Tag Archives: funeral

Holding on to the Flag


Holding on to the Flag

Holding on to the Flag

March 2013 marked the passing of my favorite Marine, my great Uncle Cleve. He was the patriarch of our family, a butcher and grocer in a small Texas town, and a deacon in his church. He was also a proud member of the first group of men in the 2nd Marine Division created during World War II. God bless him, he lived independently for 95 years, drove himself to the hospital and died a day later. Uncle Cleve was cool.

Funerals are very much like weddings. They are a family and community celebration, with ceremony, food and significance. He was a single man, so my mother and her sister were his closest relatives. He had six great nieces and nephews that he treated like grandchildren. We all gathered together in the ancestral town of our family to celebrate his life, where he alone had remained his entire life.

His town is settled on the breaks of the plateau in north central Texas, where sagebrush and pinion pine stubbornly grow in the red caliche clay dirt that daily meets a broad, blue sky. This is the rangelands of isolated cattle ranchers, that built their small town for mutual dependence, a small main street lined with churches, banks, local shops and cafes, and a sheriff’s office.

I flew down to Texas and picked up my mother, to drive with her to the funeral. Four hours of asphalt lined on each side by barbed wire fences. Mother and I talked of tasks to be done, wondered who we would and wouldn’t see, apprehensive to return home. Her sister and my cousins were heading to the same spot on the map from different directions, merging toward the appointed place and time.  We met at the funeral home. This was the same funeral home that had solemnly buried other family members in years past. The gathering parlor with the same mahogany fireplace and formal sofas for visiting, the flowers already arranged and filling the room with the fragrance of lilies and roses. Of course Uncle Cleve looked ‘good’ but not himself, the way unoccupied bodies look. As requested, he wore his Marine bolo tie and 2nd Division lapel pin, dignified and appropriate.

Uncle Cleve had called us all home and we were together in the same room for the first time in many years. It was lovely. There were 2nd cousins, neighbors, and other kin to hug and chat with. I heard funny stories, tales of intertwined histories, and we shared photos on iPhones. We compared how much the kids have grown. I especially appreciated visiting with the other war hero in our family, Cousin Billy who was a Screaming Eagle. He’s a quiet, gentle soul with a soft, drawling voice. Thinking about him parachuting out of planes in Europe is difficult, just like it’s difficult to imagine Uncle Cleve in Iceland, New Zealand, Iwo Jima and Saipan. But I’ve heard the stories and seen the pictures, it was all real. As real as this funeral gathering.

After a night’s sleep, we spent the morning preparing for the burial. Texas funerals are formal, with suits, starched white shirts, and dress cowboy boots, black dresses and pearls. The one thing that prevented me from giving this funeral a perfect 5 out of 5 is that it was at the funeral home chapel rather than in the church sanctuary. Uncle Cleve had been a deacon for his church for decades, I personally felt his funeral should be there, but the sisters didn’t agree on it, so it was in the chapel. At least the Baptist choir and the pastor were there to officiate. I’m not sure this pastor had done many funerals yet, he was probably on his first church assignment, but he did well and I made sure to tell him so at the luncheon afterward. My prediction is that he will develop into a really good funeral preacher, an art that is difficult and delicate, but important. Anyone that’s heard a generic, limp funeral preacher can tell you that.

After the eulogy in the chapel we rode in the limo to the cemetery. As usual for this part of Texas, it’s windier than hell, probably 30 miles per hour. We watched the pallbearers carefully remove the casket from the hearse and simultaneously grasp the edges of the flag covering the casket to make sure it didn’t blow off and head for New Mexico. The funeral canopy creaked and leaned against the wind as a large spray of flowers shot over the heads of the crowd. No one flinched, this is Texas. After a few well-placed words and a prayer, the Marine guards skillfully executed their graceful ceremony. Taps were played, the guns were fired, and the casket flag was perfectly creased and folded, despite the gusting wind.

We shook hands and gave hugs, then visited the other family grave sites with flags and flowers, remembering our roots to this place. Then we met up at the church for homemade lunch. Baptist ladies can put out a fantastic spread, with thick ham slices, fried chicken, and an amazing variety of vegetable and fruit salads. Of course there is fresh pie and coffee. What a gift it is that church ladies give to grieving families, the gift of a home made meal and a place to rest after the emotional toll of a funeral. Because even a funeral like this one, of a long life well lived, is still difficult because of the goodbyes.  We gathered for a family photo, gave more hugs, shed tears, and smiled about how good it was to be together. A very good funeral it was for my favorite Marine. Semper Fi, Uncle Cleve. Enjoy your new guard post.

“Here’s health to you and to our Corps

Which we are proud to serve;

In many a strife we’ve fought for life

And never lost our nerve;

If the Army and the Navy

Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;

They will find the streets are guarded

By UNITED STATES MARINES.”

Musical pairing: The Marines’ Hymn, author unknown, in use since the mid-1800s.

Waving in the Window


Grandma and Her Daughter

My husband is the only child of his mother.  And she died when he was in high school.  He always had a close relationship with his grandma, especially so after her only daughter was gone.

There came a point, after we were newly married, that Kevin began to worry that his grandma wasn’t able to care for herself properly alone anymore.  She gotten lost driving a couple of times.  We visited and her house was messy and there wasn’t food in the fridge.

Celia was an independent woman and wasn’t keen to her whipper snapper grandson suggesting she needed help.  But she was 9 hours away, so we all agreed to move her closer to us into a retirement facility where she had her own apartment, and had group transportation.

The setup was good, and we enjoyed getting to spend more time with Grandma.  She got to be part of our family holidays and Sunday dinners, our daily rhythm.  We had a nice routine that when we left her apartment, she’d wait in the window and we’d wave from the sidewalk outside.  It was also a lot of work.  Kevin went with her to doctor appointments.  We had no idea how many doctor appointments old people go to.  It’s like a debutant social schedule!  There was also the trips to the grocery store and KMart and the pharmacy and clothes shopping and laundry and the post office and gee wouldn’t it be nice to just go do something fun like see Christmas lights at the country club?

Those who have cared for an aging parent know the story.  And the ending.  At some point the independent living doesn’t work anymore.  There’s nurses to hire and rehire and beg to come back.  There’s surgeries and hospital stays and prayer.  And phone calls you dread.  People understandably snap during these things.  My husband had his moment in the hospital.  He had rushed to her bedside, to find her already in a body bag, still tied to the bed in restraints because she’d tried to pull out her feeding tube that week.  Despite a medical power of attorney we couldn’t convince the Catholic hospital not to put a feeding tube down her throat.  Kevin freaked.  He zipped open the bag, ripped off the hand restraints, unplugged the tubes.  Despite his very best efforts, he’d not been able to give Cecilia her wishes.

And you’re numb and there’s funeral arrangements and you have less than a week to clean their apartment space and what just happened to us?  The memory I hold most clearly is the day we moved her belongings out of her apartment into our garage.  Friends and family helped us, God bless them because we only had about four days until the end of the month and we had to move fast.

I was OK until we were done moving and we were out on the sidewalk outside her apartment.  And by habit, I looked up to her window to wave.  But she wasn’t there.  And  I freaked out.  I sank to my knees and sobbed.

So Kevin and I are practiced up on this.  This is the role a child must step into at some point for their parent.  To be the care giver.  To take the car keys away.  To clean up the mess after it’s over.  To be mad at the parts that cannot be controlled.  And to wave goodbye to the empty windows.

Cecilia O’Noonan Lindenberg (April 1914 – Aug. 1995)

Musical pairing: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” Simon & Garfunkel 1970.