"Dear God of many understandings," he opened. Now, that's a God I can embrace. He's not the God of my childhood or the God of this religion or that. He's more than belief and doctrine.
On the rare occasion that I pray, I'm usually praying for forgiveness and compassion. To no one in particular, I'm usually wishing to be rid of my character flaws. If only I didn't have a direct route to the autobahn of anger, there wouldn't be such unpleasantness. But "bless us with anger?" Wow, there's a transformational, turn-conventional-wisdom-on-its-head prayer.
I was in church this weekend for my great aunt Helen's memorial service. Sitting in the Episcopal pew with my cousin Mary Katherine on my left, Jeff on my right and surrounded by my Italian cousins, I had a view of my great uncle Wayne who sat in rapt attention as each of his surviving grown grandchildren and his three children eulogized his wife of 64 years. The service began in song and with little forwarning, my dormant grief came crashing through like a torrent. Fortunately, before the service I asked Jeff to switch seats with me so I could sit next to Mary Katherine. She knew just what to do and held me tight. Never needing to glance his way, I knew Jeff had his own revisiting of losses quietly quaking inside him and he was grateful Mary Katherine was taking over.
There was lots of getting up and down and while I was crying outwardly, inwardly I was laughing as we rose and I heard my dear husband belting out the refrain, "I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord...I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, etc." I'll tell you, there's nothing like one's wife falling to pieces next to you in the middle of your own seismic activity to help you find Jesus Christ. Seriously, those words could have been anything. The point is we were all holding on through the saying of those traditional words together.
Over the weekend we gathered seven times to visit, be together, and tell stories. As our time unfolded, the roots of my grief revealed themselves in a story, a comment, or a photo. Some grief was for Aunt Helen and the welcoming open heart she extended to me. Some was for those I love who passed long ago. Some of it was for my own irretrievable losses. Some for the pain of current challenges. Still some more of it is grief that existed long before I was born and that has been passed down through the generations. It even occurs to me now that some of that grief may have been my Aunt Helen's. Grief she never mourned that I picked up. Grief that passed through me on her way out. I'll leave the definitive explanations to the God of many understandings.
What I've come home with is a washing through, fatigue in the wringing, spaciousness and expansiveness in the holding and belonging, and vulnerability in the knowing that this life passes quickly leaving us ravished with beauty and pain.
I'm also including here Aunt Helen's beautiful obituary, written by her daughter, my cousin Cynthia:
Helen C. Roberts Aug. 21, 1922 - Dec. 20, 2008
A memorial service for Helen C. Roberts, 86, of Vacaville is set for 1 p.m. Monday, Jan. 12, in Epiphany Episcopal Church.
Mrs. Roberts passed away peacefully at home in the care of hospice, with her family near her side, on Saturday, Dec. 20, 2008, from complications related to cancer.
The Rev. Terry Gilmore, a longtime friend, will lead the service.
Though she resided in her adopted community of Vacaville for the last 14 years, Mrs. Roberts always considered Los Angeles her home. She was married and raised her three children there.
The youngest of five children of Italian immigrants Achille and Concetta Marinucci, she was born in Detroit on Aug. 21, 1922. In 1935, her family moved into a house at 1508 Temple Street in the city of Los Angeles, a home her father later remodeled into a small apartment building.
As a young girl, she loved the movies. In school she discovered the joy of books and literature. A 1941 graduate of Belmont High School, Mrs. Roberts had a generous, fun-loving spirit. She once took a friendly dare and jumped into the ocean off the end of the Santa Monica pier.
Shortly after high school, she moved to National City near San Diego and completed aircraft training school before going to work for Ryan Aeronautical Co.
In the summer of 1942, at a USO dance, she met a tall Texan on his first leave after Navy boot camp. She not only liked the looks of Wayne Roberts, but the devoted way he talked about his family back home in Burkburnett, Texas. They dated until he shipped out to the South Pacific in November 1942. They wrote back and forth unfailingly for nearly two years. Upon his return, they were married in St. Athanasius Episcopal Church in Echo Park on Sept. 10, 1944.
Her hard-working immigrant parents taught Mrs. Roberts to value education. She relished learning about the world, a passion she passed on to her three college-educated children.
An FDR Democrat, rarely did she miss watching the Sunday news show, "60 Minutes." Although her Italian heritage did not endow her with the gift of song nor language, she had the skilled hands of a Michelangelo to craft whatever her imagination or family need might be - children's play clothes, matching Christmas outfits, prom and party dresses, wedding gowns or a grandchild's christening dress.
Her culinary skills were generously practiced in her home of 44 years on Bracken Street in the San Fernando Valley town of Arleta.
Her extended family knew Aunt Helen's was the place to celebrate birthdays, holidays and Sunday family dinners.
Even her Christmas fruitcake, bejeweled in cherries and pecans, was a prized gift.
There were spaghetti dinner fundraisers and craft projects for her beloved Girl Scouts, pecan pies and angel food cake for the St. Mark's bake sale, a bright dessert table for a bridal shower, picnic potato salad for the Fourth of July and Texas icebox pudding, her husband's favorite.
A willing volunteer who cherished doing good works, Mrs. Roberts cared for her aging parents, making sure her mother, who lived to the age of 101, got her hair coiffed regularly. She was her chauffeur on errands and to family gatherings.
Mrs. Roberts enjoyed her garden of roses and azaleas - and all things lemon. Swimming at the local YMCA was her pleasure and her exercise.
Her last volunteer project was baking brownies and pineapple upside-down cakes for Epiphany Church's Friday dinners in Vacaville.
Mrs. Roberts was preceded in death by her sister and three brothers, and by her granddaughter, Emily Roberts, all who lived in Los Angeles.
She is survived by her best friend and husband of 64 years, Carl Wayne Roberts of Vacaville; daughter and son-in-law Cynthia and Steve Huddleston of Vacaville, daughter and son-in-law Donna and Clay Dluehosh of Albany, Ore.; son and daughter-in-law Dana Roberts and Bessie Kouvara of La Canada; grandson Gavin Dluehosh and his wife, Jana, of Valley Springs; grandson Tyler Roberts and his wife, Alicia, of Pasadena; granddaughter Lindsay Dluehosh Harrison and her husband, Tim, of London, England; grandsons Henry and Thomas Huddleston of Vacaville; great grandson Wil Dluehosh of Valley Springs, and many nieces, great-nieces and great-nephews.
Memorial contributions may be made to NorthBay Hospice & Bereavement, in care of NorthBay Healthcare Foundation, 4500 Business Center Drive, Fairfield, 94534.
A second memorial service will be held in Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 17 in St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Van Nuys.