Friday, September 21, 2012

The Prairie Cemetery: Beauty & The Dead

I can be dismissive of the mortician's art, challenging though it may be. When death settles into a face, its individuality and beauty completely disappear. The mortician puts considerable effort into reconstructing who this person was, in life. Usually what one sees in an open casket falls within the failing end of the spectrum, which I'm prone to thinking is as it should be. We do not behold our loved one; we behold what remains of her.

This time, however, the mortician's art seemed inspired. I was struck by the beauty of my grandmother's lifeless mien. I saw her as I hadn't seen her in many, many years. In this reconstructed face shone a bold projection of the person she had been — not just recently, but as a young woman, even as a child.

She had once been a young woman, a mother of four who, incredibly, never raised her voice at them. Hers wasn't a shouting temperament, mind you, but I also suspect her own earliest childhood memories informed her conduct. She had once been a three-year-old, who cooled her mother's forehead with a wet cloth, as the young woman fought the grip of Spanish Influenza — and lost. Less than a year later, when her father hitched up the wagon and rode off, promising to bring home “a new mother for you,” this three-year-old waited in anticipation. When the wagon returned with a woman who was clearly not her mother, this little girl threw a fit. Following a spanking and earnest talking-to, the new rules of behaviour were laid out and followed.

Standing in the funeral home and seeing the chimera of that little girl, it struck me that this person, whose face this once was, had always seen with the eyes of that three-year-old — certainly when beholding her own children, then grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren, but also when greeting the various souls a pastor's wife is compelled to greet. These people exist in varying states of need, and approach the pastor's house either in a shabby disguise, or clearly naked in their insufficiency. Either way, my grandmother set the table for them, and listened to the stories they told her husband as they broke bread together.

Most people didn't put on airs when they were with this woman. I don't think they felt the need: my grandmother had a remarkable capacity to withhold judgement. I think she understood, as only a heart-broken three-year-old can, that we all look to the faces of others and harbour yearnings so fierce we can only name them when we are disappointed.