It was bound to happen. I’m on the funeral circuit. My social life consists of viewings, funeral Masses, and celebrations of life.
“And the seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round, and the painted ponies go up and down,” hit it Joni. The 20s are for the wedding blitz, the 30s for the baby shower boom, then, before you know it, graduation parties every time you turn.
But now, several times a week, we open to the obit page and know someone. To be fair, my 84-year-old mother catches a name or face, and I, being her daughter and growing up in the place we call Happy Valley, can fill her in on the details.
One morning, it might be a woman who sat with her friends playing bridge at the pool until it was time for Adult Swim. The next, we might read about the younger brother of my older cousin’s best friend. Or, a doctor whose daughter was a buddy of mine and whose two sons I had crushes on (at different times). His obituary read that he had three children, and a foreign exchange student who remains part of the family. Flashbacks to Celso and Shauna.
When my father died in 2009 the reason for the rituals of death hit my heart hard. People coming to share grief, tell a story, ease the heartbreak, or release tension with a laugh. What a gift to provide solace and thaw the numbness of sorrow. I sucked it in.
Three and a half years later, I may joke about funerals being my social life, but I take them seriously. I try to comfort and offer support but I usually go away with much more than I give.
At a recent viewing, I met my childhood friend’s sister-in-law. Jane wasn’t a townie. She was an Army brat. She was amazed at the outpouring of reverence, the streams of people inching through the funeral home. For someone whose family hopped from military base to military base, Jane said the sense of community she’d never known was overwhelming. For me, as we stood in the funeral home my father’s construction company built 35 years earlier, her comment opened my eyes to my good fortune.
Last fall, a son standing at the podium of a gray stone church downtown told the story of his father, born in Czechoslovakia. When Alex was 11 his mother packed his bag and they walked three miles to Prague, where she told him to go to with another family. The family took a train to France; then sailed to the United States. Alex finally arrived in Pittsburgh where he was reunited with the father he hadn’t seen since the age of 2. Alex never saw his mother again.
At still another funeral, a graying Princeton grad can admit to being a momma’s boy and wipe away tears with his knuckles while two pews filled with his former classmates sit in solemn reflection. Minutes later, the stained-glass windows of the church are rattling with laughter. The story goes that in the early 1960s, Jean went to Bermuda on vacation and fell in love with riding mopeds around the island. At the time, they weren’t available in State College. Not one to be deterred, Jean bought a motorcycle and began riding it to the country club. I close my eyes and remember seeing Jean the attorney’s wife taking off her motorcycle helmet and shaking her blonde hair, sending ripples of gossip among the not-so adventurous.
My mother goes blissfully from one funeral to the next. She layers on the lipstick (“My lips get so dry.”), steps into her pumps, tucks into her mink coat (Where else do you wear a mink coat these days if not a to a funeral?).
Sadness isn’t part of her disease. She only remembers to be happy, to search the crowd for tall men with kisses, to dance the jitterbug with the grandson of an old friend who left this world. Her frequent Waffle Shop visits (where the lines are always long) have trained her in funeral receiving line efficiency. “Move up, move up,” she coaxes, with a wave and that darn smile on her face.
Once she beamed at a young woman who had just lost her grandfather and said, “Congratulations,” with naïve sincerity, confusing the funeral receiving line with a wedding reception line. There were a few gasps, but the young woman rose to the occasion. “I do feel like I should be congratulated for having such a wonderful grandfather. I am so lucky.”
Meanwhile, questions crowd my head. How have I lived my life? What have I passed on to my children? What do I want to be remembered for? What will I be remembered for? Will I be remembered? How can I make a difference? Reflection isn’t what you see in the mirror. Connection. Community. Concern.
In an August newsletter, I mentioned our family friend, S. Paul Mazza, in reference to his two sons who engineered NBC’s Olympic coverage between London and New York. I’ve known the man for as long as I can remember, but I never knew what the S. stood for.
Despite bitter cold and lashing winds, 1,000 mourners came to the funeral home to pay their respects to Paul this past week. He married his sweetheart Maralyn a year after I was born. He’s been with her ever since. They had six children and 15 grandchildren. But those are only a few of the stats on the back of the S. Paul Mazza baseball card. Baseball card?
Yep! Instead of a prayer card, with a religious painting on the front and a prayer and the name, birth and death dates of the deceased on the back, the Mazza family printed baseball cards.
On the front is Paul in his Centre Sluggers Yankee uniform, kneeling on the grass with a clay-colored baseball diamond in the background. Centre Sluggers is a 28-and-older league, and just a month ago Paul, 82, was practicing in the batting cage.
Besides his family, South Hills School of Business and Technology was dearest to his heart. Paul and Maralyn had the gumption to start a two-year associate degree school in the shadows of the Penn State powerhouse. The “4” on his stat sheet stands for the number of campuses the school grew to in Central Pennsylvania; the “6,000,” the number of graduated students since its inception in 1970. As an attorney, Paul mentored 23 lawyers and was scheduled to take a case to trial last Monday. Paul bought 27 used cars over his lifetime; never a new one. He spent 55 summers with his family on the coast of Maine and 200 days touring Italy, birthplace of his immigrant parents. The stat sheet is impressive, but Paul’s true gift was the gentle way he made every person he talked to feel as if he or she were No. 1. Laurie Lynch
If the Snow Ever Melts: The nine teams in the Centre Sluggers League will be doing what they love, playing baseball. Paul authored the league’s 7 Rules of Why We Play. My two favorites are:
The winners are the players who have the most fun.
We are not 18 anymore, so we don’t need to dive for every ball or slide into every base.
The S Stands for: Serafino, which in Italian means “little angel”.