Do you see my grandmother in the photo above? Yes, that’s her — the luminous orange/yellow tree there, standing out among the crowd.
Over the weekend, my mother’s family gathered in beautiful Rochester, NY for a mix of sunshine and clouds, a birthday and a funeral, some laughter and some tears. And as families do, each in their own way, we celebrated her life not only by gathering and by holding a ceremony in her honor, but by extending ceremony, of sorts, throughout the weekend — in the way of collaborative meals, walks in nature, lit candles, silly games, old photo albums, musical chairs around the dinner table, and a multi-night sleepover. To gather this way, as family members whose own lives are edging their way along the lifeline — with new pregnancy announcements, great-grandchildren entering grade school, imminent retirements, and birthdays some of us never thought we’d reach — is just so precious. Because that’s what we do as family: we reach milestones, and we grow up.
I held the distinct honor of presiding at the memorial. As is often the case when someone reaches a ripe enough age as 95 to pass on, memorial services can be quite small. And so it was with us, gathered there in the chapel of the assisted-living home where my grandmother spent her final few years — it was, in fact, just us…just family. These opportunities only come along once or twice in one’s lifetime, if you are lucky.
The ceremony itself was, for me, wonderful. We sang songs and lit candles and shared in the intimacy of many good details of a long, good life. Being in the somewhat unique position of having over a month’s lead time to prepare, I was able to conduct brief interviews with every member of the family beforehand — Betty’s daughters, their spouses, us grandkids, the grandkids’ spouses — and infuse the eulogy with not only a substantial amount of detail but also a few quotes from everyone present. I even had a recorded history written by my grandfather (Betty’s husband who passed away about 10 years ago) to draw from, bringing the words I prepared an aliveness and a blend of perspectives that was a true honor to put together.
And as I sit here today, with a few days (many meals, many conversations, a few long plane rides) between me and the moments we shared in commemoration, some moments still ring out in my memory, flooding me with pride and emotion. I hear the words of one cousin, “As a child I was a happy consumer of Grandma’s pies and chaser of fireflies around her backyard…” and then another, “I’ll never forget seeing Grandma dance at my wedding. I was so amazed that a 90-year-old woman was still able to boogie like she did,” and my heart melts twice over, seeing the different ways one person can touch lives, and also the complex, multi-generational interweaving that only happens in families.
Ceremony — true, honest ceremony of any kind — is always so much more than the sum of its parts, and can touch places in us far deeper than where we thought we’d go. This happens by virtue of true celebration and true mourning, but it happens also by virtue of being with the complexity of what ceremony’s purposes truly are: to pause, to notice, to acknowledge, to feel, and to honor in the company of others. In this way, one woman’s memorial might bring back tears for us about another person’s death, or the heart present at a baby’s welcome blessing, or the poignancy of our own wedding. Our lives are more intertwined than we might realize day to day, and our hearts more tender towards each other and the ways we are the same. This is why we gather, and this is how we keep going.
My dear Grandma, it was an honor, thank you. You can rest now assured that your legacy, indeed, lives on.