One of my mother’s oldest friends died yesterday, out of the blue. It’s a regular occurrence these days, and Mom’s taking it in stride.
But she’s wondering what will happen to the garden her friend had been faithfully keeping for years outside the Episcopal church they both attend in Alabama.
Or, I should say “attended.” Mom’s friend won’t be back, and Mom hasn’t been to church in person since before Covid. She enjoys watching online, and at 84 – with my dad gone and a skittish dog who doesn’t like being home alone – it’s just easier for her. But she misses singing in the choir.
We were discussing all this over the phone during our weekly “wine chat,” a longstanding tradition that typically happens on Sunday evening. Mom had just learned about her friend’s death, and I’d just been part of a memorial service for a friend of my own, a member of the choir I sing with here in Beaufort, at First Presbyterian.
So that got us talking about funerals. Again. It’s an ongoing topic of conversation for us, not just because Mom keeps losing friends and going to funerals, but because she’s trying to orchestrate her own.
“I’ve got all my funeral stuff spread out on the dining room table,” she told me, “But I just keep putting it off because I’m obsessed with making sour dough bread. It’s all I want to do anymore.”
Despite being a lifelong culinary savant, my mother has somehow only recently been initiated into the mysteries of sour dough. “I’m having so much fun!” she told me, describing her adventures in starter-tending. “It’s like a science project!”
She knew she was talking to the wrong daughter – the oldest of four, I am the only domestic dud in the litter, and the least scientific, too – so the conversation quickly returned to funerals. Mom is trying to stage-manage hers in advance to make things easier on us girls when the time comes – something she’s been doing for well over half a century now. (Making things easier on us girls, that is.)
For starters, she’s picking the hymns. So far, she’s narrowed it down to about 50 of her favorites.
“You know, Mom,” I told her, “You’re gonna have to cut a few of those.” We agreed that some of them could be coming-and-going music played by the organist, but that many of them really needed to be sung.
To underscore this necessity, we started singing them. Singing hymns together is something we often do during our Sunday wine chats, while comparing notes on the music, sermons, and other liturgical flourishes at our respective churches that morning.
(Mom finds the Episcopal service superior to all others. She’s a bit of a snob about it, but I don’t begrudge her that. She was a Methodist all her life, until recently, and she feels like she’s gotten an upgrade. The Episcopalians are just fancier than the rest of us Protestants. It’s a fact.)
Mom and I both prefer the older hymns, especially the high church, Anglican numbers – your Holy, Holy, Holies, Mighty Fortresses, and so on and so forth. But the “old time religion” hymns are good, too – your Blessed Assurances, Old Rugged Crosses, etc. (We sometimes call those “Baptist hymns.”) We’re also quite fond – though a bit embarrassed about it – of some of the shmaltzy-folky songs that came out of the Catholic church in the 60s and 70s. “I Am the Bread of Life,” “Here I Am, Lord,” and such.
You see the challenge. We love them all.
(And at this point, I should probably make a formal apology to my neighbors. Did I mention I typically sit outside on my patio for these wine chat/sing-alongs, weather permitting?)
“You could always tell the priest that you want your funeral to consist of just an hour of hymn singing, full stop,” I suggested. (Note to anybody who cares: I would love a funeral like that.)
“Oh, no! I’ve been working on my readings, too,” she said. “That’s almost as hard as choosing the hymns!”
And then we were off on the topic of scripture. So many chewy passages to choose from. Such rich, wonderful imagery! People mounting up with wings like eagles . . . running without being weary . . . lying down in green pastures . . . dwelling in the house of the Lord forever . . .
Who doesn’t love that stuff?
At some point, I wondered if we were having way too much fun for two people planning a funeral – one of them, her own. The wine probably had something to do with it. Our cups ranneth over.
“Mom, this funeral’s gonna be a blast!” I said. “The only bad part about it is that you won’t be there. Well, I mean, you’ll be there – but you’ll be ‘Immortal, Invisible.’” (That’s one of the hymns on Mom’s list.) “Great for you, but not so for great for us.”
“I hope I’ll be immortal and invisible – not just invisible,” Mom replied. And we laughed. We agreed a long time ago that while we both live in “the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life,” we also recognize that “certain hope” is an oxymoron. We surely and certainly hope there’s an afterlife, but we don’t know there’s an afterlife. And we’re kind of okay with that. Because if there’s not, we’ll never know that, either.
Lest you mistake my mother for some saintly, celestial creature – thinking of nothing but scripture and hymns and sour dough bread – I can assure you she is also working diligently on the talking points for her eulogy. The list of worldly accomplishments may be longer than the list of hymns.
Mom and I have been doing our Sunday wine chat for at least 20 years now, ever since I moved into my house in Pigeon Point. Before that . . . well, I honestly can’t remember.
We didn’t always sing hymns and discuss Bible verses. Back in the day, we mainly gossiped about hometown folks and talked politics. We still do the former, but we hardly ever do the latter anymore.
These days, I mostly talk politics with my daughter. She calls me from Clemson almost daily, and it’s a thrill to pick her brain. A Poli Sci major with a minor in Russian Studies, she understands more about the war in Ukraine – its myriad causes and complexities – than anybody I know, including the newscasters, podcasters and other pundits in my life. Suddenly, my little girl is an informed adult and a formidable thinker. It kind of snuck up on me, and frankly, it’s a bit disconcerting.
But she hasn’t changed entirely, thank goodness. We had our own wine chat yesterday – she’s 21 now – and all she wanted to talk about was the new Harry Styles video, the upcoming Hunger Games prequel, and who wore what to the Met Gala.
That’s the girl I raised.
Happy Mother’s Day, y’all. It’s good to be a mother and a daughter.