Friday, February 26, 2010

The Four Mythic Fates of the Funeral Parlor

When a cousin died five years ago, I came back to my small home town's Polish funeral parlor for an afternoon wake. I sat unobtrusively in the back. A small group of women filed in front of me who are the salt of this town's earth. They were members of the Rosary Sodality.

They live lives of necessary and practical frugality. All were dressed in similar fashion -- sturdy snow-boots, slacks, puffy, quilted snow parkas and hand knit hats and scarves.

They are the family farm wives, with ruddy faces and chapped, calloused hands. They and their husbands have worked hard their entire lives, hoping to help their children to a better life. (The New England farm tends to be a small family business, not the large thousand-of-acres-farm of the American West and Midwest.)

My cousin had been a retired teacher of elementary school, and a member of this Rosary Sodality. Her fellow members and former childhood friends had come to pray for her one last time.

That's what it is like here. You can grow to your 80's and still have a childhood friend or two around. People stay here. Or like me, they move back.

But back to the women. These are good women, loyal, hard working and true. They are their family's backbones, the purveyors of the glue that kept their families together during tough times.

And, now that they are in their 60's, 70's and 80's, they know everyone's story. They know what everyone thought would happen to their lives, and what did happen.

I listened in on their conversation. There were four of the women sitting next to each other directly in front of me, close enough that I could hear their whispered comments. (I've changed their names, and some of the personal details.)

"Who is that, Betty?"

"Jeez Jenny, you know -- that's Helen's daughter -- the one who married that gambler who left her with all those kids!"

"Oh yeah....and the one next to her?"

"Sophie's grand-daughter -- the one who had that drug thing. I think she's OK now, but I don't want to ask Sophie. It's such a shame."

"Yes, a shame."

They were quiet for a while, and then another one of them spoke.

"Flo, that's the guy whose brother lost his job for stealing, right?"

The time-worn rosary beads slide through hands and I listened as visitor after visitor is defined by some pain-worthy event in their life. No one is just "Stella's son." He is "the one that can't seem to keep a job." No one is "Henry's ex wife". She is "the one Henry cheated on with that Italian waitress." Everyone has their little life drama that defines them.

Yet, there is no cruelty in these women's voices, no gloating. They are matter of fact, even-keeled. There is no tongue clicking, no sense that they are imagining that their own lives are somehow magically free from similar drama. I watch them and imagine them all wearing little badges that read "I Didn't Get My Dream, but You Probably Didn't Either".

I was quiet for a long time. These women were examples of their generation. They met a boy, married him, and hunkered down for whatever came next. They said "forever" and meant it, whether they liked what forever held or not, whether forever was kind or cruel to them, just or unjust. They knew how to stay put, so that is what they did. There is a stoicism in them that is at once inspiring and tragic.

The wake moved over to the church to become the funeral. From there, the burial. From there, we all drove to the after-burial gathering at a nice restaurant in town hosted by my cousin, who was in her 70's and not strong enough to cook for 40 people in her home. The farm wives might have gotten together and attempted it for their families.

As I looked around at the restaurant, I realized that everyone else there had a little invisible "Sorrow ID" -- that piece of disappointment or loss or tragedy that stuck to them like a second name.

Later, as I got back into my car in the parking lot, there was a tapping at my drivers' side window. A woman stood there there who was about my age. I rolled down my window, puzzled.

"Oh Mata, good. I'm glad I caught you. My name is Kitty."

"Uh...hi, Kitty. Can I help you?" I had no idea who she was.

She rested her hand upon my arm. "I just want to tell you," she said as she patted my arm, "that we are all so sorry for the way your father treated you. It is really shameful, and we all feel so bad for you."

I was stunned. I don't know what to say. The story about my father and events in the couple of years prior to this parking lot meeting is a story full of awful details -- details I thought were, well, not all that public. And here is a woman sincerely patting my arm who seems to know all about it.

I do not recall what it was that I said in response. It was something both appreciative and cordially dismissive -- something like "Thanks, but it's OK now." (It wasn't OK then. But I couldn't talk about it with Kitty, the stranger.)

"Well, we just wanted to tell you how really bad we feel. It wasn't right what happened......have a safe trip back to NJ!"

"Thanks," I said, trying to make a weak smile happen while wondering how she knew me, knew my story, knew that I lived in NJ.

It was then that I realized I had just been issued by very own "Sorrow ID". Even after I moved past feeling sad, or angry or disappointed by the rift between my father and me, even after he died and my feelings healed -- even then, my "Sorrow ID" would follow me in this town.

It had been publicly issued by a strange woman named Kitty that I have never seen again.

I moved back to this town two years ago, after having been gone for about 35 years. The magnet of small town New England life is a strong one. I have a handful of friends still here from high school, and several others who, as I did, moved back. I'm here with my little drama, my dreams gone awry, my sorrows and my joys, and everyone else is here with theirs.

The women in the funeral parlor are like the opposite of the Three Fates in mythology The mythic Fates supposedly controlled the events of human life. The Funeral Parlor Fates here remember the hardest of them. They chronicle the sorrows we all go through, remembering them for us, and kindly knocking on our windows saying they are sorry.

And, when we die, they gather together to say one last prayer for us to send us on our way.


Blogger 心好男孩 said...


10:30 AM  

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