagnosed until she started hemorrhaging while talking on the phone at her house and felt a gush- so scary considering she could have died right there. She called the neighbor (who called the police), put on one of her daughter/my sister’s diapers, and was picked up in (she said) in "the paddy wagon," and was taken to the hospital where she received general anesthetic to undergo a vertical incision and birthed her son 2-months prematurely via cesarean surgery. For the next one, her 3rd child, the doctor sat and watched her the entire time to observe for any complications with the birth. I believe it was around this time in 1964 that the old dictum “once a cesarean, always cesarean” started to fade. She did receive some pain killer, not sure what, and then with her last child, the doctor didn’t allow her to have pain killers because he wanted her to be able to feel if anything ruptured. I once asked her if she was ever concerned to have more children after almost dying from hemorrhage with her placenta previa and she said that she never though about it. She went on to birth 3 more children (non-surgically).
Another scar was due to appendicitis, which also took her by surprise in her home. Their neighbor, Mr. Baumbach called the ambulance, for which Mum was always grateful for her life and repeated the story often. And another abdominal scar was due to having her gallbladder removed- not a big surprise considering she loved her rich, creamy foods and subsisted on a diet heavy with butter, ketchup, red meat, and toast laden with toppings. After years of cooking family meals, typically designed with curry masking any aroma the spoiling food may have developed, she grew to hate cooking and only prepared meals with minimal effort usually in the top of double boiler, usually consisting of any and all leftovers in the fridge, and usually prepared 8-10 hours before ingesting. Her standard go-to meal was chicken and vegetables with lots of soy sauce dumped over it. It was not unexpected to develop a stomach ache after eating foods at her house and any snacks removed and eating spontaneously from the fridge or cabinets would result in a stomach ache. This save-all mentality was adopted from growing up in the 30s when things were scarce and there would be no waste. That combined with the fact that she had slowed down a bit in her later years. Her no-waste philosophy applied to her belongings and garbage as well. She was recycling before it was a trend- methodically lacing rubber bands around the spray-nozzle, stowing plastic bags to be reused, placing plastic, glass and metals in their bin. She contributed to trying to save the planet in her time and certainly influenced many people with her interests.
The food stayed and spoiled because she never like to throw anything away and she didn't like to throw anything else away either. When we cleaned the house out after her passing and started pulling out all her collections (my sister did most of this work), there were so many collections stored and stuffed away that they appeared to multiply and expand to the point where 3 rooms plus 2 porches and driveway were chock full of her collections. And there were often 6 of each item since she was thinking of others and her children and wanted enough for everyone. The question often posed, “where did you find this?,” was always met with her same response “I have my resources” followed by a little grin. Which usually meant the local recycling center at the town dump or one of the five thrift shops she volunteered at (or sometimes got paid) to ensure she was first in line for the good-pickings. It was a lot of stuff but especially children’s toys. She always had a childlike curiosity. At her funeral, Father Joe said she was a life learner, intellectually curious, which was true, everything was always anew for her. Also, she was always thinking of others so if there was a book she like, such as Charlotte’s Web she would keep one on her shelf so she had it ready to give to some child. Well since she had about 8 bookcases with 6 levels each (just on the first floor of the 3 level house), she had duplicated and triplicates and quadruplets of many of her favorite books. Where most people had one or maybe two of a favorite item, she had 6 or 8. And just to be clear, these collections were not clean and sorted and put in display cases or anything like that- they were stowed, stashed, displayed, played with, utilized, and however else she could keep them or find them a home- they were available right here and now, easily within a child's reach.
So what did she collect? You name it and she probably had it, let me see where to start… cast iron pans and cookware, Victorian dolls, antique toys, fine arts paintings (Pup’s interest too), toys insects, toy bees, ladder back chairs, children’s books, bee pins, silk scarves, petticoats, quilts, sewing supplies, sewing machines, large wooden clogs, equestrian hard hats, wooden rolling pins, metal message pins, glass juicers, miniature wooden clogs, miniature metal toy ovens, antique scales, toys farm animals, toy horses, napkins, rubber duckies, irons, ironing boards, doll house furniture, vintage clothing, wedding cake toppers, decorative beehives, wooden bowls, toy military tanks, match box cars, metal figurines, Barbie dolls, Barbie dolls clothing, Steiff Bears, Steiff puppets, Steiff animals, brass candlesticks, miniature bunny rabbits (ode to her namesake Bunny since she was born on Easter Sunday), Swedish kilts, metals tins, antique decorative wooden boxes, yellow painted metalware, enamelware, antique wooden potato mashers, metal potato mashers, cookie cutters, teaspoons, her mother's fox stowes, silver, china, tablecloths, hat boxes, metal picnic tins, Christmas bells, tea cups, silver Victorian tea sets, oriental rugs, horse books. Ok I could go on but I will stop- you get the idea… I feel the need to sort the items for you and I am only listing them, imagine how my sister felt who bore the burden of sorting and preparing everything for dispersal? We all took as much as we could or wanted but we couldn’t possibly take everything. We hope people understand, as one of her friends explained (whose home also houses collections awaiting burst), she and and my mother felt they were personally curators of a time gone past, curators of another era, of these wonderful little magical items that would forever be lost and possibly get tossed if they didn’t personally save them. That and my mother simply loved these items- they all came to life for her both individually (the life-like little Steiff bears) or brought to life another era (in the form of an antique rolling pin for instance).
At the estate sale I saw just how much other people love these items too, either because they will make lots of money selling them on ebay (to a person who will probably love them like my mother did), or they will add to their collection. There was a gentleman, about 45 years of age, whose smile swelled up like a little boy when he completed the transaction and started for his truck proudly hugging a toy metal, steamroller under his arm. He explained he had about 40 or 50 other toy metal trucks but this was by far the best because it was the heaviest and he could not wait to get back and add it to his collection. I mean, my mother had done her job right? She had salvaged these items until they found the next person who would love them. Just when they thought they couldn’t find any more amazing metal toy trucks they came across my mom’s stuff. Joy. Life is for living and this item certainly made that man fill with the joy of life. She would have loved to talk with him about his truck collection.
The estate sale was also extremely emotionally gutting. When all these items she had amassed and collected throughout her life were pulled from their homes and starting leaving, it felt like we were in a boat that had sprung some leaks and we were trying patch up holes as fast as we could. The ship was a container for the grief and once the ship was gone it was if she was more fully gone- as long as the ship was still there then she was still alive in our minds and memory. Alive in a Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) type of way where where you exist believing or thinking or something, that the person you love is actually still sitting there watching TV, sitting by the phone and computer ready to answer the next email and phone call saying, “hello little darling.” Eventually the holes were opening faster than we could patch them- it was time to jump ship, as my sister-in-law suggested. I'm not sure I jumped and think I may still be in magical-thinking-land. It is similar to the tears and crying- not crying is worse than crying- atleast the tears brought you closer to the event and the pain of losing them. NOT crying is so cold and distant-as if you are moving on. I didn’t/don't necessarily want to move on because then she is more fully g-o-n-e.
Photos from her collection and estate sale below. In the center photo are Leslie, Cindy & Bezo, all dear friends of my mother's. Cindy is holding a Bunny Rabbit that appeared in Cindy's driveway just this past spring. Cindy explained it was a fluke that she was out in the driveway at the that time of day as she seldom is. It was the softest bunny ever.
One of her favorite movies was Witness and she wished she was Amish. Childhood in the home my mother created was like living inside a petting zoo compete with live animals cows, sheep, chickens, goats, pigs, geese and all the work that went with it- milking the cows, butter churning, collecting the eggs, watching the rooster run around the yard without a head, crying as the calf was shipped off to the slaughterhouse, and pushing aside forkfuls of shepherd pie vowing never to eat lamb again (which turned into only a 25 years abstinence). My mother sheering sheep, spinning yarn, dissecting chickens in the basement, knitting sweaters. My first experience with birth was watching a calf be born- I was young but remember seeing the hooves and the big sac. I recon everything worked out ok but think it was male, so there were sad goodbyes when the male calf went to the slaughterhouse. Horseback riding and caring for horses- Ma was completely in love with horses, like Gallant Bess, when she was little. She never had any horses when she was little but made sure her girls had horses. Beehives and beekeeping, the raspberry patch, small garden, tapping the maple trees in the winter, cooking on the woodstove.
In 1970 Mum & Pup moved from Hartford to Redding Connecticut (where she passed) and I can just imagine how she came upon the house and the property and how she saw her vision for this place where her dreams of animal husbandry, a little farm, living off the land, self-sufficiency, and living the life of how an Amish person, just came alive. Pup said this was true, when they found Meeker Hill she just saw her vision before her eyes and they bought the place. She wasn’t raised this way with the farm and the animals- she just had this idea and loved animals and wanted to try all the things and wanted her children to know where things came from. She would take my brother and I down to help out at a local dairy farm because she wanted us to know where the milk comes from and how it all works. It was really important to her. Mothering for her was a string of experiences and living. Life is for living and she did that with her children.
On the last day, I believe the angels came. They came for my mother who lived her life with joy and love all the way thru. She must have been born a radiant soul because she remained joyful and grateful all the way thru. She had a harsh father, her mother died when my mother was 17, her best friend and brother Ricky died when she was in her 30s. Her sister became mentally unstable and rejected their relationship. Her dear brother Michael died within the last 20 years due to a brain tumor and she missed him terribly. Yes, many relationships in her family had fallen away but she continued to seek out connections and joy and beauty wherever she could find it- always kept alive a curiosity about everything from books, to people, to life’s treasures. People loved sharing information with her because she always had something very interesting, or from the heart to contribute, usually from her life’s experience or from what she learned and saved from famous people: royal figures, athletes, leaders in history, innovators and pioneers.
Father Joe noted in his eulogy that she always reading new books- big, nonfiction books. When she passed, she was working on about 6 -8 large books stored in various places such as on her nightstand, in her car, near her desk. She loved to read those big, giant biographies about historical figures- male and female. Ma greatly admired strong, graceful women and Princess Grace was one of her role models. Once, upon asking her for a book recommendation she wrote “The only suggestion I can make is to spend some time in the library looking for an author you know you like. One that comes to mind is Kurlansky. Thomas introduced me to “Salt” although I had just read “Cod” and now am deep into “The Big Oyster”, they are all histories but so interesting. If I think of some more I will write you." Love Ma. Or she'd write, “No I never read it. did you like it? I am almost finished the Clarks of Cooperstown” which I love; it is about family from New York state who invented the sewing machine amassed millions of $, bought a lot of art and gave it to the MET and MOMA. VBC and Sophie are coming for a sleepover tonight. Love Ma" She loved email.
Video of how I imagine my mother's last day, click on the arrow to view:
Ever since I can remember my mother has been preparing me for her impending death. “If I die today this is where the silver is hidden.” “If I die in a plane crash” such-n-such. This was the result of her mother dying from breast cancer when my mother was just 17. Her mother was sick for a while then went in for an experimental treatment and died, which felt sudden to my mother. I don’t think she ever got over it. She went from being a 17 year old girl, eldest daughter, happily enjoying Catholic boarding school, Convent of the Sacred Heart on 91st Street (where Lady Gaga made famous by attending for a short while) to being mother to her 4 younger siblings back at home with a stern father, his personality further taxed by being a widow. She arranged a brief window of freedom skiing the Swiss Alps then returned to the Boston area where she met my father. They married shortly after and within a year welcomed their first born daughter and kept going for a total of six children so that she never had time to grieve until everyone was grown and gone, hence me the youngest being receptor to her fears about dying and witness to her grieving. It was so sad really, I think as strong and independent as she was that she always wanted to return to her mother or see her mother again, like many of us. Was my mother's mother one of the angels who came on her last day? Or her best friend and brother who died from cancer when he was 36, was he one of the angels? “Knew I should have gone to visit him. Of course he is going to say he is okay. When I walked in, all I remember is clutching tight to my baby girl who was in in my arms. I walked down the hallway to the room at the end of the hall and saw him laying there. They hadn't even moved the body.” (That was a quote from Ma as she remembered but to clarify, he died on September 19, 1972 at Strong Memorial Hospital, part of the University of Rochester Medical Center.) See, she had regrets too- don't we all?
So as a result of her preparations for death, there was hardly a night in my life from 4 to 40 where I did not fall asleep worrying about how my mother was going to die. It stopped there- not where, and what about after, just how. So when my sister called at 7:15p one night on June 25 to say Pup had found her laying in the grass, collapsed outside and he didn’t know if she way ok, my response felt rehearsed from years of preparation- I expressed I was kind of relieved as I was concerned it would be something more gruesome in that house, like falling down the stairs or something horrible. Not surprised at all. The shock, took me about 3 days before I could cry. She went out the way she would have liked and received a gift from God that day. The only thing sadder than knowing we will not see her again (in this life) is thinking about her trying to live her on earth while her mind and body were going.
EULOGY for VIRGINIA
From brother Andy Yates
Bunny was more than my big sister. After a long illness, my mother died when I was seven. Our father, Pa, brought Bunny home from school at the age of seventeen to tend the family. Undaunted by her new domestic duties, I remember Bunny always embracing new challenges. Back when skiing was barrel staves and rope toes in a cow pasture, Bunny took me to Courtland to ski. She was not discouraged by her own introduction to the sport, and endeavored to teach me as well. She was just old enough to have a driver’s license and I was only eight. No hill was too high for Bunny.
Pa loved to fly small planes. He learned to fly at the end of World War One. Fortunately the war ended before he could go overseas. Pa retired from flying and started a good Catholic family, but with only five kids. The first child, Virginia, was born on Easter Sunday and became known as Bunny. From the start, Bunny would exhibit Pa’s enthusiasm for adventure and travel, but always on her own terms. Pa resumed flying in the fifties when he said he could no longer pick up his Harley. Naturally he would take the kids along on his flying trips. Unfortunately, his World War One daring far exceeded his navigation skills. After a few creative routes into unexpected destinations, his faithful children began to question the wisdom of flying with him. Bunny never flew again. Undaunted, her quest for adventure became legendary road trips and train travel. Her quest for learning was unabated – on her terms.
Bunny was famous for her quick wit and candor, but that does not do justice to the freshness of each encounter. She was undaunted by her last spontaneous remarks. To know Bunny was to eagerly await her latest witty observations.
Little Brother, Andy.
In the past few years of her life, she had been starting to decline physically and, as one of her cousins said, “she did not have a bright future ahead of her, physically.” True, she had developed atrial fibrillation, hydrocephalus and had had a tube inserted in her head the year before to reroute fluids to her abdominal area, varicose veins (which her father offered to pay for surgical improvements about 30 years prior), memory loss was more frequent. She was starting to decline physically before the surgery and already felt unstable on her feet. The surgery for the hydrocephalus only made her feel more dizzy and it was then the fear really set-in and she started to prepare for death, spiritually, and gave up being active. Her schedule was still full making her way around with the use of her cane and her car and the occasional use of a grocery cart or ride-on mower. It was cane-cane-cane or cane-car-cane, or cane-car-train, or cane-car-grocery cart, you get the picture. She needed a little support walking. She enjoyed when I had the babes in stroller and would lunge for the stroller, happy to happy to push and take them for a walk with the support of the handlebars. Near the end she watched a lot of Christian TV shows, visited her favorite priest requesting last rights, attended church daily. She’d even say she was preparing for the Pearly Gates “I want to be ready for the Pearly Gates!” She may not have been ready to die but she was certainly prepared. What was interesting, is that her calendar was jam-packed up until literally the day she passed and then it was only a few commitments that needed to be canceled, and she would not be going on her beloved annual summer trip to Maine with husband Gene, her calendar was not full but her ice-cooler was! She already had condiments and treats packed for the August Maine trip.
Her decline was really hard on our relationship and defined our last year. It was very sad because we were so close in childhood, and then when she would visit me in NYC- when she would come in to volunteer at the New York Public Library (which she absolutely loved doing!), and we were even closer during my early-mothering years. She loved having the grandchildren around and would comment after we departed, "I miss hearing the pitter-patter of little feet in the house." She was always sending the perfect little gift packages- a butterfly pin for my daughter who “raised butterflies” and a suitcase full of vintage Barbie Doll clothes she'd mended or little book on fly fishing for my son who had taken an interest. She always catalogued in her mind all the grandchildren's, and everyone’s, interests and paid it back in sweet little thoughtful gifts she’d rummage up at her various sources. After having such fun with her when the children were toddlers, our relationship soured when we visited in the last few years of her life. I could see the direction she was headed so made futile attempts to get her to be more active going on a short walk or to care for her personal hygiene by taking a shower or take vitamins, have a woman come in to check on her once a week- she didn’t want any part of any of it and I couldn’t let it rest. I just couldn’t let her neglect herself like that but my pushing the issue only caused tension to the point where me and the children couldn’t visit (chose not to visit) because it was too tense. Mum and I were still in contact that last year but it wasn’t like it used to be. In retrospect I ask myself if I could have just visited her and not attempted to improve her health or anything and the answer if yes…. If I were a completely different person with a completely different brain! I did my best people. Some of my siblings (and some of ma's friends) do not understand this- they explain how they were able to visit and just let her be, to which I say- you are clearly better people than I. They thought I was mad at her when our relationship became so distanced in the final year but I wasn’t mad- yes hurt that she didn't want my help and sad knowing she might not be there for her children and spouse and grandchildren much longer, but not mad. I know the type of person I am and I knew how she was and I only saw things getting worse if we attempted to visit for overnights, so we just went for holiday visits. So this was a choice, and misunderstood as it may have been by others, I have reason to believe it was the better choice.
EULOGY for VIRGINIA
The last time I saw her alive was at my niece’s graduation and we actually had fun. She smelled like a homeless lady (sorry Ma but that's how bad it had gotten) and leg and foot were tremendously swollen due to the poor circulation, but I was a good girl and didn’t say anything. We sat next to each other and enjoyed the graduation and the funny little antics my son pulled. I made some runs to her car at her request- retrieving Madras pants for my daughter and returning her Spanish dolls that we had borrowed for a school event. We chatted and she asked me about our summer plans (which she did repeatedly) – did I want the camp membership in her town of Redding or a Bronx zoo membership? I said yes to the Bronx zoo membership but don’t worry about it because she had been asking me for a year (since last summer) and either didn’t like my answer or couldn’t figure out how to purchase it online. She quipped, “I wish you’d come visit us, you won’t come visit us” or something and I said “ we can come for day trips, just not overnight” her gate picked up a little and her face lit up smiling “Oh really?! You'll visit?!"” It was so cute, “Yes of course!” And probably what followed was something about a tea party to be planned along the lines of “there will be a tea here at 2 PM for anyone who can attend for all those under 13 years of age. Love Granny Bunny” or a Royal Baby Shower for the little prince to be born that summer.
Her last day was a glorious day. It was hot but beautifully sunny and clear- she adored the sun and the heat. It was the last day of school for the children so at the time of her passing, we would have been at a park playing with the other school children. That morning of Tuesday June 25th Virginia "Bunny" Yates Connolly went to church, arriving late as she often did, just in time for the Eucharistic eulogy. It was no coincidence that she always arrived just in time- the priest, Father Joe, admitted that he would wait for her at the daily morning mass and slow down his homily just a tad, so as to accommodate her regular tardy arrival. He knew it was just a few minutes from when he saw her car pull into the handicap spot, to when her feet would arrive shuffling car-cane-cane to the front door, into the church, and settling into a back pew. The back pew was convenient for parishioners who didn't want to be on display when they "accidentally dozed-off." After church it looks like she came home, probably relieved herself and checked her email, she probably sent a few emails, and then at some point mid-morning probably drove down to the garage, shuffled over with use of her cane to the ride-on mower and headed out to mow. She loved mowing for a few reasons, one was since she had limited mobility due to varicose veins and poor circulation in her legs, the mower gave her a sense of freedom and movement, two is that she liked just sitting there and moving thru the grass and thinking about things letting her mind go. In one email she had written “Just came in from mowing 2 acres when I do my planning and thinking and came up with this idea. I will pay you if you do preparation for a lot of the food and we will hire Eloise to babysit. Do you like this idea? It cannot be too hard because everyone brings something and I just roast a turkey. Actually those spicy tiny noodles were good I thought. Rsvp. If Juliana comes she could bring a little kumchi. Love Ma.” Juliana is Ama, my Korean mother in-law, and by kumchee she means kimchee. Also, she like to have the fields mowed so she could look out from the house and porch and see the beautiful, open fields. She didn't want shrubs or trees to start growing and obstruct her view. The view on top of the hill was so amazing that on the 4th of July we were able to see firework displays set-off 15 miles east.
She only got thru about 1/3 of the 2 acre field when the mower ran out of gas. Pup said she often ran out of gas and would tell Pup the mower was broke. On this heat-advisory-hot-humid summer day in Connecticut she ran out of gas and attempted to walk to the house, and she was probably imagining drinking an ice cold drink or an ice cream soda. She was wearing many sweaters at the time- one was found shedded on the path. We don’t know why her internal thermometer was so off- the heart medication she was taking or what we don’t know. She had to walk or shuffle or crawl or something thru the tall golden grass about 40’ to the riding ring fence where she could hoist herself up or steady herself along the length of the riding ring about another 100’. There was a gap in the fence and that is where she was found. One pair of shoes. One skirt. One half slip. One shirt. One bra. One sweater. One pair of eyeglasses. Three yellow metal rings. One white metal bracelet.
She died the way she lived. Independent, under the glory of God, surrounded my her animals and land, working with a purpose. On that day I think there was struggle, perseverance, serenity. I hope there was serenity. Have to believe there was peace. I believe the angels came.
So when my sister called to tell me- I was not surprised as it was something I’d been preparing for my entire life. The 3 days following consisting of caring for my father, making funeral arrangements, which is a big hurdle because all-of-a-sudden, and inside of 3-days, you have to contact everyone your loved one knew and not only let them know this shocking news (which in her case was very sudden and very shocking) but get right into arrangements and logistics with them. There are flowers to be ordered, catering and food to be arranged, priest to book, eulogies to write, all while not eating or drinking or sleeping because you are sort of in a daze so unless some very trustworthy person comes along and stuffs a bite of food in your mouth you will not think of it. Thank you to our neighbor, Mrs. Baumbach- I will never forget the image of this petite, octogenarian walking across our driveway to our house with her arms wrapped around this massive bowl of casserole! (Mrs. Baumbach is truly an angel here on earth.) There is jewelery to be retrieved from the coroners, visits to the funeral home, outfits complete with shoes to be selected for her eternal rest, grandchildren to write notes to insert in her coffin, a lifetime of pictures to collage, casket to select, order of the day to discuss with funeral director, order to discuss with priest, prayers and songs to select, programs to write and approve with family and print and distribute, guests books to buy, obituaries to write, newspapers and website deadlines to submit with obit, certificate of death to pick-up, funeral director instructs us to ask coroner the schedule of pick-up using words, “where does my _____ (mother) fall on the schedule board?,” money to be removed from accounts, outfits for ourselves to put together- we all wore black which people appreciated. I am also forever grateful to my dear friend Babette who showed up with a trunkful of black clothes for me to choose from to wear. I left my house with a toothbrush and maybe an outfit or two- not realizing the time warp I was entering. Guest who have traveled really far to speak to, and smile and laugh with because she would have liked us to be hospitable and strong. Pay the funeral director. Tip the priest. Hire the teenager to guard the house. Pay the teenager. Park the cars. Drink some wine.
On the day of my mother's funeral, my daughter came into the room where we usually stayed and where I was rehearsing a eulogy (written by family friend and Rabbi, Zoe), and the first thing my daughter did was pull a toy clock from the basket of old toys, sat on the floor, and wound up that old clock. The song that rang out caused me grab the clock, hold it to my chest, and howl in grief for the first time since she died. It played the Bread of Life…. For those not familiar this is a traditional funeral song and the lyrics sing “I will raise you up on the last day.” Yes, out in her beloved backyard, formerly a home to her farm animals now buried in various points around the property- Tommy the horse buried across the field, bantam hen, Mandy the sheep, Abby the dog, King Albert the goose and Queen Victoria his mate. She was raised up.
It is difficult to describe the divine experience at the church. My mother had a very strong faith and if you were not a believer the circumstance of her passing and the mass itself would make you wonder. Amassed in the catholic church (and by amassed I mean grandchildren actually sitting on laps of aunts, uncles, cousins because all the seats had been taken). Just 3 days since her passing and 400 plus friends and family gathered at the church. Passersby wondered at the long line of cars parked a quarter-mile on either side up the church up Route 53. Standing room, balcony, on laps, every bit of space was filled. Every gram of her brain and of her heart filled to the brim with love and curiosity- that was my mom.
It was time for the family to gather together and enter the church and it felt similar to near-death experiences I’ve read about. You are being pulled to something divine and it looks amazing and wonderful but it also means you need to let go and leave where you were, including the people you love. You can perhaps have the choice to stay, but the pull is so great and you know it will be a pull into the divine and into love, but in another way, in a way we regular humans do not understand. Some people, mediums, probably do understand this otherworld more. I think about trying to tap into it. But for now, I do not understand but imagine the pull is at once wrenching and divine.
I was chatting with guests who were sitting in the pews, when Father Joe tapped me and told me to go to the back foyer, I looked and everyone was there- all 14 grandchildren, 5 siblings, 5 in-laws, my husband, my cousin, my uncle, my father/the spouse. I didn’t want to join them because that would be too final but Father Joe instructed me to do so. I ambled back and a faintness came over me and I swooned into the bosoms of my sister in-laws who were blowing cold air on my face and instructing me to drink water. I started crying a little and then we all started moving forward. But wait, wait, it is all happening too fast, can we slow this down? Can we have a little more time to say goodbye to Ma? She's right there in that coffin. Can't we just chat a little before we go? We were moving. We were moving forward, a school of fish moving forward. The guest reported that when they saw all us children and all the grandchildren enter is when they felt moved to tears- here is what she had created and what she was leaving.... We were like salmon swimming upstream and had no choice but to go forward. As if, if you did not join the stream, it would not put closure to the event and she would somehow remain alive. I had no choice but to proceed as we all marched forward, shaping our way thru the double doors into the open church filled with loved ones and the ceiling seeming loftier and more grand than I remember, holding windows of the sky.
The cumulus clouds perched thru the view of the of arched-window traveled with the perfect shape and speed, as if angels from the Sound of Music itself were holding strings to a cloud marionettes. Bagpipes and Amazing Grace were performed with such perfect pitch and slow, even tempo that you melted into the pew before it was complete, nothing rushed. Father Joe, who we had uncertain expectations for his eulogy evidently channeled the perfect words and recollections about my mother. Most noted was how she invited him up for tea, which she did with people often, where they had a discussion a la my mother asking a battalion of questions in quick succession and did not let on that he, a Yankee Baseball fan, was in a Red Sox household (we didn't tell him that she didn't really care for baseball either way). Father Joe told people about how he would slow down the service when he saw her car pull in. He shared a story about the day before she passed, Pup went to church with Ma, which was unusual for him to accompany her at one of the weekday masses, and made her sit up front with him, where he liked to sit so he could be very close to the action, hear everything, and carry-out his personal crusade of inspiring all parishioners to sing via leading by loud example. She was mad he made her sit up front and reluctantly joined him, but of course it all made sense two days later. So Father Joe channeled words and wisdom, the clouds behaved, the music was exquisite, the place was packed with love and energy, and everything was like white and gold- I just remember everything being white and gold and almost misty- as if divine. And the three eulogies were so memorable. And something about seeing “the men in the family” pallbearers guide her coffin in. It was so unbelievable she was in there and all the men looked so protective.
"When someone's gone, no matter how much longer they would have been with you... well it wouldn't have been long enough." Alex Orbison in speaking of his late father Roy Orbison on the 25th Anniversary of Mystery Girl.
She would have found the internment "amusing"- we were in the thick of mourning and praying at the burial site when the cemetery workers practically backed into our entire funeral party with their big truck, beeping back-up noises and all. Mum would have thought it was hilarious that here we were, acting very formal and solemn and everything appropriate for a funeral, and here were these guys with their tank tops and shorts hanging off their buts so we can see their boxer shorts, backing into us with their truck. The funeral director was not amused.
"We were the light of her life and she let us know it to the end." - Stephen Colbert in a tribute to his mother who died a few weeks before Ma.
I wish I wrote her the day before or the day of, I would have said something like: Hi Ma, It was great to see you at Phoebe’s graduation. We are really looking forward to seeing you this summer in Redding- should we plan a tea party? She probably would have been thinking about the tea party while on the tractor. Oh the burden of unfinished business. I think no matter how long the person is alive, no matter when they leave us or we leave them, it is never enough time. Or as I recently heard Alex Orbison say, in speaking of his late father Roy Orbison on the 25th Anniversary of Mystery Girl, "When someones gone, no matter how much longer they would have been with you, well it wouldn't have been long enough." But I will say, even if you are not getting along with your parent you can still send emails- I did force myself (since I wasn't feeling very loving on account of our relations) to send her a loving note and photos for Mother’s Day. One of my biggest regrets is not sending her email about Stephen Colbert’s video tribute to his mother who had just passed earlier in June. I knew she’d appreciate the video but I wanted to watch it again and send a note about why exactly I was sending it, to mask the elephant in the room of her impending death (atleast in my mind I feared she wouldn't be with us much longer). So I waited and wouldn't send it until I had time to watch it again and find the right wording. If I had sent it, I might have written something like, "Sending you Stephen Colbert's tribute to his mother since we both like him and since it is such a nice tribute to an amazing woman and a mother so dedicated to her children. Thought you could relate.," effectively blending my need to send her love and gratitude while feeling some resentment and a distance.
Stephen Colbert's Video in honor of his mother, who passed a few weeks before Ma last summer:
Another sign I received from Ma, in addition to the "Bread of Life" song, was this letter from Ma.. It was waiting for me in the mailbox on Saturday, the day I arrived home from the week of her passing and funeral....
June 30th email message to siblings: "You can imagine my shock when I got the mail yesterday from the box and there on top of the pile was Ma's letter to me with check for Bronx Zoo membership. I nearly fell on the ground. She mis-wrote the zip by one digit so even though she mailed on the 24th, it did not arrive until when I got home. I wanted to share with all of you because the timing was so incredible. Ma and I had chatted about the membership when we were at Phoebe's graduation. We also chatted about how I'd be up for day trips this summer. I told her not to worry about the Bronx Zoo, since was having trouble figuring out how to get the membership, but ultimately she did pursue it. Needless to say, we will not be sending it in to the Bronx Zoo at this time... Ok, just wanted to share that story and the picture. Love, R"
Did I mention that I miss my mommy?
More quotes from Ma: I love snow and cold weather.... Bummer.... If you are at a party and don't know what to talk about, ask a question. People love to talk about themselves.... Oh yes, That's what I thought.
What signs did you receive from Mum, a.k.a. Virginia, Bunny, Granny Bunny?