A Wretch Like Me
I am the only daughter at the funeral, besides Betty’s three girls, Sally, Sandy and Jennifer. Sally is a childhood friend whom I have not seen since high school, but she and her sisters look exactly as I remember them. Our fathers worked together at the Brunswick Naval Air Station and were best friends. And then, one day in 1970, when I was in fifth or sixth grade, Dick died suddenly and unexpectedly. As I recall the story, he and Dad were at lunch, Dick went to the men’s room, collapsed and died on the spot. What I also remember is that Sally wanted to spend the night with me, and I was miffed she wanted to come to our house instead of me going to hers. I wanted to be where the action was.
This is my fourth funeral/memorial service in nearly as many months, beginning, as I wrote in an earlier column, with the gathering for Susan Bergier in March, followed by the funeral for my mother’s closest friend, Muriel, also in March. Then, the day after John and I returned from Italy, there was a Celebration of Life for my old Great Lost Bear pal Tom Bogolawski, who died of cancer in April at the ridiculously young age of 41. The following morning, here I am at Betty’s funeral.
I almost have the twenty-third Psalm down pat.
I don’t do many things well, but attending funerals is one of them. It’s not a Harold and Maude thing. I don’t attend them for sport. It’s also not because I have a closetful of what amounts to a mass of widow’s weeds, though an all-black wardrobe does come in handy on such occasions. And it’s not my lifelong proclivity for Victorian melancholy. I do funerals well because I also lost my dad young — when I was 26 — and I learned early: You just need to show up.
I remember my mother taking a headcount at my father’s funeral 23 years ago, this July 31. Well, I don’t think she was actually counting heads — we were pretty busy with other things — but I recall her talking about the turnout, like it was a concert or political rally. The number was around 500 people. Everyone agreed: not a bad showing.
Of course, Betty’s service would not see such numbers. She was in her 80s, had suffered from Alzheimer’s, and had been living away with her daughters for the past few years. The gathering today appears to be mostly family, a few friends and neighbors, as well as three members of my parents’ old gang, Marion, Cynthia and Audrey. I grew up with these women’s kids at cook-outs and boating trips and parties — many of them at Betty and Dick’s farmhouse — but I’m the only non-family representative from my generation here today. The old gang has dwindled to these few spunky women, who also seem much as I remember them from childhood — except I now, at 5’6”, tower over them. When I speak with them, time dissolves. They are all in their 40s. In memory, all adults remain in their 40s to me, even if the child who remembers is about to exit hers.
There are no men left. Dick was the first to pass, then George Sarkis and then my father. Dolly Daly, our across-the-street neighbor, was the first of the women to go, also from Alzheimer’s, not too long after my dad’s death. I remember Mom and I played golf with her before she was properly diagnosed, and I thought she was cheating because she made up her score after every hole. Maybe one of the reasons I’m good at funerals now is to atone for all my rotten thoughts and deeds along the way.
Dolly’s was the first funeral my family attended together, post-Dad’s death. I felt sure and safe and strong entering the church with my mother, flanked by my two older brothers — a regular united Peavey family front of grief.
Today I haul out the hymnal and hold it open between me and my mother for “Amazing Grace,” even though I know the words — not from a high and holy source, but from Ani DiFranco’s Dilate album. This gives me the chance to gaze around a little bit. Betty’s service is taking place in my hometown church, the one in which my father’s funeral was held. I have not been back here since Dolly’s funeral, and clearly there have been changes.
First of all, the sanctuary has shrunk. I remember acres of pews. And wasn’t the walk from the vestry to our pew hundreds of yards, not these few steps? And the pulpit — didn’t it tower aloft, as opposed to this gentle rise? And didn’t that ancient minister who presided at Dad’s funeral and did not know my father (my dad was a deacon, but had left the church in opposition to this very church being built) loom above us? And where is that open door that looked out upon the hydrangea bush whose leaves I watched whip up in the wind as the sky turned black on that stifling July morning?
The minister leaves us with his decidedly upbeat benediction. I lightly take my mother by the elbow and guide her to the receiving line. This all comes very naturally.
We both know the drill well.
Elizabeth Peavey’s little rays of sunshine can be found here every month.