I realize no one but MF actually likes funerals, but when I say I've always hated them, I mean for you to understand that ever since I went to my great grandmother's when I was four or five, and my crazy paternal grandmother boosted me up and made me kiss that rubbery pancaked face in the coffin, I have spent almost four decades making excuses to get out of them. I’ve had the mumps eight times. I’ve found that shingles work for funerals as well as staff meetings.
Early on, I vowed that the only funerals I would go to were those of my immediate family and maybe five best friends. I wasn't sure about the friends, even, because those closest to me know how strongly I feel on the subject and wouldn't hold a boycott against me. Whether it's because they truly sympathize or because they're convinced I'll get hit by a bus first anyway, they've let me off the hook.
Besides that, they're aware I don't know how to act at a funeral any more than I know how to behave at a debutante ball or how to conduct a Junior League meeting. We didn't learn such things on Route 2-Powder Springs. I never know what to say, or if I should have brought a gift. To make matters worse, my emotions are like exposed live wires, so I'm always afraid I'll make things harder for people--my dread and sadness lurching at them through the air. Generally, when I can't get out of a funeral, I hang in back with the greeters, speak to no one, and slip out the emergency exit when it’s over.
As I've grown older, I've been forced to relax my stance and go to more funerals. Propriety and stuff. Yes, and love.
Monday, I attended my friend Dianna's mother's funeral. I’d never had the pleasure of meeting Dianna's mom, and while my friend often spoke of her mother and had shared some of the family's tragedies and triumphs, she’d never let on that her mom played an impressive role in the Georgia political scene. She’d never mentioned that her mom made stump speeches for Jimmy Carter during his presidential campaign, or that Governor Roy Barnes consulted with her mother on his own speeches. The church foyer was filled with photographs of her mom laughing with presidents and senators. I thought, Dianna has her mother’s smile.
Barnes himself delivered Dianna’s mom’s eulogy. He began by saying that two great women had died in the same week--Ann Richards and Juanelle Edwards, and that if God wasn't already a Democrat, he soon would be. This funeral was going to be okay.
The service itself was beautiful, full of poetry—Thoreau and Dryden--and violin music, Irving Berlin's "Always." There was none of the guilty sobbing and wailing that marked the Southern Baptist funerals of my youth. I got the impression that things were as they should have been--that Dianna’s mother lived a long (she was 83), productive life, was adored by many, and died with dignity--surrounded by love ones. There was sadness, but it wasn’t heavy in the room. The room was full of respect and good humor. It was full of sweet memories.
At some point Barnes remarked, "I'm sure every one of you sitting out there has a story you could tell about Juanelle." I thought, No--but I have stories about Dianna. And what I know about Dianna says a great deal about her mother.
Dianna, for instance, knows exactly how to act at funerals. About five years ago, I went to the memorial service for the partner of a mutual friend. I was doing the usual--attempting to blend into the faded mortuary wallpaper, avoiding eye contact with the bereaved--when Dianna spotted me. She crossed the room, grabbed my hand like a child's, and dragged me with her as she squeezed shoulders and patted arms, murmuring the kind words she never runs out of. I got credit just for being there beside her.
Dianna has a gift for making people feel special. No matter how often or not she sees you, she greets you as though it's been too long and you're just the person she's been waiting for. "Heeeeeeeey!!!" she trills, her singsong voice rising and lilting, reminding me of favorite cousins and family picnics.
I have Dianna to thank for my job at Portfolio Center. We met at a Zona Rosa workshop years ago and she recruited me on the spot. I resisted, because the position felt so far from the life I'd always envisioned—teaching poetry, a stuffy office in a university English department. Dianna has a knack for recognizing a good fit, however odd, so she insisted I visit the school. Walking into the building for the first time, I knew instantly that I was about to take a detour from my life plan. Portfolio Center has been my second home since 1998.
In these extremely competitive times, she's never lost her loaves-and-fishes approach to business or life. Her good fortune becomes the good fortune of others. Her hard work creates opportunities for her friends and former students. Lest you wonder, though, if she’s too goody-two-shoes to truly like, rest assured. She has at least one mean bone and a wicked sense of humor. Ask her about menopause if you want a sample.
Monday, once the Benediction was done and the Recessional was well underway, I scooted from the middle of the back pew to the end nearest Dianna as she walked with her family down the aisle. I should have stayed put, should have remained unnoticed and let her pass. I should have let her go on to the next phase of the difficult process of laying her mother to rest.
But I hadn’t seen my friend in two years, not since she and her husband moved to the West Coast. I wanted to touch her, and she could tell that when she saw me. So she stopped and we hugged, holding up the line. Her perfume floated over me, reminding me of long talks over Frescas in her kitchen.
Then I stepped on her foot, and she pretended not to notice.