Peaceful in My Grief

Cornelia - W. Burke, Vermont
Entered on August 25, 2005
Age Group: 18 - 30
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Throughout my childhood I spent a Sunday morning each June standing on Mr. Jefferson’s mountain in Charlottesville, Virginia, around the graves of and with my maternal extended family. There are countless pictures in the family albums of me and other Staley children climbing on the Staley marker, the headstones of my namesakes nearby. On that hallowed ground I listened to the oral history of the elders and absorbed the sanctity of the place. I grew up fluent in the traditions and places of my family.

When my mother suddenly died this spring, I was faced with the realization that she would never see the home in which I settle, meet the man I love or hold the children I bear. I literally sank to the floor when I heard the news over the telephone. And then, as ritual demands, I traveled immediately the thousand miles to be home with my father and brothers.

It is true, what they say, that the funeral is a process for the living and not for the dead. How better to deal with grief than by being constantly faced with the death and with people who want to talk about it by expressing their love for me and for my mother. An ex-cousin-in-law pulled me aside one afternoon from the chatter of other acquaintances in the living room. She put her hands in mine, looked me right in the eye and said, “I know you and I don’t know each other very well. But your mother and grandmother were very important in my life. Let’s be close, I want to be important in yours.” In this simple statement she brought into my consciousness a new perspective on my own identity, the significance of the women to whom I belong. Real ritual demonstrates heritage, is symbolic of culture, and serves a greater purpose.

At home our cousin, who performed the funeral service, spoke to me of three essential questions: Who am I? Whose am I? Whence do I come?

My mother was to be buried in Charlottesville with the rest of the Staleys. The tradition in our family is to put the casket on the Southern Crescent, the only train that passes through Atlanta, stopping once at 7 p.m. as it travels north. My Mom loved to tell the story of the night that she had ridden to Virginia with her own mother’s casket. The porter had found her in the club car, placed a hand on her shoulder and said in a comfortable southern intonation, “Would you like to go back and sit with your mama?” And she had. The porter led her through the train to the cargo car where she spent a few minutes with my grandmother, toasting in celebration of her life.

Despite my efforts to continue that tradition, I wasn’t permitted to sit with Mom on this occasion. She would have been proud of watching me do my best to sweet-talk the Amtrak employees. And so that evening after my father, two brothers, three cousins and my aunt in her wheelchair boarded the train with a bottle of bourbon, I got the porter to at least walk me back to a window where I could lean out and watch the casket being loaded into the cargo car. I spent a few minutes watching her get on the train. I took the time to make sure that I had at least some sense of a carried tradition. It’s what we do.

While I haven’t yet decided if I think my mother is looking down on me, I know that she knows exactly how we spent those days after her death. We carried out rituals with sincerity, ceremonies that truly reflected a celebration of her life as she had wished they would be. We carried on tradition as she had done for her parents, taking the time to do things in the same way they had been done before. In a fast paced world of personal independence, let us slow down for these ceremonies. Not only do they honor individuals and our relationships with them, but they allow us to truly know the answer to those three essential questions: Who am I? Whose am I? Whence do I come?

As I stood between my father and my brothers and touched her casket one last time, I stood on ground that I had visited with my mother throughout my childhood. I stood confident in my answers to those questions. I stood peaceful in my grief.