A long, beautiful day, with a funeral in the middle

Yesterday I woke up at quarter to six in the morning. That’s unusual for me. I’m a night owl. Long ago I gave up trying to fall asleep before midnight. I just lie awake, urging myself unsuccessfully to slumber. My internal clock isn’t set up to go to bed early, and, as a consequence, I’m not a great advocate of rising before the sun. Yesterday I had no choice, though. Yesterday my day was dedicated to a funeral.

I never knew my father’s father. He died before I was born. He grew up with his cousins because his father, my great grandfather George, lost his farm in a poker game and abandoned his family in Ontario to try his luck out in British Columbia. Of those cousins, only my Great Aunt Luella survived for me to meet. She’s really the only link I have to the Greatest Generation on my father’s side, and she died five days ago.

My father called me at 11:30 that night, and I knew it would be bad news. He told me Luella had died, and I told him I was sorry to hear that. I did not know her as well as I would have liked, but I knew her enough to know what a hole had just been created in my father’s world. She was the eccentric old lady in the family. In her youth, which she engineered to encompass easily sixty years, she was a wild woman who played by her own rules, and made a point of giving her complete and total attention to whatever or whoever was occupying her time at that exact moment.

She always said she didn’t want a funeral. She hated funerals. The few that she went to in her life affected her so deeply that when she got home she took off all the clothes that she had worn that day, put them in a garbage bag, and hid them in her closet. She never wore them again. Still, when someone dies, there should be some kind of ceremony for those who wished to mark the passing, so there would be a memorial, a memorable memorial I was sure, and I promised my Dad I would attend.

That wasn’t an easy promise to deliver, I’ll confess. We have two people away on vacation at work, a third is sick and a fourth has scaled her hours back greatly to attend school. I’m something of a work horse, and I have been doing my best to pick up the slack. I knew my boss would give me the time off, but I also promised to call in at 1 to see if she needed me to come back. That was only half the problem, though. The other issue is that the funeral was in Chatham, Ontario, three hours drive in good conditions from where I live and work in Toronto.

Hence the quarter to six wake up call. I set three alarms throughout my apartment to make sure I got up in time. I dragged myself out of bed, ate a clementine, got dressed, made sure I was wearing a poppy –Luella was a great advocate of Remembrance Day and a lifelong Legion member– then I got in my car and started driving.

Toronto is not the city that never sleeps. That’s New York. I will say this, though: It only sleeps between three and five. There was so much traffic on the 401 –people driving from their bedroom communities to their 8 a.m. jobs– that I couldn’t risk leaving any later to arrive on time. I was soon just one more bit of flotsam caught up in the river of light that is a sixteen lane highway in the dark. I drove for an hour in the crush of cars, thinking all the while that for everyone else this was just a typical Thursday. It’s amazing to think how many tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people are driving a hundred kilometers an hour in my city every morning while I sleep.

Beyond Toronto lies Mississauga, almost seven hundred thousand people’s worth of urban sprawl. Beyond that lies Halton Hills, the blanket name for half a dozen towns from the 50s that have all melted together until their subdivisions touch. Beyond that lies Milton, another fifty thousand people who want front lawns and picket fences somewhere close enough to find a living within the Greater Toronto Area. Beyond that is the Greenbelt: The line that the Ontario government drew around Toronto and said, “This far, no further.” Farmers here are not allowed to sell their land to real estate developers. Here the subdivisions and urban sprawl stops. So does the traffic. I’m now flying along a strip of asphalt, and the sun finally comes up.

Oh, Ontario. Rural Ontario. I may have been born in Toronto, and I’ve lived more than half my life here, but I grew up surrounded by corn and wheat and soybeans, and there’s beauty there that you have to be raised to really see. The fields sat there, hedged in by their woodlots, and they were coated in a quarter inch of hoar frost on that cold November morning. The sun came up in purple and mauve and orange and yellow, and then the frost evaporated away into a hanging cloud, a diaphanous curtain of translucent gossamer that danced in the early light between the dried out corn stalks and the naked branches of the maple trees. I drove on for hours, wishing that I had it in me to be up and awake and out there every day to see that kind of peace.

I got to Chatham early enough to take my car to my father’s mechanic to get a dim headlight mended, then we went over to the cemetery chapel. Luella’s friends and family were all there, and most of them got up to tell a funny story. The room was soon full of laughter and smiling faces. Luella didn’t like funerals, hated funerals, but that’s not what we had for her. We just talked and laughed and remembered. She would have liked that. Both of my parents told me in no uncertain terms that they wanted the same when their time came. Stories and laughter. That’s the proper way to remember someone who loved getting the most out of life.

We took her ashes out to her husband’s grave, but it took us a long while to find it. Chatham’s cemetery is huge, and full, and Luella had insisted that we erect no monument to her late husband. It was only when we saw the little trap door in the piece of astroturf lying in the grass that we were sure we had the right place. We said a quick prayer, opened the trap door, and set the box containing her ashes down in the hole. Several of us took off our poppies and tossed them in, joined by a single long stemmed flower, then her daughter said something to the effect of: “Let’s go to the Legion and have a party. That’s what Mom would have wanted.” So we did.

The legion hall basement is a familiar place to me: I spent seven years of my teens in the Air Cadets; My father’s been a member all his life; His father before him –who was raised as Luella’s brother– had been the chapter president during the legion’s heydey in the Sixties. Luella’s daughter Jill had a running tab set up. Our drinks were free. We pushed the tables together and sat around talking. Luella was something of a poet –I’ll publish a couple of her poems on this blog– and some of her work was available in programs sitting between the beer and wine glasses. A self-published book was being passed around: Luella had written a memoir of her childhood on the farm. I smiled a secret smile when I saw it: My greatest regret about Luella is that I never heard all she had to say about my grandfather, and here it was, recorded forever. That’s the power of the printed word.

I popped outside and called work at 1 p.m. to see if they needed me to come in. I braced myself to begin the three-plus hour drive back, but I was given a reprieve: I’d put in some overtime the day before, and there wasn’t enough work to justify my immediate return. I returned to the legion hall basement, and when the party wrapped up my family and my father’s sister’s family went back to my parents home for a nice vist, followed by dinner at one of Chatham’s better restaurants.

I drove home that night, the long drive home, with my music blaring and the window cracked to let the cold air rush through my hair. I didn’t get home until after ten, and I had spent more than seven hours driving, and my whole day had been committed to a funeral, but I thought of the sun on the hoar frost, and the stories, and the poppies, and the legion hall basement, and the poems, and the book, and I knew it had been a beautiful day, and that I had gotten the most out of it. There wasn’t one iota of enjoyment left to be squeezed out of those hours, and that’s just the way Luella would have wanted it. That’s the kind of woman she was, and that’s how she would have wanted her family to spend the day, to spend every day.

It was a long, beautiful day, with a funeral in the middle of it.

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