Growing up, United Lutheran Church was at the end of our little one-block street. We were members long before I was born and it truly felt like a second home to me. I’d grown up playing on the lawn, making imaginary homes under the canopy of the massive evergreens.
The layout inside is forever etched in my mind. The sanctuary was magnificent with a giant painting of Jesus over the front, side door, vibrant stained glass windows, dark pews, large pendant lights hanging above, and a bright and inviting chancel. Sunday School, church offices, and the gym were housed on the upper floors. The nursery was adjacent to the Luther League room with the Ladies Lounge next door, all on the lower level.
The Ladies Lounge was almost always where we could find my mom. This was a room before the restroom with couches and chairs. She’d be down having cigarettes with her friends and I’d often be dispatched to find her when it was time to head home.
I loved it in there, finding her and her friends in the throes of gossip, a haze of smoke covering the room. Always lots of laughter. My mom had strong bonds with her friends. Our church friends lived in the neighborhood, or very close by.
The day of the funeral was a heavy day, thick with emotion. I didn’t want this day to be real. Once the funeral happened, it felt like it finalized the fact that my mom was dead.
I went to church in an absolute fog of dread.
Our church sanctuary had two sections with a center aisle. As if assigned, our family always sat on the right side, in the second pew, slid over to the aisle. We were surrounded by the exact same families each week. As a child, I thought we had assigned seating.
They expected a full house for the funeral and because of the nature of the service, we sat in the first pew. I was very unsettled with this. Mom would have wanted us in the second pew, our pew. As a toddler, that’s where I ate her entire tube of red lipstick like a lollipop. That is right where I would always try to snuggle up to her because she had such a pretty singing voice, and always smelled so good.
I felt like an intruder sitting in the first pew.
Our family filed in, just my dad, sister, brother-in-law, brother, and me. I didn’t want to sit on the end and moved so I could be surrounded. This unsettled people. There was beautiful music and I could sense the place was packed although I never turned around.
The closed casket with the pig flower arrangement rested in front of us. My dad hoped to speak about my mom but the pastor was ready to stand in if he wasn’t able. The time came.
The emotions were too intense. Just moments after the pastor began, my dad stood, walked to the front, and bravely eulogized his bride.
I remember just crying and crying throughout the entire service. And when my dad spoke, he specifically mentioned how proud my mom was of me. He named every accomplishment that I was certain she missed. My sadness took on a whole new level.
She saw me.
Through everything she endured, she did see me. I thought I was literally going to fall to pieces. The soloist sang Amazing Grace which lulled me into a calmness, enveloped in deep sadness, that is hard to describe.
As the service ended, the casket was rolled back up the aisle, and we were prompted to stand and follow it out.
I didn’t know this. How could I stand? How could I walk?
As I stood and turned, I saw all of the sad faces looking at us, at me. I couldn’t bear it. My dad put his arm around my shoulder and guided me forward. I was crying so hard that I couldn’t see. I swerved into a pew on the left and my dad righted me.
I was a crying mess and now I was so embarrassed.
I blinked back my tears, straightened up, and proceeded forward with some deep gulps of air. At the end of the church, the casket was put in a hearse and driven away for cremation.
Watching the hearse drive south on Ridgeland Avenue, watching my mom being forever driven away provoked such a feeling of despair as if my very breath was being taken away. I was exhausted but now we were expected to go to the fellowship hall for a light reception.
Seriously? I just wanted to walk home and go to sleep. But I guess it was good to see how many people knew and cared for my mom, my dad, and our family. That neighbor from Lenox Street looked me right in that eye and said he told me the funeral would be worse. He was right.
As the day wound down, my dad told my cousin Julie to take the pig flowers from the casket because she also collected pigs. She was crying and nodding and couldn’t easily speak as she gathered it up in her arms.
At 18 years old, two weeks from starting my freshman year at Bradley University, August 6, 1988, was absolutely the hardest day of my entire life.
We would come together in a few months to bury her ashes.