I stood the aisle of St. Anthony Church with my cousins Mary Beth, Lauren, and Jeremy. Our family had said goodbye to Mema and we were waiting for the service to begin.
Mema's face was beautiful in life and death but in the casket I had to search her features for recognition. One of the church workers likened human death to a cicada molting: The shell is there but without the spirit, it's empty. It looks different.
When I saw Mema's hands, however, I knew it was her and I could hear her voice, "Well, hello, Jessica Ann."
"Meems..." I said aloud and Mary Beth and Lauren answered back softly in unison, "Meems and Peeps..."
We all started laughing. When did we start calling Mema and Papa MEEMS AND PEEPS? We didn't call them that directly, just to each other. And we laughed more because Peeps sounds so street. Papa was many things: Erudite, philosophical, spiritual, stern, playful, but he wasn't hip-hop.
Mema told her children that she didn't want to be eulogized and that if she were, she would come back to haunt them. They respected that. Praise for Mema snuck out in her obituary, though: Gentle. Inspiring. Great sense of humor.
I'm so different than Mema on the surface. Our lives bear wildly different paths. By the time Mema was my age she'd already had a hundred, I mean, five or six kids and was working her way up to eleven. I'm ambivalent. It might be wonderful to have a family but I keep finding other things to do. Mema was a lady, never coarse, maybe a little wicked in her laughter, never rude. She had a cleaner mouth than I, for sure.
But if I inherited a fraction of Mema's grace, if I can meet people with openness, if my generosity is genuine and my integrity something to be counted on, then I've learned something from my family and I'm fortunate.
I imagine Mema now in her cable-knit sweater and jean skirt, tinkling laughter intact, surrounded by love, just as in life.
LET EVENING COME
By Jane Kenyon
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through the chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Mary Rita Gallagher Foy, my mema
1921 - 2008