A long time ago a college friend of mine told me of an odd dilemma. An artist she knew was frustrated because her dying wish was to be cremated and her ashes fed to her friends in the form of brownies. Everyone was appalled and no one wanted to eat the death brownies, so the artist asked my friend if she would sneak her ashes into brownies on the sly and feed them to her friends anyway.
Now, I don’t think the artist had any realistic expectation of an
early death approaching, I think the whole thing was some overwrought
creative thought process gone wrong. But my friend was concerned. She
took the idea of a dying wish very seriously, and wondered if she should
promise the artist to do as she asked even if she herself didn’t
approve of it.
I looked at her and laughed because the whole thing was so gross, and
then reminded her that dying wishes aren’t for the dying, they are for
the people left behind. It gives us something to do at a time when we
are helpless. It’s comforting to feel we are honoring the person who as
died, but the dead person doesn’t know about it. Memorials are for the
living. I told my friend that if it gave the artist a sense of peace
to think someone would carry out her strange wish, go ahead and say she
would. It didn’t mean when the time came that she actually should, and
in fact, I thought she owed it to other people not to. My friend hadn’t
considered that option and seemed relieved. The dead have only as much
power as we choose to give them. And they don’t get to bake or serve
brownies, with or without ashes to taste.
I thought a lot about the influence of the dead this past weekend when I was attending my grandmother’s memorial service. I don’t think it could have gone any better. Like many families
we have issues that surface between certain relatives that can cause
tension, but for the most part everyone loves one another and gets along
well. My grandma would have been pleased with everyone in attendance.
My mom and I brought several of her signature desserts.
I played my viola, although I admit I have never had more trouble
focusing while trying to perform, so I hope my mistakes weren’t too
noticeable. My cousin, Tony, did an excellent job of organizing
everything and keeping the service on track. I was holding myself
together pretty well until he began reading quotes from some of the
letters from people who had been recipients of my grandmother’s charity
work. She ran a food pantry out of her basement and every Christmas she
anonymously sent gifts to needy families. One letter thanked ‘the
friend’ who had provided so many beautiful presents for their children
who had been expecting nothing that year, and who turned to them all
bright eyed and happy Christmas morning saying, “See! There is a Santa
We had the opportunity to pick through the last of my grandma’s
possessions. That was bittersweet. I only took items that sparked
specific memories for me, and I felt self-conscious asking for certain
things. I took a couple of old lady plates, a vase because Aden liked
it, a can opener, her sugar spoon…. The item I’m most glad to have is
her favorite glass Christmas tree ornament. It’s a funny little silver
and red and green thing that looks a bit like a cross between a spool of
thread and an accordion. When I used to help her put up her tree when I
was in college that was the ornament she was most careful with because
she’d had it the longest. I will be honored to hang it on my own tree
this year. My Uncle Joe also made sure I got her large Christmas plate
that she used to serve cookies on when she had company. He told me she
specifically wanted me to have that, and just typing that sentence is
making me tear up again.
I felt like I had taken too many things while I was in Ohio,
but when we got home and unpacked the grandma box I realized I really
hadn’t. There’s just something so unseemly about taking things that
aren’t yours, even if the owner is gone and would like you to have
them. The nice thing, though, was that since people were only
interested in keeping a bit of grandma and not in actual things, there
was no squabbling over any of it. My cousin the lawyer laughed as all
seven grandchildren looked at the knick-knacks spread before us, and
said that these were the kinds of items that keep people in the court
system for years. I’m glad that’s not us. And a big part of the reason
that’s not us is because of who grandma was.
How do people survive losing too much at one time? Or at the wrong
time? On my father’s side of the family we lost relatives in the
Holocaust, and when I read stories of people who literally lost everyone
in their family it takes my breath away. I can’t imagine suddenly
being that disconnected in the world. That’s a pain I can’t fathom. My
grandmother was 92. I will miss her until the day I die myself, but
her life was full and wonderful. She had her struggles, but she would
have been the first to tell you she had a great life.
My grandmother’s ashes were encased in a small stone box and lowered
into the ground alongside my grandfather. It was so strange to be at
the grave site a quarter of a century after the first time we all
gathered there. A nearly identical collection of relatives as for my grandfather’s funeral,
but this time the grandchildren were all grown and standing with our
own children. To know that without the loving existence of the two
people buried at my feet that my children would not be here was
sobering. I owe my grandparents everything. To see their legacy
standing in the cold in the form of parents and scientists and artists
and kind souls was moving. Their lives mattered and continue to matter.
There were a few simple readings, and then each of us was offered
rose petals to drop into the hole as we walked past the grave. The only
person who declined was Mona. I’m not sure why she didn’t want any
rose petals, but I credit Mona with a brief bit of comic relief at a
time it was needed. In packing for the trip to Ohio I neglected to
check that the kids brought their coats. That seemed like such a
no-brainer during a blizzard it never occurred to me that Mona would
leave her coat on the hook in the house, but she did, and at the
cemetery Ian and I dressed her in as many layers of our own sweaters and
sweatshirts as we could find. So she stood looking lumpy in a huge,
red, hooded sweatshirt, staring into the hole for an inordinate amount
of time, until I was finally able to usher her along. There was
something so strange and sweet about watching my little girl stand there
in her sparkly shoes, the day after she turned seven looking so old and
so small at the same time. The sight would have made my grandma
smile. I’m sad every day that my grandfather never got to meet my
husband or my kids.
I’ve read lots of opinions by people about whether or not it’s
appropriate to take children to funerals. I think the answer to that
varies greatly depending upon the kind of service and the temperament of
the child, but in our case I was very glad to have my children along.
During the memorial service itself they mostly played with their cousins
in another room, but they understood what the occasion was about (as
much as any children can be expected to understand death) and showed the proper respect when it mattered. Death is hard, but it’s the ultimate contrast
for appreciating all we have. The memorial was not for my grandma.
She’s gone. It was for us. And I think for my kids to see a family
coming together to acknowledge all we’ve been given and to celebrate
life while still mourning our loss was important and powerful.
It was a long couple of days, but there was music and singing, good
food, some wonderful stories, and overall I’d say more laughter than
tears. Just the kind of gathering both my grandparents would have
loved. I can’t believe my grandma had to live such a long portion of
her life without her husband at her side. May they both rest in peace
together. They are missed.