In a pandemic, my journey to Williamsburg, Virginia was out of the question, so I had to log onto my computer for my mother’s funeral. It was a dreadful feeling, watching two of my siblings and their spouses on the screen and not being there with them. I cried through most of the service, a private, Catholic High Mass. The young priest who celebrated the mass was earnest and kind, a solace.
But I was alone, six hundred miles away. When the mass was finished, my brother and sister followed my mother’s casket out of the church and the doors closed. I watched the screen go dark.
Zipping up my down jacket, I walked the blustery bike trail across the street from me.
Is it coincidental that our new president led a moving memorial the same day as my mother’s funeral for the 400,000 we’d lost to coronavirus? I watched the ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial on the same screen I’d watched my mother’s mass, several hours earlier. Relieved, comforted, I felt better.
We have to go through hurt to say good-bye.
Claire Norma Stacey Coyle died in her sleep of dementia on January 9, 2021 in Williamsburg. The assisted living facility, where she lived for more than seven years, was mercifully free of any coronavirus infections.
Born in Lynn, Massachusetts on June 29, 1927, my mother would talk of one memory that she never forgot, decades, half a century and longer after it occurred. Claire was fifteen years old, dancing in a hotel ballroom on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 1942. Across the street, the Cocoanut Grove fire erupted. As she left Boston’s Sheraton Hotel, my mother smelled burning flesh. She spoke of that smell all her life.
My mother told me about the blackened hands of the men who tried to rescue people trapped in the revolving doors of the burning nightclub. About fire hoses littering the streets, blocking the area for miles. About the long lines in the hotel lobby for the pay phones to tell loved ones they would be late getting home. Of her parents, who slept right through the commotion. My grandfather was a Lynn fireman, and they evidently lived too far north of Boston for any alarm to reach him.
My mother retained her oldest memories, but she started repeating herself and forgetting things more than twenty years ago.
She skipped a grade to graduate with the class of 1944 at Lynn English High School. Claire was fond of numbers and loved jigsaw puzzles. Along with supervising the family finances, she stacked boxes upon boxes of jigsaws in her closet. Whether it was a list of expenses or a puzzle, my mother’s frown would be constant as she studied the surface in front of her. She kept the checkbook and bills in a metal “strong box” that we all knew well, but her latest puzzle would cover a portable card table or the dining room table. Usually, we left her to it. She did not encourage company or welcome suggestions.
Claire rarely looked anything less than gorgeous in a photo. My mother had exquisite taste. Well dressed, always, she turned heads all her life. She was two inches over five feet with tiny, delicate hands. I cannot wear her platinum and diamond wedding ring, which I inherited. It is too small for any of my fingers.
Preserving her façade of impeccability was a decades long concern as dementia robbed her of her memory.
Recently, I found an old photograph of Claire and me. In it, I am wearing a birthday cone hat and a plastic lei. My mother holds my hand as we grip a large knife to slice my birthday cake. She is stunning, in a white, sleeveless dress with dark blue and red tassels at her waist. She is also pregnant with my youngest brother. I face the camera and smile with big, new teeth and freckles. My mother’s smile is vague, as though she is not certain she is enjoying herself. Or she may have just been defiant. The photographer, whom I do remember crouching in front of us, instructed us to look at him and smile.
I can still see her thrusting her purse at the Secret Service agent who was sitting next to us in a pew at St. Edward’s around the same time. The agent had leaned over to peer inside my mother’s purse when she opened it. I don’t know if Claire deliberately chose the pew at St. Edward Catholic Church in Palm Beach because it was directly in front of President Kennedy. I had been sternly warned not to turn around and look at him.
My mother met my father, a World War II veteran, at a Swampscott High School football game, after the war ended. They married on Easter Sunday, 1948, at St. Pius Catholic Church in Lynn. By then, my paternal grandfather was dead. The car crash that killed him, also changed my father’s life. My father, Charles Leo Coyle, moved to Prince Edward Island, Canada to take over the business his father was about to open when he died. My mother never met her father-in-law. Charlie asked Claire to marry him after they had been on ten dates.
When the family business failed, my parents relocated to Peabody, then Marblehead, Massachusetts. My sister, one of my brothers and I were born there. In the 1960’s, we moved several times as my father changed careers; from Marblehead, to Palm Beach, back to Massachusetts and then to New Mexico, Colorado, and back, once more to Massachusetts before finally settling in Maryland.
My parents moved once more, to Virginia to live with my brother eleven years ago.
My dad enjoyed the pancake special at the International House of Pancakes whenever I visited them in Williamsburg. My mother didn’t always join us. Never a cook, she would rather eat out and preferred “refined” restaurants with white linen tablecloths and waiters in tuxedos. Claire also liked her glass of Chardonnay with her meal.
When her brain changed her so much that she could no longer live without nursing care, I would confide in her. This was not something I ever did before. It was a relief to sit with her and tell her about the loss of a love or the end of my career. She would nod and agree with me and keep all my secrets.
Docile, quiet, my mother was not recognizable and she failed to recognize any of us, her daughters and sons. The staff at the assisted living facility would tell me how they loved her. How she never complained.
Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians; chapter thirteen, is a favorite at weddings, but it was read at my mother’s funeral. It captures love completely. More than faith or hope, love perseveres above all. I read I Corinthians XIII for my father, at his funeral in 2011. The passage portrays the joy of being loved, instead of the ache that the loss has created. I think of my parents dancing to “Near You,” at their wedding reception. I wasn’t there, of course, I only know of the World War II era song, because they sang or hummed it to each other once in a while when they danced together in the kitchen of my youth.
A new era in our country’s history started with an inauguration on January 20th, the same day my mother joined my father at Quantico National Cemetery. For nine years and four months, my father lay alone. Now, my mother lies with him.
© Caryn Coyle
Caryn Coyle is an editor at the Loch Raven Review. She lives in Massachusetts.