Why special treatment from friends makes the bereaved act out; whether to carry on your dead mom’s 5am birthday calls; and how to pull painful stories out of reluctant storytellers: all in this week’s Tragicomedia with Rebecca Langguth, Chicago-based improv actor and playwright. Her dark comedy,”The Tribute” – about a woman who carries Burl Ives’ ashes in a Chinese take-out box – closed the weekend Rebecca buried her mother. She is a long time member of WNEP Theater.
How a racist’s impeccable timing got me comfortable with last rites Open caskets say: “They’re in there; they’re going away” Bodies donated to science don’t get a make-over Can one be too touchy feely with the dead? Special treatment from friends makes the bereaved act out Go ahead and wear your “My Mom Just Died, Ask Me About It” t-shirt Carrying on your dead mom’s tradition of The 5am Birthday Call All you can know about a person is who they are when they’re with you Build character by living with regrets Pull out the painful stories, but not all at one time Storytelling photomontages are like modern day cave paintings Your To Do List
“I did not have a perfect relationship with my mother. Like most parents, my mom was not this Giant Perfect Creature. Just human, with as many frailties and flaws as anyone. A wonderful woman, really, with a great sense of humor, but, in later years she became religious. She was always a tad insecure about having not gone to college, instead choosing to become a mother right away. She and her husband retired to a small, southern town, two hours out of Nashville, three hours out of Memphis, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. As a Northerner (or Outsider), she worked to fit in as a member of The Flatwoods Church of Christ, one of those tiny churches with a floating pastor, just this side of Evangelical Christian. Always the social chameleon, Mom’s interests became their interests.
In the last few years of her life, Mom became more adamantly Christian. Our relationship, at times, consisted of her calling me on the phone and crying because I was going straight to Hell. My own religious upbringing was far different. As kids, we were sent to church and Sunday school, while my parents stayed home, slept in or watched “Sunday Morning” with Charles Kuralt. Growing up, my views on religion changed. My mother believed that I became an atheist (although I really think of myself as a secular humanist). I believe in reason and science, and that religion isn’t a requirement to being a moral person.
At The Little Home Church By the Wayside – the church of my childhood – one summer our pastor brought in different people to speak to the congregation. Each week, we listened to a sermon by a visiting priest or a rabbi or a bishop. I learned, across the board, all those folks were down with the Golden Rule and the main idea was to treat each other with consideration and respect.
Jumping ahead, my mother and I are spending a contentious day “fishing” on the Tennessee River in a dinky boat in cold and choppy waters. Later that night, in a bristly mood, we decide to go down for hush puppies and fried catfish at the local Fire Hall. In a corner are three elderly men on mandolin, guitar and fiddle, when this gentleman comes and sits down with us, looking like Kenny Rogers in camouflage. With him is his 10 year old nephew, also head to toe in camo. “Camo Guy” starts going on and on about their failed turkey hunt and casually drops the N-word. Nobody at the table says a word, and Camo Guy continues yammering. In my brain it’s a record scratch. Everything comes to a screeching halt but, in deference to my mom (trying to fit in, in this small town), I keep my mouth shut. Ignorance and prejudice is being passed down to the next generation and it’s tearing me up. So I turn to Mom and say, “I have a headache. Can we go?”
The next morning, I tell her how upset I am about the night before and she says something that makes my jaw hit the table. “Sometimes that word is appropriate.”
My whole life Mom taught me the N-word was not OK. She was the only member of the Perry County Democratic Party who stood down a roomful of southern Democrats who were “not gonna vote for that black man” (i.e. Obama). As I watch Mom get more and more defensive, I can only think, Who are you? Where is my mother? For the next three years, she pretends this conversation never happened. It takes 4 years before she can say, “I don’t know why I said that. I don’t believe it, but I felt backed into a corner.” Oh, the complexity of humans.
Well, at Mom’s funeral, there is a point I turn to her husband to ask, “Do you want to be here when they lower the casket?” “No,” he says, and I’m a little relieved because I don’t think I want to either. But then these southern ladies descend on him. Three steps away from my mom-filled casket, and they’re telling him how much they’re going to miss her, how lovely she was, how great it is that she will be buried right outside his house, and that she’s watching him from Heaven. I’m trying not to be rude, but I’m trying to move us away. I never saw a casket lowered in the ground, and I’m not sure I want the first to be my mother’s.
Just as the ladies wrap it up and I see a chance to move us away from the casket, this guy steps in front of us, blocking our escape. At first I’m thinking, God he looks familiar. It’s only when he starts talking I realize it’s Camo Guy; the guy who caused such derision in the relationship between me and my mom. Why now? He wasn’t at the visitation. Or the funeral service. He says that he was pumping gas and heard about the funeral and came out to give his condolences. His timing is so impeccable, even oddly poetic that I’m thinking, The universe likes toying with you, Rebecca. Life comes full circle: derision and now closure.”
“The lid on a burial casket is an obvious piece of closure. Shut it, and it completes a process that tells us that the deceased is really gone.
Three feet from the casket Camo Guy has appeared and now I give up trying to move Mom’s husband away from the casket. Instead, I stand and watch them lower her into the ground. I want to go over to the dirt shovelers and say, “Can you guys wait just 5 minutes?” but, I don’t do it. Mom’s husband, like me, is still kind of numb, soft-mannered. I didn’t think he had it within him to watch, but he does. If Camo Guy hadn’t come, we surely would have gotten away…
Not seeing her body in an open casket, I feel a slight disconnect from reality. I know she’s in there, but, it hasn’t quite hit home. An open casket would have created this opportunity for closure that, in the moment, I didn’t know I needed. When you can see she’s in there, you can let yourself feel the finality of the moment. Standing graveside, I realize now how I might have needed to experience that. Watching red clay hit the white casket fills that void instead.”
“When I was about 24 my mother’s father, Maynard Pickles, died in a VA nursing home. Unbeknownst to us, he changed his wishes from cremation to donating his body to Indiana University Medical School. The funeral home let us know that we had only a brief window to see him, but never quite gave us a heads up about the condition of his body. Apparently, you do not prep or embalm a body for donation. After the long drive, we were ushered into the embalming room, where Maynard was lying on a stainless steel table, naked except for a sheet covering his genitals: knees up, in a fetal position, with hands clawed (like a zombie), jaw agape, and eyes (thankfully) shut.
That was my mom’s last image of her father.”
“When Mom was dying, the medical team worked hard to revive her, and, like a ripe peach, she was badly bruised afterwards. The funeral director recommended a closed casket, so I never saw my mother’s body. Rarely will funeral directors say “I recommend a closed casket.” When they do, they have your welfare in mind. So if they recommend closed casket, keep it closed. Heed the lesson of Maynard Pickles.
Of course, there’s the other side of the coin. I was 13 when I attended a funeral with my grandmother, Wanda. I watched her reach into the casket, grab a hand and give it a little gentle squeeze, a gentle goodbye. The first time I saw her do that, it freaked me out. I’m thinking: Wanda, you can say goodbye, but you don’t get to touch them! But she was a very tactile person, very touchy-feely. This is how Wanda said goodbye to the dead.”
“After the funeral, I was by myself for 2-3 days. My semi-regular poker game called and asked if I wanted to play. These are good friends sitting around sharing gossip, talking up news of the day. It’s mixed: men and women. I thought it was a good idea to do something routine, but, internally I quickly felt very out of place.
I noticed my comments were getting a little more snarky, cutting and snide than normal. Why did I just say that? I think maybe I was trying to get a reaction out of everyone. I was tired of everyone being so nice to me. I talked to my mother on a Tuesday, my birthday. The next afternoon I got the call that she was having severe and sudden stomach pains and was being transferred from the nursing home to the hospital. Hours later, the call came that she had two hours to live. I had made plans to meet friends for a birthday drink so I walked in and in the middle of hugs and kisses told them, “my mother’s dying.” They were completely supportive. Finding flights to get down to Tennessee, scheduling a dog walker, filling me full of martinis. But there was no way to get down in time. She died 2:00 am. Thursday morning.
That night in Chicago, I was completely supported by friends. More graciousness and community served up – in words and BBQ – from mom’s church family in Tennessee. All that kindness became overwhelming, like a weight on me. I’m a very dry, sarcastic person who believes people are inherently a mix of positive and negative. Honestly, I just don’t trust anybody who’s wholly sweet and good. I don’t believe anyone can be purely evil either. I believe there’s a ratio, or balance of the two, in everyone. That’s humanity.
If something bad’s happened to you, you’re going to have a moment where you go haywire. For me it was at the poker game, when I desperately wanted somebody to be rude to me. To be real. I didn’t want to be treated like a porcelain figure. I felt as if my friends were holding back. I hate when people walk on egg shells or handle you with kid gloves, like you’re some fragile thing. I’d say I’m particularly sensitive to people not being honest or authentic. Of course, I was doing exactly what I rail against. Instead of just being open about my awkwardness, I was rude to my friends. The next time I started feeling uncomfortable, I just told them. Lesson learned.”
“There are moments when you begin to feel like you’re wearing a big shirt that reads: “My Mom Just Died, Ask Me About It.” It totally feels like you’re going to explode if you don’t share the news. One minute my neighbor is asking me about my play that just closed, and that becomes a trigger, and I blurt out, “My mother died the day after my birthday.” It’s nothing you plan. One millisecond I’m weighing in my head, should I say it or not? and the next thing I know the flood gate opens.”
“My mother has this tradition that she would always call me and my sisters at the crack of dawn to sing us Happy Birthday. Each year she seemed to call earlier and earlier until we’d put our phones on silent. That never stopped her because she’d leave a message and sing on your voicemail. I still have Mom’s birthday message on my phone, but I know a few days later when it was my older sister’s birthday, she never got that call. I’m having trouble with that.
My little sister’s birthday is in December. Is this tradition something we want to continue? Should I surprise my sister the same way Mom used to? I haven’t decided yet. The jury’s still out.”
“When Wanda died, my eldest cousin asked me to give the eulogy. She felt she couldn’t do it, and called me, The Writer and Performer, to do it. I started writing down my memories, what I knew about Wanda, and it hit pretty quickly how much I didn’t know. What was her favorite ice cream? The song she danced to at her wedding? These days on Facebook we know all these minute little details about people. So it pissed me off for a few months, making me really angry that Wanda didn’t tell me all these things … that I should have spent more time with her … that I hadn’t asked her every possible question when I was with her. Slowly it came to me that it’s very much a part of the human condition. You can spend time with a person and know tons about them and still not know everything. All you can know is the person they are when they’re with you. That’s what you get and we should be happy with that.
I think the thing about death and the process of grieving is that at some point, you have to realize that this person was never just the person you thought or wanted them to be. There will be mysteries you’ll never unravel; questions you’ll never have answered. They were who they were. Period.
I don’t feel any anger about losing my mom or not knowing 100% of who she was, thanks to going through that anger with Wanda. I’m more focused on remembering both the good and slightly more human aspects of my mom. Because, who really needs a dead, sainted, perfect mother existing for all eternity on a pedestal? That shit will land you in therapy.”
“Living a life without regrets is silly. Regret (and how you deal with it) is part of what forms character! Learn from your regrets – just don’t dwell on them. Anyone who says Live like tomorrow is your last day — that’s complete bullshit. Some days, you have to live like you have bills to pay. Anyway, I learn more from my mistakes than successes. I think both my mistakes and regrets have made me a more compassionate, open and honest person.”
“For my parents, history was left in the past because it was upsetting for them. There was trauma. My mom married her high school sweetheart and he died suddenly, leaving her a young widow with two children. My dad lost his father, a fireman, from smoke inhalation. I’ve learned that to pull out our stories, you have to talk to people – even when they don’t want to – by being gently insistent over time. A little this year; a little bit next year. Some people feel guilty; they blame themselves. They feel confused and hurt when they talk about the past. I’ve seen both my parents get emotionally stuck due to keeping the past shut away. Maybe that’s why I’m such a constant talker and storyteller.
You have to know how to approach a person. Be very honest about your own past. Tell them why it’s so important to you to know. If all else fails, pour a couple glasses of wine for the two of you. In vino veritas.”
“When I looked at Albert’s Dreamscape I was kind of putting it together even before I read the story. But when I read what each thing meant in the photomontage– it’s kind of like you look at it and it’s two experiences. One experience is not knowing, being purely The Viewer, seeing how the composition is really creative, with interesting juxtapositions of people, objects, landscapes, and so on. The other experience is The Knowing – and then once you know – a light goes on and you get this entirely different perspective of that person’s life.
When my mom died, I didn’t know how to tell people so I told them by sharing my favorite memory of her. When I was in 2nd grade the PTA Mothers hosted a Halloween party. Every other mom came as a witch or a cat or Raggedy Anne. My 4’8″ mother came in a full gorilla suit.
A photomontage by itself means nothing until you tell the story and say, “Here’s my memory: now you get to know it.” It’s almost like a modern day cave painting. I don’t know what the cave painting means until an archaeologist explains it to me. The same with Albert’s Dreamscape: now I see so much more in it. The photomontage becomes a kind of cipher.
To make a good Healing Dreamscape – you as an artist have to make your client tell you the memory and then the Dreamscape expands the viewer’s experience of that person. My memory, my sisters’ memories — if I put them all together in a photomontage, it will become a completely new thing we can share with each other.”
1. Commission a memory portrait of a loved one by a legacy artist skilled in interviewing family and friends for anecdotes.
2. Put your legacy artist in touch with anyone in your family that has special memories (and photos) of the subject.
3. Trust in the artist’s process, especially how she will direct you to the best possible photographs for this artistic storytelling photomontage about your loved one.