July 22, 2009

A Memorable Memorial

So it's been a family-oriented couple of weekends. This past weekend was a cousin's wedding on my Dad's side (very nice time, although getting there might be the subject of a different, far less positive post), and the weekend before was back up in Dagny's Land of Milk and Honey for the memorial service/party/gathering for Gramps.

It's one of those things where I feel like I should try to describe it, try to capture just a bit of the experience, while at the same time being at an almost total loss how to go about it. A simple recounting of details seems wholly insufficient, but we'll see how it goes.

It was simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking to be there. So many good stories, great memories shared, counterbalanced against the fact that it was going to be the next to last time I would probably ever set foot in that house. Lots of people who I was thrilled to see, but I would have just as soon had a completely different reason for us to get together. I could think of about a thousand that I would have preferred, with one more guest at the table. But such as it was, and has been throughout, it all went pretty much ideally. Under the circumstances.

I realize it might seem a little strange, to have a memorial service (I will continue to call it that, for lack of a better term; it wasn't a service per se, seeing as how there was no church and no religious aspect to it at all; but I'm not about to call it a party, so there we are) more than a month after his passing, but Mom and Dad wanted to give the various cousins a chance to make some travel arrangements, rather than all trying to rush down immediately. They wanted to be able to plan an opportunity for a small but significant number of people to get together, share stories, and celebrate the man that was my grandfather. And we did, and as people said during and afterwards, it was very him.

It was a very simple thing, held at the clubhouse in the community in which he lived, but there were some wonderful Gramps touches: his favorite local restaurant catered the event, my parents put together a few photo-boards of pictures from a wide variety of aspects of Gramps' life, and we had people who were both relatives and friends who knew him in different ways and on different levels. One amusing irony about it was that, while many of the friends from the community had known him nearly 25 years, they really only knew him as he was when he moved out of Brooklyn after my grandmother passed away, so there was this whole other aspect to him that they never knew (or at least, never experienced). So here I was, telling people who were 50-plus years my senior things they'd never heard about a man they'd known for almost as long as I've been alive. A little surreal, for all of us. But that was part of Mom's point: let people see and hear things that they may not have known, that helped make up who he was.

We had a little under 50 people there, in total, and it ended up being just about half and half family and friends. The food was great, and the conversation better. There were people there that I'd never met, or at least hadn't seen since Gramps' surprise 75th birthday party (at which I taught a room full of senior citizens the Electric Slide, but that's a whole different post), and cousins that I don't see nearly often enough. Plus one or two old family friends with whom I got to catch up after many, many years. I guess it's as close to the Irish wake you'd kind of expect, minus the large volumes of whiskey: mostly smiles and laughter. A tear or two, sure, but mostly good memories to share with good people.

The story sharing was the best, if perhaps the most difficult, part of the whole thing. Mom had asked people to, when they felt the inspiration, to share a story or memory about Gramps. It wasn't organized, just as people sat and talked amongst themselves, someone would get up and address the group with whatever they'd come up with.

From the beginning, before Mom even mentioned this part of the plan, I kind of expected that I'd end up saying something. It was quite a surprise, though, when mom specifically asked me to read the post I'd written about his passing, since it's more or less exactly the kind of thing she was looking for. I agreed, but we also agreed that something like that would probably not be good to open with, belonging more towards the end. My brother actually found a paper he'd written about Gramps back in 3rd grade, which along with every card we'd ever sent him, he had kept in the guest room of his house. So he read (paraphrased, more like) that as his memory, which kind of got the ball rolling. But it also sort of set the pattern, inasmuch as he got about thirty seconds in before having to pause and re-compose; something that would happen a few times throughout. I'll not get into all the stories, but suffice it to say that they were all funny and warm, much like the man himself.

And I pretty much went last. It was fitting, I guess, but I will say that it made for a much more difficult read than I had expected. I was convinced that after having written it and read it over, that I'd be able to make it pretty much all the way through. I made it about three lines in before my voice caught the first time. The first of several. I only actually stopped once, but I will admit that there are a couple of parts that I can't be sure that anyone heard clearly. But all in all, people seemed to appreciate it, and I was told more than once that I had done well. So I'll take it. Actually, my favorite part was the bit about the answering machine, because as I read the quote of his message, virtually every head in the room was nodding along and laughing. Everybody got it. That was pretty awesome.

I didn't read the whole thing, though. Knowing that I was going to be telling stories in front of a room full of people, I wanted to make sure that the stories I was telling were actually true. Turns out that a couple, which I had believed for a number of years, weren't. At least, not entirely. It was a really interesting conversation with my dad. As he said, it was the reality I was living in, and as such my parents didn't see a need to correct me, but there were some things that I just had wrong. So I didn't tell those parts (or I corrected them: the desks I mentioned? Gramps did those himself. I did tell that one. And he did quit drinking, but not for exactly the reason I had thought. I left that out entirely).

In the end, it was an entirely fitting tribute, and I have a hard time imagining a better way to have spent that time. And now, I make one more trip up there to pick up a few things, and pretty soon the house goes on the market. But it's all right. It was never really about the house; it was about the memories, about the stories.

And I've got plenty of those right here. A few more now than I used to.


Leah said...

Great description as always, cuz. I remember the impromptu Electric Slide lesson very well. Through your account and ones from my mother and others, I feel like I was there, as I should have been if immigration red tape weren't affecting things right now. Thanks again and take care.

Brian said...

Leah - Thanks, I remember it too, although mostly in a cold-sweat kind of way... ;)

You were dearly missed, to be sure. I'm glad the pictures and stories could help, and that your tape issues work themselves out soon. Fingers crossed for Ireland...

Lisa said...

That was lovely, Brian. And I have decided that I don't think everything always has to be true. I think it's fine that pieces of a story that aren't are still part of your reality, or an inherited reality.

Melissa said...

Impressive as always. Are you sure you're an engineer? When you write, I always feel like I am part of whatever event you are describing.

A fitting tribute to what (I'm sure) was a wonderful man.

Brian said...

Lisa - Thank you. And you pretty well summed up my dad's point. The part of it that's interesting for me is the question of from where the changes came; I don't know how the reality shaped itself, but I'd kind of like to figure it out. Because I like to know things. :)

Melissa - Thanks, I appreciate it. But yes, I am most definitely an engineer, by nature if not necessarily by profession. But my grades weren't very good, which may account for the difference...

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