Fonticulus Fides

Monday, October 27, 2003

Today's noon Mass at our parish was offered on behalf of my grandmother, Lillie, on the day after what would have been her 97th birthday (the October 26th Masses were all "taken," so I arranged for it to be today instead).

I know precious little about Lillie's faith in God, much to my regret. I wasn't Catholic when she died 5.5 years ago, and she never said much to me about it -- probably because my mother made her promise not to say anything to us children about Catholicism. I actually learned most about my Grandma's faith at her funeral than I did while she was alive.

I've always been told I'm the most like Lillie between my mom and my two sisters and I. I can see some of it -- I have the same stubborn sense of self-determination that causes me to think, "Then I'll just make it work" when things happen that aren't to my liking. I have the same level of creative impulses, I think -- until her arthritis got the best of her, Grandma was always working at one needlecraft or another, mostly knitting. Most of my endeavors are mental schemes that don't ever seem to come to fruition, but that's mostly due to lack of time and money for supplies, not because I don't want to.

What I lack from Grandma was her shrewd financial planning ability. She was raised on a poor family dairy farm in Wisconsin. Once she moved to Chicago and became a working girl, she planned well for the future. She retired in good financial shape and even had enough to pay for expensive medical and nursing home bills in her last few months after a series of strokes rendered her unable to live alone. She was enormously practical about money things, and I wish I'd learned more of that from her...or inherited that particular gene if that's how one acquires such wisdom.

She was also practical about other things, including planning and prepaying her funeral. That was some funeral, too. On her 91st birthday, she called the funeral home that had handled all her family's arrangements for the last century plus and told the current manager, who was just a little older than me, that it was time for her to get things settled.

He went to her apartment to make all the arrangements. He told us later, "Your grandma drove a hard bargain." She asked for the cheapest casket on the list. When he suggested she might want her final resting chamber to be a bit more comfortable, she just glowered at him. He wrote down the cheapest model.

"You sing at the funeral," she said, knowing he wouldn't take money for it. He reminded her he wasn't a professional. "I've stood by you in church. You're good enough," she insisted.

She refused to pay for a hearse, even though she was to be buried in a country cemetary in the next county, 30 miles away. "What do you want me to do, Lillie?" the funeral director had asked, "Put you in the back of my Suburban?"

I can picture her setting her jaw the way she did. "Write that down," she told him.

"But Lillie, people won't understand!"

"Write. It. Down." He did.

No flowers, Grandma had insisted. She never did like getting cut flowers, because they died. She preferred plants that went on living. That was one request that my mom overturned, but there was only one arrangement to go over the casket.

No headstone, Grandma had said. The temporary marker was enough for her. My mom overruled that request, too, and had a headstone made to match the other family members' graves.

A few other details were worked out. Satisfied, Grandma wrote the funeral director a check to cover the total cost.

Grandma died about six months later. By then, most of her family and friends had gone on before her. My mom was her only child, so it was my parents, my three siblings and I, plus my husband. A sister-in-law and a couple nieces also attended, and a few friends...or maybe they were casual acquaintences from the parish who knew Lillie always came to Mass alone and had few friends and family around her.

The parish priest was young and fairly new. He admitted that he had never had a face-to-face conversation with Lillie, but he knew her well because if he ever said anything in a homily that treaded too close to overstepping the bounds of Catholic theology, he was sure to get a letter from my grandmother.

Had she been able to, she probably would have written him a letter after her funeral Mass. The priest, knowing that none of us were Catholic but my older sister, bent some rules for our sake. He let my older sister and I each read a passage of Scripture. He let my brother say a few personal words about Grandma after the homily. I didn't know this wasn't orthodox at the time -- I just remember feeling grateful that the priest was behaving so compassionately toward Grandma's woefully non-Catholic offspring. Maybe it wasn't the right thing for him to do, but it was one of the small memories that enabled my husband and I to entertain the idea that we should become Catholic some years later.

Until I did so, I never much thought about the souls in Purgatory or what might have been my grandmother's situation. I wasn't able to attend Mass today like I wanted to, but it felt good to know that my grandma's name was being spoken today, and that maybe we've helped her in some small way.



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