Misunderstood to the end

by jexmas on December 7, 2010

“God, this is awful,” I mutter under my breath to my cousin who is sitting beside me on the pew at the front of the chapel. The funeral celebrant, who had never met my mother, is reading the eulogy. On top of everything else, she has a monotonous voice and is droning on about someone I do not recognize, certainly not my mother. It is as if she is trying to make the best of a bad life:
“…so she was frustrated because she felt she had not achieved her full potential. But we know that despite her frustrations and physical disabilities, Mary did achieve much. And that’s what we admired so much about her. That combination of diligence and courage. Mary never gave in. So she was a winner and a proud determined lady.”
“What a load of crap,” I whisper.
“…and although she didn’t really like cleaning and cooking and the like, she did it.” Why would you write that in a eulogy? Who does like cleaning really? And it was not even entirely true. My mother actually loved cooking at different times in her life, less so as she became older and increasingly contemptuous of my father’s eating habits. My mind wanders back to the time several years before when my father was complaining about my mother’s reluctance to cook for him. By then, he had set up his own makeshift kitchen in a small office at the back of the house, opposite the real kitchen, as they deepened the abyss between them. She had become vegetarian because she recognized it was better for her health, although it was a step my father refused to take. “Weird food,” he said when he was given a lentil salad to try. He told me she had agreed to cook meat for him, so every week he bought fourteen lamb loin chops and she cooked two for him each night for at least ten years.
My mother is lying in an open casket, her face waxen and expressionless. I imagine the look of distaste crossing her face if she could hear what the celebrant is saying.
Just after my mother died, my sister and I sat down with the celebrant who was offered by the funeral home to conduct the service. Initially, we were going to write the eulogy ourselves, but found the whole process really difficult because it was too soon to process fully what we wanted to say. My mother’s personality was so complex and her life so sad, and my sister and I had barely taken a breath to start thinking about what it meant to have lost her. The celebrant suggested we could tell her about my mother’s life and she would write it, so we agreed. It was a mistake. We should have written it and at least presented my mother accurately at her own funeral. I suppose my sister and I gave the celebrant all the information she relayed to the audience, but her interpretation was apologetic and patronizing, as if she was trying to rationalize my mother’s faults and give her the benefit of the doubt.
“…and once a week, Mary would head off for a game of tennis. And she was very good, but then, you wouldn’t expect anything less from Mary, would you?”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I say to myself. My mother was not a very good tennis player. I had watched her play many times and she was an okay player, but it was not the reason she played. She played to spend time regularly with her friends. She had a small group of women friends she had known all her married life. They were very loyal to each other, and although their relationships were superficial in a fifties kind of way, they loved each other and understood and accepted each other’s frailties.
The celebrant drones on: “Mind you, Mary had some pretty definite views on just about every subject that you can think of. Black was black and white was white, and there weren’t too many intervening shades of grey. But you have to give her credit. She believed passionately in what she believed in…” This last part rings true, at least when I was a teenager. My mother was a rabid supporter of left wing politics and argued voraciously at times with some of my friends as we grew older and more opinionated about political issues.
The eulogy thankfully draws to a close: “…so I like to think that her spirit is free now. Like some bright bird, her spirit is free to embark upon the last great journey.”
“Oh, please!,” the image of “some bright bird” has no relationship to anything remotely connected to my mother. I am so glad when the funeral is over and we can return to real life. At the same time, I am both saddened and amused by the idea that my mother was so misunderstood, all her life and at her own funeral.
I spent most of the remainder of the time in Australia time with my father who was then 87 and very frail. We spent a lot of the time sitting in the living room, comfortable in each other’s presence. I drew him as he sat in his armchair, either snoozing or reading, then two of his favorite activities. Three weeks after I returned to San Francisco, my cousin called me to tell my father had died very suddenly of a stroke. As far as the doctor could tell, he had been watching television and playing patience with a pack of cards. He stood up and collapsed next to the chair, dying instantly, still clutching his pack of cards.
We were able to reconstruct his last day, because my cousin had seen him earlier. He had walked up to a clothing store near the house and had bought a new pair of corduroy pants. He was wearing them when he died.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: