We memorialized my mother-in-law this weekend, the ever cranky Memo, mother of five, grandmother of multitudes. We remembered her for her tolerance, expressed often through equal opportunity insults; for her fine cooking and chaotic kitchen; for her hostess gifts that never made the journey without being sampled. “Heah,” she’d say to my wife in her Eastern Mass accent, handing her a block of cheese with a bite out of it. “This is a nice shahp cheddah.”
“My mother,” said Sweetie, remembering the sting of Memo’s tongue. “She never had a thought she didn’t say.” For the first few years I was in the picture we would role-play all the way on the drive to New England from New York City. “Why Nancy,” we’d practice in preparation for the inevitable offense. “What a wildly inappropriate thing to say!” And we’d laugh and cry when she managed to hurt our feelings anyway.
Many of the cousins and the high school friends and the church ladies who poured punch had loving funny things to say to Sweetie, or words of comforting realism. “I’m so sorry about your mother, Elizabeth,” said a tiny old lady. “But it was time.” And I was so glad that Sweetie’s big sister let me read a eulogy of sorts that she had cobbled together from childhood memories. So many stories, so much laughter.
Often I am afraid to go to a funeral because I don’t know what I’ll say. It’s worst of all when I haven’t seen the bereaved for years and I’m afraid that I’ll stand stupidly. I’m afraid that without words I have nothing to offer. I’m afraid I’ll make things worse.
But I learned differently this weekend.
I saw a grizzled man of fifty walk awkwardly into that meetinghouse, and though I hadn’t seen him in ten years I knew without a doubt that he would not speak ten words. I knew he had driven a long, long way to sit silently for that brief ceremony. I knew he would not stay for the reception, but turn back to the road, and probably would not say “goodbye.”
But Sweetie did not see a man of middle age with an aching back. She saw the friend of her youth, the boy with whom she blew things up, with whom she rode wild over the verdant landscape of her childhood, before her town was swallowed up by development. She saw the woods and the barn and the hill, sleds and bb guns and bicycles, dogs and cats and brothers and sisters.
And her mother, as a younger woman. The mom of her childhood. Not the confused old lady that Small described, on our last visit, as “dwindling.” The mom who called her in for suppah at the end of a long day’s play.
And her father, who Small and I and her college friends never had the privilege of meeting. He was gone before Sweetie was even grown.
When Pete walked in I saw Sweetie’s love for him, and for her childhood, and for her life, that was given to her for better or worse by the mom and the dad that the fates gave her. Nancy and Harold, Memo and Papa. I saw the one-two punch of love and loss hit her and felt a stunning gratitude for her friend’s silent presence.
He didn’t need any words.