Saturday was Mildred’s funeral. I was so worried about how it would go: worried that my mom would have too hard a time getting through the day and my brother, sister and I wouldn’t know how to help her through; worried that I wouldn’t have anything to put in the casket with Mildred before it was closed (this is a kind of family tradition); worried that I wouldn’t have anything to say when it was my turn to talk … and worried that there would only be a few people there. Attendance wasn’t really important, of course, but it kind of was. It would have been fine to have just the family there, but at the same time because of the person my aunt was, I wanted there to be more of an acknowledgement of the influence she had on people’s lives.
In the end, I needn’t have worried. My mother was a star, right down to singing “Precious Lord” a cappella and beautifully. She told stories from Mildred’s history, shared a Maya Angelou poem that Mildred liked, had readings from a book of prayer-poems that she used to read to Mildred, had emails from two of Mildred’s oldest friends from Camp.
And attendance blew me out of the water. We ran out of seats. We ran out of programs. We ran out of packets of wildflower seeds. So many people got up to talk about her. So many people remembering funny and loving and excellent things about her. I knew she was special, knew she was loved beyond the limits of our family.
I. had. no. idea.
One of the best things I’ve learned is that she was the go-to woman for all the odd ducks, for all the campers who felt left out or lonely or whose friends had forgotten to act like friends. They went to the nature room — Mildred’s haunt and haven at camp — and got hugs.
Yes, Mildred taught them things — they all talk about the things they learned. More importantly, she loved them. But truly loved them. Unconditionally. And they — as well-loved children are wont to do — loved her right back. Fiercely. Unconditionally. Devotedly.
It was such a joy to see how deeply she touched so many. To see that room filled beyond capacity for a woman most of those people hadn’t seen in many, many years was a powerful and beautiful thing. To see two of the nurses from the nursing home in Maryland and know they had driven since four-thirty that morning to be with us was a testament to the fact that Mildred continued to touch people right up until the end. My whole family was awed by the love in that room.
And the group was such an interesting mix. A young man she’d known in the very last of her summers at camp, people she’d known almost forty years ago at camp, teachers and students from the high school, people from both churches she’d attended and people who’d known her from her presence around the community. There were funny ones, serious ones, totally nutty ones. All of them in love with her.
Oh, and me? I wrote a poem, a tanka, for Mildred and placed that in the coffin with her. My brother told the green hair story, and I told the high on life story and a couple of other stories besides. And I read the poem:
Just like a mother
energy focused by love
fills the nature room
so much knowledge, so much strength
the world, your heart, open wide.
It was like nothing I expected and absolutely what I would have wished for. Thank you to everyone who made that true.