I’m usually pretty good about sending my many American friends Thanksgiving greetings. Didn’t happen this year – sorry, folks – because that Thursday was Uncle Mal’s funeral. But the day was very much one of thanksgiving: for having had the privilege of knowing and loving a gentle and gentlemanly man who lived his long life with kindliness and in gratitude, acknowledging and enjoying his happiness to the full, striving hard and conscientiously for the wellbeing of those around him, and bearing his troubles with fortitude and dignity.
Apart from Brianna’s girls, the only representative of the youngest generation at the funeral was Wee Cousin. Schools these days, especially secondary schools, seem to hold dim and obstructive views of pupils taking a day off for family occasions. Times have changed since Auntie Gen’s funeral, when our secondary schools were pleased to grant time off for the purpose, but it was thought slightly odd of my mother to bring my then-primary-school-aged younger brother. Mum felt strongly it was important for my father, as he bade farewell to his sister, and for my uncle and cousins, as they took leave forever of their wife and mother, to have the support of their whole family. She also believed – rightly – it would be important for my brother to be able to say a proper goodbye to his beloved Auntie.
However, my children were required to stay in school, so preparing for Uncle Mal’s funeral was a major operation in our house. The car needed to be thoroughly checked over, the route planned. I phoned Shelagh to ask what dress code she would like us to observe. I co-ordinated with my mother and siblings about transport – trains for the boys, cars for the girls – and lunch. The children’s Papa had to curtail what should have been a week-long business trip on the Wednesday, in order to work from home on the Thursday so that he could get G and Eldest off to school in the morning. I wouldn’t see them all day, as I would have to set off at half-past ungodly o’clock a.m., in order to have plenty of time in hand in case of traffic incidents. I cooked four meals on Wednesday in order to see everybody through in my absence.
Grenouille had to be primed. This was probably the most difficult and delicate task of all, as G was torn between wanting to come and wanting to go to school (especially as illness and hospital appointments have already knocked out a good week’s worth of school this term). Add to that being upset about Mal, being upset because I am grieving, and being upset at missing an event at which cousins would be present, and I’m surprised we managed to get through with only a couple of collapses: one at school which meant a missed lesson and one fairly spectacular explosion at home. But by dint of explaining exactly what would happen, and precisely when, G was on an even keel by Wednesday bedtime, and I could turn my attention to the last detail: music for the journey.
Although I sing constantly, I don’t often listen to music nowadays. I’m not a person who can study or write to music; I find it a distraction. I listen to it during my sporadic attempts to level Mt. Laundry (the day Eldest became old enough to iron his own shirts was, I regret to say, one of my personal high points in my mothering career) and on long, solo drives. The trip to see Mal in hospital had been fuelled by a brass-laden selection from my Stax/blue-eyed soul collection, but I felt this time needed something quieter and more contemplative, so it was all what could be loosely termed ‘modern folk’. Something that would keep me awake but but calm, particularly if members of the Middle Lane Residents’ Association were out in force on the motorway.
Music was a big part of the day; we are a family with a number of musicians and singers amongst us. Mal’s favourite spiritual for the entry of the coffin. A classic children’s hymn at the beginning and another of Mal’s favourites before the Gospel. One of the hymns from Mal and Shelagh’s wedding; and a rousing, joyful one as the celebrants and the family processed behind Mal for the last time, to the church porch, where the committal was performed at the door, so that nobody had to watch the coffin depart. During the Eucharist, Brianna sang the ‘Sanctus’, solo, from high in the chancel, her beautiful warm, clear voice without a tremble as she gave her Dad a last gift. I was so proud of her, my brave baby cousin. It’s hard to realise that she is about the age that Auntie Gen was when she died. And strange to realise that Shelagh has been married to Mal for longer than Gen was.
Blended families will always have a lot of adjusting to do; it’s a constant, lifetime’s work. While being utterly devoted to Mal, Shelagh has always been more than considerate towards us – Gen’s brother’s family. To maintain warmly friendly relations with one’s husband’s first wife’s relatives is a great accomplishment and one Shelagh has undertaken graciously. I would have liked to have sung something for her, but it didn’t feel appropriate to offer.
The wake was a protracted affair, and it was pitch dark and spitting rain by the time I left. Negotiating the snarl of rush-hour traffic around the city that I needed to circumnavigate in order to get to the motorway was exhausting. Almost as soon as I got on to a clear three-lane highway, I realised I needed to pull in at the first service-station I came to; where I parked in the darkest, quietest spot I could find, put the seat back, drew my coat over me, and fell asleep for an hour.
Then I fired up the CD player and drove steadily home, arriving just as the last song on the last disc in the stack started. Shelagh, this is the song I would have liked to sing for you, as a duet with Brianna.
With love and thanks, Kara.