My earliest memory of a funeral photograph was when I was about eight years old. At the height of the Cold War, Polish cousins had sent a black and white snapshot to my mother. It was grainy but the scene was clear; eight figures swallowed in black crêpe stood over a small, narrow white casket with a single lily on the lid, an open grave at their feet. Someone must have said, “Wait! A photograph! Our cousins in America will want to know of our loss.”
Their “cousins in America” were my mother and her four sisters. Each week, my family, my aunts, and their closest friends (nearly all Polish spinsters) packed around my aunt’s dining room table for the traditional Sunday dinner. This same table, now in my house, barely seats six guests but 45 years ago merrily accommodated twelve or more at the weekly gathering. My mom was the only of her siblings to have kids so my brother and I were it. It was excruciating. But on those Sundays I was allowed to watch color TV, pluck Cadbury chocolates from a crystal candy dish, slather thick pats of (real) butter on my Pepperidge Farms dinner rolls and wash them down with an icy-cold bottle of Coke. Permitting those extravagant treats was my bribe to ensure that my mother (and my Italian father, the “foreigner” as Pope John Paul II would later refer to him as he observed my mom conversing in Polish with His Holiness in 1988) could spend the afternoon with her family. That all the sisters lived a mere block apart and daily spoke on the telephone didn’t matter, Sunday was their official time together.
During one such dinner, my mother slid the little photo from the blue, onionskin envelope – the latest news from Poland. Fingers were wiped on oversized paper napkins as it was passed around the table. “Ach, so sad! Is that Anna, third from the right? Was this her youngest? What was her husband’s name? Janulevich? No, Kizielewicz, that would’ve been Pop’s nephew. That couldn’t be!” Enough decades had passed that, at best, they were guessing. All were genuinely touched and shared the sadness but none seemed bothered by the photograph of a child’s casket. This was, after all, the same gaggle of girls who had in their youth relished playing “Italian Funeral” when they hoisted aloft an old shoe box bearing a deceased robin or sparrow and fell into a rag-tag procession down the dusty city streets of 1920’s New Haven, keening and sobbing, shouting to the heavens, giving any genuinely grieving cortège a run for its money. I tried to read the writing on the back of the photo. Purply-black ink, fancy loops, a single name, the number six, nearly my age.
The funeral photo had made an impression on my young mind, not one of recoiling in horror but more of the thought, “You can actually do that?” A horribly sad and tragic event was captured not for macabre gawking but for marking and remembering and, in this instance, sharing in a much more personal way than just the black-bordered letter, the facts. It said, this is who we are, at that moment. I know that attending the wake and funeral of a loved one, witnessing the event, is better than just hearing about the death – which is liable to play tricks on one’s memory resulting in a Christmas card accidentally sent to the deceased from time to time. A photograph seemed practical.
Before my father’s death at age 86, it was common knowledge that my mother had dementia. The high-minded, bi-lingual, accomplished Betty was no longer in control. A few said, “She was so smart, how could this be?” My father had done much over the years to cover for her lapses. My brother and I faced streams of odd outbursts and behaviors that weren’t all that far from her eccentric, individual way but were now clearly worrisome. Before accepting my mother’s reality, I spent much time moaning and wringing my hands, complaining to friends and therapists that I could barely cope with her lapses, her little cruelties. How much patience I needed! How many insults I endured as she lashed out, struggling to make sense of her illness. And yet, she could step outside of her paranoia to remark that her memory loss was infuriating to her. “If you can see that,” I would say, “Mom, then why can’t you fix it?”
Dad died in their assisted living apartment with all of us there. Mom sat quietly at the foot of his bed reading the New York Times, holding his hand, saying the rosary, singing Polish hymns. She had been so present and so appropriate in the moment, but within minutes of the undertaker leaving, the questions returned, “Where’s Daddy? Is Dad sick? Nobody told me! When will Nick be back?”
The dementia experts would say to redirect the conversation. To me, that meant I should lie to my mother. Dad wouldn’t be back. Dad did have cancer, and yes, we all knew it. Those times when I chose to answer her questions with the cold, hard truth she would say, “I’m so glad you told me he’s gone because I would just sit here and worry.” It wasn’t the dying that bothered her, it was the not knowing. I deployed the same honesty over the following years when she frequently asked after her mother, her father, her sisters – all long gone, Mom.
“Am I the last?”
Along with her journals and seemingly every scrap of paper she ever scribbled on, she had a collection of funeral cards with the birth and death dates of family and friends. Consulting the calendar on the wall to get the current year, she did the math, subtracting in flowery figures and teetering columns, to figure out her age. “Am I really 90? I don’t know why the good Lord is keeping me around!”
“To teach me patience, Mom.”
We’d share a laugh.
I took pictures at my dad’s wake. I don’t know if anyone saw me. From my seat in the front of the muted parlor, I lifted my phone, Cold War style, just inches from my purse and quickly snapped a few frames – the flowers, the casket, my dad in profile. I took pictures at the funeral, too. After the grave-side service, while the burnished bronze casket still caught the sun as it was suspended over the grave obscured by garish astroturf, (and I don’t know why they’ve stopped the practice of lowering the casket into the ground with the mourners still present to toss in handfuls of dirt, roses, feel the finality in your hands) I stood apart from my family and quickly caught a picture.
The next day, “Where’s Nick?,” asked my mom, clearly exhausted and grief stricken, very unsure. This question stayed with her for years. I’d say, “Daddy’s gone, Ma,” and if the mood seemed right, I’d ask if she’d like to see a picture.
“Yes, yes, I would.” After silently gazing at the little screen on my phone, she would always say, “These little gadgets are wonderful. Was I there?”
“Yes, Mom. You were there for everything.”
“I don’t remember…”
“…but you were there.”
“Good, I’m glad.”
Since my tentative, early steps into surreptitious funeral parlor photography, I have become bold. I photographed my mom in her doctor’s office seated on the examination table. She is wearing her signature cardigan, a large silk babushka, happily looking around, “such nice paintings!,” and wearing my hefty, size 10 hiking boots. (Her feet had swollen and, to be on time for our appointment, I traded my boots for her size 8 Totes.) The doctor would soon deliver the news I knew would not be good. The gravity of this sudden appearance of cancer meant nothing to her. She would never fret about it.
In the remaining weeks, I increased the number of candid shots I took documenting our morning coffee, our daily news round-up, her singing, her decline. Then in the silence and peace of her room just after she passed, I slid out my phone and photographed what I saw: the early morning light as it fell across the foot of her bed illuminating just the length of her body, her hip, her hand, the side of her face in the edge of the frame, my brother sitting in the arm chair by the window, the flowers and books on the table. I’ve barely glanced at these photos. I scroll right over them. But I know I have them.To share this post: