4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
The smell of my uncle’s house.
That was what first struck me. It smelled exactly the same as it had the last time I was there twenty-some years ago. Back when my uncle was alive, of course, and my Dad and my brother, my handsome brother-in-law, they were all there then, too. And to me that smelled like order, like warmth and family and Christmas.
This weekend though, there was a large piece of posterboard on an easel in the dining room, covered with the pictures of all who have passed, rather than a table covered with turkey and potatoes and candles, or my laughing, loving uncle rushing in to give me a hug.
The next day at the church for his service it was the book of signatures that stole my breath away. Groeber. Groeber. Groeber. I went and got my camera and returned to the hall leading to the main aisle to take a picture. “Did you see all those Groebers?!” I exclaimed to the cousin I haven’t seen for seven years.
“Too many Groebers, too little time,” I added. He laughed and agreed.
It’s hard to know what to expect from a memorial or funeral.
We are sad. There is loss. We are together. We remember everything and hardly anything.
With each face I was struck with how much my cousins or sisters had begun to look like my aunts or uncles or my own parents as I remember them from 20 years ago. I wondered if I was beginning to look more like my father did when he was 43.
It was surreal. I kept catching glimpses of a cousin or niece or nephew and thinking I was seeing someone else. Blue, hazel and green eyes at every turn. In a gesture or profile I’d suddenly see my father clear as day, or my son. I kept taking pictures wishing my children were there to see where they had come from, to be seen by these people who would get it, most of whom have known me longer than I have known me.
We argued over which gin my father preferred. Was it Boodles? Or Gilbey’s? We wondered whose Benny Goodman record we’d found in my uncle’s collection.
We talked about funerals, who wanted a high-end casket (my mother) or to be cremated and poured out onto the ocean whether from a paddle board (me) or ocean cruise-liner (a sibling), to have a party with a house band and fireworks and steamed crabs (another sibling) or to be feted with a religious celebration, all thumping hymns and guttering candles (a cousin.)
We touched each other’s faces, and rubbed each other’s arms. Some of us hugged closely, cheek to cheek, and some just shoulder to shoulder. I may have grabbed my sister’s bum. I stroked my mother’s hand.
I sat for a moment and patted my aunt’s arm, speechless, silently saying without saying, “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry.”
We posed for a group photo and then another. Another.
What if we all lived in a village? A little village somewhere and we were neighbors and friends and shopped at the same market, knew the same neighborhood crazies, went to the same schools? Would we fight? Would we argue over our differences in religious beliefs or moral code or political candidates? Would this get in the way of this love that we can’t quite define? Or would we be a refuge for each other? Or both.
As I drove the infinite New Jersey Turnpike in the blackness of evening I heard Bruce Springsteen’s song, The Rising, on the radio. He wrote a song for a funeral after all.
Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
Make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back’s a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line
Maybe I can have them play that song at my funeral. Maybe my cousin who is so good on the guitar will play it, and my sister with the voice I have always coveted can sing, and friends can come and sing, too. Maybe it can be a celebration of friendship and love and family. There should be an open bar at my funeral, or at the very least, a few cases of red wine. There should be good food. There should be stars or sky or ocean.
On the way out the door after the luncheon, the far-flung cousin held both my arms, and he said, “Don’t forget to write about it, Jennie. Too many Groebers, too little time.”
Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
I was wearin’ the cross of my calling
On wheels of fire I come rollin’ down here…
There’s spirits above and behind me
Faces gone black, eyes burnin’ bright
May their precious blood bind me
Lord, as I stand before your fiery light
I see you Mary in the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There’s holy pictures of our children
Dancin’ in a sky filled with light
May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of my line
Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life.
Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight
~Bruce Springsteen, The Rising