Once Upon a Funeral

Sheffield, Iowa is the kind of town where when you have a funeral, they serve lunch in the basement of the church afterwards and if it includes an interesting salad, they give you the recipe – and if they leave off an ingredient, someone tracks you down later to tell you to include a cup of glazed walnuts. I might have preferred a funeral with more hair tearing, perhaps professional wailers, but as everyone said, “Your mom had a long and full life.” It was long, certainly – 96 years. I hope she felt it was full. I’m not so sure as others about that.

I am writing in the first few hours I have been by myself in the eleven days since the call came that my mother was suddenly failing. I prefer the word “dying.” She wasn’t failing anything, she was dying quite well.

After the lunch with the delicious salad and your choice of a turkey or ham sandwich and several dishes made with Dream Whip, . . .  oh, first, someone was tracking that there would be a turkey sandwich left for me. They snagged the last one and brought it to me. Who was that? How did word get around that I don’t eat animals with four legs?

After the lunch, my daughter, sister-in-law, niece, and cousin (adopted brother), as the remaining immediate family members, were driven in a white limousine out to the West Fork Cemetery two miles from the farm where I was raised. 2014-01-04 16.03.33The cemetery residents are almost all from families I knew, and it is where my father was buried 26 years ago.

Take the weeded-over trail on the right of the cemetery into the exact middle of that square mile and you come to a deserted house I explored in summertime as a barefoot girl, a house where a white owl once stared me down from atop an abandoned homemade table in the upstairs bedroom.

Four days ago it was 6 degrees below zero at the cemetery. I thought she would be cold. We certainly were. Mom hated the cold.The minister kept the graveside service short, and the cars were kept running as we huddled in parkas and blankets.

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One nice thing was that my cousin/ brother’s remaining siblings (all five of them) came with their families from everywhere, drove across states to be with him, and with us, and with each other. Some cousins I hadn’t seen in decades. Mom was, somehow, the matriarch of the family. (In front sits her youngest brother, the last remaining sibling.)

The next day my daughter and I returned to the cemetery and to the house where I was raised. . . . oh, first, the night before the funeral my daughter went to eat with my niece at the West Fork Wharf (Sheffield’s thriving new restaurant – only restaurant? – in the old bank) and she discovered the waitress is getting married next September in the barn on the farm where I was raised. I love that barn. I cannot tell you enough how I love that barn, its symmetry, its grounded-ness, its purposefulness. Evidently others do too.DSCN21342014-01-04 21.04.33





My counter-life to that in the house was in the barn where wild cats hid their kittens, calves were born, and Rubert the bull tried to get out the window to mate with the cows in the meadow. I watched him from above, in the hayloft. A valiant struggle, but futile.

Once, I stepped into the barn to tell the hay-balers that dinner (the noon meal) was ready when I was hit in the face with a rotten egg thrown at my brother who ducked just as I entered. Sometimes I sat in the upper window of the barn, cradled in the bleakness of adolescence.


Now the barn is being repaired for a fancy wedding, all cleaned up, concrete flooring, new siding. In front, holding planks of wood out of the snow, was my childhood bathtub, the very bathtub I spoke of in my blog on “The Christmas Pageant.”

It was 28 or 29 years since I was last at the cemetery in the snow. Deep snow, at least a foot and a half. My father was determined to show me their newly-placed gravestone, ready and waiting for the time.

I was determined to follow him even without boots. He went ahead of me, blue overalls and blue coat and a red and black plaid wool cap with ear flaps against the white of everything, and as I stepped into his footsteps, I thought, “I will never forget this moment.” And I didn’t forget it so strongly that it was only in the limousine on the way to Mom’s burial that I realized the photograph I thought I had of it was only in my mind.

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Now that they are together again I hope they get on well. In the photographs we did find, ones I’d never seen, Mom was young, laughing, flirtatious, someone different than I knew. Mirthful and playful.

Cascading round and round and down she goes. I loved my mother and have convinced myself she is in a warmer place where she is young, flirting and laughing. The cold cold ground has nothing to do with anything.