Saturday, November 6, 2010

Month of the Dead / Look for the Silver Lining

November is the month of the dead, and today would have been my mother's seventy-sixth birthday. As I often do, I set up an ofrenda for her, just for the day, from odds and ends of hers I saved after she died almost eight years ago.

When I was growing up, death was a regular topic of conversation between my mother and me. But she wasn't particularly morbid about it (usually). She talked about death the way some people talk about cooking, if they're passionate about cooking, or about what they're reading, if they're intense readers.

As this excerpt from a letter she wrote fourteen years before she killed herself shows, she was on quite comfortable, chatty terms with it--and even, I think, comic.

The letter discusses what we, her children, should do with her when she dies.
She had always said she didn't want to be cremated, but now she has changed her mind. One way or another, she wanted to be returned to Missouri, where her roots were.
"Tuesday, 22 March 1988


Well, kids, isn't this just like me?? Bouncing around among lots of different ideas?? But the truth is, I've been seriously rethinking the cremation idea.

...I realize that if I'm not cremated I certainly do want to be buried in a simple box, so that I can decompose easily and naturally... or, perhaps I should just be cremated.

...The longer I've lived, the more I've come to honor Fire. I can be so leaden, and so stuck ... so now I'm thinking the cleansing of Fire wouldn't be such a bad thing. It also might be less expensive, and CERTAINLY easier for you all (in terms of transporting me to Missouri).

There's a lot in the newspapers now about the scandal (nationwide) of Cremation Establishments being extremely careless about the ashes.

I remember refusing to have one of my goose-down pillows (from Aunt Maude.... she picked the feathers from her own geese and chickens) cleaned at Madison Steam and Dye, after someone told me that I probably wouldn't get the exact same feathers back... and that is the whole point of the pillow: that Aunt Maude's labor went into picking those feathers and making that pillow.

I don't know how you can be sure they're my ashes, but please do talk to the Establishment to make sure.

Then I'd like it if you could sprinkle my ashes in Missouri:
some at my parents' graves, and some at Aunt Maude's grave in that little churchyard.
Perhaps you could dig a little, and put some ashes in the ground,
and just sprinkle the rest so the breeze can catch them and I can float free over that much-loved Ozark country, landing wherever the breeze deposits me.

But I deeply believe that it's up to the Living to do as they must, and can, upon the death of their Aged Ancestors. (Francesca singing "Look for the Silver Lining"... that would be nice.)

Do what is best for YOU.
I like to think that what you all do, it may be a Healing Thing for you.

I'll be there somehow, loving you all and surrounding you all with a Healing Spirit, and being, at last, free––and completely safe.

It took us a few years to get to Missouri, but we did indeed take her ashes back.
I held some of them out the car window, releasing them as we drove; we waded into Piney River, where we used to picnic with our grandparents, and spread them on the fast-moving waters; and sister drove up to Aunt Maude's farm and the family cemetery and dug them into the dirt.

As requested, somewhere along the road we sang "Look for the Silver Lining."

I'm not sure which was my mother's favorite version. Maybe, with her vaudevillian sense of the ridiculous, this wonderful comic song-and-dance from Sally (1929), with Marilyn Miller and Joe E. Brown.

[darn. youTube has deleted this video.]


iloveyoumauralynch said...

Tears streaming. She finally got her peace. And I must say, in the best way, your mother's voice is part of your writer's gift, an inheritance to you.

poodletail said...

This remembrance of your mother choked me up, too, Fresca. In her writing the combination of train-of-thought with vivid clarity reminds me so of your own gift.

Margaret said...

Thanks for telling this, Fresk. You write honest; this is the rarest and the hardest and the best thing; thanks for telling things this way.

bink said...

I'll always remember driving around Chicago in your mother's boat of a car, singing this song. A memory of a wonderful evening.

I think she would have liked this Joe E. Brown version--and you're right about him being a wonderful comic dancer.

I like to remember times when your mother would make me laugh until my stomach hurt.

Clowncar said...

That conjured up some aching in me too.

She seems so full of life in the letter. I love the anecdote about the down pillow, and not getting the exact same feathers back after cleanijg. There's an analogy hiding in there somewhere, one I can't quite grasp.

My mother's ashes are going to a quiet hillside cemetery in rural Oklahoma, next to a plain white clapboard Baptist church.

Next to my sister.

I'll be there some day too.

momo said...

Your mother's voice is so vivid in her writing and also in your remembering, dear Fresca. I don't know what my mother's wishes are, nor have I really told anyone in my family what I want to happen to my body when I die. It might not be a bad idea to let people know. I imagine that knowing that you were completing her desire and that she gave you a song leaves an ache but also a sense of communication that can be prized. I hope so, anyway.

Fresca said...

I see my way of thinking in my mother's writing too--e.g. the leap from ashes to feathers...

MRETS: I figure if I can't write like Nabokov, and I can't, I'd like to write plain. (It's hard too but more possible.)

BINK: In the rain!

CLOWN: She was very full of life, in general. Oddly, I think it was one of the things she suffered from--not a lack of feeling, but an overwhelming amount.

Your mother's resting place sounds much like the place near my mother's Aunt Maude's--a plain white clapboard church in the hills.
Nice to think on.

MOMO: I like knowing what people want when they're dead. If nothing else, it's one less thing to have to decide under pressure. And it's a nice link--like the song--a final bit of communication, as you say. I do prize that, yes.

Emma J said...

I've spent all my words and am empty so cannot say in any other way than simple and straight.

I so liked this. And the achey comfort of it. You write honest and plain but with such a delicate touch -