So. The story begins the night before a funeral.
I spent the first half of last week in Peoria, Illinois, following the death of my aunt Margaret Sellers, who was the oldest of nine kids and one of four women in my family with the same name as me. She was my father’s sister, eighteen years his senior (he was the baby of the family), and was like a grandmother to my sister and me all our lives. Her death seemed sudden, even though she’d been in and out of the hospital for years; she was one of those people who was so bright in life that her absence was absolutely impossible to imagine. I spent the night before the funeral expecting to see her, and only after a moment’s search of the room would I remember that she was gone.
After the visitation, we all gathered at her house to eat and drink and tell stories and hold hands and work through the process of accepting her death together. I was sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace when my cousin Linda, Marg’s oldest daughter, came to sit with me and reached for my hand. “Molly,” she said, “I want to ask you to play a part in the ceremony tomorrow.”
I assumed she was going to ask me to read something. I’m good at reading. “Absolutely, Linda. I’d be honored. What do you need?”
“We’d like you to carry the gifts,” she said.
I gave her a blank look. “Um………”
I didn’t want to sound like an idiot, but seriously, I had no idea what she was talking about. Gifts? At a funeral? For who, for my aunt? I imagined carrying brightly wrapped presents down the aisle of the church and laying them on the coffin. “Um,” I said brilliantly, “…….….. gifts?”
“You know,” Linda said. “The host.”
“Oh,” I said, nodding. “Right. Of course.” (The host? That’s…. the wafers, right? The eucharist? Why do they call it the gifts? And how would I carry it? In a basket? Balanced on a plate? I had a brief flashback to a potluck in third grade where I carefully carried a big molded jello salad all the way down two whole flights of stairs only to catch my foot on the second-to-last step and fly through the air, landing right on top of the beautiful, smushed jello. I’ve been a little nervous about carrying things ever since.)
(Also, did I mention I was raised Unitarian Universalist? And the service was to be a full Catholic funeral mass? And pretty much my entire family – except, of course, my dad – is all Irish Catholic? And other than the part where everyone goes to the front of the church to get communion and I stay in my seat, I remember almost nothing about the Catholic masses – and Catholic funerals – I’ve been to in the past?)
“So,” I said. “Uh……….. what would that involve, exactly?”
Linda said, “It’s very easy. You and Stevie just carry the gifts up the aisle and give them to the priest.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sure. Absolutely. I would be honored to.”
Linda patted my hand and looked away, her eyes glistening. “Good. It will mean a lot to the family.” I squeezed her hand back and we sat in silence for a moment, cousins reunited in sorrow, listening to the murmured conversations from other rooms.
“So,” I finally said, still holding her hand. “Um. You do know that I’m not baptized, right?
“Oh,” Linda said. “Hmmm.”
“So… is that a problem?”
She thought about it for a moment. “Well,” she finally said, “we’ll give you a one-day pass.”
“Cool,” I said. “Because, you know, I wouldn’t want my heathen ways to interrupt the mass or anything.”
She smiled at me. “We believe in baptism by desire.”
I glanced across the room, where my Unitarian step-mother was talking about architecture with my Catholic cousin, and my (at times fervently) atheist Unitarian father was fiddling with his briefcase. In high school, my sister briefly rebelled against our parents by announcing her imminent conversion to Catholicism. Once I met a friend of my mother’s and he asked her eagerly, Is this one of the PBs? I looked at her to explain and her friend said, Pagan Babies like it was totally obvious, like that’s the only thing he could ever imagine Megan or me being called, as if my mother had never referred to us by our first names, ever, when talking about us to her friends. I said, Yeah, I guess so, and my mother laughed and squeezed my shoulders and called me a PB for the rest of the day.
“I think my parents are pretty proud of my pagan-baby status, actually. My mom brags about it all the time….”
Linda seemed to be getting a tiny bit impatient. “Really, all you have to do is renounce Satan.”
“Oh!” I said, smiling broadly. “Well, I think I can manage that for a few hours at least.”
There was a long pause.
“Um,” I asked, “so… how do I know when to carry the presents?”
Linda looked at me.
“I mean gifts?” I asked. “The little crackers? The body of Jesus?”
My cousin sighed. “Just follow Stevie. He just went through confirmation, so he’s an expert.”
“Okay, cool,” I said. I had a feeling that any more questions would get me cast out, not only of the funeral, but possibly of the extended family. “Great.”
Twenty minutes later, I sat down with my cousins Stevie, an eighth grader, Lindsey, a sophomore in high school, and a friend of theirs, who were sitting out on the sunporch. “Hey dudes,” I said. “Hope I’m not interrupting.”
“No problem!” they said. “We’re just talking about our shoes!!”
I laughed. “Cool. So… I’m supposed to carry the gifts tomorrow? With you, Stevie?”
Stevie looked guarded, as if hedging his bets against a trick question. “Okay.”
“So… I’ve never done that before. What do I do?”
Lindsey smiled brilliantly and said, “It’s really easy! You just have to carry them and give them to the priest!”
I nodded. “That’s what I heard. But how do you know when to go?”
Lindsey’s friend said, “It’s right after the Homily!”
“Cool,” I said.
They seemed happy that they could help me. I reached down to scratch my foot.
“So……… when is that, exactly?”
The kids looked concerned. “Um….”
“I know,” I said apologetically. “My sister and I weren’t raised Catholic. Don’t tell anyone.”
Lindsay’s friend thought for a moment, and then said, “Basically, as soon as the priest is like, ‘Blah blah, lord hear our prayer!’”
“Awesome.” This is why I love kids. They give you straightforward answers, and even if they’re secretly pitying you for being such an addled adult person, they’re usually nice about it. I figured I could chance a couple more questions. They’d understand. “You guy, what if I mess up?” I looked at my cousin, the eighth grader, the same age as the kids I used to teach. “I’ll just follow you, Stevie. I heard you were an expert.”
Stevie shrugged and said, “Well….”
“I’ll just watch you, okay? Maybe you should sit behind me, and then you can pinch me when it’s time to go.”
He smiled a little, and his sister Lindsay said, “I’ll stand up and point to the back of the church.” She demonstrated, standing up and waving like a traffic cop. We all laughed.
I said, “Make a big sign that says MOLLY -- GO NOW!”
The kids giggled. “We’ll just stand up and yell.” Lindsey waved her hands in semaphore, and traffic directed me toward the imaginary back of the church, and all the kids yelled, “NOW!!”
The next day, we sat in the car for a half-hour helping my father to re-write the eulogy. I watched the rain slash against the windshield as he sat next to me crossing his pen through lines and my step-mother added her thoughts from the backseat. Ducking in the rain, we ran across the street to Saint Mark’s where ushers stood outside with their giant black umbrellas. I stopped in the entrance of the church and saw my uncle and automatically looked for my aunt before remembering why we were there. And then I saw Stevie sitting on a bench near the door and he looked very solemn and grown-up in the way that teenagers do when they’re wearing suits, but he gave me a secret smile and I smiled back.
I held it together until my mother showed up. Even though she’s been divorced from my father for almost two decades, she still made the four hour drive south for the funeral, because Aunt Marg was like a mother to her. She hugged my cousins and my uncle and told them all that she’d loved Marg very much. She cried, and I cried, because I always cry when my mother does. She doesn’t cry very often. I stood behind her and watched her hug my cousins and introduced my younger cousins to her because they’re all gorgeous and in their teens and twenties and she probably remembers most of them as chubby toddlers.
And then the ushers ushed us and Lindsey gave me a watery smile. I sat with my mom a few rows behind Aunt Marg’s kids and grandkids, and looked up at the green columns and soaring ceilings of the church. I was overwhelmed by kinesthetic memory, the kind your body holds onto without any help from your mind or heart. Suddenly my skin and lips and hands and teeth were all remembering the last time I’d been in that church, at the funeral of my little cousin who was killed in a car accident just days before his twenty-second birthday. I remembered sitting in approximately the same place five years earlier, watching the somber young men in suits who should have been Jimmy’s groomsmen, not his pallbearers. We sat in silence for a long time and then there was music and the priest talked about death and life and I thought of all the things you think about at a funeral, all the funerals you’ve been to before and all the people you’ve lost in your life and all the people you’ll lose in the future, and how you never knew one heart could hold so much hurt and still keep functioning. As one of my genius students said, “It’s weird at funerals. Like there’s nowhere you’d rather be but at the same time there’s a thousand places you’d rather be.”
It was like that.
I thought of all the things I’d always meant to ask Aunt Marg about but had never gotten around to asking her, all the things I should have told her last time I saw her, not even important things, stupid things like Thank you for the birthday cake you made me that looked like a bunny and Thank you for letting me bring my recently-rescued dog into your house when I was twenty-two and thank you for letting him sleep next to me in the bed in the Ivy Room and What was my dad like when he was a little kid? and What was it like to be a girl in the 1930s and 1940s, not just any girl but a Backes girl, what does it mean to be a Backes and how did you raise such nice kids and did you know that I’ve always planned to name a daughter Margaret Mary just like you? And I thought about how my mom was younger than I am now when she first came into this family and I thought about how she told my uncle that she always appreciated the fact that he and Aunt Marg let her bring her big gross dog into their house when she was in her twenties and they let me do the same thing when I was in my twenties, and I cried.
Next to me, my mother wound her arm around my shoulders and squeezed me against her, and I thought about how it’s a good thing that she’s immortal because if I ever lost her I wouldn’t even be able to walk anymore.
And the whole time – crying, leaning against my mother, wiping my eyes with paper napkins I’d grabbed out of my dad’s car and shoved in my purse before the funeral – I was also watching Stevie, and worrying about carrying the host. Because this is how my mind works: put me in a church on one of the top ten saddest days of my whole life, and then give me a task that involves carrying sacred objects in front of a churchfull of people, and the whole time I’m mourning my aunt I’ll also be worrying about that molded jello plate in third grade.
What if I tripped? What if I tripped? What if I tripped?
And maybe I wasn’t raised Catholic and maybe I don’t believe in exactly the same God as they do, but I believe in the beauty of my family and the sanctity of love, and Lord, I did not want to screw up Aunt Marg’s funeral by tripping down the aisle and sending the holy bowl of Communion Wafers flying through the audience members like rice at a wedding.
So of course I tripped.
As it turns out, cute little maryjane crocs are not the best shoes to wear when carrying Communion Wafers down the aisle at a funeral, because if you’re really focused on not dropping the little gold dish they’re in, your crocs might just catch against the marble floor and make you trip. And I was, and they did. Just a little. Just a little tiny instant of almost-tripping and then half-skipping down the aisle but it was enough to make me smile in embarrassment because of COURSE I tripped, if there’s anyone who’s going to trip at a funeral while trying to deliver Communion Wafers to a very nice priest, it’s M. Molly Backes.
It was only a very tiny trip, but it was enough to make me pink-cheeked as I followed the example of my adorable eighth grader cousin and dipped my head at the priest and then hurried back to the pew where my mother sat. I flung myself in next to her, relieved at least that it was over, and I whispered to her, “OH MY GOD, I TRIPPED!”
She squeezed my hand reassuringly, and whispered back, “I was just shocked the Communion Wafers didn’t burst into flame in your Pagan Baby hands.”
So I guess the moral of this story has something to do with finding the humor and absurdity in all parts of our lives, not just the obvious ones. In fact, you could probably argue that those moments of laughter in the middle of heartbreak are exactly what define our species. That -- even in the face of death and the certainty that we will eventually lose everyone we love and even the world itself – we still fall in love, we still hang on to hope, and we still laugh: this is what makes us precious, and absolutely human.
And I have to believe that wherever Aunt Marg is now, whether it's heaven or our hearts or the kindness and generosity of her children and grandchildren or all of the above, she's certainly laughing.