My husband thinks this week’s Sushi Tuesdays post should be lighter fare, but we went to a funeral on Easter Sunday. Seriously. And it’s giving me pause for thought.
For as long as any of our boys can remember, we’ve spent Easter afternoon at an aunt’s house with about fifty extended family members feasting on all manner of traditional Easter fare and an inordinate amount of sugar. The three older boys have each had turns donning the Easter Bunny costume and handing out candy and eggs to the little cousins. One of the joys of a large family is these traditions, especially with little ones scurrying all over the front lawn looking for eggs in a display of tenacity that my bird dog would approve of. This year also features that particular delight of all family gatherings —a brand new baby. Which didn’t exactly balance out the fact that it was Tim’s and my first Easter without our oldest “baby” (away at college), but does remind us how much joy life brings. And how quickly those baby chicks grow up.
The fact that the boys consider this Easter tradition their own is one of my more significant accomplishments as a parent. The truth of the matter is that seven years ago we didn’t know any of these people. They were part of the package when Tim and I got married, and now we are all family. Blending families requires courage, patience and flexibility. A sense of humor. The occasional stiff drink. And the willingness to bite one’s own tongue.
So the funeral. My cousin’s father died the week prior to Easter. I call her “my”cousin, but technically she is the cousin of my first husband. Sam’s family is Jewish, and one of the gifts of an interfaith marriage is that the only major holiday he and I had to share was Thanksgiving. We spent Christmas with my family and Hannukah with his. Easter with mine; Passover with his. It worked well for us, and the only real challenge was negotiating the occasional Mother’s Day conflict.
Among the choices that were mine after Sam’s death was the matter of redefining our nuclear family. I found myself using the possessive pronoun —with its powers of inclusion and exclusion — intentionally. Partially as a means to come to terms with my new role as a single mother, but also in a display of defiance, I started referring to our children as “mine.” (Unless, however, the boys were doing something offensive or inappropriate, in which case I called them “his.”)
I think I had underestimated the power of the possessive pronoun (his, hers, mine, ours) in the healing process. I attended a small, quirky university in Texas, which earned its reputation in science and engineering and branched out to include the liberal arts. Similarly, I began my college career as an engineer, but then the literary arts captured my interest. I didn’t veer entirely off the geeky engineer path; I continue to take delight in details such as which Major League Baseball player has two consecutive possessive personal pronouns in his name. Literature seems a soft pursuit, but I believe in the power of words. Even little ones.
Those possessive pronouns, while subtle, indicated a clear direction for our relationships. It was important to me to preserve my boys’ connection to their extended family; when the family lost Sam, I didn’t want them to lose his sons as well. Partially as a means to simplify but also in an effort to be inclusive, I started to referring to Sam’s cousins as “mine.” In order for the boys to feel a meaningful connection, I needed a close relationship, not as the shiksa to “his” family, but as a member of the family myself. Consequently, I commandeered “his” family as my own.
But this funeral. There’s never a convenient time, but I was kind of thinking Good Friday would have made a logical choice. Once again, nobody consulted me. At least it wasn’t on Tuesday of Holy Week. Or any other week for that matter. You know how I feel about my Tuesdays. Logistics being what they are, the funeral was set for Easter Sunday, early afternoon, and we would be there.
It doesn’t always work out. Several years ago we had an unresolvable conflict: my nephew’s bar mitzvah was at the exact time as my son’s confirmation. Predictably, the temple and the church were at opposite ends of Los Angeles county; even with no traffic and a reserved parking space, there was no way to attend both events. For years, I was afraid I wouldn’t be forgiven.
As for the funeral, it never occurred to me not to go. We will have our customary Easter next year. I would have enjoyed holding the baby and also a glass of the traditional Bellini at the family Easter lunch. If Sam were here, he would have attended the funeral for his uncle and to support his cousin, and we would have been with him. Seven years later we are not just going in “his” place. We are going because it is our place. “We”being myself, my husband Tim, and our collective sons. Our nuclear family expanded. Our extended family expansive.
We attend an early Easter mass and grab breakfast before getting suited up for the funeral. My husband and sons trade the sign of the cross for yarmulkes in support of our family. It is one of the lovely paradoxes of funerals that life’s challenges bring us together. We are, particularly in our sadness, grateful to have each other. I recently heard someone say that “grief” is just another word for “love,” and indeed love for my uncle has brought us to this moment. At the end of the day, what slips through our fingers we hold on to with our hearts.
As usual, my cousin the “drama mama” is eloquent and hilarious, just as she was in her eulogy at Sam’s funeral, using endearing terms and just a few of Uncle Jose’s colorful words (in Spanish). The rabbi points out that the Mourner’s Kaddish does not contain any actual mourning language. A prayer of praise, it includes words like majesty, life, blessing, comfort, harmony and peace. It occurs to me that this language is not so different from the words the priest used that morning in celebration of Easter. We have, after all, gathered together to celebrate a life.
To which we all say Amen.
In some ways these events are predictable — aunties and grandmas leaving lipstick-prints all over our sons’cheeks while remarking on their height and resemblance to uncles and grandfathers. Whether gathering to grieve or to celebrate, family is comforting in its consistency. Next year, our youngest son may well get his turn as the Easter Bunny, and our baby niece will likely be walking.
Not just Mine. Not only His. All Ours.
And in case you were still wondering, it’s Orel Hershiser. Hers-His.
Wishing you light and strength on your path. And inclusive possessive pronouns.