Saturday, October 21, 2006

Final Goodbye

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Hamlet

What is it about death that weighs so heavily upon us still breathing mortals? Why do we cling so damn tightly to this mortal coil when it is bound to bounce free from all of us in the end? Thoughts like these cluttered my head and kept me up late tossing and turning as the trucks swept past on the highway outside my hotel window.

The morning of my grandma's funeral, I woke up early and hit up Burger King for a grease soaked, high in saturated fat breakfast for under $5. How can anyone drink that much coffee? A small is the size of a small child!? I did my best not to splatter my fancy black mourning clothes with grease or watered down coffee.

Even though I visit out here a lot, each time I get reminded of the differences once you hit the middle of the country. When you are in the Mid-West you can kiss goodbye to milk in your coffee (it comes powdered), American Spirits ("American what? I ain't never seen those before..."), fresh vegetables (go figure, there are farms every which way you turn but they prefer veggies from cans) and any lettuce except for iceberg.

It is a 20 minute drive from Manchester to Strawberry Point and the road was desolate and empty. A thick mist hung over the flat fields and rain smattered the windshield. This dark and dismal weather was the perfect backdrop for a funeral. I indulged my love of smultz with some melodramatic Coldplay.

Driving through the small town of Strawberry Point always brings back a flood of memories of my grandparents and my childhood. I've been taking trips to this little Iowan town since I was a little girl to visit Jakob and Bertha Marguerite.

Driving down the main street I passed the simple white house they spent most of their lives in, then the old age apartments they inhabited once they sold the house, next came the garage my grandfather ran, and then, after passing the strawberry landmark and after driving through the 4-corner stop sign in the center of town, there is the nursing home where granny spent her last days. It is hard to imagine spending most of your life living on one small street.

Once I passed these landmarks, Strawberry Point was already close to done (it takes all of 5 minutes to drive through this little town) and the speed limit increased. 4.5 miles outside of town, I made a left down a hidden dirt road toward the historic landmark of St Sebald Lutheran Church. My grandfather's memorial was in this same church 6 years ago but, much to my regret now, I didn't go.

The dirt road to St Sebald is long and twisted and I wasn't sure if my rental car would be able to make it up the hills and navigate around the impressive potholes. The rain continued to fall and the road was a mess of puddles and ruts. Mist coated the hills and dales making the landscape look mysterious and European. Was this still Iowa or had I entered a worm hole and been transported to Scotland?!

After 4 miles on the treacherous dirt road, the church finally peeked out its pointed white head. Outside was a gray hearse patiently waiting. I did my best to avoid the muddy ruts and kept myself from getting soaked on my way into the church. Inside, my father was greeting all the old timers that used to visit my grandpa at his garage. My stepmother was cradling one of her 4 grandkids. Past the well wishers were 30 or more gray haired heads seated in a small, cozy church with bright red carpets. Off to the side, there was my grandmother.

A dead body should look dead, right? But when Tom Roberson of Roberson's Funeral Home was done with her, granny looked alive. Although she was lying on her back with her eyes closed, I was positive she was going to open up her eyes and wink at me, or shuffle her hands together nervously. It didn't seem possible that she could be dead, so alive and pink was her skin. I felt guilty staring at her, like I was being rude and watching a resting person.

I've always loved grandma's hands. They have this strange shape, sort of like a lobster claw. They are thicker in the middle and taper at the end, her fingers are thick and gnarled. She was lucky to have all her digits. My grandfather's older brother Fritz, the farmer who inherited the Swiss family homestead (thus necessitating grandpa's move to America) was lacking more than one of his digits thanks to farm accidents. Granny used to shuffle her hands nervously, they were the most active part of her body in her older days.

I tried to imagine all the things her hands had once done: the many pies her hands created; all the times they dug into the earth and planted a bulb, ripped up a weed, made breathing room for a bed of roses; the letters those hands often wrote me; the dinners they created; the clothes they sewed; the hats they knit; the quilts they sewed; and the handkerchiefs they embroidered. Those hands had created so many special things and now those hands lay immobile, itching to apply themselves to a new project.

The church was cold and they closed up grandma's casket and wheeled her to the front of the room. A large painting of a smiling Jesus with open arms loomed above us. Most of the mourners sat on the left side of the chapel. Marla joked that is what Mid-Westerners do, clump together for safety. We sat on the right side to even it out a bit. My big, silent, emotionally contained father sniffled quietly to himself. Marla's grandson gurgled.

Pastor Lin Reichstadter was an impressively dramatic show woman and she staged the service beautifully. The small church had a crackly PA system and Pastor Lin began by reading a prayer from the back of the church, her voice echoing from the speakers. Then she dramatically made her way to the front of the church to begin the memorial. She began on the left and then made her way to the right where the Christ painting loomed above her. She performed her grand finale standing next to my grandmother's casket and lifting her hand in the air as though to call all that was holy toward my granny as she spoke the words of the gospel.

Marla had enlisted her relatives to help carry the casket which was lucky as most of the people who knew grandma were a little old to be carrying such a heavy weight. They motioned for us to follow as the casket made its way down the center aisle of the church. I smiled at the wrinkled old faces dabbing their eyes and watching our procession. As the pallbearers navigated the casket down the stairs, I thought about the humor of it all. As heavy and dramatic as death is, you still have to figure out a way to wheel the casket down the stairs. Watching the rickety old wheels slowly creaking down the runners somehow grounded me.

We ate sandwiches, coffee and cake in the warm church basement. Many sweet withered faces wrapped me up in hugs and told me about their relationship with my grandparents. Alice and Alma Hanson grew up down the road from grandma and walked to school with her every morning. Rose and her husband still live down the road from her old house and also went to school with her. So many faces and names and memories. I asked Rose if my grandmother had been a happy person. She smiled wistfully and said, "As happy as anyone."

It must be such a strange process, getting old and watching all your friends drop off around you, one by one. Knowing that you are next but not knowing when exactly your number will be called. There is a certain inevitability in it all. No wonder these wrinkled arms and hands felt so strong and supportive to me, they have been through so much and are ready for what comes next.

The drive to the cemetery was an arduous but strangely calming journey. Dad took us the long way and most of it was over bumpy dirt roads through empty unclaimed countryside. Unlike the rest of Iowa, this land is full of sloping hills and valleys. Dad says it is called the "driftless area" because the glaciers, when they flattened the rest of the state, missed this one spot. And I am sure my great grandparents who came here from the distant Swiss lands of tall mountains, felt at home here in these driftless valleys.

My grandfather is buried in this cemetery as are my great grandparents (grandma's parents Louise and Fritz). The graveyard is right down the road from where my grandmother grew up. We passed her house and continued on along the very same road that she walked every morning on her way to school, through snow, sleet and rain, she walked those 3 miles every day without fail. Her house is no longer standing and the one room school house has been torn down but the cemetery remains. We listened to Peter Gabriel's The Passion and glumly watched the mist-covered landscape whisk by.

The service at the graveyard was a quick one. We stood in the harsh wind and listened to Lin say another prayer. The old women's rain hats flapped around wildly and grandma's casket stood ominously waiting to be lowered into its final resting place. I gazed out over the vast green that stretched on for miles in each direction and I felt happy knowing that this is where Grandma would spend the remainder of her days. I suppose in the end, it is all any of us can really do. Live the best life that we can and end it with as many people who are near and dear to us that we can. And for that, I was so glad to be there to share it with them all and say my final goodbyes.

I love you Bertha Marguerite Dennler Sollberger and I am glad for the little bit of time that I knew you. May your journeys be spacious and your reveries grand. I will always be on the look out for you playing your little tricks and jauntily traipsing along those old country driftless roads.

4 comments:

Margot said...

Thank you, Eva, for showing me what I didn't have time to go see for myself.

"Mortal coil" is not like a bedspring coil. Coil used to mean a mess-- a noisy, rushed, crowded situation like our day-to-day lives. They are a lot more coiled (coily?) than they were in Shakespeare's time. I think Grandma was never very happy in the "coil," even if she was happy with her plants outside or cooking in her kitchen. Thank you for reminding me of all the things her hands accomplished.

Rest in peace, Margaret. She spent almost 95 years on this earth. She was born in 1911. Before World War I, before women could vote, before cars were common, back when computers were crude adding machines. Enormous changes happened in her lifetime. She weathered them even if she didn't really process them. Soon all the people her age will be dead and we will lose those memories of walking 3 miles to school instead of being dropped off in Mom's SUV. She came from a time when people had to work harder (even if they also had more down time and more human contact), and she worked all her life. We will always remember her with love.

Emilybot said...

Sorry for you loss Eva. :( The blog you wrote was beautiful.

Tmoore said...

very nice blog E, glad you're back home; Iowa does look like a bit like Franklin County. Oh and Margot, i wouldn't be to worried about the 3 miles in snow thing cause i'll have you know, i walked to school in the bitter cold everyday to get to school, and back, both ways uphill, so don't you think you have it that bad at all missy! ;)

the le duo said...

yeah Tan, except your walk was only like a hundred yards! ;)

RIP Grandmothers everywhere...