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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Life's a party. With place cards.

I've been doing a lot of thinking these last couple of weeks. They've been tough. The hubster's father went in for a routine laproscopic gall bladderectomy (I know, it's a cholecystectomy but face it, if I said he was going in for a cholecystectomy would you know what that was? I sure as hell wouldn't) and two weeks later he had died. Stop rolling your eyes, that's the way I am and always have been. I don't use the term "pass away". I think it's vague and, frankly, says absolutely nothing. It sounds harsh to a lot of people, but in my world, people die. We don't "pass in" to this world, we're born. Why is it so distasteful to say we leave it by death? It's what it is. Saying someone "passed away" isn't going to make it any easier and, frankly, saying someone died isn't going to increase the personal difficulty or change the situation for the better. But I digress...

It has been a tough few weeks. First off, there was the "drop everything and run to the hospital because I'm working in another state and don't want to leave until the week-end when it's convenient" call. Which we did. Two days vacation shot. Okay, I had the time coming but still...

FIL looked stronger than I was led to believe but it didn't last. He declined with dizzying speed, life support was employed and, after a week, removed, and that was that. The relationship between us has always been strained, if I hadn't given birth to his grandsons I doubt we would speak at all, he never liked me much although he was always a good host. I have a mouth and I open it. This is NOT what Italian men warm up to. He also didn't care for the way I raised my kids. Twenty plus years of NOT farming the boys out to housekeepers and babysitters so we could go to every party on the planet. Twenty plus years of staying home with my kids rather than accept every "adults only" invitation to their home. Seriously! When he turned 70 there was a big birthday party, we were invited. Oh, but no grandchildren. Their home wasn't childproofed and this really wasn't a kids event. A BIRTHDAY PARTY? Now granted, this was the doing of my step-mother-in-law, who spent the time she wasn't working and/or planning parties (that other people would end up paying for) making lists of what gifts she had received so she could change the tag on them and give them to someone else.

You think I'm kidding? She's given us gifts that had tags on them where the names had been obliterated with white-out. She used to do this at all dinners too, not re-gift, use the white out. Her name is an old Italian word translating to "pretentious and cheap at the same time." She would have the occasional family dinner. She would set out place cards. Place cards which were thick with that funny, rough too-white stripe that indicates Liquid Paper where she had painstakingly painted out the names of the previous guests and wrote in ours.

THAT we made fun of to her face. She eventually stopped.

My FIL's FUNERAL is by e-vite. No, that's not a joke, I RSVPd on Friday. It's at a church in the richest, most pretentious ZIP code she could find (and the one with the least free parking) and the traditional "let's go back to the house and eat" pot luck is being held at a country club clubhouse. I'm surprised and not surprised at the same time. She's locked it down as "private, family only" but needs a CLUBHOUSE? Hell, if she had let people into her own snooty (and Lord, is it ever) canyon town home they would have probably brought casseroles and such, thus cutting the catering bill down to pretty much nothing.

I come from a place where, as Harper Lee observed in "To Kill A Mockingbird" "Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between." I remember my grandmother's funeral. We came back to her house from the cemetery to find the neighbors there, the dining room table laden with all the casseroles and baked goods that had been brought over and pitchers of lemonade and iced tea and an urn full of coffee. And we all ended up, as always, in her big den, her six grandkids, all teenage now, congregated in the corner, sitting on the floor and on the steps up to the hallway where we had congregated our entire lives, her three sons and their families and their high school friends all eating, drinking (Jimmy had a bottle in his pocket and was spiking everyone's coffee) and laughing and reminiscing, leaving at dusk, tired and full and knowing that we had just done the thing my grandmother loved most in the world...we had gathered at her house and we had fun.

When we came back from my grandfather's funeral, 15 years or so later, the ladies of the church had done the same thing for us. And his six grandchildren, all in the same place again, catching up in the corner, on the floor and sitting on the steps, his three sons and their friends all together, one last time, in his home.

I miss those times. No, not the funerals. But the togetherness, the camaraderie, being with people who, like myself, were brought up with the idea and life is a circle and family is pi, the radius, the measure by which the circle is defined. There is no beginning, people join at various places. Births, deaths, marriages, christenings, graduations, school plays, baseball games, events both minor and major, all dropping onto the radius and expanding the area, the circle grows and shrinks but doesn't break. Everyone's in-laws were welcomed, there was always room at the table. There was NEVER a time marked "by invitation only." You could show up with your current boyfriend or your out of town guests. There was always enough food, there was always a card table to be set up on the end of the dining room table, always a place to sit and people to talk to.

The hubster claims this is a fantasy because I was an only child and don't understand sibling interactions. Bullshit. Both my father AND my mother were one of three. I watched them fight and squabble with each other. There were times they didn't speak, times they threw each other out of one another's homes while yelling "never darken my door again." One such battle was raging between my mother and her brother when my aunt, their older sister, was sent to the hospital for the last time in a long illness. I watched them drop the baggage of the fight where they stood and become family again, knowing full well that, when everything was said and done and that funeral was over, the luggage would be where they left it, and they could pick it up again or not as they chose.

My father-in-law was a great host, a raconteur, the type of person you were always glad to see. My step mother-in-law rolls over everyone she sees, revels in the trappings of wealth and power and has, at times, been absolutely malicious in her treatment of my FIL's family. She pulled him away from his own kids and grandkids and moved him into her world, and away from ours. But, when it comes down to it...he let her. A funeral that should be a time of acceptance and healing and camaraderie and moving forward has become a social event by invitation only. Not only that, it's being botched from start to finish. I feel bad about this for a couple of reasons. One...I've done this before. I've worked in the office of a cemetery/mortuary, I have an inkling of what needs to be done. I also used to write obituaries for the Los Angeles Times. Yes, I did, they called us "Miss (or Mr.) Black." Corny, no? I'm a commissioned Eucharistic Minister and there will be a funeral Mass. Will I be allowed to contribute?

Nope. Not good enough. Not only am I an in-law, I'm not a member of the widow's family and it's HER family that is now front and center. My father-in-law had FOUR children. Only his daughter now exists and that's only because she's his daughter in so many ways and bulls her way in whether she's invited or not. My Father-in-law had three sons and three grandsons and, although he was cremated, these people, at least to me, are the obvious "honorary" pallbearers. But, it appears, that honor is going to her brothers and nephews IF she deals with it at all.

My mother's funeral was amazing. Shortly after I had signed the papers at the cemetery I was phoned by a nun. I spent 12 years in Catholic school, I run from nuns every time I see one and for a few days after that. But I was raised to be polite so instead of screaming in terror, I listened. This was her ministry, helping the bereaved with funerals. And did she ever know her stuff. She got me the musician and helped coordinate the Mass. She asked me if my sons were altar boys, she was hoping they could serve their grandmother's Mass. They weren't, so we set them up to present the Eucharistic gifts. My mother's niece did the readings. I served as the Eucharistic Minister and distributed the communion. She helped me with the pall. She had to explain it to me too, I'd never seen this particular Catholic rite performed, it's optional.

As they brought my mother's casket into the small church, they stopped in the center, the place where the side aisle and the center aisle meet. The floral spray was removed and taken up front and Sr. Michelle produced a woven linen tablecloth like thing, which was blessed by the priest...a family friend, btw. I covered the coffin with the cloth and placed the crucifix on top. The priest then led us up to the aisle to the altar...the priest followed by my mother followed by me while singer with the keyboard sang "Here I Am, Lord" which, I have to admit, struck me funny. Even I was aware of the theatrics at the time. HAD to have looked amazing.

My point in retelling this ancient history is that, had it not been for Sr. Michelle this probably wouldn't have happened. I'd watched my mother handle many a funeral, I knew what needed to be done but what the nun brought to the table once the i's were dotted and the t's crossed was invaluable. I took her advice was glad I did.

My MIL, however, as well as my sister-in-law, are very much the "no, we don't need YOUR help" types and, in a crises, they rise to the "out of my way" part of their personalities. It soothes people to be of help, they deny people that comfort.

I'm fond of quoting Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." One of my favorite quotes is towards the end, as Scrooge and the ghost of Christmas Future listen in on a conversation being held by several men after Scrooge's death and upcoming funeral. "I'll go if a luncheon is provided" says one of them. That's pretty much how it's going right now. Maybe, that, in it's way, is just another way of interpreting the life goes on philosophy.

But, for my money (and I haven't very much) it's just more pretentious bullshit. And it hurts.

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