I recently returned from a trip home to N.J. for my aunt’s funeral. I’ve talked about her before. I am her namesake, but she was Marie Louise and I am Mary Louise. She was 92, and entered the convent at 16. She was a brilliant woman and the former mother general of her order. If there is such a thing as a wonderful funeral, this was it. What better way for any of us to die than as a valued, honored member of a community that cared for us through the end? A few months ago, I called the sister in charge of the nursing/retirement home, to see how things were going, since my aunt no longer talked on the phone or wrote letters. Sister seemed surprised when I expressed my gratitude for the loving care my aunt was receiving. “To us, your aunt is an icon of greatness. She led us through the most difficult times in our history, and planned for the future most of us couldn’t envision.”
That was the message I heard over and over at the wake and funeral. A nun’s funeral has a very clearly outlined ritual, which comforted even this agnostic lapsed Catholic’s heart, from the opening prayers to the Salve Regina at the graveside. Towards the end of the wake, there was a time of reflection, where everyone had a chance to speak, and oh, the stories they told. From the time my aunt asked the bishop in a budget meeting in the 60’s why the teaching nuns did not receive the same stipend as the teaching brothers and was told “not to be so fresh,” to individual testimonies of life-changing attentions from a teacher, principal and friend. (BTW, the nuns ended up with equal pay; that bishop had no idea who he was dealing with.)
One nun spoke of how loving my aunt was, but it was not “a Hallmark card kind of love.” I’ll say. When I was a teenager, we butted heads constantly. She drove me crazy, and I’m sure I did the same to her. I was too lazy, self-centered, didn’t help my mother enough, etc. etc. When my mother was dying of cancer, I was 21. Mommy asked me to promise her that I would always make my aunt, her sister, welcome, and be good to her. Of course I said yes, but inside I thought “You have got to be kidding!” A promise is a promise, though, and I reached out to my aunt. In turn, she modeled for me how to back away from a position you’ve taken, show your vulnerabilities, and allow others to grow and change. We became dear friends, and as she slipped into dementia, I missed her greatly.
Here she is in an Aran cardigan I knitted for her about 15 years ago. This was the first time I used the Aran lace stitch that I’ve since put in the Yarni Lace baby cardigan. The pictures are scanned from old snapshots, so they don’t show very good detail. I was taking them so I’d have a record of what I did, and was telling my aunt I didn’t care what she looked like, I only wanted to see the sweater!
I wasn’t knitting it fast enough, I guess, since one time when she asked how it was going, she told me I’d better hurry up or she’d be wearing it as her shroud! She wore it many years, I’m glad to say, and was not wearing it last week when they laid her to rest. Another sister will be cozying up in it as she watches the light fade.