How to teach your dead husband’s first wife a lesson with your burial plot and epitaph; why morticians should be the only ones doling out locks of hair; and how re-imagining happier lives for struggling parents can banish lingering resentments: these stories and more as Tragicomedia‘s Nancy Gershman interviews professional storyteller Regi Carpenter. Her latest performance, “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Dinner– Stories of a Seared Childhood,” recounts an earlier time spent in Regi’s hometown Clayton, NY on the St. Lawrence River in northern New York. She is currently working on a new piece, “I Love You. Will You Bury Me?” Visit Regi on www.soaringstories.com.“I love you, will you marry me?” really means “I love you, will you bury me? Know the Lord’s Prayer by heart or it’ll be prone to mangling Morticians are your go-to beauticians for locks of hair Standing in a river, you can end up wearing your parents’ ashes Compose a list of happier outcomes for loved ones who struggled Record the whole ball of wax – then wait to tell the beautiful truth Your To Do List
“I love you is about signing up to love somebody. But I’ve realized that what we’re really saying is “I’ll bury you if you need it.” It’s no small commitment. My Aunt Bernie lived in Florida and married a widower named Hub. Towards the end, Aunt Bernie became forgetful – wandering about – but still she had taken care of all her own funeral arrangements and wanted to be buried next to Hub. The problem was, Uncle Hub wanted to be buried next to his first wife. So Aunt Bernie bought a tombstone just to the left of Hub’s grave and had it engraved, “TIL DEATH DO US PART.”
“It seems that all the funerals of my dad’s generation were marked by this heart-wrenching sadness and absolute absurdity.
When it was Aunt Bernie’s turn, my dad and Uncle Joe were in their late 70’s and wanted to take care of her funeral arrangements even though the two of them were getting increasingly forgetful. Respectfully, we all assembled on a spring day at the cemetery. The cemetery rep was there and discreetly asked my Dad, “When are you expecting the priest?” Dad turned to Uncle Joe and inquired, “Joe, when are we expecting the priest?” Joe replies, “How should I know, you were supposed to call the priest.” My father turned to the cemetery representative and said, “We decided against the priest.”
Cemetery representative volunteers to read the Lord’s Prayer. Shock! Catholics don’t read the Lord’s Prayer because you’re clearly not Catholic if you have to read it. It’s tattooed on our soul at the moment of contraception! We don’t hear the Lord’s Prayer as much as we are the Lord’s Prayer. Anyway, the rep mangles the Lord’s Prayer and accidentally reads, “and lead us into temptation.” To that Dad says, “Amen” (a little too exuberantly).
I was carrying Aunt Bernie’s ashes.
Pulling back the AstroTurf, I put the box into the grave, but without the priest, we don’t know what we’re doing as far as all the rites and rituals. But Cousin Cathy saves us. “Why don’t we tell some stories about Aunt Bernie? Y’know, like a eulogy?” And she tells the story. When she was a freshman in college, she went down to Miami to visit Aunt Bernie. Cathy wanted to go to the beach and Aunt Bernie says, “Okay honey, get your stuff and put it into the convertible.” They drive to the first beach, which looks fine but Bernie says, “No honey, we don’t want this beach.” The same thing happens for the next four or five beaches until finally they pull into the sixth, and there’s an all male soccer team oiled up and playing in their speedos. Aunt Bernie says, “This is the beach we want honey. Get your stuff.”
“A few years ago, my older brother passed away. He was the first person in my family to die – killed suddenly in a car accident. I remember I was very concerned about his body. He was killed on impact and had a small cut behind his ear where his head hit the window. I don’t come from that Irish Catholic tradition, but I always thought Irish wakes were a good idea. You keep the dead person in your home and there’s a sense that you’re honoring the person passing and where they lived. You’re holding death as warmly as you hold life.
I didn’t want strangers preparing him at the funeral home and I didn’t how well his body would be treated and I was worried that he would be treated disrespectfully. While we waited for his body to be transferred I asked my mother, “Could I have some of Tim’s hair?” “Sure,” she responds. “He doesn’t need it.” And with a pair of scissors I whack off a piece of his hair.
His fiancée Joyce is there, too and now she asks “Could I have some?” and whacks off a piece of hair. Then my mom asks, “Could I have some?” and by the time we’re done whacking off another piece of hair, my brother looks like he has mange.
At the 11th hour my mom says to me, “We should have an open casket.” I call the funeral director and tell him and he calls me right back and says, “Ma’am, I never saw a man’s hair affected by an accident quite like this before.”
And yeah, Tim looked weird, but not just on account of the hair.
His body had swelled. He wasn’t a real slender guy to begin with; he had a gut. But now in a collar and tie, his skin had blown up like a sausage. Oh-my-God. My mother was 81 at the time, even a little demented, but she saw the liquid seeping out of his pores. She took one look; her eyebrows lifted; her lips went into this very round shape, and like an owl with a perm, all she could say was, “Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh” and then: “I think we should close the lid.””
“My parents Carl and Josephine died in the same nursing home, in separate rooms, within six months of each other. They were cremated and once again, we didn’t want a priest and none of us knew what to say. We were so tired as it was right after my brother’s fatal accident.
I really wanted to put some of my parents’ ashes in the St. Lawrence River so I go down to the river, and it’s only a couple feet deep. I get into the water, and I’m figuring that the ashes will kind of skim the surface and then go out to sea, mingling with the ocean in some sort of cosmic cycle. I start to sprinkle the ashes, reciting the “Our Father” and the ashes sink immediately and cover my feet like concrete boots. Oh my God, I’m wearing my parents! I didn’t know what to do. But then I notice these two mallard ducks – a male and a female – which I could swear weren’t there a second before. They swim over to me and circle all around my legs. They’re churning up the water and I see the ashes are lifting and going out to sea! The ducks swim away and – I’m serious – they look back at me. “Quack, quack, quack.”
My parents were a couple of kidders.”
“I had some lingering resentments towards my parents that were just poisoning me. I used to always think: They didn’t do this or that for me, until it dawned on me that they didn’t do “this or that” for themselves either. These resentments I was carrying around with me were not my parents’ fault. My father was 100% a disabled veteran, often in the VA. Mom couldn’t work enough to support us and that’s why we were hungry. They wanted a stable home too!
So I’ve started to stop and wish for my parents the things they wished they could have had. Like a stately home in a neighborhood that was friendly and safe. A happy marriage. A good relationship with their children. Great friends and fulfilling jobs. Basically, enough money to have what they needed and wanted.
I write all this down on a piece of paper. And now I say it every morning to myself. I just truly in my mind believe we could do it all over again. Of course I know there’s no possibility of them having these things now because they’ve passed. But I do imagine them really happy and healthy. Each one of these things, well, I imagine them actually having it. I see them on a garden patio. I see them surrounded by their kids. I see them holding hands. I see them going into stores and buying things they want. Like Macy’s: that would have been a big deal.”
“I took photographs of my parents when they were both in the same nursing home. They looked pretty funky at the time – with their oxygen on, aged, both looking very unhappy. But I thought it was important to remember them as they were, not as I needed them to be. I have these funny videos of Mom singing “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anybody else but me-eee” to her purple teddy bear. And, “Oh-h, you don’t have any bones.”
As a storyteller, whenever I was doing a new family piece, I’d bring it to my father first. He had an active and vivid memory. Half an hour into my piece he would correct something and tell me, “That’s not exactly the way it happened.” Dad would then go into the story more deeply and hand it back, embellished. Who cared? My dad was this great storyteller, and I was his apprentice. I have video of my pop correcting me. It was so wonderful, so exciting, because to tell someone’s story is really a privilege.
My parents were the whole ball of wax. They were everything. They were magnificent, transcendent, base, coarse. They were all of humanity and I was lucky enough to have them as my parents.
It took me a long time to see that. My stories changed very much after my parents passed away. I no longer had to protect them. I felt I could really tell the truth and that the truth was that they were beautiful no matter what they had done. I felt resolved that I could finally share things that were difficult. These things were part of them but didn’t diminish them – in fact, I felt it exalted them because it made them human. They weren’t just crummy or just beautiful. They were human, like everybody else.
Stories are an image-driven language. I immerse myself in the body and memory of the body – smells and shapes. When Mom was dying she smelled like a chocolate éclair. My father smelled like fly-covered meat. My brother smelled like a hospital.”
1. What images would drive the story about your mom and dad? Chess was the focal point for Dadda’s storytelling photomontage. Dadda’s grandson, who commissioned the piece by a digital artist, wanted to see Bobby Fischer “trying with great difficulty to accept defeat” from his tiny little grandfather.
2. If a digital artist could re-imagine a scene from your parents’ past so that they’d be “doing it all over again” but clearly struggling a lot less – what creature comforts might you put into their Healing Dreamscape?
And if you could put yourself into the picture, what pleasurable activity would you see you and your parents doing together, like in Ellyn’s storytelling photomontage about her family’s (healthy) obsession with sudoku?
3. Discover what “playtime DNA” you and your parents have in common. Once you do, co-mingling childhood photos of your parents with a photo of yourself as a child can be a really cool lens into the past! For example: in Ellyn’s 6-image photomontage, can you tell which kids are actually Ellyn and her husband, and which are Ellyn’s own children?