Clutching my friend Lydia’s obituary and a memoir she wrote several years ago, I enter the large light-filled atrium of the life-care facility where her service will be held. If I had heard that, at 92, she died in her sleep after a good dinner and one martini (her limit), I would not feel haunted by the cruel grotesquerie of her choking to death. Hoping her memoir will distract me from the images of her death that flash before me, I settle into a wicker chair under the skylight to read. Her parents were Preacher Mack and Miss Mary: he was a circuit-riding preacher, spreading the gospel through Georgia on mule back, and she was his beautiful and resourceful wife. Lydia and her brother squirmed through several church services a week and learned to behave under the scrutiny of her father’s congregations.
As I go to get a cup of coffee at the front of the room, I pass a grand piano prepared for playing and a lectern mounted with a microphone and anticipate the stories we will tell of Lydia’s life. I have nothing written, but four hours of driving to New Hampshire has given me time to think about what to say. I appreciate the opportunity to recreate Lydia, to make meaning out of our history and this loss. After working at the local hospital psychiatric clinic, she became the social worker at the high school where I taught. I was the English teacher of last resort for the angry and disaffected students with whom she worked. We shared setbacks and successes, including some that are too salty to recount at a memorial service. One I will tell is that after having advised a pregnant girl who wanted an abortion, Lydia sent her distraught boyfriend to me; it was my job to explain to him, a poor speller, how to find the Planned Parenthood clinic. It was Planned, not Plant Parenthood...we weren't talking about greenhouses here. Lydia jettisoned her preacher’s-kid legacy and claimed all the pleasures that life offered. She is the only person I know who maintained a vigorous sex life into her mid-eighties, saying, “At mah age, it passes as exercise, because I can’t walk as faah as I used to.”
I want to tell them that Lydia is the reason I became a social worker. That she set the standard of excellence for me. Social workers are not always the favorites of school administrators, who see us as handwringers and excusers of bad behavior, always asking for one last chance for some miscreant who has already consumed too much time and energy. But Lydia knew how to be tough when it was warranted.
One time she called me to her office to meet with a very troublesome, drug-involved boy, my English student, placed in my class by her. Both of us felt affection and anger in equal proportions. Lydia said, working the Southern accent for effect, “Now AAHH-leen, you know that Frank here has been doin’ dope again when he promised us that he wasn’t goin’ to bring it to school anymore. He thinks we’re goin’ to bail him out again. But what we’re goin’ to do is, you are goin’ to nail his feet to the floor raaght here, so he can’t git away when I start kickin’ his butt and callin’ the police.” While Frank started to turn slightly green, Lydia picked up the phone and left a message for the youth police officer. She later arranged for Frank to perform community service without an arrest on his record. Lydia was a favorite of the school administrators, as well as the teachers and the students. She was always in the right pew.
The piano gives me a shiver of anticipation. Lydia loved music, another delight we shared. Sitting with my coffee, I close my eyes and imagine the swelling chords of “Amazing Grace” lifting me up just the way grace is supposed to. And I hope “In The Garden” will be played, too. Lydia loved it. The sweetly simple refrain, “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own,” is almost enough to make a believer of me. At the funeral of our mutual friend Charles, Lydia and I were both transported by the Southern hymns, she back to her childhood, and I to the brink of conversion. “AAHH-leen,” she accused me, while she squeezed my arm, “you have no principles whatsoevah.”
Lydia understood my quarrelsome parting with Catholicism, as she had a similar falling out with Southern Baptism, mainly because of its stand on segregation. And she would have sympathized with my suffering this week; missing her and mourning her terrible departure made me self-centered, sorry for myself, and very preoccupied with my own mortality. The rancid remains of my Irish Catholicism, punishing and critical habits of mind, denounced these feelings as unworthy and selfish. Without the comforts of confession, the self-accusation required to examine my conscience felt like a hair shirt.
Next to me, a woman in a wheelchair studies a small piece of paper in her left hand, a pretty hand with no bulgy veins, wearing a lovely square emerald. I want to hear what these people will say about Lydia, as they shared a part of her life I didn’t know well. Twice a widow, she had many reservations about leaving her apartment and moving to New Hampshire to be closer to her son, but she knew it was the right thing to do. So she did it, without fuss, and did it while she was healthy and still able to volunteer at the historical society and the literacy program and the local symphony. She was rewarded with a cultured and intellectual community, full of retired Harvard and Brandeis and Dartmouth professors, none of whom presumed to visit her without telephoning first. Lydia had a horror of vapid women, mercenary men, and empty socializing.
The room is now rustling with the last-minute arrivals, some ambulatory, some in motorized scooters festooned with walkers and canes and crutches, reminding me of deer antlers. As the clock strikes the hour, Lydia’s son walks to the front of the room, tall, distinguished, with hair and eyes so pale he seems to shine. I met him only once, in the early seventies, before he left the United States for Paris. Since then, he has written books, married and had a son, become an educator, and gone to law school. He is now a public defender, but he looks so starchy and rigid that I am afraid he has taken in a bit too much of the Granite State.
He makes a brief and graceful speech, thanking everyone for coming, describing Lydia’s initial misgivings about an assisted-living home, and ending with an account of her happy years there. Then he tells of driving by earlier in the week and seeing “A Celebration of the Life of Lydia” on the sign for Saturday's memorial service. “Oh, we can’t have that,” he says. “Lydia would never have wanted all that. But she would have liked to look down and see us all gathered in one place, so that she could smile on us.” He points toward the ceiling, and as I follow his finger, I stop myself from shouting, “NO! This is about what YOU want, not Lydia.” He continues, “So please help yourself to the punch and the fruit. Talk to one another. And I hope I will be able to speak to many of you.”
It takes a moment for this to register with me. The woman to my right crumples the paper and begins to sob. People look from one to another, confused. Finally, a man heaves himself from the couch and heads for the buffet. In addition to the fruit and punch, there are cheese squares and Ritz crackers. After a few minutes, the table is thronged. People do love free food.
I lean back in my chair and look up at the skylight, waiting to discover what is going to well up within me. It is laughter. Bitter perhaps, but laughter, at this irony. Lydia choked, and so have we, thwarted in our attempts to remember her, our celebratory words stuck in our throats. I wonder if I can go around the room and introduce myself to these strangers and talk with them about Lydia. I don’t think so, and I am not even going to blame myself that I don’t want to linger among the lavender hair and the wheelchairs. If this is going to be a Do-It-Yourself memorial service, I will do it my way, not the way Mr. Granite recommends.
I go up and eat some cheese squares and then approach Lydia's son. I tell him that his mother was the inspiration to me in my professional life, and he says, dabbing his eyes, “Oh, I don’t think I can hear much more of that!” He introduces me to his wife and says that he will call me when he comes to town to scatter the ashes, and we say good-bye. I tell him that I will talk to Lydia all the way home.
In the car, I am determined to find some music to replace the specter of the silent piano. I have always loved the surprise of music on a car trip. All the way home, chasing their signals through the mountains, I bounce from one radio station to another, from klezmer to bluegrass to opera to New Orleans jazz. Zydeco, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, the big bands. I even sing what I can remember of “In The Garden.” I don’t attempt “Amazing Grace”... I know better.
One of the music programs, from WGBH in Boston, is an hour of songs about love and kissing, perhaps recycled from Valentine’s Day. The mix of songs is wildly improbable, “Love Me Tender” followed by “A Kiss To Build a Dream On,” but I am singing and swaying and stomping with my left foot. Once, when the song is about missing someone, I put in Lydia’s name. By the time I get home, I have decided that Mr. Granite is probably a brittle little boy under his stony exterior and, afraid to cry, he doesn’t dare risk hearing us all praise his mother. The Ritz crackers are safer.
I don’t feel as bad as I expected. In the first shock of being denied the chance to commemorate Lydia, while I was throttling my urge to scream, I wondered how I would make the drive back, four dark hours alone. But I wasn’t really alone, with Lydia here. And the music, sweet chariot, carried us home.