By Melissa Poulin
I am in the middle of reading “Husaby,” in which Kristin’s father Lavrans dies and is laid to rest, when I learn I must fly south to California for my grandmother’s funeral. I pack the book and read it at night in the hotel room, with a tiny booklight, and my 15-month-old daughter sleeping in a port-a-crib beside me. She and I have flown to San Jose, then driven east to Los Banos, the smallish town where my grandparents lived after they retired, and where my grandfather had been buried 17 years earlier.
My grandma, one of 11 children, left home at 19 to marry her first husband. He was abusive, so my grandma took her sons and moved in with her parents again, until she met and married my grandpa, with whom she had two children: my mother and her younger brother. So when my grandpa died, my grandma was faced not only with the loss of her husband of nearly 60 years, but with the prospect of living completely alone for the first time in her life.
When I get to the section on preparations for Lavrans’ death, how Ragnfrid and Lavrans had time to finally say unsayable things to one another before he died, I am thinking of my grandma in her living room after my grandpa’s funeral, her voice breaking as she looked up at one of her sisters to ask, What am I going to do now? her hands raised in a gesture that held a roil of emotion: fury and disbelief, grief, shock, despair.
Nothing I’d ever seen in my grandparents’ union, as a grandchild who visited them a few times a year, had prepared me to witness such a coiled knot of pain and sadness. I was caught off-guard. They had mostly nagged at and teased each other, my grandpa often going several steps further with a Be quiet, woman, and a dismissiveness that made me rage inwardly as a teenager. But of course there was more to their relationship that what appeared at the surface. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the depth of their love, and yet I was.
My grandpa died in his sleep, while sitting up late listening to music one night after my grandma had gone to bed. There was no preparation, no warning, no chance for them to have the kind of conversations that could have– maybe– undone some of the corrosive damage of years of irritable comments spurred by the physical ailments that had caused each of them pain and frustration.
Ragnfrid, we are told, follows her husband’s coffin to its burial place at a monastery, where she then lives for less than two years on her own before following him to the grave. By today’s standards, they are both young when they die, but they’ve also weathered the deaths of four children in their life together. It seems reasonable that Lavrans’ heart is quite literally worn out.
In Los Banos at the funeral, my daughter squirms in my lap in the pew, and won’t be placated with banana-flavored puffs. As I walk her in circles around the back of the church, I hear snippets of the pastor’s sermon and the eulogy my father has prepared. Rain falls on my cheeks and arms when we walk across the street later for the burial, but unlike with my grandpa’s burial, we must leave before my grandma is laid to rest beside him; something has changed in the interceding years in the funeral home’s policy. I touch the smooth wood of the coffin and say a quick, silent prayer before pushing my daughter’s stroller back to the car, and on to the reception. It feels strange to leave her there unburied, like a hyphen in an unfinished sentence.
Before Lavrans dies, he places his mother’s ring on his wife’s finger:
“The three rings gleamed next to each other: on the bottom her betrothal ring, next her wedding ring, and on top his ring. She remembered when he put the first one on her finger… with this last ring, she felt as if he were marrying her again. Now that she would soon sit beside his lifeless body, he wanted her to know that with this ring he was committing to her the strong and vital force that had lived in this dust and ashes.”
At Jorundgaard, ceremony marks the crossing of death’s threshold with as much purpose as betrothal, marriage, and birth. There is an evenness, a balance, to the rituals encircling a life, like the three rings around Ragnfrid’s finger.
At the reception, I walk my daughter around the perimeter of the banquet hall, beneath the bemused smiles of relatives who dip chips into guacamole and try to make conversation suitable for the occasion. It isn’t a reunion, and yet it is. I haven’t seen some of these relatives since I was a child myself, and now here I am with my own child, thinking about Kristin and my grandma and my mother, wondering what it means to be the child of a parent now buried. I think of loosed cords: a boat slipping its tie to a dock, a kite unwound from its reel of string. I am weary from minding my toddler in small spaces devoid of appropriate things to climb on or play with, but I am also hungry for weight, for anchor. We pace the room, both of us restless for something to do with our bodies.
Ragnfrid bakes and brews, kneels at Lavrans’ bedside, walks beside the coffin in the long funeral procession. There is a physicality to preparing for death. She slips into the groove of custom and tradition, and there must be comfort there, in a culture where death is given ample time and space, where one’s body is required to participate in the passing of another. I think this is, in part, what I love about liturgical tradition: its inclusion of the body in matters of the spirit. There is kneeling and standing, singing and sitting and rising again, the procession of the cross and the gospel, the breaking and eating of bread, the drinking of wine. These rituals give form to what is happening inside me as I recommit myself to Christ each week, and I long for such form as I say goodbye to my grandma.
At home again, I gather some pictures of my grandma around me. I unwrap the pieces of the delicate teaset I inherited from her. I sit at her old sewing table, now mine, opening and closing its drawers to see if the scent of her perfume still lingers there, as it had when I first brought it home. I queue up an interview I had recorded with her when I was in college, and her voice fills my ears again, as she gamely answers the stream of disjointed questions I volleyed, one after another. In the recording, both of our voices are younger and brighter, and we laugh together, midstream in an ordinary day, the currents of time still eddying and flowing smoothly around us.
Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.