I find myself listening to a 40 year old recording of my aunt Irma singing ‘The Holy City’ and remember the riots of mimicry and mocking, the operatic affectation we brats silently mouthed between the pews of the Baptist church; elbows on knees, heads swivelling, goading glances, snorts and giggles, up and down the row. And now, I am surprised at how well she sings, how good her voice sounds. It’s not the Globe, but there is strength in her rising and falling, there is evocation in her tone, and she sings with conviction. I close my eyes.
L-R: Irma, Emma, and my mother Enga
My aunt’s coffin is outsized by a collection of tulips and lilies and yellow roses and a swath of bewildering red flowers sitting aloft. From my angle the arrangement crowds the pulpit.
The song leader, also a nephew, also one of the young satirists, now leads the hymns with appropriate gravitas. He to me, is unrecognizable, as I am to him. Unrecognizable in that way we timestamp our lives by people and places and are then mildly shocked by the passing of years. There’s been an inestimable number of cellular divisions since we made sport of aunt. Even now, as we sing, the cells carry us further along.
And what of the body resting within the casket? A century, take a month. A marvel, excepting time itself. My aunt, iron and wine lady.
Over the weekend, we congregate, view aunt Irma’s body, sing about the afterlife, eat well, sit in groups, view ancient pictures, and stand around a rich mound of black Saskatchewan parkland earth piled beside a rectangular hole. The mound, lamentably covered by green indoor-outdoor carpet.
Not far off are other aunts, uncles—and people from town I was used to seeing in Matkowski’s Cafe—and there is the still fresh grave of a cousin, and north of it, the grave of my father.
It’s a cemetery I will no longer play hide-and-seek in; no longer will we ride our bikes here at dusk and slay ghosts, inhabit ghosts, lay motionless on graves, sit slowly up, make low ghastly throat sounds—our immortal efforts to terrify.
Today the sun is out; snow is receding around the stone markers, the smell of farm and barn manure is in the breeze. And I am beset by longing that I can’t get to, and my camera hangs uselessly from my wrist.
Nothing is captured here except the moulded bones of a century’s toil. Where do the stories go, the wonders and delights, the loves? Why, always, this impenetrable mystery? The weight of the invisible threatens to overwhelm at times.
Earlier, the description of heaven, by the earnest pastor, its location, structure, construction, the demarcation policies and rules of entrance, had left me longing for the smell of farm and animals and warm flesh and I had reached for the hand of my wife.
There is the apparent need, in evangelical churches, to make use of a funeral, make out of it a call for the salvation of the lost. The presence of a dead body being the ultimate backdrop for placing life on a particular set of scales. The memory, the presence of the dead, secondary, almost lost.
The service was saved by my brother Sam who brought aunt Irma back to us by story. And finally, the story of my aunt leaning over the coffined body of my father and her words, "Good night Jake, see you in the morning."
The longing for permanence is stamped in our bones. The longing itself pierces the invisible, tears a small hole in the curtain. Creates wonder, even expectation.
But what do I know? Except doubt enough about my own understanding to trust the Unknown with my life and my longings, errant and divine. Faith, like narrative, is navigated, even as we are navigated. The mystery remains as deep as ever. But for the rumour of, "see you in the morning."