THE MEMORIAL SERVICE by AIleen Hewitt
Clutching my friend Lydia’s obituary and a memoir she wrote several years ago, I enter the large light-filled atrium of the life-care facility where her service will be held. If I had heard that, at 92, she died in her sleep after a good dinner and one martini (her limit), I would not feel haunted by the cruel grotesquerie of her choking to death. Hoping her memoir will distract me from the images of her death that flash before me, I settle into a wicker chair under the skylight to read. Her parents were Preacher Mack and Miss Mary: He was a circuit-riding preacher, spreading the gospel through Georgia on mule back, and she was his beautiful and resourceful wife. Lydia and her brother squirmed through several church services a week and learned to behave under the scrutiny of her father’s congregations.
As I go to get a cup of coffee from the front of the room, I pass a grand piano prepared for playing and a lectern mounted with a microphone, and anticipate the stories we will tell of Lydia’s life. I have nothing written, but four hours of driving to New Hampshire has given me time to think about what to say. I appreciate the opportunity to recreate Lydia, to make meaning out of our history and this loss. After working at the local hospital psychiatric clinic, she became the social worker at the high school where I taught. I was the English teacher of last resort for the angry and disaffected students with whom she worked. We shared setbacks and successes, including some that are too salty to recount at a memorial service. One I will tell is that after having advised a pregnant girl who wanted an abortion, Lydia sent her distraught boyfriend to me; it was my job to explain to him, a poor speller, how to find the Planned Parenthood clinic. It was Planned – not Plant – Parenthood…we weren’t talking about greenhouses here. Lydia jettisoned her preacher’s-kid legacy and claimed all the pleasures that life offered. She is the only person I know who maintained a vigorous sex life into her mid-eighties, saying, “At mah age, it passes as exercise, because I can’t walk as faah as I used to.”
I want to tell them that Lydia is the reason I became a social worker. That she set the standard of excellence for me. Social workers are not always the favorites of school administrators, who see us as handwringers and excusers of bad behavior, always asking for one last chance for some miscreant who has already consumed too much time and energy. But Lydia knew how to be tough when it was warranted.
One time she called me to her office to meet with a very troublesome, drug-involved boy, my English student, placed in my class by her. Both of us felt affection and anger in equal proportions. Lydia said, working the Southern accent for effect, “Now, AAHH-leen, you know that Frank here has been doin’ dope again when he promised us that he wasn’t goin’ to bring it to school anymore. He thinks we’re goin’ to bail him out again. But what we’re goin’ to do is, you are goin’ to nail his feet to the floor raaght here, so he can’t git away when I start kickin’ his butt and callin’ the police.” While Frank started to turn slightly green, Lydia picked up the phone and left a message for the youth police officer. She later arranged for Frank to perform community service without an arrest on his record. Lydia was a favorite of the school administrators as well as the teachers and the students. She was always in the right pew.
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ABOUT AILEEN HEWITT
Aileen Hewitt worked as a public school English teacher, guidance counselor, and social worker. She is now in her fourth career, writing from her home in Old Greenwich, CT. She has been published in many places including the North Dakota Quarterly, CHILD magazine, and The New York Times.
She says, “The Memorial Service” wrote itself. “I was really a wreck when I got home from my friend’s funeral. I went directly to the computer, typed like a maniac until 2 am, and finished the essay still in my bathrobe the next morning. I couldn’t do another thing until I finished it. I’ve gotten lots of satisfaction from others things I’ve written, but nothing has ever been so cathartic!”