Monday, March 17, 2008

Memorial Service

When someone dies, stupid stuff happens. You discover, for example, that the funeral home manager's name is COFFIN.  That was just one of the things that happened when my mother died.

My aunt's passing was no exception. She wanted to donate her body to medical science, but she hadn't specified a particular medical school. My cousin, her executor, took care of finding a medical school nearby and had her body sent there. That wasn't the stupid part, although someone made a stupid comment about the school he chose, which I will save for later.

The stupid part was deciding when and where to have her memorial service. There was the "We need closure NOW" group who wanted a service right away at her local Episcopal church, in keeping with family tradition.

Then there was me. I wanted to have the service three weeks later, closer to her birthday, which was yesterday, March 16th, Palm Sunday.  [Needless to say, churches don't do no memorial services on Palm Sundays.] My other thought was that waiting a couple of more weeks would save on airfare for those coming from way out of town.

While my cousin handled the negotiations between the "hurry up and do it now" group and the "let's wait until closer to her birthday" group to determine a date, we learned Aunt Genie had told a friend that when she died, she wanted her service be held at a particular Methodist church with a pot luck lunch afterward.

The Methodist church was where she had been going to AA meetings for almost twenty-five years. As we soon discovered, the first of several decisions was about to be made, because "Genie would have wanted it that way."

Two and a half decades ago, when she was in her early sixties, Aunt Genie called me to say she had joined AA. In my whole life I had never seen her drunk, let alone even take a drink. So I asked her, "Why?"  

When she told me she was an alcoholic, I had to sit down. She was my Auntie Mame, my mother's happy go lucky youngest sister, who loved music and the arts, who took me to my first opera when I was sixteen.  

When do you drink? I wanted to know, since I'd never, ever seen her with so much as a glass of wine. She said she drank at least a bottle a night, alone. That way no one knew and, thanks to coffee, the alcoholic's antidote, she never missed work. In fact, it would never occur to her not to fulfill her responsibilities.

Maybe her drinking explained why she had gained a lot of weight over the years. All that time, I thought she just ate too much, even though I never saw her eat copious amounts either. She would never take extra helpings at meals. Or eat more dessert than anyone else. Her cupboards and her refrigerator were all politically correct when I visited. No double chocolate cake on a platter, no gallons of ice cream or boxes of cookies for snacking. And, of course, no alcohol in sight. Turns out, she had secret stashes of sweets and booze hidden everywhere in her house. She kept her secret so secret I don't think anyone knew until she joined AA.

Finally, realizing she had not one, but two addictions, Aunt Genie joined Overeaters' Anonymous. Later, she went to ACOA [Adult Children of Alcoholics] meetings. I guess my grandfather had been a nasty drunk, although when I knew him he was just a retired farmer who always had his nose in a book or newspaper and only asked for a soda when he was thirsty. I do remember my mother telling me she had to talk her dad out of killing the whole family with a shotgun one night. But until Aunt Genie gave me the details, I didn't realize he was also drunk and the standoff had lasted until he finally passed out the next morning.  

To his credit, my cousin got everyone to agreeto March 7th for Aunt Genie's memorial service. Because she had made her wishes clear, we held it at the Methodist Church, since she would have wanted it that way. Unfortunately, this was an affront to some of the old line Episcopalians in the family who didn't think the place was "churchy" enough.

There was a lovely soloist, who wore a dressy-casual pants outfit instead of a choir robe. The minister was in a suit, instead of dressed like a pope. The pews were padded, which goes entirely against the Episcopal heritage of uncomfortable, Puritan pews. There was no kneeling, another blessing. Instead of an organ there was a synthesizer and one of my cousins played the "harp," which, in this Methodist church referred to a harmonica, an instrument not often heard in Episcopal settings.

In place of monolithic, stained glass windows above the altar, there was a huge white movie screen where the words of each song appeared in giant letters, so you didn't have to get out your glasses to follow along. We also sang the familiar, fundamentalist hymn, How Great Thou Art, a favorite of mine, which I can assure you is not in the Episcopal hymnal.

My cousin gave a wonderful eulogy. No one could have done it better. Aunt Genie would have been quite touched. He remembered her childlike joy around children and animals, her great wit and sense of humor, her love of music and reading. He made us laugh. And he wiped a few tears as he spoke. After he finished he invited any one in the church to add words of their own. Some people came up to the lectern. Many others just stood up where they were. There were lots of smiles and quite a bit of laughter as people shared stories about my aunt. 

I chose not to say anything because I would have been blubbering the whole time. In her honor, I did wear a wonderful hat of hers that a cousin had made for her eightieth birthday. It was covered with flowers like an Easter bonnet. And it was purple, her favorite color. She would have enjoyed that.

About a hundred and fifty people came to the service,most of whom I didn't know, because they were friends from my aunt's support groups. About one hundred joined us for lunch afterward.

At the luncheon there were several poster-sized photo collages of Aunt Genie, filled with pictures of her with friends and family, nieces and nephews. One of my cousins had also set up two long tables with mementos from her life, which guests were invited to take if they liked. There was a large chicken buffet worthy of a family reunion, right down to the lime jello pineapple mold. Lunch was followed by a dessert of frosted cake with her picture on it. Her name was spelled wrong, but very imaginatively. "Imageanes," I believe it said.

I was sorry Genie couldn't be with us -- she always loved a party. Her remains were being prepared for donation to the medical school of a predominantly black university. Stupidly, someone had actually asked whether any relatives might be offended by that. I was offended that the issue would even come up. But, the answer to that question, like so many others, was easy.  

Aunt Genie would have wanted it that way.  


ladeeoftheworld said...

It's too bad we discover new endearing qualities of a loved one after they're gone.

gaboatman said...

Mrs. L
After all the negotiations and decisions, it sounds like your family had a very nice memorial for your Aunt Genie.  I enjoyed reading your account of it and about your aunt, herself.  Through your writings the memory of your aunt is kept alive as we each read this entry.  I think she would have liked that, too.

swibirun said...

You always know how to spin any situation to have pieces of humor.  But then again...Genie would have wanted it that way!


blossomcat said...

Before my dad died, he said he wanted "everything just like your mothers"   Sorry dad I could not bury him in a pink lined casket.      I think the service sounded wonderful and I really like the collages of pictures from her life.   I think she would havw liked it  that way.

suzypwr said...

I am sorry for your loss. It sounds like Aunt Genie went out well loved :-)


salemslot9 said...

wonder what condition
her liver was in
just kidding
never mind

ber144 said...

We recently went to a Memorial in KC for my wife's godfather, who had a lot of hardship in his life, and it was wonderful to see and hear the people there who spoke about him from his earlier life before I met him.  

Loved reading about the classy way your family sent your aunt to her just reward.