Six months and a few days after my mother’s death, I stepped into the church yard of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Edenton, NC, where she had once been the organist and music director. I carried her ashes in a big Barnes & Noble shopping bag over my shoulder. The ashes themselves were in a sealed plastic bag which I had stuffed into a red velvet bag from the funeral home and then placed in a cardboard box with the words “The cremains of Rosalind MacEnulty” on the top. I don’t like the word “cremains,” but the red velvet bag was a nice touch. The shopping bag seemed discreet but weird at the same time. In fact it felt weird to be carrying around my mother’s ashes. I’d had them in the back of my car for a couple of weeks out of fear that I would forget to bring them. Now it was time to give them a home.
I was wearing my sparkly purple and gold dress and my black boots. It was fairly warm for late November. My two brothers, my niece and my brothers’ girlfriends and I had just had lunch while my daughter stayed back at the B&B to work on a quilt. The salad I’d had consisted of lettuce, chow mein noodles and mandarin oranges. No wonder the women my mother had known here were all good cooks, I thought. Then they’d never have to go out to eat. Nevertheless, the place was packed.
After lunch my brothers and girlfriends went to get ready for the service. My niece went shopping, and my daughter continued frantically working on the quilt that she’d missed that delicious lunch for -- a quilt she was making for my brother David and his girlfriend Lesley out of scraps of my mother’s dresses.
It was my job to get to the church early and to talk to Father Tom about the service. After Father Tom explained to me how the service would proceed, we walked over to the memorial garden and looked at the hole where I would deposit my mother’s ashes. I had wanted this to be something that my brothers and I did together or one at a time, but Father Tom said it would work better if just one person did it.
He showed me the wall where mother’s plaque would go. The plaques were all in pairs. They were husbands and wives -- some blank for a spouse who was in waiting. My mother didn’t have a husband. And I didn’t want her hanging there by herself, so I asked if she could be placed in the middle -- fitting for her star status. For that is how I think of my mother -- as a star, someone who shined brighter than the rest of us. My brothers feel the same way, but the grandchildren not so much. She never knew how to be close to them, and I know that sometimes they did not understand or necessarily appreciate our devotion to her.
As Father Tom and I were leaving the memorial garden to stop in the parish hall where I would drop off the check for mom’s plaque, a dog barked in the background. “Do you think the dogs know that the deadies are here?” Father Tom asked me. “What?” I asked, unsure I had heard him correctly. Did he say, deadies? He had. Pastor humor? I wondered.
Back at the church the rest of the family had arrived. My gorgeous niece wore a black skirt with pink sequins and bright silver high heels. She too understood the need to be sparkly for my mother. We took pictures of each other as we waited. We were all a little giddy, I think. It had been six months since my mother’s death. The brunt of grief had already been born, and it was rare for us to be together like this. We didn’t know if we were happy or sad.
For some reason the family had to stand outside and come in to the chapel through a side door. An usher was supposed to open the door for us and then Father Tom was supposed to come in. But there was no usher so when Father Tom came in to the chapel and saw that we weren’t there he came over and opened the door. We’d missed the first part of the music program. That was a bit of a disappointment. The crowd was smaller than we’d expected as well. But we had been warned that many people left town for Thanksgiving weekend. And apparently some people in the towns nearby who had known her never got word about the service. We hadn’t advertised.
The church is an old one with little gates to the pews. Even with cushions the pews weren’t comfortable. I mollified myself about the church not being packed with the memory of the parties thrown for my mother when she left Edenton seven years earlier, which were hugely attended. Then I heard a voice in my head, “Do you think life is a popularity contest?” No, it isn’t, I realized. It seemed quite clear to me at that moment that my mother’s business had been some mysterious work of the soul. Whatever it was, I was sure she’d done what she came for.
In the middle of the service, my mother’s former choir sang a song from the requiem she’d composed nearly forty years ago. It was beautiful. Unique and haunting like my mother.
After the requiem and some prayers, my brothers and I each got up and spoke as we had back in 2005 for my father’s memorial service, but this was so much different because this time the love we felt poured through our words, words which caught in our throats as the pain of our loss whispered our names once again. I read a piece from my memoir. My brothers each touched on a different aspect of what we think of as “her magnificent life.”
Then it was time to file out of the church. I was to carry the box of my mother’s ashes (the B&N bag ditched earlier) covered by a fancy Episcopalian piece of cloth. (I’ve forgotten what it’s called.) When we got to the narthex I was supposed to leave the cloth in the church. I forgot. Also we proceeded out of the church just before the closing song, which I had specially requested -- a Thanksgiving song that is joyous and celebratory. “Let all things now living sing songs of thanksgiving . . .”
It was a song to express my gratitude for having had a mother as wonderful and fun-loving and musically gifted as she. It was a song that reminded me of so many church services with my mother at the helm of the organ. Fortunately I’d heard the choir practicing it before the service so it was already in my head.
In the memorial garden, I knelt down and poured my mother’s ashes into the hole in the ground while Father Tom spoke a prayer and then said “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” as he sprinkled dirt over my mother’s ashes. It is not customary in the Episcopal service for others to sprinkle dirt, but I did. And then my brothers followed suit. Then my daughter. At this point, Father Tom asked me to follow him to the parish hall for the reception but I waited for my daughter. Then I took her hand, and we walked behind him into the hall.
And there it was that so many people came up and said, “Your mother changed my life.” Or “Your mother gave me confidence.” Or “I was intimidated by your mother. Then I got to know her.” With my mother it was all about the giving. A friend of my mother’s had even driven up from Florida. So the thousands of people whose lives she touched were not in attendance, but the ones who were there were just the right ones.
The women of Edenton showed their culinary prowess that day. We had peanut butter-chocolate balls, home made pimiento cheese, and other southern delicacies.
We stopped by the historic commission's house on the Albemarle Sound to look at the brick some of her friends had commemorated for her. Then after lots of hugs and kisses and more pictures, my brothers, niece and I went our separate ways.
As I was driving with my daughter back west for the five-hour jaunt home, we saw a pillar of colored light in the sky. A cloud moved in front of it and the pillar shone like a second sun. My mother was not only a musician, she was also a painter. I have no doubt her spirit was saying farewell and showing off a little bit, too, as she liked to do when playing for friends on her Steinway or for awed congregation members at church. I put on the Brandenburg Concertos and tried not to have an accident as I watched the show in the sky. My mother was not in the churchyard dirt. She was everywhere.