It has taken me a month to be able to tell this story. When I verbally relate it to others, I still get choked up and sometimes the tears still fall. It may not mean much to some, or it may even be viewed as nothing more than a simple coincidence. I may lose a tremendous amount of personal meaning in attempting to retell this story in a blog. My desire is to weave the magic and mystery of the day, but in the end, I hope simply to open my heart.
One month ago today, on October 18, 2007, my family was sorely put to task, as we gathered together to bury our mother, and say our final good-byes.
I didn’t sleep well the night before, in my father’s house. I found no comfort in the stillness and darkness of an early morning on the farm. I arose early, and sat outside for a little while, because I had resumed smoking in my stress. A habit I have been fighting a long time to break. My oldest brother’s cat had snuck the half mile up from the old farm house to visit, because I had been sneaking him treats and lovings. Having left all my beloved pets in Illinois during this journey home, I found comfort in this grouchy tomcat. I think he found comfort in the bellyrubs, and in the hamburger I hand-fed to him. Ah well, it was a mutually agreeable situation for us both.
(Sidenote on the cat, my father did relate to me that for weeks that cat came up to his house looking for me afterward, or more rightly so, more hamburger!)
It was a cold day. Briskly windy, drizzly and frankly, quite miserable. I was a bit concerned for those attending the funeral because of the unfriendly weather conditions. When I came back into the house, I puttered around for a while trying to be quiet, made some coffee, and turned on the early, local news to catch the forecast. The weatherman predicted a nasty day, and the doppler radar was ominous, confirming my dismay.
My father stirred and arose from bed, came out and had coffee, and made breakfast for us, I went back and got Don up. We had to get ready.
We had to be at the Bear Lake United Methodist Church early, for the final visitation, prior to the funeral service. We all took great care in our preperations and attire, wanting to look our best, making sure we all had kleenex like mom had always said. Be prepared! Bring what you need! When I was a little girl she would always remind me to pack away pretty little hankerchiefs and chapstick in my little purse. I was flooded by multiple memories to the point that it was very overwhelming. I could do nothing but ride the waves of recollection. I remembered what she looked like, what she smelled like…..Eau De Cologne, lipstick, Ivory Soap and Aqua Net hairspray…..I remembered her voice.
When relatives, friends and colleagues began to arrive and pay respects to my mother….who layed in an open casket, in a beautiful, blue dress, in the atrium before the sanctuary….and our family…..we, lined up in a row: my father, my brothers and me….somehow we fell into this line, oldest to youngest quite automatically. So, by the time many people got to me, the last in line, their emotions were quite on the surface. I found it ironic that the one least capable of being “strong” was the one who bore much outpouring of others. I doubt very highly that I was much comfort to those that were hurting. I remember saying, “Thank you” a lot.
Yes. Thank you for coming. Much of the visitation is a blur, honestly.
I was actually relieved when the service began and we could be seated. I was exhausted. I couldn’t bear to stand next to my mother’s open casket anymore. I felt bad for feeling that way as well.
The service was beautiful, the church was packed, and I was pleased at who was present. Relatives and friends I have not seen for years, all there because of mom.
My oldest brother, Bernie, gave the eulogy. I discovered that Bernie possesses an elegant, literary gift and was transfixed by the telling of his perspective on our mother. There is 17 years between us….oldest son, and youngest child, her first-born son to her only-adopted daughter. Bernie grew up during much harder times than I did. When mom and dad adopted me, things were comfortable for them, and I never really knew that hardship.
Bernie told a story I had never heard before, and I couldn’t help laughing about it. He recounted that when he, Ralph and George were small they decided to collect frogs for a local eatery that sold fried frog legs…a financial venture they felt would be worth the effort. This is was in the 1950’s, for a perspective on the times (think Andy and Opie). They had captured close to 30 unsuspecting frogs and deposited them in one of mom’s wash basins in the back room (this was an entry way/mud room of sorts at the back door of the farm house, where mom also did laundry). Bernie says they all wandered off doing the things that boys do, and soon forgot about the frogs. That is, until later in the day, mom decides to do laundry, and they all hear her scream. Oops! Bernie said over the course of three days, mom found 27 frogs in that back room, in the most unusual places…they knew because each time, she screamed. She was not overly fond of frogs and snakes, and similar creatures.
Bernie also talked about how mom used to take the boys out for walks in the woods. She would show them unusual trees. She would teach them how to see the gnomes etched in the bark of gnarly, old maple trees. Bernie expressed heartfelt regret over being a typical boy, quickly losing interest in fairy tales, and having a short attention span during these forays. He related that mom was a true artist, and I also recall that she could draw exceptionally well.
He talked about how difficult it was for my mother to move to Bear Lake, Michigan…from Germany, a beautiful, well-educated, well-spoken (she was working on learning her 5th langauge when she met my dad), Catholic city girl…leaving behind her family, her broken country, her faith (Dad was not Catholic)…to come to a small, insular town…to live on a farm and scrounge a living from the dirt…where people shunned my father for bring home a German of all things…where people rejected my mother for being something she wasn’t. He remembers mom studying so hard to master the English language, and her civil government and U.S. history, to prepare for her citizenship test. Which, she passed…dad saying he remembers she only missed one question, he was so proud. Mom became an American in the truest sense of the word, but always remembered where she came from, as evidenced by the bounty that often graced the dinner table, through the years.
I digress. There is so much more I want to talk about. Stories about my mom trying to take pictures of black bears in the Upper Peninnsula, her water skiing mishaps….of my trips with her to see Oma and Opa in Germany….how she loved her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
It means a lot to me to tell some of this here. She deserves to be remembered.
When the service concluded, mom’s casket was closed, and rolled to the hearse just outside the front doors of the church. The bad weather had not abated one bit. Windy and rainy, cloudy and depressing, uncomfortably chilly.
Don and I rode with my brother Ralph, second oldest, he flew in from Arizonia, and I was so happy to see him. Years and years go by between our visits. I miss him so much. Sharing that procession ride with him means so much to me. We drove North out of town on U.S. 31 toward the cemetary. Bear Lake is a small, quite picturesque community. Despite the bad weather….in full Autumn glory. Fall in Michigan is spectacular, and the closer you are to one of the Great Lakes, the more brilliant the leave colors…it has to do with moisture content in the soil…and it was breath-taking. The procession filed out of town and 3 miles later we passed the family farm, which is very close to the little, rural cemetary where my mother would be laid to rest right next to the son she lost in 1964. The funeral director did a suprisingly beautiful thing as we passed the farm….he slowed the procession down to about ten miles an hour…a final good bye between my mother and the farm she gave soul to…we didn’t know he was going to do this…and I was deeply moved by this gesture of respect. This is where I finally lost any vestige of composure, and freely wept. I was comforted that I was with my brother Ralph, and my husband Don, when this happened. It was the moment I realized that being on the family farm would never be the same again, we would have mom’s memories, but not her.
Perhaps not even a mile further up the highway we reached the Pleasanton Township cemetary on the left of U.S. 31, across the highway from an old white wooden-framed Baptist church. The cemetary is set in the woods, surrounded by full forest to the rear, and trees and shrubberies generously allowed within the cemetary proper. It’s a small place, full of names on markers well-known to the communtiy. Family plots going back to the early 1800’s. It is set in a long, gentle curve that highway planners had the decency to follow. A place of rest and beauty. I always liked this place. Quiet and beautiful.
The procession pulled in, next to mom’s gravesite. We all exited our vehicles, immediately assaulted by the wind and rain. What happens next is something I will remember until the day I die. I will always wonder and marvel, at this moment. When the back door to the hearse was thrown open….and my brothers, nephews, niece and husband gathered to carry her casket to the graveside….the before brisk and chilly wind….diminished, becoming gentler. The rain simply stopped. The sun came out, shining warmth and light like I have never seen. The sunlight was being filtered through damp yellow, golden and red leaves giving it a visible, warm glow I could actually see….and the warmth through my damp clothes was balm to my bones….and sunshine on my soul. A small miracle that did manage to elicit collective gasps from those who stood behind where we sat as a family. Some of us glanced at each other, but said nothing. What could we say? For myself, in that moment, I saw in my mind….mom, smiling, happy and pain-free….I realized mom no longer suffers, and I was completely appreciative of who she was, and I missed her more deeply that I thought possible.
The rest of the day made a liar out of the weatherman…the wind picked back up immediately following the graveside service, but the rain completely abated. It became a sunny day. It became a day I will never forget. I don’t think I will ever see sunshine breaking through a rainy day the same way again.
I don’t know what it all means. I don’t think I am supposed to know, nor should I even try to analyze it to bits. The unexpected sunshine on a dreary day, a gift to the body and soul…maybe it was mom…maybe it was our Creator reminding us of something. Perhaps it was just a coincidence. But to me, it was priceless, and something I will lock away in my own heart forever.
Everything is a gift, be thankful. I am.
(written 11/2007, Maria Appleby)