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.





Butterflies, or Mom has left the room

Exactly two weeks ago I wrote about my mother in a blog titled When Mom Was My Age. Five days ago I received a call that she was failing and I should fly to Iowa immediately. Three days ago she slipped into another form, the one we cannot really see or know about. The call came moments before I planned to post a blog on butterflies after a visit with my grandchildren to the butterfly house at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. In the preparations for the funeral and the clang of being thrown back into family history, butterflies and life and death have melded in my mind. She was the last member of my immediate family, except for my younger cousin who was raised by my parents and adopted as my brother two years ago. Below is the blog as originally written, with a new poignancy for me:   

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Butterflies weigh nothing but you can feel when they land on you, and when they move, it tickles, and when they stay still, there is a microscopic clutch. They make their presence known. Some miracles are like that, and it is difficult to figure out if the miracle is meant for you or randomly distributed and you just happened to be close by.

At the butterfly house you are not supposed to touch the butterflies but the butterflies are allowed to touch you. This is why my grandson held his finger still near one for ten minutes while it slowly made its way to him, finally tentatively touching his fingernail.butterly fingertouch

Butterflies are miracles that are made of transparent colors and they don’t have to walk from here to there. They fly, live off sweets, and bury their heads in flowers – keeping company with their flora kin.

The butterfly that finally touched Ben’s finger flew away shortly after contact. Yet moments later a much larger one landed on his pants and refused to leave. It is the way with some miracles that they are not only unexpected but determined.

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Before they became flying bits of exquisite glistening color, a butterfly is liquid. It is liquid that knew what it was doing inside a chrysalis made by caterpillar that moved on its belly.

The day was a blessing with the grandchildren running from dinosaur skeletons and early sea creatures like the basilosaurus, which is more than 55 feet long, to gem and crystal formations that make humans’ sculptures look like amateur stuff. It was complete with Ben’s getting separated and lost and explaining it all calmly to the security guard, doing exactly as he had been told to do, except for having a side conversation on how rockets work. In any case, I sighted him with the guard from the second story balcony overlooking the giant stuffed elephant.

And then suddenly there was the butterfly house! I had wanted for half a year to take them there and it never happened for so long that I forgot until it was in front of us and together we exclaimed, “The Butterfly House!”

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Nature’s organic colors never clash with each other because embedded in them is the full spectrum of colors even if we don’t see all of them. Chemical commercial colors are not like this so we experience them clash. I say this by way of saying we can’t see everything. We cannot see the miracles behind what is visible to us that never clash with anything.photo copy 19photo copy black crop







We are always in a miracle, an unexplainable existence of which we can see and process only a sliver at a time. Butterflies give us a glimpse of what we cannot know – transient creatures that they are, born of liquid born of caterpillars that answered their calling.