The Aunts Meddle with the Afterlife

My last remaining grandparent died in May. She had dementia for a decade and passed away quietly in hospice care. It was an anticipated inevitability. We had all reached the acceptance stage of grief years before her actual death.

No one dashed across the country to attend the funeral, but enough family members (3/6 of her children) lived nearby to assemble a respectable gathering. I was coincidentally home that week as well, visiting my parents. We buried her around 11 am and then walked around the corner to have lunch at Little Tokyo, a sushi place in the four block “downtown” strip of our suburb of Pittsburgh.

We talked about how good the sushi was—really good for a sushi place in the four block downtown strip of a suburb of Pittsburgh.  We talked about my cousin Emmie, who had gone to the high school prom the night before. Yes she had a fun, but she’s just friends with her date.

At the end of lunch, my father paid and the assembled family members dispersed.  The funeral was dignified in its modesty and appropriateness for a woman whose mind and memory passed long before. An acknowledgement of humans’ humble place in nature: individual epics of life, growth, and death are inconsequential on the main stage of evolution and entropy.

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However, humility and modesty are not qualities typically exhibited by my gaggle of Aunts. As I’ve described before (and again), my father’s sisters Jackie, Maxine, Nancy, and Gloria are meddling megalomaniacs. The memorializing of their matriarch would be, must be a grand affair. A sushi lunch would not, must not suffice. It was just oh-so inconvenient to do it in person, in May, with half of them living on the other side of country and their teenage daughters in school and sports and pageants and service organizations. The AP exams and State Championships are in May for gosh sakes!

So the memorializing began remotely, with the obituary.

Aunt Nancy composed a sweet and thoughtful homage. Aunt Jackie embellished it with the theatrics of an Orange County litigator. Aunt Maxine informed it with the fastidiousness of an internal medicine physician. Aunt Gloria infused it with the spiritual candor of a hippy-turned-PTA-mom psychologist. Bereavement roused their verbosity. The resulting obit exceeded the standard text allowance by 1372 words. That’s more newspaper columns then were provided for the former Mayor of Pittsburgh.

My father, known for his penchant for brevity, spent the better part of an afternoon redacting the obituary. The Aunts were not satisfied with this version and so they paid for extra length.

Some memorable excerpts:

“Perhaps her utter love and appreciation of life and people, her compassion and empathy, her brilliance, vision and intuition, her energy, drive, and motivation, her endless love of learning, her artistic talents, and great sense of humor were among her finest qualities.”

“The world has lost a pearl, but heaven has gained a diamond.”

Next they organized a memorial service for mid-July and invited over 100 people. My grandmother did not know 100 people who are still alive, but as Aunt Gloria put it, “We must invite everyone touched by mother’s gravitational field.” What that really means is that The Aunts wanted to host an extravagant party and invite as many of their long lost friends and acquaintances as possible.

The memorial took place at Aunt Gloria’s house in the standard style of a formal suburban backyard celebration of achievement. Think high school graduation party or 50th wedding anniversary: rented white tents, folding chairs and tables, aluminum trays of baked ziti, fried chicken, and mixed green salad that you only get because it’s at the beginning and you don’t know what better things are down the line. An unnecessary bartender opened bottles of Yuengling.

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It was disorientingly bright and humid—that smothering, ominous mugginess that foreshadows summer thunderstorms.

Aunt Gloria: “Annelia it’s so good that you could make it! How are things?”

Me: “Oh pretty good, I…”

Aunt Gloria: “Your parents showed me the New York Times article about some bones you studied. Congratulations! But, still no boyfriend?”

Aunt Maxine joined: “Still no boyfriend? Now listen, I know you know this, after 34 your chances of birth defects shoot up precipitously. Have you frozen eggs yet?  And are you taking any supplements? How much iron are you getting? What about Vitamin B?”

Our conversation was interrupted by the first wave of guests.

A procession of acquaintances ambled down the blacktop driveway. They varied in obscurity but were introduced with equal aplomb and covert denigration. My dad’s cousin—either Laurie or Leslie, he could never keep them straight—who still can’t find a job. Richie Baumgarter, the (divorced) son of the next door neighbors from 24 Vallevista Street. Rachael Klein, Aunt Maxine’s best friend from high school—they haven’t spoken in decades, but she really owes Aunt Maxine an apology.

I was cornered by Aunt Jackie.

Her: “Hello my dear! So good to see you! How are you?!”

Me: “Oh pretty good, I…”

Her: “Now tell me, really, how much longer in this interminable PhD of yours?”

Me: “Well it’s not like I’ve been sitting in classes for six years. I took classes and now teach classes and do research and write. It would only hurt me to graduate quickly because I’ll get a job based on how much I published during grad school and not how quickly I…”

Her: “Sure, sure. I know you want to stay in college forever. And let me guess, still no boyfriend?”

I found my teenage cousins (Madison, Mackenzie, Hayley, Kayley, and Emmie) hiding in the TV room. They had tickets to the Selena Gomez concert that night and Aunt Gloria forbade them from going without a chaperone.

Emmie: “I mean, can you believe it? I’m 17. I can drive. I can almost buy cigarettes. I should be allowed to go to a concert by myself by now.”

Hayley and/or Kayley: “It’s totally stupid.”

Mackenzie: “Hey what if instead of one of our moms, you could be our chaperone! I mean, you’re like an adult. Aren’t you like 25 or something?”

Me: “I’m really sorry girls, but I already have plans that I really can’t get out of.” My plans were to sit in my parents basement and binge watch all the HBO series that I don’t have in normal life.

four-teenage-girls-white-25485412Caption: This is a stock photo for “teenage girls,” but yeah, my cousins look just like this.

When I returned outside, the sky was considerably darker. It was time for the speeches.

Each child made a speech. My father’s was well-structured and well-delivered. The point was that there was a lot of chaos in their home growing up—with 1 bathroom, 6 children, and innumerable pets and neighborhood kids—but they thrived in the fray. Their parents instilled values of hard work and dedication to family. My dad then provided one comical anecdote: that time he was in college and his parents moved houses without telling him. He came home for Thanksgiving to find a different family living in his house. Six kids, it was hard to remember to tell everyone everything.

The wind picked up. The tents were flapping.

Aunt Jackie talked about herself and shared that her daughter received a 4.0 as a freshman at UCLA last year and was unanimously elected as sorority vice-president. Aunt Gloria referenced the moon and microbiomes. Aunt Nancy said a prayer. Aunt Maxine reminded us to take leftovers.

A thunderclap. I know—a storm rolling in during the speeches is eye-roll inducing cliché, Grandma voicing her disapproval from the grave kind of thing, but that’s what happened.

My enigmatic Uncle David took the stage. I’ve met him maybe twice in my life. I don’t know where he lives. I don’t know what he does. He may or may not have a criminal record. But doesn’t everyone have an uncle like that?

Him: “Hello everyone. I’m David, the first-born. Over the years I have done a lot of reading in diverse theologies and philosophies of the world. And at some point I came across a reading from the Buddhist tradition, which just so epitomizes Mother’s outlook on life…”

Another thunderclap. The raindrops started.

“…It is about a monk, who finds himself chased by a tiger to the edge of a cliff. There, he finds a rope and jumps to it, just dangling with death below him if he falls and death in front of him if he jumps back to where the tiger is waiting…”

The sky was officially dumping rain. We huddled under the tents and feigned respectful attention. It’s not like we saw Uncle David often. He deserved a turn to speak.

“…Then the monk looks up and sees a mouse on the rope, chewing the rope apart. And amidst this predicament, he reaches in his pocket and finds a tasty berry…”

The rain was going sideways, smacking us from all angles. The tents trembled violently.

“…He eats the berry and thinks, ‘now that is a tasty berry.’ And that story has always reminded me of mom. Thank you.”

The audience spent a moment with heads cocked, dazed in puzzlement, before realizing that the speech was over and we could disperse and flee.

Except not. The Uncles—the married-in husbands of my Aunts—had prepared a musical tribute to Grandma. Uncle Bud on the guitar, Uncle John on vocals, and Uncle Tim on the keyboard would be performing Grandma’s favorite Johnny Cash song, followed by Candle in the Wind. Thunderstorm be damned.

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