Friday, April 26, 2013

Funeral Dinners

So, my mom and dad had ten kids, and were, as you may have guessed, Catholic.

Both were very involved in the activities of our parish. My mom and Mrs. D headed up the funeral dinner committee. "Funeral dinner" wasn't technically correct—it was really luncheon with ham and beef sandwiches bought from the local caterer, and potluck dishes contributed by members of the committee. If someone in the parish died and the family wanted a funeral dinner, my mom and Mrs. D organized it, and it took place in the old Church hall, a wonderfully creaky but well-preserved building adjacent from the church. 

I (and my siblings) were often pressed into service for all sorts of parish goings-on.  I never volunteered. But I was always happy when my mom asked if I'd help with a funeral dinner.

I enjoyed them. I liked being around two adult women instead of all my brothers and sisters. And we used the kitchen equipment in the Old Hall, which was usually off-limits behind a locked door. The wood floors were very old and creaky, and they smelled nice. Woody. I liked the important sound my feet made on them as I set everything up--spreading the plastic tablecloths, placing the homemade flowers made out of egg cartons, and hauling the folding chairs into place.  All in all, it felt like I was providing a service for people in need, and it made me feel useful and proud.

When the guests came in after the graveside service, I always looked at them furtively, around the kitchen door, to see if I could find anyone crying. No one ever was. This confused me. As I did the tasks my mom or Mrs. D directed me to do out among the guests, I assumed an air of concerned helpfulness. I tried hard to stop short of officiousness or outright nosiness, which would have ruined the aura I was seeking to project and embody. I so wanted to be as good as I sometimes seemed! 

If anyone started sobbing, I had my plan ready: I would run to get napkins, and then offer my shoulder for them to cry on. And if they felt like talking, I would be ready, because I had tons of questions. Who died? How old? How did he die? What was she like? Are you sad? What happened? Did you ride in the ambulance? Was that fun?

When my Grandma died, I asked my mom if we would have a funeral dinner for her. She said no, because we couldn’t afford it. I was aghast—people paid for that? And if people paid for it, how much did it cost? Who got the money? 

In fact, I was wondering if, now that I knew how this deal was financed, if I might get some of that money. 

I was disappointed when my mom said the money went to the church to help with expenses. But it did not dim my satisfaction when helping out at the funeral dinners. In fact, my air of concerned helpfulness was merely augmented by my newly acquired air of dignified volunteerism. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Enduring Love

My parents have been married for more than 50 years. Together, they made and raised ten children.

This past Autumn, my mom had a fall. Though it didn't seem serious at first, it turned out that she shattered a good bit of one entire leg and ankle, and a good bit of the lower part of her other leg and ankle. She had to stay in a nursing home for several months while she recuperated. Since my parents were married, I don’t think they've ever been separated more than one or two nights—and those separations were mostly due to my mom being in the hospital after having one of us.

While my mom was in the nursing home, my parents had a routine: my dad would have breakfast at home, and then come in and take my mom down to the cafeteria for breakfast and keep her company while she ate. Then, they would keep each other company in her room until it was time for her morning physical therapy. My dad would go home and do laundry, get clean clothes for my mom, and do other little chores that needed doing. He would go back and take my mom down for lunch, and then they'd keep each other company in her room until it was time for her afternoon physical therapy. Because the afternoon session was shorter than the morning session, my dad would stay and go for a walk on the grounds. Later, when she only had one physical therapy session in the mornings, they would both go for walks in the afternoon—my dad pushing my mom in her wheelchair. After the afternoon, they'd have dinner together in the cafeteria, and then they'd watch TV until visiting hours were over, and my dad would go home. The door to my mom's room, of course, was always open, to allow the caregivers to keep watch, dispense medicine, and help my mom when she needed help.

"It works pretty well," I remember my dad saying over the phone, once things had settled down into this routine. "The meals are only a buck-thirty-five for me!," he'd say, proudly. "And they're not half-bad!" My father is a most generous person—but one of his mottos could easily be, "situations in life that do not warrant thrift are very few, if any."

When I was home a couple months ago, Beloved and I were talking with my parents about that time. I mentioned how it seemed they had such a nice routine, and were able to see so much of each other. "Oh gosh," my mom said, "we missed each other so much."

After a pause, while she looked at the ground, ruminating, she laughed, then said, "You wanna know something? When we'd get in the elevators to go to the cafeteria, and were alone, we would just kind of—go at it, I guess you would say—make out." She laughed and  shook her head in embarrassment and looked at my dad. He wore a bemused expression on his face, but was looking decidedly off into the middle distance. "Sometimes," she continued, laughing, "we'd have a real crisis of conscience, because there'd be this little old lady, or an old retired priest, you know, hobbling down the hall towards the elevator, trying to catch it. And we'd wanna say to each other, 'quick, hit the button to close the doors!'" She laughed even harder and said, "sometimes, I DID say it."

After we all laughed, she looked at my dad and said again, "we just missed each other so much."

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


One of the things I love about my current neighborhood is all the mature trees. I love looking at them throughout the seasons; even in the winter, they are beautiful. This weekend, I didn't feel very well, so instead of tending to my to-do list, I lounged on our back deck and, in between napping and reading, I looked up at the trees and watched their branches swaying in the breeze—sometimes, it seemed from my vantage point, precipitously.

I also remembered from my childhood a large tree in our neighborhood. I could see it from the swing-set in our backyard. I was a huge swinger. I would swing every day during the summer, often for hours, singing to myself (and possibly—but not probably—for the benefit of any of my brothers and sisters and neighbor kids who were around). Looking straight ahead, I could see through the small, square, covered back porch of our long-suffering and always-patient neighbor Mrs. Roberts to the kitchen window of the Seidlemans' house. After breakfast and lunch, I would see Mrs. Seidelman at the sink, washing out their dishes. She would wave merrily to me, and I would wave back to her.

But if I looked to just a bit to the left, there was the huge, full, storybook tree, far off in the distance. I have no idea what kind of tree it was, but it looked like it was miles away (though it couldn't have been more than a few blocks), and magical. With my bat eyes, I could see the individual leaves rippling in the breezes, and I would imagine the lands that lay beyond. One of my favorite fantasies was of a meadow, green and beautiful, with birds, and butterflies, and dragonflies that didn't fly too close, and my mom with a picnic basket. She wasn't harried and hurried as she was so often taking care of the ten of us. She was sitting relaxed on the ground, her legs sort of side saddle. My dad was there, too, with a ball and bat, ready to play baseball.

We really did have picnics when I was growing up, along the banks of the Fox River. We really would play baseball, or Frisbee, and often, my dad would help us fish (anything we caught, we took home, froze, and ate during Lent). I don't really know how my parents were able to wrangle this…ten kids, a picnic, games..and make it fun? Because it was fun. Maybe like the trees, they understood how to sometimes let the breeze run through them playfully, and how to sway in the strong winds just so.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Missed Cues Leading to Disaster

I haven't blogged in awhile because of three events that I can't turn away from, and I wasn't sure what to say.  

One of the events is the Trayvon Martin shooting. Another is the horrific massacre in Afghanistan. A third is the appalling killings in Toulouse, France.

Other commentators have discussed these events with insight, so I don't have much (or anything) to add. I guess the only thing I have to contribute is what I see as the common elements in all three incidents: missed cues, mental illness, guns, and a sense that some human beings are "other." 

Monday, March 12, 2012

High Standards

I was walking down the street in Washington, DC today, and a disgruntled man was commenting on me and quite a few other folks walking along the same sidewalk.

"Black mother@$#%$ers! You Black people are mother#$##@ers!," he shouted. "And you white people, YOU'RE mother@#$@#$ers, too! You're ALL mother$%$#ing mother!@#$@ers," he continued, before pausing.

After considering something, chin in hand, he said, very calmly, "Now President Obama…he's good."

At least SOMEbody meets that fellow's standards.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


When I was a little girl, I loved sitting at my father's elbow at the dining room table as he ate lunch. He worked just a few blocks away, so would come home for lunch, and while he ate, he would read the paper—the Chicago Tribune. I would, too. In between articles, I would watch as he ate his soup, transfixed by the little indentation in the side of his forehead that would appear and disappear as he chewed. Everyone has this indentation, but I didn't know that then, and to me, it was just one more amazing thing about my amazing father.

The Polish Solidarity movement was a big story—huge—in Chicago. The city had the largest population of Polish people anywhere in the world—more Polish people, even, than in any city in Poland. The pope was also Polish, and Ronald Reagan was President. You put these ingredients together and present them to a Catholic household and man were we hooked: it was the second greatest story ever told, practically! Every day, the latest developments in Poland splashed across the front page. My father always read that section first, and I would read "Tempo," the lifestyle section, until he was done.

It's hard to believe with today's fast-moving modes of communication, but when I was growing up, the newspaper usually had the very latest information about any developing news story. Even the radio news announcers got their information from the newspapers. I waited with anticipation for lunchtime to come and for my father to unfurl the newspaper, just so I could get a glimpse of the headlines and know what had happened in Poland.

One day, my father snapped the paper open after he had read the front page. Reading from the side, I saw a headline in all capital letters, "MARITAL LAW DECLARED IN POLAND." I could tell from the hugeness of the words that this was a big deal, but what did it mean? My mind worked on it. Given what had happened in Poland already, I figured it was some sort of new law that made it illegal for people to gather. Specifically, married people, since that's what "marital" meant. Since married people where no longer able to live together, because that would be a gathering, how did it work? Did the wife stay at home with the kids, and the husband went to his mom's house? What if his mom lived far away? What about mass? Would the husband and wife have to go to separate parishes? What about the kids? Wouldn't they miss their dads? It should be possible for the husband and wife to stay in the same house as long as they weren't in the same room, I thought, since that wouldn't be gathering, technically, but I figured those dastardly communists wouldn't allow it! So how would the Solidarity movement prevail if married people couldn't even be together? They were so bad, those communists!

Worried, I asked my dad, "What will the people in Poland do?" My dad answered that they'd have to meet in secret, and risk disobeying the law. My subsequent questions—about the logistics for moms and dads, and what would happen to couples who were engaged to be married—served only to utterly baffle him. Slowly, his face stopped looking engaged and started looking confused. My voice started faltering, so I started in about the kids, and how they'd miss their dads, and how the dads maybe didn't have a place to stay. Finally, my dad interrupted me and said, completely confused, "what are you talking about, hon?"

My eyes felt like they wanted to cry. "Well," I mumbled, "it says in the paper they declared marital law in Poland…" I snuck a peek at him and he looked even more confused. Slowly, his gaze left my face and started moving upwards, to the ceiling—almost as if he were sifting through all his brain parts to find the right tool to solve this conundrum. Suddenly, his face cleared, and he started laughing and laughing.

Now, my dad has many laughs, but this one was his big, booming one. It's his, "isn't life wonderful?" laugh. I knew when I heard it all would be well, but I also felt a rising panic. I looked at him with my own confused face. When he finally gained control of himself, he put his face right in front of mine and bellowed: "MARTIAL—MARTIAL LAW. Not—" and here he broke off, laughing again—"marital law."

"Ohhhh," I said, my own face clearing. I began to laugh.

Then I said, "but what does martial law mean?" After another fit of laughter, my dad put up his index finger and said, with a gleam in his eye: "pretty much what you thought it meant—but for everyone, not just for husbands and wives."