Monday, November 1, 2004

Communicating With the Dead

It's time for me to pull my scattered thoughts together and do the last entry in my "morose" (as Sara calls it, and she's right) Halloween series. I was going to finish it off with a big entry about my Mom (yes, her again) in connection with All Soul's Day / All Hallow's Eve / Dia de las Muertos and All Saint's Day. But it's a minute after midnight, and Halloween and blogging have put me terribly, terribly behind on my homework and my sleep. This will therefore be off the top of my head, with parts of it cobbled together from correspondence. If it's full of typos or not very coherent, you'll know why.

As I stood in the sacristy at St. Michael's Sunday morning, chatting about blogs, something happened that really delighted me. Our organist started playing her chosen prelude for the October 31st  (22nd Sunday After Pentecost) 10 AM Mass: Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor! You know this piece, whether or not you recognize the name. It's the quintessential spooky organ music, and probably my favorite classical piece of all time. I stood there grinning, listening. Nor was I the only one delighted by Jane's choice. Everyone was listening, and enjoying. After mass, Jane said, "I've never played it before in my five and a half years here. It was about time." This was the same piece I asked another church organist to play at my wedding, back in 1979. He wouldn't do it (it's kind of long, and not at all appropriate), but he did play it for me in private in an empty church.

At today's mass, Father Douglas talked about communicating with the dead. He told a story of a family Back East that wanted to bring a medium in at the local churchyard, to extract financial advice from some ancestor. The then-youthful Fr. Douglas refused the request. However, he pointed out in the sermon that in going to churches decades old, partaking in liturgies centuries old, reading texts by saints and patriarchs who died millenia ago, we are communicating with the dead. We are paying attention to words and traditions our long-dead forbears considered important, and trying to learn from them.

The same, I suppose, can be said of many activities, even in the information age. Every time we carve a jack-o-lantern or put on a Halloween costume, every time we read Shakespeare, listen to Bach, learn about Newton and Einstein, or research a family tree, we are communicating with the dead. No mediums (although there may be media), no mumbo jumbo, no time machines required. We partake of the past through what the people of the past left behind.

my mom's father - probably. He died in 1950. Somewhere in this house is a white folder from Adair Funeral Home. I've looked all week for it and haven't found it, just as I looked all week in vain for the box of missing Halloween stuff that would have allowed me to wear the mask in my "About Me" photo for Halloween tonight. (By the way, the trick-or-treaters handled seeing me in the ghoul mask just fine.) In that folder is a funeral preplanning questionnaire, filled out by me and my mom at a rehab facility / nursing home in 2002. If I could find that, I would probably know more about my mom than I do now.

You would think that I'd know pretty much everything about a woman I lived with for eighteen years, visited many times after that, took to lunch almost every Sunday for six years, and visited nearly every night as her health failed toward the end. Nope. There are many things I never know or have forgotten, many questions I could have asked and didn't. I asked about some things, but overall I didn't want to seem to be too obviously pumping her for information in preparation for her death.

But I found an envelope full of genealogy my brother sent her years ago, and dug out three reference books in which she's listed, including an old edition of Who's Who of American Women. I've entered the info I found onto her tribute page and the family Find A Grave pages, except for things I know to be inaccurate. I've found and posted old pictures, even though I'm not sure who some of the people are in my mom's collection of prized wallet photos, plus one sepia portrait that's probably of my grandfather. I've looked through some of the files of plays Mom wrote in Florida, stuff I've never read or seen performed.

I'll continue to go through papers, but I'm sure there will still be gaps. Where did Mom work in San Bernardino, and where in Brevard County, before her stint at Barry University?  My grandmother. Can someone identify this uniform for me?Exactly how many plays did she write or co-write, and in what years? What's the last name of my Aunt Flora's daughter, the one she gave up for adoption, and where the heck is that greeting card with Verna's contact info? (I'm determined to answer this question, anyway, so Verna knows I've not intentionally ignoring her existence.) Where in New York City did my mom teach English in the 1940s? Was my grandmother a WAC or a WAVE, in WW II or Korea or neither? My mother's been dead two years, but there's still a lot I want her and other dead family members to communicate to me, the ordinary, historical way, through physical evidence.
I'm at an earlier stage of the same situation with my dad. He's 81, still active and generally healthy, but I know he won't last forever. He doesn't like to reminisce. He's much more interested in talking about the present and the future. He was uninterested when I mentioned finding only one online reference (other than mine) to his many years as Assistant Dean and then Dean of University College at Syracuse University. He'd be even less pleased if I pumped him for information about his childhood, his experience in Stalag 1, how his plane got shot down, or even what years he was at Lehigh University or what he did for Voice of America there. So I have to piece it together from my memories of what Mom said, and what my brother knows. Tricky. However, my brother tells me he's got family tree stuff for dad already posted on his web site, some of it researched by my cousin, Ed Oliveri. To get to the info, though, I'd have to subscribe to In other words, I'd have to pay. Not today, thanks.


sistercdr said...

I love that your father doesn't want to discuss the past. My father didn't do that either until the early stages of the illness that led to his death.

ryanagi said...

I have sketchy info on my mom and dad's history...mostly memories of stories they told when I was yonger. They never talk about their past. And knowing my mother's history of selective amnesia, I would be less than confident in the accuracy of any answers to questions I would ask. ;-)