Yesterday, after marinated grilled pork tenderloin with brown shallot-garlic sauce and roasted sweet potatoes and heaps of salad; after chocolate mousse cake and ice cream and cookies and baklava; after coffee and wine and coffee again; while the rain pattered on the roof and thunder boomed eerily in the background, I sat with three generations of my mother's family, and listened to stories about Grandma Emmy.
I heard about the woman who came home from her job at the hospital and told dirty jokes at the dinner table; the woman who, when dishing out food in six servings, would fling a spoonful of mashed potatoes in the general direction of a distant plate, rather than wait for it to be passed.
I heard about the woman who could flick her wrist just so to win at every game of shulbach with the neighbors; and roomfuls of cigarette smoke so thick, you couldn't see through the haze.
I was reminded of pork-and-rice casserole and pineapple cheesecake and the creamiest fudge you ever did taste, and how the secret to each was to start with a whole stick of butter.
I was reminded of Wonder bread sandwiches filled with butter and chocolate sprinkles for breakfast, and tiny cups of instant coffee filled with cream and sugar. I was reminded of the time when as an adult I went to Holland, opened the kitchen cabinet in a house filled with Dutch roommates, and immediately revealed a value-sized tub of chocolate sprinkles.
I was reminded of Frère Jacques and the Boom Boom song, which she sang to each grandkid while they sat on her lap, and which always ended with the sudden drop of her knees so that whichever small child she was holding would hover gleefully and precariously inches above the hardwood floor, before being swung up to the safety of her lap again.
(At this, my cousin and the mother of a 2-year-old-daughter, urged us not to say "boom boom" too loudly, lest tiny Scarlett come running in, demanding to have it sung to her.)
After hours of quiet tension, these stories emerged one by one, from those who were there to remember her -- a woman not easily pleased, understood, or summarized.
Listening to my mother and her three brothers trade stories from their childhood, I threw my head back and laughed more times than I can count.
And in a show of courage, my mother wondered aloud at all the different things that were true about their mother; and what she must have experienced as a child herself, to become the way she was.
It was these hours -- the ones we spent trading stories about Emmy -- that seemed to offer the hints of healing and togetherness and closure that we all hope for, when a loved one passes.
Hints that were, ironically, entirely absent from the formal ritual of that morning, when we drove 45 minutes to stand in a small antechamber and listen to a grim-faced priest recite from a script that had the name "Emmy" penciled-in a few places, watch him sprinkle her black urn with water, and be summarily dismissed 5 minutes after it began.
Which makes you think, doesn't it? Not just about death and the archaic rituals we've inherited for making sense of it...
... But also about the unique ability stories have, to honor the multi-faceted nature of what's true inside a single human life.
So often we are tempted to make ONE story out of our experience. She was a good person or a bad person; he was a drinker and a liar and a cheat.
But this never does justice to what it's really like to be human.
Like our relationships, we are all complex and full of contradictions. Our stories can do justice to that, if we let them.
This week, in the spirit of Emmy, may you channel a little extra grit, resilience, and stubborn insistence on whatever it is you truly want.
(And just this week -- if anyone tries to tell you that you can't smoke in here -- give them your most charming grin... and wait for them to walk away, before you do it anyway.)