Having risen early, fed and bathed the kids and gussied myself up as best I could, I headed to the garage to retrieve the van. My eyes were drawn towards the upstairs neighbor's front bumper. I'm sure I've seen it hundreds of times before but I'd never really taken notice.
I'd attended the viewing for my grandmother, Grace Elizabeth Heffelfinger, the night before and would be bringing the rest of the family to Christman's Funeral Home in Lebanon, Pennsylvania for her final memorial service. I'd been to a terrifying number of funerals there as a child, a fact confirmed by elder relatives the night prior. My arrival on earth in the mid 70's put me in a position to witness the deliberate, single-file departure from this world of an earlier generation of Millers, Sonnens, Houtzes, Lutzes and Van Arts. My grandfather and Grace's husband, Kenneth, jumped the line and joined the parade early, succumbing to a heart attack at just 50 years of age.
Though it had, thankfully, been years since I'd last walked through Christman's doors, it was startlingly familiar and there was a temptation to believe that it had remained untouched waiting for another of my dear relatives to require its services. Today would be different, however, as it would be the first time that I passed through those doors as a parent.
Grandma's pale blue dress looked beautiful and I tried to concentrate on it instead of her lifeless form as I stepped up to say goodbye with Lily in the crook of my left arm. Bravely and stoically, Lil whispered the "bye-bye" that I'd prompted and added an "I love you, Grandma" that caused me to momentarily need to support our combined weight against the casket. I drew a deep breath and offered a "goodbye" of my own.
I was initially disappointed at the small gathering assembled only to realize that so many of the potential attendees had already had their lives celebrated in this very room.
We chose seats just behind my mother, stepfather, aunt, uncle and great aunt. Lindsay had settled in with Piper but quickly realized that she wasn't going to cooperate in maintaining the appropriate respectful quiet. At just 17 months old, she wouldn't have it held against her. Lily, a big girl at 3, did sit through the entire service and, though confused, she seemed to understand that it was important to keep a low profile. I watched her out of the corner of my eye in case she should need any reassurance or explanation, but those signs never came. Before I knew it, the minister had concluded with an "amen" and we were filing from the room.
Along with uncles and cousins, I helped to lift the casket into the hearse before returning to the van to join the slow procession to the cemetery. Lily peppered me with questions about being buried and made it clear that when she was old she didn't want to be trapped in a dark box. Lindsay and I agreed to honor that wish and appeased her with promises that "getting old" was a long way off.
After helping to retrieve the casket from the hearse and position it above the burial vault, I stood to one side and listened to the minister again offer practiced words of consolation and farewell. I glanced downwards and pondered the awkwardness of my tie and dress shoes against the grass of the graveyard.
Formalities completed, we were dismissed with an invitation to a reception at my grandmother's nearby church. Piper raced about the cemetery, reveling in the attention of doting relatives, some familiar and others newly introduced. Lily had further questions. Peering down into the vault, she wondered aloud if the "hole is big enough" and I assured her that it was just right. I'm not certain she truly believed me, but she offered no further protest and skipped away to join her sister.
A canopy had been erected to protect the burial's attendees in case of pending rain and hid the stone just behind it that marked the final resting place of the bodies of my great-great grandfather and grandmother, Harry and Mary (I'd only ever heard her referred to as Memmy) Sonnen. As a small child, I lived right next door to the grandmother we were burying today. Her husband had been born an illegitimate child and was raised by his grandparents who then, in their final years, came to live with him and his bride. I, in turn, had the rare privilege of spending many hours on the knee of my loving great-great grandfather. The memories have grown fuzzy, but the feelings of warmth and safety remain unwavering and it was a joy to look down at his gravestone and have those feelings wash over me.
I'd heard many stories over the last few days and been walked out the branches of the family tree to learn new names and firm up exactly where other names appeared on the tree. I learned of prodigal daughters, distant cousins and the deaths of children who never saw adulthood. I gasped audibly at the site of a third carving on the side of my great-great grandparents' stone that indicated the loss of a son, Leon, at just 22 months of age. It was the first I'd seen that name in the family line and it was a jolt.
I wanted to see the girls and was relieved to find them back on the other side of the canopy, clutching pink roses and smiling for pictures while seated on the velvet-covered chairs in front of the casket.
The reception was held at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Stouchsburg, Pennsylvania, a church that has stood, in one form or another, since 1743. Harry and Memmy Sonnen had once lived in the rectory and maintained the church grounds. My mother spent a good portion of her childhood living there as well and my uncle and Grace's youngest child, Chris, still helped maintain the church.
The dining hall in the rear of the church played host to shared recollections, tears and laughter. Hand-made mementos, including some of the many quilts constructed by my grandmother joined photos, high school diplomas, birth announcements and countless other artifacts of a long life that touched many others.
For nearly 20 years, poor health and an ever-diminishing ability to hear had robbed my grandmother of the full participation to which she'd once been accustomed. There were too many get-togethers and family functions at which grandma seemed to dwell just to one side of the goings-on, unable to hear the conversations or rise from her chair to play with her grandchildren.
On this day, however, she was restored and held up as the matriarch, friend and sister that she'd remained all along.
In looking at the photos, wandering among the gravestones of long-departed relatives and reconnecting with those still living, I was reminded how much is actually passed along from one life to another. I am too uneducated and too short on intellect to fully grasp or convey all that I mean. We know that we "come from" our parents but I think we, or at least I, fail to marvel in that miracle. Evidence lived in these photos. The very nose on my face perched there upon the face of another. My long, narrow fingers lay clasped on the lap of an unnamed man posing generations ago for a black-and-white photograph. Indirectly, I'd passed through and from Grace and she into Lily and Piper along with all of those who came before.
I am humbled and honored, sad and filled with joy. I am happy that Grace can enjoy, at last, rest that she has long deserved.
Goodbye, with love, gratitude and admiration.