Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mom's Memorial Weekend Recap

Warning (primarily to my family members): This entry may contain pictures of you.

My mom, Maggie Ott, in 1988 or so. Photo by my friend, Matt, who modified his vacation plans (without complaint) to make it to my mother's memorial.

My mom's memorial was this past weekend, and several people have written or called to see how things went; most everyone was surprised I haven't blogged about it yet. I am sorry about that: it's been an exhausting, but cathartic, whirlwind these last couple of months, and especially in the couple of weeks leading up to the big day. Since we got back, I've had deadlines, and a prenatal visit, and a strong need to just take it easy for a few days, to give myself a break, and to also process everything.

Event planning is often challenging, but it's intensified when the party is an end-of-life celebration, a contradiction in our society. It is possible to plan a party that contains both joy and grief, but it is virtually uncharted territory; compounding our complicated feelings and thoughts is that in the last week and a half, a pipe burst in my parents' house. My dad is slightly less deaf than we thought he was — as he's been able to overhear us on several occasions (oopsie!!) — but still deaf enough that he didn't hear the gushing of water on that fateful Thursday morning. He awoke to a flood in the back part of the house, which wrecked the carpets, warped the floors, and finished off an already old and taxed air conditioning unit. What a mess. Plus, the brakes in his car are completely shot, and the timing sucked.

Despite the warped floorboards, everything more or less came together: we had a lot of help from Chris and Maddy (whom we lovingly call Fake Brother and Sister-in-Law; they are roughly the age of my sisters and me, and they and my parents bonded after my parents moved to Maryland; Chris and Maddy and their young daughter, Solange, live across the street from my parents). An aunt and two uncles came in from the midwest a few days early, and they, too, took care of so much. A generous cousin bought with her a large pile of Xanax, which was distributed to the more anxious members of the family (you know who you are), and Saturday, the day of the party, was not terribly stressful for the people most likely to feel (and dish out) anxiety.

We had a minor hang-up, though: Glen and I forgot to pack the veggie burgers for the two — count 'em: TWO — vegetarians in attendance. Glen did not take any Xanax (I'm not sure if that was a choice, or if someone forgot to slip him some), but he did take what he felt to be a bit of shit from one of the cooks about the lack of veggie burgers; Glen came to find me to complain about the episode, and even though he was mad at the cook, Glen wound up taking out his angst on the vegetarians: "Fuck them," he said. "They can eat grass."

This unfortunate explosion happened right in front of one of the vegetarians. She took it with a sense of humor, though I don't think she ate any grass. Personally, I sympathize with the vegetarians — though there's nothing quite like a burger and/or hot dog at a backyard party — and I know Glen does too, which is why we purchased the case of the veggie burgers to begin with: my father told us the weekend before that was more than happy to allow the vegetarians to eat grass. In his world, vegetarianism does not exist.

My dad, Mike, addresses the crowd on Saturday.

We wanted to keep the service itself short and sweet, because my mom would have preferred it that way. My dad had a surprise for everyone: he hired a bagpiper, which was a really nice touch: nothing says "shutty" quite like the bagpipes. So the bagpiper got the ball rolling, and I felt myself welling up — this was IT. My father spoke for awhile; about how my mom loved the house and property, and so he invited everyone to walk around and take it all in. Her art, and our old family photos were hung all over for people to look at, too. He also explained that there had been a recent plumbing disaster, which convinced him he needed portable potties on the property. He did say that the bathrooms in the house were working, but the party tent was directly over the septic, so he encouraged people to use the outside johns. This seemed to make everyone laugh, even though a party/memorial service muddied by human waste is no laughing matter. Sheesh, people.

Some crowd shots.

Uncle Jimmy took over: my father had asked him to infuse a Catholic component into the service, since my mother was Catholic (though more-or-less lapsed), and my parents were married in the church. He read some prayers, and called my niece, Megan, up to sing. She performed the Irish song, Too Rah Loo Rah Loo Ral since my mom liked to sing it to us, and her grandchildren when we were all little. We knew this would be THE moment that got everyone, and it did. She sang beautifully and left most everyone in tears. Jimmy finished up with another prayer, and Randy the bagpiper played some more Irish tunes, and then the serious eating and drinking and general insanity began.

Megan sings Too Rah Loo Rah Loo Ral beautifully. She is flanked by my dad and Uncle Jimmy.

We had some hand-outs to accompany the service, including this card (above, saved as two files) with the baby pictures of my mom on one side, and the story behind the Irish lullaby on the other. Click on these, or any image here, to enlarge.

We made up a bookmark as a take-home item for our guests; front is an image of Old Barney (the lighthouse at Barnegat Light, NJ), painted by my mom; and on the back is a photo of my mom, and a small piece of her story.

Jimmy also brought water grenades, which were a huge hit with the little ones, and cousin Christopher had a blast launching kids into the pool: most of the kids enjoyed that as well, though some more than others. In the end, I'd say more than 120 people showed, and it was just REALLY good to finally spend time with the people who knew and loved my mother. I think she would have been happy...she liked a good shindig, and that it was.

Some other random thoughts about the day:

1) My father, in addition to not being nearly as deaf as he's been claiming all these years, also has a bit of blabber mouth. We always thought it was my mom who lacked the filter from brain to mouth, but apparently, Mike has some of that too. You may recall my vitriol a couple of weeks ago about about the utterly selfish and inane excuses we were getting from close friends who claimed they couldn't make it to the memorial. After writing that post, I thought long and hard about the future of some of those relationships, and decided that I should try, in a slightly less acidic way, to let the people closest to me know that if they didn't come, how very hurtful it would be. And in the case of one very good friend, it ultimately worked. There's a bit of a story involved; an incredible annoying story that ALMOST had me saying "fuck it" to the whole friendship, but in the end, she came through, and when I saw her come into the backyard of my parents' place on Saturday, all that anger and frustration melted away; I was happy and relieved and moved she would be there to say goodbye to my mom with me. On her way out, my father apologized because he felt she was "bullied" into coming by his daughter. Why, Mike, why?

2) Related to this topic of friends who almost — but not quite — let us down, one of my relatives (who shall remain anonymous) did some drunk dialing in the week before the party, and gave living hell to my mother's supposed oldest and dearest friend who was too broken up to make it. The friend, you see, had a spiritual crisis recently, and had not snapped out of it, and was just ruined by the news of my mother's death. The friend went on to say that since she had known my mother longer than we had, she was grieving more deeply than we were. My nameless relative called this what it was — bullshit — and told her that this event was not about her, but rather, about my mother, and for us all, and the friend needed to step outside her incredibly small and selfish world and participate. And if she didn't, the friend had to know, deep down, that my mother was not a forgiving sort, and would — we all hoped — haunt this friend to the end of her days. The friend — after some similar stories and problems and challenges as the friend mentioned above — agreed to come. What made this more problematic is that my father dislikes this particular person, and when he found out this particular friend would be coming, my father became quite distressed. He had found out from another, mutual friend, which sucked: we were hoping there would be enough people at my mom's party that my dad wouldn't even notice my mom's annoying friend. And when he found out that this annoying friend had been prodded someone much closer, Mike BLEW a gasket. You see, this friend may have known my mother longer than anyone, but she also drove my mother crazy, though her friend never knew. And my father never liked her...or her "wussy" husband. It turns out that this friend got lost on the way down, and I — dammit — had to spent an inordinate amount of time with her on the phone, bringing her in; at least my dad didn't have to see her much.


3) Steve — as in the dog — was the hit of the whole trip. He spent a decent amount of time in his cage* during the party, but was out for the occasional romp on Saturday, and spent both Friday and Sunday running around without any limitations on his freedom. Miss Pauline, sister of Miss Doris, who lives next door to my folks, asked me to bring him back down, so her dog could play with him. Uncle Dennis pulled me aside and said if we found another dog like Steve chewing chicken bones across the street, he would be happy to take that dog. Fake brother, Chris, actually tried to walk off with Steve, as we were leaving. Steve does rock. But as soon as we got home, he started attacking my feet and toes, bloated and puffy with late-pregnancy and heat-related edema, and has been taunting Platooski the cat, to the point where Steve may actually lose an eye. He also spends a good deal of time attempting to mount and/or hump Simon the cat. And in the time I've been typing, he's taken off with my to do list, even though I have a pile of brand new toys for him, and he's yet again gleefully dodging Platooski's fully
clawed and violently swatting arm. Steve spent the weekend giving kisses and dancing with toddlers and allowing kids to cover him with grass, and impressing Miss Pauline and Uncle Dennis and Fake Brother Chris, and has saved all of his imbecility for us. We love him, imbecile tendencies and all. I just wish my relatives and friends would be willing to take a cat instead, since there are so many of them floating around this neighborhood, and not too many dogs like Steve.

Aunt Vicki

4) Aunt Vicki is a machine. I know I'm grateful for mine. Everyone should have one. I am not sharing.

5) Jenny's friend, Ann, who made the cakes, is awesome. In addition to some slight edema, I am dealing with some monstrous acid reflux in the last couple of weeks — apparently, as the baby grows, there's less room in my stomach for important stuff like chocolate cake, and it gets pushed back up into my throat a short while after I consume it. Or, usually at 2 a.m. or thereabouts. Which sucks, but this cake was so f'in good, that it's been worth the hell I catch for eating it.

6) Way more of my relatives read my blog than I ever thought, dammit. They're not terribly interested at all in the political stuff here, but rather only the family stuff. Unfortunately, with more of them reading the blog, it will dry my family fodder up, since I am far less inclined to openly pick on family (but I am not totally opposed to it), than the far more deserving politicians here in Trenton.

7) Glen had some fun with the hosts of the neighborhood Ice Cream Social. You may recall in that same angry post a few weeks ago, one woman actually said she couldn't attend my mother's memorial — which was right around the corner from the church holding the Ice Cream Social — because she was in charge of the Ice Cream Social. Glen just wanted to verify that the Social was indeed taking place, and here's an exchange we all liked, that he had with one of the organizers:

From: Glen
To: Ice Cream Social VP
Subject: Ice Cream Social


I am looking forward to the Ice Cream Social on July 19th. I have lost the time for it. Can you tell me what time it starts and goes to?



From: Ice Cream Social VP
To: Glen
Subject: Ice Cream Social

Good morning - The Annual Ice Cream Social is scheduled for Sat July 19th from 2:30-7 p.m. at the Rockawalkin Community Hall. [The Ice Cream Social CEO] is looking for volunteers on Wed from 5-9 pm and Thursday morn from 9-12 if you are available to help out. Have a blessed day!!


From: Glen
To: Ice Cream Social VP
Subject: Ice Cream Social

Morning [Ice Cream Social VP],

Thanks for the quick response. I will be in the area attending a friend's memorial and I heard about your social. As a lover of all things ice cream, and a bit of a socialite, I figured I might drop by for a sample of good food and friendly chatter.

You have yourself a very blessed day also!


Gleefully dwelling on the negative: my sisters going over the RSVP list on Sunday to see who responded in the affirmative, but never showed. Uncle Dennis, my mom's youngest brother, is in the background, either listening in horror, or more likely, not listening at all.

8) In this last week, some of us in the family have been able to convince a few people with lame-ass excuses about not attending, to attend. I know there are people who may feel differently than I do about this issue, but the bottom line is that you only die once, and the end-of-life process is about the closest family, and it's about community. It's important to put aside any stupid, run-of-the-mill issues that plague us all, and no matter how emotionally challenging, we should attend. It is important to step up, to step outside ourselves and just do the right thing. I don't feel any guilt about putting a bit of pressure on people to encourage them to attend, especially since — I'm sorry — the future of our friendships was at stake.
Despite some successes in this area, there were some dismal failures: notably, a very good friend of my sister Jenny did not attend, and did not offer ANY excuses, lame or otherwise. The thing about this, is that my sister's friend's absence will ALWAYS be remembered. She'll be The Friend Who Didn't Attend Mommy's Memorial. The Friend Who Wasn't There for Jenny. And that just sucks. Along the same lines, there are several people who fall into the even more problematic category of Those Who Responded In the Affirmative, and Ultimately Did Not Show, Without Calling To Let Us Know. The only legitimate reason I can think of for this is that, sadly, they died either right before Saturday, or on their way down. Which is just too bad. My sister Karen brought the list of the RSVPs out to the pool on Sunday to assess Those Who Responded In the Affirmative, and Ultimately Did Not Show, Without Calling To Let Us Know, to figure out if we should send flowers and mass cards to their families, or if Glen needs to send them an email. Mostly, I am just amazed at how selfish and disconnected society has become. One friend called ours "a culture of apathy" and I think that's spot on. There is little loyalty left, for country or family, or anything that doesn't directly revolve around us.

My sisters, some of my cousins, and bloated, enormous me, late in the day on Saturday. It was HOT.
[I think this is a pretty unflattering picture of myself, and I posted it so that the rest of you pictured here will keep yer traps closed about your photographs on my blog. At least you don't look like a Sherman Tank.]

9) But there are always exceptions, aren't there? And that dedication and loyalty, and unwavering "do the right thing without debate" stuff indicates that we do not have a complete breakdown of social graces in our culture. I came away from my mom's memorial weekend very physically drained, and a bit all over the place emotionally, but ultimately, pretty peaceful. I have been saying that maybe it would have been healthier to have had a traditional wake/funeral, but the time my family spent putting this party together was extremely therapeutic, too. I feel we did a good job of giving my mom the party she would have liked; I feel proud of that. I am so pleased that so many people just came, so I don't want to dwell too much on the negative. We figure about 120 people showed up to express their deep condolences, and love for our family. So many people came to Maryland from far-flung places, like Kansas, and New Jersey, and Florida, and Georgia, and California, and Canada. They came, able-bodied, in some cases; and in others, they made it, despite sickness, and pet obligations back home on such an oppressively hot weekend; they came despite the lack of food for special diets; they came even though they don't like large crowds, or despite plans for vacations or ice cream socials; they came despite their own spiritual crises, and unimaginable grief. Some even came with significant addiction issues which caused them to pass out in their cars before ultimately heading home on Sunday. And most of them did it without any song and dance, without any bitching and moaning. I am really pleased about their efforts; it means a lot to me to finally have some closure, with so many people standing by.

10) My mother was often cantankerous and difficult and kinda self-absorbed. But she cared. She really did. My mom often complained that we didn't know her, and forgive me, Mom, but I think it was the other way around: she didn't really know us. I did know her. We all did. I say that without anger now; it's fallen away. While she was alive, I often resented that she didn't know this or that about me, but now, I have a better
understanding of the mother-child relationship, and love. I know now that even if she didn't know what I did for a living, she loved me anyway. Even if she didn't know that Karen wasn't partial to mushrooms, after all this time, she would do anything for Karen. She may not have ever tried to understand Jenny's reasoning for homeschooling her children, but my mom was so fiercely devoted to Jenny and her family, nonetheless. It's in our DNA, that love bond. The details often get in the way, but they are irrelevant to love.

It's taking some time, but I've been able to see my relations
hip with my mother as a whole entity; I haven't been dwelling as much on the last year or so with her, although I will always carry that with me. Maggie was challenging, but most of the time, things were good between us; and they were good between my sisters and my mom; my dad and my mom; and they were good for all of those people who attended her memorial on Saturday; and possibly even those who didn't attend. And I think that most people got that about her: a relationship with her required effort, AND they loved her. The effort was worth it.


* I'm not going to sugar coat the term "cage," and call it a "crate." It's the same sort of thing that the poor animals in the shelters must live in, and therefore, it's a cage. I never had one for Lacey, because she just wasn't the sort of creature who needed one. Steve is on the edge of that need: he is very smart, and pretty reliable, as long as he has constant supervision. But, unfortunately, he just can't have constant supervision all of the time, and he's incredibly impulsive, and young, and just doesn't need to deal with all of the choices in his life yet. So, he gets the cage periodically — and while he'd prefer to be biting my feet, or playing "Dodge Claw" with one of the cats, or even sleeping on his back — no one here feels too badly about his very short stints in the cage, from time to time.

Unrelated to Steve and cages: I heard more of the "how can you live in Trenton?" stuff from my relatives, and it made me think about how critical I've been of Chicken Shit, Maryland. So, I want to say for the record that CS, Maryland is really not nearly as bad as I've been portraying it, in most ways. My dad's place is far enough removed from the chicken (and pig) farms, and doesn't really smell, like some of the surrounding areas. The pictures above don't really do his property justice, but it is quite lovely there, and it's easy to get comfortable and forget about the chaos, say, back in Trenton, especially on the Fourth of July weekend, when the jackasses in my neighborhood go from idiotic to full-on Très Mong. It might even be less buggy in CS, Maryland than it is in our backyard, and I have no idea why that would be. But it is also quite a distance from EVERYTHING, including cell phone service, high speed internet, and decent grocery stores (my dad even calls the local grocery "The Roach Mart"). Nonetheless, I'm content to be home, glad to have at least a couple of weeks before the baby arrives, so we can clean up and get ready for our new person, even if we must contend with some jackassery in the Hood. I certainly wouldn't mind if my father moved a bit closer to home — that is New Jersey, Dad — but at the same time, it is nice to have a quiet place to retreat to periodically.


Anonymous said...

Having lost my Irish mom less than a year ago, your post about the memorial service had me in tears. And yes, I'll always remember those who weren't there....

Anonymous said...

Chrissy, This is very good. After reading this and seeing the pictures, and realizing how hard you worked for the memorial service, one word comes to my mind-beautiful. pbaman

Mr. Cleän said...

Glen wound up taking out his angst on the vegetarians: "Fuck them," he said. "They can eat grass."

Classic... freakin' classic. This is precisely what comes to mind every time I think of vegetarians.