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My First Funeral

I never understood my mother. I could never put a finger on what made her tick. As kids we never understood that Mothers and Fathers were just people too. No, they were a separate entity. They always knew what to do. They always had food in the fridge. They always came home. Mothers and Fathers were there no matter what. They weren’t complex people with their own wants, pasts, regrets, or personal tragedies. Mothers and Fathers weren’t supposed to have demons…

I think it killed my mother to see it in Len’s eyes. He wasn’t going to fight the cancer. I didn’t know just how much my mother stood to lose if he died, we were never that close to my mothers side of the family. We may never have known them as kids if it weren’t for holidays, birthdays and such. You’d think it was your grandmother making sure the cards and presents got sent…

Len wasn’t her real father but even as a kid I could tell they had a bond, and that he was her favorite when we visited. You could almost tell how happy she was to sneak in quietly calling him ‘Dad’ with that feeling of belonging once in awhile. And he seemed so happy and contented to see her, as though all was whole and at peace for awhile. As for me, I could tell he loved having the whole family together at a Chinese restaurant, or Red’s Deli for brunch. He was a family man for sure. I could tell in his eyes that my mom was a real daughter, and I was a real grandson to him.

At age 8, my mother and father divorced. I never bought in to the “children of divorce trauma” back then. My brother who was 3 at the time only ever knew my dad as a ‘week-end’ dad. We never felt ripped off, because we didn’t know any different. And that’s the thing for all of us, I suppose. We never knew the things that happen when we’re 3 or 8 are going to be pieces of what make us an adult.

Sometimes we don’t acknowledge those things when they happen. We push them down because the rejection is way more than any 3 or 8 year old should have to bare. Those are the things you come to question later when you wonder how you got where you are at 30. In search of ourselves, we look back and find all the mistakes our mothers and fathers made. Only this time we know they were going through the exact same thing we are right now while they were making them. Wants, hopes, regrets… Demons. Who is left to blame if we are all just products of our environment? How far back on the family tree does it go?

We all have those defining moments in life where you’re let in on a portion of the secret. A piece fits into place. Some call them epiphanies, or revelations. No matter what they’re called, they are harsh and naked in their truths. They either confirm something you’ve always wondered, or give you a link to otherwise undiscovered trains of thought. They will stop you mid-chorus while you sing in the shower, they will make you forget you’re on the phone. Sometimes they’re spawned from something you’re submerged in, and sometimes just a glance at something in passing. The circumstances are unimportant. It’s that once it’s happened, it’s like shedding skin you can’t fit into anymore. It’s that once you’re no longer ignorant to something, you can’t go back, like it or not. While expanding and learning is the very essence of life, the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ did catch on for some reason.

I knew my mom and her mom, Elsie, didn’t get along all that well, but as kids, my brother and I didn’t hear much about it, nor did we care to. Their relationship was dotted with periods of not speaking, along with what I would imagine to be the same awkwardness passed down into my immediate family, though on a larger scale in her case. It wasn’t until a few days before Len passed that I heard through the grapevine that my mother and Elsie had been fighting again. With Len laying asleep in a hospital, literally on his death bed, my mother pleaded to put their differences aside under the circumstances. She was snubbed. The next time they would see each other would be the funeral a short time later. A day I will never forget. A day where I couldn’t go back like it or not…

It was my first funeral. It was my wife’s first time meeting most of this side of the family. She wouldn’t soon forget the day for all the wrong reasons either. We all walked into the building together. My brother, my wife and I, and my mother and step-father. I felt uncomfortable this time. Not just because of the obvious dismal circumstances, but knowing there was the potential for much drama with tensions this high between my mother and Elsie. Especially because of the dismal circumstances.

It was unusually quiet, even for a place of worship. Or maybe there was nothing unusual about it at all. I didn’t know, having no previous funeral experience to review. All I knew was it was literally quiet enough to hear your watch tick as we approached the backs of my uncles and their wives, and Elsie. I knew that once we got there, things had the potential to get very loud. Either the feud would erupt, or the years of it would end here in one of those dramatic bear hugs where their smudge-free mascara smudged. As glad as I would be to see it come to an end, I did not want to be there should either one of those situations arise. I hadn’t once thought of the potential for much worse than that.

We shuffled into the pew behind them, drawing their attention. One by one they turned around. The uncles and wives were receptive and cordial as we each offered condolences and introductions. I kept one eye watching as Elsie turned around. I can hardly remember that she barely acknowledged my brother and I, and snubbed my wife’s introduction. It was the way she pretended my mother – her daughter - wasn’t even there. I don’t know if we all stood there in awkward silence because it wasn’t the time or place, or if the divide ran deeper than just the two of them. But there we were with Elsie’s back to us, and the rest of us dumb with silence.

All I remember of the ceremony inside, was that I was seething. I was still dumbfounded to witness such a casual disregard, a complete denial when I knew all my mother needed was a shred. Just a shred of acknowledgement and understanding at that moment would have been enough. Maybe even an exchange of unpleasantries would have been more comforting in its familiarity at that moment. A defining moment, I was sure, for my mother. She looked like anyone else at a funeral. I suppose she was grateful for that.

It was outside, during the burial that one of those secrets came whispering. We stood and watched from a distance, outside the circle of family and friends, even acquaintances, in the appropriate weather. We were literally under a beautiful and barren tree on a slight knoll, just begging to be mentioned and remembered in someone’s sad story. I realized just what it was my mother stood to lose. I stood there feeling just as ostracized and unwelcome as it happened all around us.

She not only lost her father, but she lost her only link to ever salvaging anything with the rest of the family. She lost her in. See, the ironic thing about Len was even though he wasn’t her real father, he was the glue that held that dysfunctional family together. It was my glimpse at the environment my mother was a product of. She turned into a woman with her own wants, dreams, regrets, and personal tragedies, right before my eyes. She still looked strong.

I couldn’t imagine how she must have felt. Then it hit me that I couldn’t imagine how she must have felt. I realized that all the things I could hate or blame my mother for seemed less maddening than what she could hate or blame her mother for. As hard as it was to have my neat little assumptions about my mother blown apart to be redefined, I realized that all a parent can do is try to make it better for their kids than they had it. And she does.


Happy Mother’s Day to all the Mother Munchkins making things better out there…



What if...?

DP Veteran
Sep 10, 2010
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Political Leaning
Great post, man. I really felt what you were saying as well as understanding it. Well written.


DP Veteran
Dec 28, 2009
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Grand Junction, CO 81506
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Glad you're back on the firing line. You've seemed to have resolved all your personal demons because you can openly talk about them. The things you can't talk about go much deeper and are much harder to open up.

In the forties and fifties, long before free association was phased out, I had the good fortune to find a psychoanalyst from the Wilhelm Reich era who knew what he was doing. He rarely spoke, mostly just listened. I spent four years, off and on, sometimes talking, sometimes saying nothing. Then one day, I got off the couch, shook his hand, and said goodbye. It wasn't a sudden epiphany, or anything like that, it was just that I finally realized didn't need him anymore.

Years later I read a book By Theodore Reik called Listening With The Third Ear, and I finally found out what free association was all about. As Reik explained it, it was a feeling that resonated when the patient talked about a particular experience.

I highly recommend all of Reik's and all of Sheldon Kopp's books.

Hang in there

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