My website

My website

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I Love Funerals

We buried my husband's mother this past Friday, January 27. She was ninety years old. It can be very hard for children to say their final goodbyes to their mother. There were tears.

But Lenora Stoia Sweet's final send-off was also happy, because we knew that after five years of struggle, her spirit was finally free of the suffocating veil of Alzheimer's disease. No more earthly suffering.

And what a celebration we had in her honor!  Lenora's children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, her brother, her sister, nephews, nieces, a great-nephew and a great-niece journeyed to Wisconsin from Texas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Spain. We had a four-day reunion of friends and family from morning until night - and sometimes into the next morning.

Of course we'd all rather get together at a wedding or birthday...but the point is that we got together! I know Lenora would be thrilled at such a grand party in her name.

I love funerals because family members who rarely see each other have a chance to bond - or to bond again - with each other....

For the Stoia cousins, it was business as usual: endless story-telling. We were having so much fun we almost forgot to take a picture until the end of the funeral luncheon. That's my husband, Mike, fourth from right.

I love funerals because you see friends you haven't talked to in decades. My husband, Mike, said, "I can't believe the whole neighborhood gang was there." When he grew up, there were thirty-five kids on his one-block-long street, Wick Place in Milwaukee; there were fifty kids if you counted the ones just across the alley. Six of those boys, including Mike and his brother Doug, played baseball all day long during summer vacations. Mike's house was the place to hang out. Lenora made the gang feel welcome; she loved to ask them questions about their lives. The family's garage was the place for the boys to create air guitar bands or to play cards or Monopoly....

I love funerals because cousins and brothers and sisters and their children grow close, and if they are lucky like the people in the Stoia clan, the friendships they form will last a lifetime....

Natalie, who was visiting from Colorado, was thrilled to hold her infant second cousin Max.
I love funerals because they give me visual proof of the longevity of families. I figure there have been twenty-eight people on earth as a result of Lenora's life. Twenty-three of them were at the funeral. One, Lenora's daughter Marilyn, beat her mother to heaven three years ago when she died of cancer at age fifty. We figure that Marilyn and her dad were Lenora's angelic greeters....

Jerry and Lenora with Marilyn
I love funerals because I always learn something new about the person who has died. I knew Lenora for forty-six years but I never  learned until last week  that her nickname was  "Stoogie" during high school (Secrets were revealed in the messages in her yearbook.)....

I never knew Lenora had a funny and wild spirit when she was young. Old pictures told the story....

Lenora on the left with two pals in Aberdeen. You can see the plains of South Dakota behind them.

Lenora on the right with her sister-in-law Pat - showing their legs!

I love funerals because I'm reminded about things that I had forgotten. When Mike wrote her obituary and read her eulogy, I realized again that Lenora wanted a higher education and career, but it was not her time. She waited until she had raised her five children, and at age fifty she began a thirty-year career with the Milwaukee Public Schools Division of Recreation and Community Services. She distinguished herself; she was awarded the Spirit in Aging Award and Mayor Tom Barrett proclaimed June 15, 2005 to be Lenora E. Sweet Day in the City of Milwaukee....
I love funerals because silliness ensues. New pictures show some of the fun we had - like recreating an old photo pose, for instance. In going through her grandmother's pictures, my daughter, Anna, found a funny picture of herself with her dad, uncle Steve and cousin Andy. She showed it to Andy at the gathering after the luncheon, and soon they were calling their dads over to join them in recreating the photo. (I give cousin Andy credit for not being too proud to nose-pick for posterity.)....

I love funerals because they give local relatives a chance to have fun in a whole new venue. Milwaukee cousins played with their usual enthusiasm. They know each other well because they see each other nearly every week at my house....

My grandsons Isaac, David, Oliver and Liam caught in a rare quiet moment thanks to someone's video game.

I love funerals because they help us to think about how we are spending the days we have. Visitations, funeral services, and funeral luncheons are such an amazing mixture of happy and sad. There is a time for everything, and a burial is a time to be sad....

               Burials should always happen on dreary days, I think...and this one was perfect.

I love funerals because they provide happy exhaustion. On the last evening of the four-day gathering, I could talk no more. Mike was on the way out the door - again - when I asked him to take this picture of me so he could show his brothers and cousins that my spirit was willing but my flesh was weak. I was glad they were still having fun, but no one was getting me out of my fuzzies and my recliner. I couldn't move....

I love funerals because of the stories told. There were many Lenora tales wound and unwound during those long four days, but the best comment came after everyone left....

On Sunday, Mike and I went to the nursing home where she lived her last days, and we gathered her few remaining earthly possessions. We were walking out of the building when we met Janet, who we've come to know and love. Janet's official job is to greet visitors and to do important paperwork. But over the past years of our visits, she always made time to answer our questions about how Lenora was doing. We'd often find Janet holding Lenora's hand and walking with her around the home. She was a real companion not just to Mike's mom, but to all the residents.

Janet has known probably hundreds of people afflicted with different types of dementia. We talked about how tough Lenora was, how she fell many times and never broke a bone, how she kept fighting to live.

"If she hadn't had Alzheimer's, she would have had a great old age," Janet said. Then she added, "She had the strongest will of anyone I've ever met."

That is one of the best compliments I can imagine.

[In the following blog posts, I will include Mike's obituary about his mother, and his eulogy.]

Gail Grenier is the author of Dog Woman, Don't Worry Baby, Calling All Horses, and Dessert First, all available on


  1. Nice piece Gail. As always. Thanks!

  2. Very Awesome Aunt Gail! I am unable to see some of the pictures though :(

    1. Thanks Andy. Several people told me they had trouble with the pix. I will see if I can find out the problem!