I wasn’t home much as a teen. At that point in my life, home was a rest stop, a place to regroup, refuel, and exit as soon as humanly possible. Any time that I did interact with my mother, it was usually in passing.
Like most children of the 1980’s, I grew up with my mother during the week and my father on the weekend. Throughout all of my childhood my mother was a commanding presence. And why wouldn’t she be? Her entire career as a parent was based off of her own childhood. She was 1 child out of 4. My grandmother stayed home with the children while my grandfather brought home the bacon. Her mother needed to be in charge and a presence as well. So in essence my mother was parrotting what had worked for her mother. On top of that, my mother had the added handicap of being a working, single mother for all of the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s. When mom wanted my attention, I had to give it to her, regardless of how full of shit I thought she was.
When Jack, the man who would become my stepfather, started becoming more of a presence in the house that I shared with my mother, it didn’t faze me. I did what most teens did when their single parent tries on significant others: I ignored the hell out of him until I absolutely had to interact with him.
It seemed to work well for the both of us. I had school, a social life, and a part time job that was practically a full time job. And him? He had my mother and he sold cars in a shitty part of town.
It didn’t take long for Jack to transition from boyfriend to fiancé, and then eventually ‘husband’. In fact, it took no time at all. Courtship to marriage, lasted about a year and a half. On top of that, they didn’t have a traditional wedding ceremony. They opted to elope and get married in Las Vegas.
Regardless of what the exact motivations were behind my mother’s elopement she was a happier and, dare I say it, more tolerable person to be around when they came back home.
A handful of years had gone by and in spite of of my own inability to comprehend what they saw in each other, they balanced each other out nicely. The thing that made Jack exceptional was his almost preternatural ability to be liked by most of the people that he interacted with on a regular basis. The thing that I had found the most jarring but ultimately grew to appreciate was that my mother actually listened to Jack. For me to have another male presence in the house, that could tell my mother that she was being an ass about any given thing and then, get her to laugh at her own silliness, it was akin to seeing the Big Bang.
What made the new household configuration all the more bizarre was the fact that my father actually liked Jack.
Point of fact? My father would routinely and unannounced stop over at my mother’s house in order to shoot the shit, if he knew Jack was home. More often than not, my mother wouldn’t know until well after the fact that my father had stopped by.
No one from my immediate family eulogized my father when he had passed away. At the time of his passing, I was about to be 22 years of age and he had seen fit to name me the executor of his estate.
In his 6+ decades of life, my family and I didn’t really know who the ‘real him’ was. When it came to communicating on a personal level, my father had a habit of riding that line between ‘tall tales’ and telling people what he wanted them to know. He seemed to favor this mode of communication as a matter of self-defense.
My father was born in 1938. When he was growing up, he lived in a single parent home. Of course, this is unremarkable by today’s standards. But during the 1940’s and 1950’s, being a child in a single parent home was practically unheard of. And when it was “heard of” the fractured family was treated like some newly discovered species of lizard: a thing to be observed, but not interacted with.
To make matters all the more weird for my father and his brother, their mother, who had to raise my father and his brother, swore off men for the rest of her life.
That is to say, she felt that she had such a miserable marriage; she gave up physical, intimate contact all together.
Given his mother’s voluntary emotional detachment, I don’t think my father could be blamed for being as tight lipped as he was. Still, I can’t help but feel a bit cheated. In spite of his obvious emotional handicaps and projected parental insecurities, I did like my father as a person. I only wish I knew him as the person that he was, instead of the person that he wanted people to think he was.
Having to plan a funeral is no easy task at any age. An item that I had working in my favor were the level of services that the funeral home had provided.
One of the services that they provided was oration. They had someone, either on staff or in a freelance capacity, who was qualified to eulogize your dearly departed in the event that no one wanted to, or felt up to, the task. Given that I was barely out of my teens, my level of life experience was practically nil, and the fact that I was going through a major trauma, I felt more than justified when it came to taking advantage of this service.
I regret it to this day.
To be fair to the Orator, my family and I screwed him. About a week and a half had passed between the time that my father had expired and the night of his funeral. In that time, the orator had reached out to me on three separate occasions. On all three times, I didn’t have much to give him. I petitioned family members but even they had a hard time trying to summarize who my father was. Being youthfully ignorant and in charge of closing out someone’s life gave me enough to contend with. And, selfishly, I didn’t want to engage in anything that remotely resembled having to think about the person that I had just lost. I had a job to do and I was having a hard enough time as it was.
Looking back on that part of my life, and the night of the funeral in particular, is like being shown a photo of yourself that you don’t remember being present for. You have a dim recollection of what led up to the photo, and, as you stare deeply into the photo, examining every aspect from the lighting to the look on your face, you can guess what you were thinking about as the shutter captured that moment of your time. But, as it is, you can only guess.
For what it’s worth, the Orator, in my opinion did a good job. As I am a grown man recalling a span of time from my younger days, I can’t say that I find the Orator’s success very surprising. Even though he didn’t have a lot to go on (which doesn’t help when you are trying to sum up a stranger’s life), he was a trained professional. If there was one thing that I do recall with absolute certainty, it was the amount of times that he locked eyes with me, as if to say “Jump in here, anytime, pal!”.
What I did find the most surprising about that night was the amount of people that had turned out to pay their respects to my father. Family, people he had worked with, people he hadn’t spoken to in a decades, even people he had impacted by dislocation, they had all showed up. He might have been equal parts tight lipped and storyteller with me but who he was, was certainly in that room that night.
A year and a half after my biological father had passed away, Jack was diagnosed with cancer as well. From diagnosis to death, he was gone in the matter of a summer. Having someone leave in that manner, who had such a huge impact in your life, and then have them leave as quickly as he did, creates a vacuum that takes years for the surviving family members to regulate.
After Jack died, the thing that I found the most shocking was how small and brittle my mother had become. In the span of two years, she lost the person she knew the longest (my father) and then the person she thought that she was going to spend the rest of her life with. To have to go through that amount of loss in such a short amount of time and then have to eventually wrap her head around having to live by herself for the first time in her entire life was a hard thing to have to watch.
My mother wasn’t the planner that my father was. When it came to planning Jack’s funeral, she was tying off loose ends as they popped up. One of the loose ends she needed to take care of was finding someone to eulogize Jack.
I knew she was going to ask me. Instead of just answering in the affirmative, I pretended to be surprised and gave it an ounce of consideration before I had said ‘yes’. In my defense, I was barely 23 and I wasn’t about to have a repeat of what had happened at my father’s funeral.
For the record, I have thought about this whole event at least once a month it happened. And yes my stomach turns every time.
After I had gotten over my own revulsion at my behavior when I had accepted the task eulogizing Jack, the eulogy itself was a piece of cake.
The night before the funeral, my mother had requested that I spend the night at her house. She wasn’t ready to start adjusting to solitude and having someone else in the house gave her a sense of security. Given her emotional state, declining would not have been an option. My only request was that my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, stay as well as she had wanted to be supportive to both my mother and myself. After my mother had turned in for the night, my wife and I had gone for a late night walk in my mother’s neighborhood. The two of us had been living together for nearly a year at that point and this was the first time that I had been back in the neighborhood since I had moved out.
The thing that had struck me was how small the neighborhood had looked. Perhaps that’s an unspoken facet of leaving your childhood home: once you leave, it’ll never look the same again.
The weather was mild that night. What we talked about, my wife and I, if we talked, is lost to me now. I had all ready written Jack’s eulogy the previous week. Maybe we had talked about how our day went. She was a bakery manager at the time, and I was a salesman presently on bereavement leave. Which is a nicer way of saying that I had spent the day, along with my brother, helping our mother finalize funeral arrangements and clean her house in the event that anyone had wanted to stop over after everything had concluded the following day.
Whatever we had talked about, it was dwarfed by the fact that a block into our walk, my wife and I had come across a home that had every single light on and every single window covering drawn open. Not completely out of the ordinary. Maybe they were having a dinner party and burnt the roast? Maybe the homeowner’s house was robbed and they were presently looking for clues? These are reasonable things to think of and I would not be surprised if past me had thought them as I examined the oddity of that house along with my wife during our stroll.
Everything had become clear as we drew level with the front room windows. The house lights were on for an obvious reason. And the homeowner had made a point of doing so and opening their living room curtains after nightfall so that all passersby could their fireplace-sized portrait of Ty Pennington.
The summer that Jack had passed away was also the summer that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was popular, reality-tv show viewing.
The next day was Jack’s funeral.
In one of my mother’s more lucid moments, she had decreed that she was going to wear white to the funeral. Purity jokes aside, her reasoning was that Jack’s funeral should be a celebration of his life and wearing black would be the antithesis of that. What she didn’t account for was the dress that she had in waiting, she had bought when she was two sizes smaller. She was able to fit into it and she looked good. But it was obvious that she wasn’t comfortable.
The funeral itself was a church funeral. My mother and Jack being the Christian’s that they are, my mother choosing this venue wasn’t entirely surprising. What she seemed to disregard was the fact that unless you’re recreating the church scene from the Blues Brothers celebrating someone’s life in a church always falls flat. The color scheme is always dark, the seats are uncomfortable, and you’re surrounded by pictures of a skinny guy being tortured to death.
When thinking about Jack, the type of person he was, and the affect that he had had on the people he interacted with on a regular basis, the following scene had come to mind.
It was two Christmas’s before my father had been diagnosed with cancer; I was working in a local grocery store. After working the Christmas shift, I had come home to my mother’s house, exhausted and unaware that she was having Christmas Eve dinner. Sitting at the table, chatting like old friends were my father and Jack while my mother finished up dinner in the kitchen.
The gravity of that scene spoke volumes about the two men who had recently moved on from our lives. And it was something that I had conveyed to those who would gather to pay their respects to Jack.
When I sat down next to my mother, she had leaned over to thank me and give me a hug. As soon as she leaned over, her top had popped open and her brassiere-d bits were on display for the the priest, Jesus, and the rest of our seatmates to see.
To this day, I consider my mother’s inability to wear right-fitting clothing, and seeing something so wonderfully bizarre as a portrait of a semi-forgotten reality television host, so close to my mother’s home as an indication that belief is a matter of circumstance where death is concerned.