Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Laying Down in 2003

With all due respect intended to those involved, especially the late Shirley Parker Smith. My grandfather would have quietly sung 'You may have been a headache, but you never were a bore,' smiling and with love.

Quoniam eripuisti animam meam de morte, et pedes meos de lapsu, ut placeam coram Deo in lumine viventium.

This won't be elegant. My grandmother died, my father died, my uncle died. In a four year span. And simultaneously, in some respects. These stories have to be told together somehow, if I can manage it. There's a common thread. If you're guessing 'death', you can award yourself some points. There's more to it, but it has to unfold slowly. Be patient or not as you please, I don't set the pace.

So instead of recounting my grandmother's cause of death (briefly, a stroke and a very long battle with other problems), let me leap back to something that might qualify as an ending behind the memory of a cold afternoon five years ago. In short (very short), my grandmother died just as my father's illness took firm hold. Her ashes remained uninterred for what felt like a long time not from lack of love, but from exhaustion and the knowledge she would have insisted that this task not be rushed; she was a practical woman, and what do the dead have but time?

She didn’t want a funeral or memorial, she had only asked to be placed with my grandfather's grave in a small cemetery outside of Port Colborne, Ontario. Preferably someplace high up on the hill because there’s flooding in the Spring and she didn’t want to get her feet wet. Despite the no ceremony edict, I received a phonecall where my mother asked me which part I wanted to read in the Anglican service for Nan’s internment.

Fair enough. Nan's decree notwithstanding, the living get the last word. My mother was briefly concerned that if she officiated over an internment there might be theological consequences, since she’s not actually clergy (she serves as a Sacristan and Server in the Anglican church). I assured her that I’d read Dante's Inferno and didn't remember any Sacristans down there by name. And she wasn't claiming to be clergy, this wasn't simony or any less publicized sin that the kids are into nowadays.

“I have to wear your sister’s graduation robe, instead of my Sacristan cassock,” she told me. “I’ve gained weight and my holy robes are too tight across the bust.”

I said “I heard that several of the apostles had that same problem. All those loaves and fishes.”

It was agreed that I would read from one of the gospels, my aunts and cousin and sister would read from the Anglican prayer book. I agreed to it, but didn't want any part of it. And not out of lack of respect or affection. I was willing to defer to my mother’s sense of grief, but it was hard enough missing my father and painful to think of my grandmother, and I didn't know if I had the strength to say another goodbye or to even be in the same space as a bunch of passive-aggressive WASPs who didn’t need any extra grief.

A few days later, on a Saturday morning, I arrived in Port Colborne in my kilt at the chosen graveyard. My grandmother had given me permission to wear my grandfather’s tartan for my wedding (she had mused “Your grandfather would be very happy dear, but I'll be on the floor") so it was appropriate that I wore it that particular morning. The fact that warm, heavy wool attracts mosquitoes was at the back of my mind, but I tried to ignore it. There was a lime-green piece of AstroTurf that did not resemble real grass in any way, shape or form over my grandfather’s grave. It covered a hole that was around four feet deep. Nan's name and date of birth was carved into the stone, but the date of her death had yet to be carved.

 It was an interesting group- me in my kilt, my wife and cousin in their Sunday best, my mother in robes, my sister in high dudgeon, my aunts in menopause. We were all there willingly and with free and open hearts, but the months before had been heavy and my grandmother had a pitch-black sense of humour, something we were channelling by that point. We all felt ourselves teetering on the edge of either hysterical tears or laughter, depending perhaps on the direction of the wind.

The box with my grandmother's ashes was covered in a deep blue silk pall (a bag, really). My sister took the box out and casually tossed the pall on the back seat of the car, causing minor upset among the gathered throng.

Mom- I think we should keep the pall on.

Sister- I thought the box goes in the ground without it.

Mom- It might be nice to put it in the ground in the bag, to keep clean.

Sister- The bag won’t stay clean, just the box.

Mom- Of course the bag won’t stay clean, it’s a burial dear. What are you going to do with the bag?

Sister- It’s a nice bag, I was going to save it to put my shoes in...

Mom- (horrified) You are not going to put your shoes in your grandmother’s pall!

Brief hysteria followed. Then the service went fairly quickly, one rousing chorus of “The Lord is My Shepherd” with the old tune. Didn’t know there was a new tune, but that’s how it goes.We all took a handful of dirt and placed it on the box to further represent the burial. I thought that it might be a good time for screaming fits and tears, but it didn’t quite feel organic. You’re not supposed to “feel” like its a good time to pitch a fit, you’re supposed to find yourself pitching one. Thus, catharsis. If you ramp yourself up to catharsis, it’s melodrama, no?

Or something like that. Regardless, I mourned my grandmother. She was hell on wheels when she wanted to be, but she loved her family and that was enough. There were tears but no weeping; that had come before and didn't need to be revisited.

It was decided that I had to lower the box into the ground (I had the longest arms), which was a weird sensation. Could my grandmother have picked me up as a baby and thought This is the guy who’s going to lower me into my grave? It put things into a perspective that I felt but didn't quite understand. I leaned over, carefully lowered the box around four feet into the ground. My mother said another prayer, and the grave was consecrated. Or something. I was calling it consecrated. There was, however, brief repartee among the peanut gallery.

Aunt #1- Michael, the box is crooked.

Sister- It’s a hole, Auntie.

Aunt #2- Is it crooked?

Mom- What’s that?

Aunt #1- It’s crooked. The box isn’t angled with the gravestone.

Mom- It doesn’t matter, dear.

Aunt #2- You know, it is a bit crooked…

Aunt #1
- Michael, would you…

Me- I am not moving the box! It's been consecrated!

Aunt #2- I don't think moving it will affect that, Michael...

I wasn't dealing well with this when a cemetery worker in a pickup truck began lingering a few feet away from the grave. My mother was looking deeply aware of the absurdity of negotiating the angle of a box of ashes that was about to be buried, and didn't look like she wanted to deal with anything else. I walked over to see what the worker wanted, and was met with a hearty “Do you have the cheque?”

A lotta love there. But the fee was quite reasonable. I made a note to die in a small town someday.

I found the cheque in somebody's purse. By the time I got back to the grave the throng was breaking up (somebody brave did eventually move the box into an appropriately respectful angle) and were discussing the pros and cons of getting some lunch. And somebody wanted to hit the dollar store in town to buy sponges on sticks before heading back to the house. The aforementioned sponges were secured on the end of the stick to simplify the act of swabbing down a shower stall after one's morning ritual. This is the WASP way of coping with death, I thought. I wasn't up to it and my shower was just fine without outside assistance, so I finally said "Can I have a minute?" through gritted teeth and received a few moments alone by the grave as the family headed to Dollarama and the homestead.

I was wearing a Smith family kilt pin, the motto read “Touch not a cat, but a glove” which I suppose translates to 'The Smiths, in toto, can get pretty snippy sometimes.' Which sums up my grandmother quite well, even affectionately (it is also, apparently, the motto for Macpherson and MacIntosh and a few other Macs, so perhaps these things are best left in the realm of fancy as far as verifiable lineage is concerned).

I left the pin in the flowers. It will tarnish and rust, so be it. It doesn’t belong to me. It belonged to persons gone. In pace requisat, and all that.

The rest of the afternoon involved take-out chicken and touring Port Colborne's other graveyard, finding the other family plot and hearing my aunts and mother declare exactly how they'd like to be planted when the time comes. My mother said “You can rest your father and I here, together, when I go, or wherever you think is best. This plot is paid for. Anywhere is fine. As long as he and I are together.”

The rest of the family wandered. My cousin smiled sweetly at me and said “It’s been a perfectly morbid day” before we left. When Abby and I arrived back in the land of the living in Toronto, I ditched the kilt. Abby made a roux, and we had pasta under a soothing white sauce. Mushrooms. Chicken. Romano. Black pepper. Everything tasting real and of this world. Chased with white wine in a glass until everything sad and lost was at a comfortable distance.

My mother stayed at the house in Port and called me a few days later to say “I found your kilt pin. You didn’t have to do that.”

I said “I’m keeping the kilt. I thought they deserved the name.” I used 'they' because that particular circle is completed. My grandfather died suddenly over 20 years before, dead before he hit the ground from massive heart failure. My grandmother missed him terribly and quietly for decades.

“Well,” she said, “it was sweet. I’ve buried it next to the flowers, it’s better that it be in the ground. It’s buried now, so it’s all over,” she said. “Now we just keep going on.”

There was a long pause. I had the music from Mel Brooks’ Producers musical playing in the background. She offered to take me to see it onstage as a birthday present in December of that year. At the time, it was fall and my father was not in his backyard raking leaves, or walking my sister's fat little Pug around the block, or taking my mother on yet another trip to the farming belt around Ontario.

The loss felt heavier than usual, six months since his death. It was cold in Toronto that afternoon. Cold all over Ontario. Frost on my grandmother's grave. A fine layer of dust on my Dad’s box of ashes on my mother's dresser, removed lovingly once a week.

God’s equivalent of “That’s all, folks.”

Written Sept 2003 and revised May 2008


Anonymous said...

Very nice, Michael. My in-laws are Smiths and my father-in-law died last March. He was also a kilt man, and I loved seeing the kilt pin and hearing what you did with it.

Anonymous said...

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Michael, you write astonishingly well. And don't fucking demur: just say thank you, and be proud.

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