Two Funerals

:: My Grandfather’s Funeral ::

March 18, 1968

This piece was originally written for a composition class at Syracuse University. The instructor, Mr. Taggart, was trying to make something of my “self-satisfied writing style.” I still remember his efforts, and appreciate them. I have changed a word or two, and added notes from a journal entry dating from 1965, the year of the death of my grandfather, William Braun. But this piece is mostly as I wrote it at the tender, and perhaps angry, age of 21.

* * *

I had never seen a dead body before and wasn’t sure how I’d take it. I didn’t want to get sick or pass out so I was braced up. But my mother, father and I had gone into the wrong door and instead of grandfather in the coffin there was an old lady who was so waxen she looked like a candle. Our body was two rooms over, through a lounge for people who’d had enough for a few minutes, a buffer between mourning factions. We approached him slowly, softly, so as not to wake him up. He looked a little sickly. We tilted our heads a few degrees to the left and mother cried a little. I watched him for five minutes. My eyes saw him move repeatedly. I could not stop this movement. He’d breathe. His eyelid would flutter. But mostly it was the breathing. I had never seen a body so completely still and could not accept the stillness. Even when sleeping, a person makes some movement. But this was not a person, and gradually I accepted that and the corpse was as still to me as it was to itself.

For two days, afternoon and evening, we sat in the room and talked. Before anyone came on the first day, my father walked over to the box to see that all was in order. With his eyebrows raised and fingers bent very carefully, he picked a piece of lint off grandfather’s lapel. When my younger cousin came, she complained that grandfather’s hands were the wrong color. “Mom,” she said to my aunt, “his hands were never that color. His fingernails are right, but the skin is the wrong color.”

I distinctly remember one of my cousin’s other early comments: “It’s as quiet as a tomb in here.” And then she caught her breath, and I smiled, and we shared a nervous laugh.

My Aunt Rhea settled down to knitting and an occasional guided tour of the flowers. She spent most of her time knitting or chatting except once she wandered off and came back with a handful of rain-hats with the funeral home name and number. “Here, take a rain hat. They’re free.” My mother was a little embarrassed. I recall there were free pencils as well.

My grandmother couldn’t come because she was too upset.

Two men surrounded my cousin and in concerned tones inquired, “How did he die?” Her face looked like a crushed flower. They had asked the wrong person, as my father was describing the scene to another group of men in the far corner. The Final Shave. The Heart Fails. The Body Jams the Door. The Fire Department Arrives. Again, a man approaches my cousin. “You lost the best friend you’ll ever have.”

And constantly, “He looks so good.”

My older cousin arrived from out of town, and walked over to the other room, where mourners sat in a stiff semi-circle facing the coffin, silently, for hours. One man rose as she entered and viewed the body. I don’t know what she said to him, but earlier she had spoken to me about “the hand of the Lord plucking lives away.”

A Catholic couple came, and knelt before my grandfather’s body. Everyone stared, some frowned. When my brother came with his wife, things grew noticeably chilly. He had married a Catholic and no one would speak to him. My grandfather had a great-granddaughter for a year before he died and he never saw her.

My brother and his wife had sent a small wreath bearing the message, “To Great Grandfather, Tammy.” It was a nice looking wreath and my parents thought the wording was clever. But when my aunt gave flower tours, she danced around Tammy’s wreath, pointing to the wreath on the right with her left hand, turning her back to Tammy’s wreath and screening it from view, and then pointing to the wreath on its left with her right hand and moving down the line. There was anti-Catholic sentiment in both the Winship and Braun families, apparently a part of the family fabric dating back to the Reformation.

An old friend of my parents, Al Kranz, came and told how his father was “getting on.” His driving was not so good anymore. He had pulled into the driveway the other day with a pine branch stuck under the chrome trim.

There was no church service. My grandfather was not a churchgoer. I had never seen him in a church. I was wondering how they were going to handle that, but my grandfather was a Mason, and his Masonic friends came to speak at the funeral home before the ride to Elmlawn Cemetery. A man got up and said, “Bill was a Mason, and so we know he believed in God, and is with Him now.” And I thought, “Well, that was simple.”

Grandfather was buried on Sunday, the beginning of that summer. His wife came to the burial but didn’t leave the car because her knees were bad. I went to work the next day, starting my first summer-job. Father did the accounting for the cemetery, so it was easy to get a job there. I was cutting my grandfather’s grass a week from the day he died.

:: My Father’s Funeral ::

June 10, 1998

What follows is a letter to my friend Melissa Conway, who goes way back with me, and who was concerned for my mental balance in the days after the death of my father. Rather than edit it, I’ll just let you read over Melissa’s shoulder.

* * *

To explain. I got the call on Thursday afternoon at work. I was fine on the bus, fine at home, fine until saying grace at the dinner table, and then I began to cry. Laurie held me, and Abbie rested her hand on my arm, a gesture that really made me cry, and then I said, “I just wish it had been better.”

I think that’s where most of my sadness came from, that it had been such a bad relationship, and I’d never know what it was like to have Ozzie Nelson for a dad.

But there were certainly up sides. The timing couldn’t have been better; it was our only open weekend in June. Call us tacky, but we were immediately aware of this. I called a friend who has four cats for advice on a nearby motel; because he has cats, he knew I wasn’t angling for a sleepover at his place. Our selection, the threadbare but homey Lord Amherst, a classy spot in its heyday when the Thruway eastern terminus was within eyesight; now a paint-chipped shadow of its former greatness with nice rooms for less than $50 a night if you apply your AAA discount. Plus, free breakfast and free Showtime. And just 10 minutes from my Mom’s apartment.

We left Abbie with friends in Syracuse (she had a school presentation that night) and hit the Thruway. At some point, Laurie turned to me and said, “How are you doing?” And I said, “This may sound weird, but the fear is gone.” And it was. It was the first time in my life that I had driven towards Buffalo without being afraid. What a deliverance.

We got to my Mom’s at about 3:30 on Friday afternoon; she was alone. My brother Kent and his wife Donna were getting ready for a wedding that evening, and the pastor had come and gone. So the three of us chatted for a while, and I was given the run of my father’s possessions; I found a few poignant items, old photos, a box I’d made him one Father’s Day; and a lot of his dementia booty: a huge box of baseball cards he’d bought to qualify for a sweepstakes, in fact, everything was something he’d bought to qualify for a sweepstakes. Every drawer I looked in had a hammer. I selected a stack of CD’s; he’d had no CD player. I took a tie with bison on it. And a set: a tie bar with a thermometer on it (°C), a cufflink with another thermometer on it (°F), and the other cufflink bearing a compass. And a Western string tie with a “Day of the Dead” man in silver and turquoise.

Then we went out to dinner at the Hourglass restaurant. Mom cried a bit when the owner embraced her; she cried a bit when a waitress embraced her; and when another waitress came over to comfort her, although she didn’t remember the second waitress. We ate a magnificent meal, took Mom home and returned to the venerable Lord Amherst.

Saturday morning, I suited up and we headed for Mom’s. Kent came over, and we chatted. Then we drove to the funeral home for calling hours at 11 a.m. My niece brought in my grandniece, Violet, who I’d yet to see in her new life, and I held her and the tears streamed down my cheeks. She has beautiful eyelashes, a sublimely beautiful child, and she didn’t fuss. I wouldn’t have put her down for an hour, except for the other people coming in.

I saw my high school gym teacher; he asked how I was, and I said, “In great shape.” “Good.” “I’m walking two miles every morning.” “Walk three,” he said, turned away. I chatted with my childhood dentist, a great guy. My Aunt Rhea came in, dressed in red, with my cousin Daryl. My Uncle Elliott, Uncle Lee, Aunt Eva, all my father’s siblings, dry-eyed.

Dad had been arguing with my Uncle Elliott for a lifetime. He’d been ignoring my Aunt Eva for years, unless he needed something. The day his death notice appeared in the newspaper, half the congregation at the church they’d both attended since the 1940’s was surprised to discover they were brother and sister.

The room filled with people. Old people from the church were sad, seeing another person gone, but the family was barely able to contain its mutually held feeling of relief.

And therein lies the sadness. What a legacy. No one said, “He would have loved this.” No family member said, “I wish he were here.” No family member said, “I’m going to miss him.”

The one person who did feel that way was his other wife in Canada, with whom he shared the better part of 29 years. She had come to visit him in the hospital. My brother walked in and there she was on one side of the bed and Mom on the other. She is very nice I’m told, a young 69, pretty, casual in dress and warm in manner. She loved him deeply. We did find out that he had lied to her about his age, saying he was four years younger than he was. In the end, it all caved in. He could no longer be mobile, or young, or loved by two women.

What started out as an ill-advised hip replacement turned into a descent into dementia and death as my father’s lifetime of wanting things his own way turned on him. He had things his own way. He wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t exercise. He wouldn’t lie still. He did it all his own way, and it killed him. And all the secrets he’d thought he’d kept were out in the open. He lost control of the situation, and then of his own body, and died.

I felt sorry for his Canadian companion. She couldn’t grieve. She couldn’t come to the service, where we were all saying, “He’s better off where he is now.” True, and an acceptable thing to say so as not to offend. People from church, who saw him on his best behavior on Sundays, were genuinely sad. My mother was sad; she’d stuck by him for 63 years.

Laurie was having her eyes opened. My Uncle Lee put his arm around her and said, “We all knew what was going on.” My cousin Daryl said, “I wanted to visit him in the hospital, but didn’t want to. And I tried to figure out why, and then I realized I was afraid of him.” Of course, she was wise to fear him at this point. In his last weeks, he was punching the nurses, orderlies and any family member who tried to move him or touch him or restrain him. He hit my sister-in-law who said to me, “He hit me! I can’t believe it!” and I responded, “Hey, this is the guy I grew up with. He’s just returning to form.”

Laurie, who never believed me fully, was becoming a believer.

The service was very nice, and I wept again during the reading from Ecclesiastes. A time to every purpose. The pastor, new to my parents’ church, gave a perfect homily. And after everyone had filed out, Kent sat Laurie and I down, and said, “We’re burying him on Monday. Why pay overtime to plant him today?” This, for Laurie, was the defining moment. For me it came a few hours later, after a nice afternoon at my brother’s house, when we took Mom home, and she said, “Well, that was a nice day.” And she was right.

Sunday, we went to church and the pastor wore the tie my mom and sister-in-law had bought him. It had a big flower, the Bible and the Cross on it. He’s a good sport. I saw some old friends and received some more condolences. We took Mom out to lunch, back to her apartment, and drove home to Syracuse, back to work, back to the worldly concerns. It had been a lovely weekend. It was good to have Abbie back again, too, although she was tired and grumpy.

And life marches on.

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