“It was a miracle, you know, what happened with you kids. We watched it all, and it was just a miracle, what happened at Grace’s barn. It doesn’t happen every day, you know, that kind of thing. It was a beautiful thing, you kids.” -Brian, the neighbor.
Grace lived to be 103.
Grace was my surrogate mother, grandmother, guardian angel, and friend all rolled into one sturdy no-nonsense package dressed in rubber boots and gardening gloves. She came into our lives when my sister and I were children, or rather, we stumbled into hers and she let us stay. Her love and care sustained us through the dark days of our childhood as my family home disintegrated under the strain of mental illness and conflict. She was our neighbor. She embraced us without fuss, without indulgence, she simply said “Yes”, and then held us to expectations of care and diligence and responsibility that have formed my work ethic ever since. We said goodbye to Grace yesterday, and I was honored with the opportunity to speak at her service.
Funerals for people who have seen a century pass are peculiar social events, fraught with emotion yet strangely…fun. I think Grace would be delighted to know that I had fun at her funeral. This is a woman who recently said: “Life? Oh, the first hundred years are hard, but after that you don’t give a darn!” Grace would smile to think that her loved ones had a good time as we said our goodbyes to her.
I left home almost thirty years ago, and I’ve only been back a handful of times, usually to visit Grace. But Sackville, New Brunswick, is my home and the people at Grace’s service were the friends and neighbors who watched me grow up, no doubt shaking their heads and raising eyebrows at my antics and wondering if I would ever “make good”. I walked into the funeral home and was swamped with faces, ghosts and memories. I felt like I was twelve years old again.
I kept looking at people and thinking “I know you”, but names eluded me. Thirty years changes a face. Thirty years dims a memory. (Grace would slap me to hear me imply that my memory is failing at 48. Grace has 55 years on me and she remembered everything!) And everyone wanted to play what must be the fun new Funeral Home trivia game… “Who am I?”
“I lived behind the house on the hill with the tree and I married the guy with the nose and the ugly car… who am I?”
“Do you remember me?”
“What’s my name?”
“Try to guess who I am!”
I failed, every time.
But then, they would take pity on me blinking like a lost fawn and they would reveal their hidden identity and the years would melt away. The person I knew would magically appear in their eyes and I would remember.
“Libby, I’m Bruce.”
“Bruce. Bruce. BruceBruceBruce…” and then suddenly there he was, under the beard and the man’s rugged face, young Bruce. The hot grandson with the motorcycle. “Oh my god! You are! You are Bruce!” I shrieked. As if I needed to confirm his identity for him, in case he’d forgotten.
“Oh, hello, Libby. It’s Kirk.”
“OHMYGODIT’SKIRK!” I wailed, like he was the prize behind Door Number Three. How I wish I had stopped and calmed down and spoken to him like a real person, instead of a figment of my imagination. How has your life been, Kirk? Remember high school? Who are you now? But I’m afraid I whirled away, losing the moment, terrified of mis-guessing the next person I would have to remember as my heart swelled with memory and surprise.
I don’t do well with crowds when they aren’t all my childhood flashbacks.
A lovely woman saved me when her husband tried to play the game with me. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Um… I… you…?”
“It’s Brian and Mary, dear. The neighbors?”
“OH MY GOD OF COURSE IT IS!” I think I wanted to marry Brian when I was a kid. He was probably forty at the time, but he had nice eyes and those eyes were still there, twinkling as he laughed at me.
An old teacher. The sister of an old boyfriend. The daughter of a woman named Eva. The beautiful lady who married Danny. The handsome massive grandson with tears in his eyes who was probably twelve the last time I saw him. I think I told him he was cute. Not when he was twelve, but yesterday, when he was thanking me for speaking at his grandmother’s funeral and my words evaporated. The man was a mountain, and I told him he was cute.
I am a master of social intercourse.
Two of my daughters were with me, being lovely and supportive and charming, and there were mutters of disbelief that they were mine because “I didn’t think you were that old.”
I didn’t feel old. I felt like a babe in the woods of her own childhood and I wish I could rewind the moments and redo them in slow motion. I was teary, and nervous, and overwhelmed, and each conversation was interrupted by the next and I fear I left people with their only experience of me as an adult being my squawking howl, “OH, it’s YOU! It really is! It’s YOU!”
It’s good that I could remind them, in case they forgot. Because we’re all really old.
When I got home, I folded into my Love’s arms and wailed, “I AM A GIANT PUFFBALL OF EMOTION!” He poured me a glass of wine, and we talked about Grace.
Grace is laughing at me, wherever she is right now. I bet she’s working in a garden, mud on her boots, chuckling: “Child, you don’t know old.”
Grace lived to be 103. And I am blessed to have been able to speak at her funeral, to remember the past, and to see so many memories smiling at me like maybe everything is ok.
Love you, Grace. Always.