My mother died when I was fourteen years old. Nothing funny about that. She was forty-one years old: much too young to die. She left seven children behind, ranging in age from seventeen to three. There were six girls, one boy. And one ill-prepared widower. My dad was a chemist, an intellectual; his was a life of the mind. Children, most especially adolescent girls, are not about the life of the mind. They are about instinct and hormones and lack of impulse control. As Jimmy Buffet once wrote, “You can’t reason with hurricane season,” and my dad was left with four adolescent girls, each her very own unique, stormy hurricane.
Absolutely nothing funny about that.
However, when I look back on that time in my life–and this, I must admit, is after nearly forty-five years of on-and-off therapy–I now see less tragedy and more humor, starting with my mother’s funeral.
There were seven of us kids at that funeral. Seven of us, who attended my mother’s funeral Mass. Seven of us who got to the church on time, walked down the aisle, took our seats on the right near the altar. Seven of us.
We were a blended family: my sisters Anne, Lisa, Peggy and I were Catholic; my brother Bob and sisters Irene and Mary Jeanne were Unitarian. My mother, although divorced and remarried, was allowed a Catholic Mass and burial.
For those not raised Catholic, a Mass–with all its standing and sitting and kneeling and scripted responses–can be a confusing place, and Anne and I were only too eager to help “instruct” Bob, Irene, and Mary Jeanne on when to sit, when to stand, when to still, and, most importantly, what to say and when to say it.
Lisa and Peggy, I’m sure, would have loved to join in all the instruction, but at eight and three respectively, they were a bit too young.
But not Anne and I. We explained the difference between the hymnal and missal, where to find the funeral Mass within the Missal. We knew more than we did, and that was just fine. When one lagged at kneeling, we’d tug at them. And when it was time to make the Sign of the Cross–ahh, the joy in knowing more than your siblings.
“You touch your forehead to indicate God the Father,” I explained. “Your heart for Jesus and each shoulder for the Holy Ghost.”
And Mary Jeanne or Irene would make a sloppy Sign of the Cross, and I’d correct. Again and again.
The Catholic Church, unlike the Unitarian, is built on ritual and dogma, and when you’re fourteen years old and your mother’s just died, you cling to ritual. So every “amen” and “peace be with you,” had to be said by all of us, exactly at the same time and with exactly the same fervor, or something dreadful would happen.
I kept poking Irene and Mary Jeanne, insisting they were doing everything wrong, until my father, gently, very very gently, told me to stop.
I looked around the church at all the people who’d shown up for the Funeral Mass and I felt like Queen Elizabeth. I wanted to wave a cupped palm at all of them, thank them for coming.
How do you bear the unbearable?
After the Priest said a few words about my mother and what a good woman she was and the children she was raising and the husband she’d left behind, he began to bless my mother’s coffin, a brass and bronze coffin complete with filigree.
It bothered me she was buried in that coffin. I was fourteen. The only exposure I’d had to coffins was through the vampire movies I loved, or the westerns, and I knew coffins were made of wood, not metal. It tugged at me, as the Priest, chanting Latin began the blessing ritual. Starting at the head of her coffin, he said a few words, then sprinkled it Holy Water; he then moved slowly and deliberately down one side of the coffin and up the other, repeating the Latin and the sprinkling. Then he restarted the ritual; once again moving slowly down one side to the foot of the coffin back up the other side to the head, all the chanting Latin and all the time sprinkling and sprinkling and sprinkling Holy Water.
Finally, my sister Anne elbowed me in the ribs. “Well,” she whispered fairly loudly, “if Mother weren’t dead already, she certainly is now. He just drowned her.”