Thursday, May 12, 2011
The Baklava was to die for
My sweet Aunt Elane was buried yesterday.
Family and friends met at a Greek Orthodox Church in Reading, Pa. to send her off to her just rewards. It was a great ceremony, sung for the most part, by the Greek Orthodox pastor of her church, Fr. Demetrius Nicoloudakis.
Of all the aunts and uncles in my mother's extended clan, she was not anyone's betting favorite to pass any time soon.
Her husband, my uncle Henry, is in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease and his mind is so far gone it made no sense for him to attend the funeral of his deceased wife. My own mother suffers from dementia too and, though less deranged than my uncle, is 10 years older than Aunt Elane.
My Aunt Helen came to the funeral gingerly stepping behind a walker with wheels. She's nearly 90. Her sister, my Aunt Celene, could not attend the funeral because she had fallen down and broke two bones in her neck a few weeks ago. My Uncle Frank came up from Georgia the day before on AMTRAK.
He's 91 years young and only needs a cane to navigate his way around. On the evening before the funeral, he held court at St. Martha's Villa, the home for the aged where my folks reside, telling stories about growing up in Holland in World War II.
These oldsters are all still full of mischief and surprises. My uncle came dressed for the funeral as if trying to make everyone forget the solemnity of the day. He wore a polyester pale blue jacket, plaid pants and a striped tie. This was all topped off with a wrinkled Aussie rancher's hat he had purchased some time ago on a trip to Sydney.
My father wore a black wool coat, a more circumspect choice given the occasion, except that, in this case, the wool fabric is starting to ball up and dozens of small clots of wool were spread over the coat like an army of ants, rendering my father's sartorial appearance somewhat pathetic.
On the drive up to Reading, my dad gives Uncle Frank some good-natured ribbing. Apparently, Uncle Frank "monopolized" their just-past social evening, regaling the octogenarians at St. Martha's Manor with remembrances of his life in pre-war Holland. My father, the newest alpha male at the manor, apparently didn't like sharing the limelight with Uncle Frank.
Their needle barbs at one another made sharp points. "He wouldn't shut up!" my father complains, which elicited chuckles from my uncle. My father casually mentioned to me one of the women in the nursing home had invited my uncle to spend an extra day in Pennsylania and to "stay the night with her and sleep in her bed." She would take the couch she told him. This sounded like a plan with substantial appeal to my uncle, based on the size of his smile.
Their good-natured ribbing took a serious turn about 15 minutes before the start of the funeral service. I sat stoically on the hard wooden pew to the left of my mom while my father sat to her right and next to my uncle. Suddenly, my dad waved his arm at me and pointed to the back of the church and told me to "go get help."
Uncle Frank had passed out and slumped against my father's shoulder like a scarecrow. His features, pasty to begin with, had taken on a whiter shade of pale.
I went back to talk to one of the guys from the funeral home. Apparently youth-challenged church-goers have strokes or dizzy spells at funerals all the time because he acted as if this was a common occurance. He took control of the situation, calling an ambulance and scavenging the church for a wheelchair.
Meanwhile, one of the deceased's local friends, a Reading doctor, saw what had happened to Uncle Frank and told my uncle to lay his head down on the hard wooden pew. He carefully loosened that striped tie from around my uncle's neck and stuffed it in the Aussie rancher's hat lying next to him on the pew. Uncle Frank's pulse was slight, his breath light. He appeared more pale than my Aunt stretched out in her walnut casket.
I turned casually to my brother and nephew in the pew behind me and, with a gentle nod toward the casket, whispered: "Hey, maybe they'll cut us a deal?"
They both looked blankly at me for a second and then stifled their chortles.
My brother-in-law drove in the ambulance over to the hospital to be with Uncle Frank. He missed the entire service, which was lengthy, elaborate and rife with pomp, incense and reverence.
Afterwards, we all assembled at the parish hall, a large meeting room with florescent lights and lineoleum flooring, located in a strip mall several miles outside of Reading. Several moving eulogies were made for my aunt, including one from Charlotte Somon, a 41-year-old friend who flew all the way from Holland to attend the funeral. She explained how my Uncle Henry had offered her a job in their New Jersey flower shop, The Flower Basket, when she was just 18 because she was from his hometown, Nijmegan, Holland.
She teared up near the end of a William Butler Yeats poem, "The Two Trees" when she read these lines:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the hold branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender card:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
We ate a nice meal of cabe cakes (my aunt's favorite meal I was told), cheesy pasta noodles, sauce with meatballs, and Greek salad topped off with coffee and an assortment of Greek desserts.
The baklava was to die for.