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Part 107: Funerals and Weddings

Today is Saturday, March 2nd, 2024. Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny died on February 16th. Only 47, he died in an Arctic prison under mysterious circumstances.


There was a funeral service in Russia yesterday, thousands turned up, and so did Russian authorities, but people’s need to bury Navalny properly was stronger than the fear of arrest. Navalny’s coffin was lowered into a freshly dug grave, while the Frank Sinatra tune “My Way” played, as well as music from “Terminator 2,” a favorite movie of Navalny’s.

©Stacya Shepard Silverman Riley Shepard’s Promise 2024 All Rights Reserved. Photo by E.P. Jeff Jaffarian


Growing up, we didn’t attend funerals. Or weddings for that matter. I was in high school when I first attended a wedding, a young man my father knew invited us to his. I didn’t know what a receiving line was, what a wedding registry was, or what any of the rules were. I remember we stood around awkwardly waiting to say hello to the young couple, and that I was generally embarrassed in the way teenagers get, feeling that we were out of place somehow.


As for funerals, I only knew about funerals from what I saw on TV, the movies, or on the news. Our close friend Joe Tanzman died in the 1980s, he was the musician who worked on Riley’s “Encyclopedia of Folk Music.” If Riley knew Joe was dead, he never mentioned it, and so I learned of Joe’s death decades after it happened.


In 1973, when I was eight years old, my mother’s father, George, died. He was digging for worms to impale on a fishing hook when he suddenly fell forward, dying instantly. He was sixty-three. I think it was an aneurysm. I didn’t know him well, as I’ve mentioned in past blogs, my mother had promised my father that she'd disconnect from her friends and family when she took off with him. Reminds me of a promise you’d make to a cult leader. Eventually, she broke that promise, they came for short visits a few times before George died.


Martha, my mother’s mother, paid for airfare so my broke-ass mom could go to the funeral in Minnesota. When she returned from the trip, I was full of questions. I thought everyone would be sobbing and wailing all day and all night, as I imagined I would if Riley had dropped dead, a future event I morbidly dreaded and dwelled on as a child, Riley being so much older when I was born, and only eight years younger than this grandfather was when he kicked off. I thought my father might die any second, he was so old. Riley was only fifty-five when I was eight, younger than I am now, so it cracks me up remembering how fixated I was about him being so, so old, gonna-die-any-second-now old.


My mother tried to explain to me that funerals have normal times, too, when people are just talking, even joking.


“You made jokes?” I asked, stunned and a bit judgmental. A sort of how could you possibly tone. I wanted to know if everyone wore black, if Martha wore a black veil to cover her face, all kinds of questions that came from what I’d seen in movies.


“It’s not what you’re thinking. It wasn’t like that,” she said.


Well into my adult years, I finally learned the difference between a memorial and a funeral. I didn’t go to a funeral–– an actual burial, until I was in my fifties. It was a formal, Catholic burial, and I was asked to be a pallbearer, a totally new experience for me. When the priest spoke, the best friend of the man who’d died leaned over to me and said, “he would’ve hated this.” I nodded in the affirmative, our dead friend wasn’t religious. But the event wasn’t for him, it was for his parents and brothers, and others in the community who needed the church to make sense of it all. The rituals helped them grieve, like tossing dirt on the coffin as it’s lowered into the ground.


I think my first experience with memorials or "celebrations of life” were in my late twenties.


I went to a memorial recently, a friend and neighbor died. He was only 57. I met him when he first moved to Seattle back in the early 90s, when he worked in a fringe theater that he and other college friends started. Years later, he produced a show my husband was in at a venue in town, the same venue that created a beautiful memorial for him, many hands making the event thoughtful, such as the special entry point for friends and family, where we could go upstairs and pick out music from his vast collection. I chose an Earth, Wind & Fire album, Fresh Prince (I momentarily forgot about the slap at the Oscars) “I’m The Rapper” album, and two CDs: “Classic MTV Class of 1983” which was my class, and what turned out to be the best choice of all, “Hillbilly Blues, 25 Country Classics 1929-1947.” The music my father grew up hearing.


The music giveaway was extraordinary, he had amassed such a huge collection in his life, it was like walking into a vintage record shop, except everything was free. Volunteers–– who were probably grieving friends as well (everyone felt like they were this person’s friend, he was truly loved, and a fantastic human) helped organize the giveaway. I imagine the gifting of the music collection was decided before he died, as he knew what was coming, and he was a generous guy.


The rest of the event was seamless, full of lovely details, anecdotes, videos, photographs. Friends, family, and colleagues spoke, but also Governor Jay Inslee. Musicians played and sang, but also Mike McCready played guitar. There were readings, including a poem read by a famous actor. The person who died was a true connector, the place was packed, at least four hundred people or more. He was the kind of guy who made people feel like they were important to him, famous or not. His cousin spoke of how important creating community was to their shared grandfather, and how those values were passed down.


Anyway, the people who put this memorial together certainly showed us all how you honor a much loved person.


*


When my father died, I didn’t know what to do. He wouldn’t tell me what he wanted at the end of his life, only saying he loved me and was proud of me. “I know I’m going to die,” he’d said after he fell and broke his hip. He asked me to look after my older sister, and I promised him I would. When it came time, it was that sister who picked up his ashes and took them back to her apartment. I was told by my mother that he’d done “a lot of bad things” in Porterville, and that he owed different people money in that town. Ted, his friend, had blurted something out when we were both visiting Riley at the skilled nursing home:


“Your father ripped off everyone I ever introduced him to,” he said.


After my father died, I was in shock. After all that anxiety about him dying any minute back when I was a kid, thinking about it, freaking out about it, I wasn’t prepared when he actually died. I thought his hip would heal and we could find him an apartment somewhere. I know that was magical thinking now.


I tried to imagine having some kind of memorial for him in Porterville, but wondered, who would show up? I didn’t want to hear bad things about him, any more than I’d already heard. My mother said Riley had taken a young woman’s song and tried to pass it off as his own in the 1980s. The songwriter found out what Riley was up to, she confronted him, according to my mother. Who was she? I feared people would show up and want something, angry people. Riley had kept parts of his life compartmentalized, so I didn’t even know who would’ve wanted to show up. I do think it’s important to have a ceremony of some kind, though, to avoid that limbo feeling, that strange sensation that something is missing.


©Stacya Shepard Silverman Riley Shepard’s Promise 2024 All Rights Reserved. Photo by E.P. Jeff Jaffarian


I didn’t invite my parents to my wedding, back then Jan and Riley were not on speaking terms, and didn’t hide their contempt for one another, so I thought it was better to have a small wedding with friends, and my husband’s family (they never met my father). My friend Matthew Flint walked me down the aisle. Only my husband, David, met Riley, and only after we were married.


“My dad’s not good with money, never give him a loan, he’ll never pay you back,” I said to my husband. But I continued to loan my father money, which was really our money, so…there’s some twisted thinking.


I told the Hidden Brain folks more about my relationship with my father than I told my own husband, wanting to keep the two worlds (my new married life and my old wacky life with my parents) completely apart. Anyway, Riley seemed happily married to his wife, Ruth, during that time, she was ill, and travel was hard for them. At least that was something I said to people back then at my wedding when asked about my parents.


Both photographs in this blog, the one of my brother-in-law wiping away a tear, and the one of me in my wedding dress (a gift from a costume designer at the Seattle Rep Theater) whisking into a doorway, were taken by David’s photographer pal who moved to Tahiti, E.P. “Jeff” Jaffarian. I remember he apologized that his camera malfunctioned, but he gave us what shots he had, and I thought they were cool, regardless of what was happening with his camera.


I’ve been thinking, maybe this blog is a memorial, too. How do we engage in these rituals, funerals, memorials, when it comes to complex people... loved ones who behaved badly at times, who created difficulty for others? Anyway, at the time of my father’s death, it seems my fears were stronger than my need to bury him properly.

 

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