How many times have I heard the adjective surreal used to describe this spunky new post-pandemic world? Fairly, how many? More than I care to count. I’ve considered new descriptors. Oxford Languages provided several: unreal, bizarre, weird, strange, freakish, unearthly, uncanny, and dreamlike. Most curiously, thesaurus.com suggested hypnagogic (related to the state immediately before falling asleep).
I had only meant to use the word surreal in relation to my aunt’s funeral, which took place recently, viewed online, to signify otherworldly, heavenly even, not so much because it was a pandemic styled funeral, watched by the congregation via Google Meet, me from Oxford some 3,500 miles away, but because the participants were mostly loyal women—sisters, daughters, cousins, friends. Even in my mind’s eye the priests were irrelevant, cowed, bowed, removed, antiquated, unnecessary, except for the one word that escaped carefully from under an arched, bushy eyebrow, hovering above the pulpit. “Determined,” he said, describing my aunt.
Did he stammer? A double entendre? This heavily gold-cloaked fellow maybe intended a different D word: domineering? The women in my family, those who extended from my paternal grandmother’s line, are assertive to say the least. I am not sure what this particular father of the Church had in mind, but I certainly could imagine the number of times my aunt, who perhaps I knew more “of” than knew well, had convinced him of the right direction to take, the truest action, the correct thing to do, in her almost ninety years.
His stutter, his possible innuendo was not lost on me. From my iPhone placed horizontally, I could see beneath the glistening sapphire dome in a Philadelphia church my cousin and her niece, my aunt’s casket, bedecked and ready to launch, as well as row upon row of empty pews, contagion style. My cousin’s familiar broad shoulders, standing far to the left of the aisle, mirrored her niece’s same strong profile, standing far to the right.
The multiple Church fathers moved in, around and somewhat out from under the cobalt cupola for communion with the regularity of a Swiss clock. It was the flowers set by my cousin and her niece at the foot of the statue of Our Lady that signified for me the passing on, the letting go, the safe journey of a woman, my aunt, who had lived a long life, sustained a marriage, raised children and then died peacefully in her sleep in the terrible pandemic of 2020.
Surreal? While the perfunctory ceremony with its curtailed pageantry ran on, a group of silently keening women passed the baton. Our little tribe of women has, over time and space, carried on, sometimes doggedly so. We might have been characters from a Sue Monk Kidd novel, so powerful are the female players in my family. So muscular was this passing of my aunt, so telling of our collective command, that clearly no mere pandemic could have stopped this matriarchal bunch. In my flat screen, level view, the power of my grandmother, perhaps her mother, my aunt, my cousin and her niece, the women whose names appeared on the Others in the Meeting list, including my sister, for me represented the real commemoration here.
No surreal, hypnagogic plague could prevent life from carrying on, at least not in the presence of gritty women. As John Steinbeck wrote in Grapes of Wrath, “Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on—changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on.”
Wishing you a June bursting with “goin’ right on,” in a summer blest with, finally, an easing of restrictions and an end to this abysmal lockdown.