The words “celebration of life” are used rather over-optimistically sometimes, when plans are being made for a funeral or other memorial observance. To be sure, the phrase always conveys an honest desire of the bereaved to commemorate the person who is gone, but these “celebrations” are rarely what you could really call a party.
We were lucky enough to participate in the exception to the rule on Saturday when we attended a celebration held in memory of our dear old friend Marlys, who — as avid Star readers will know — died on Christmas Eve.
At the Lutheran funeral service earlier that day, tears poured. But later, when Marlys’s daughters, Nina and Daisy, staged a genuine, no-holds-barred party at the Bell and Anchor in Noyac, we all were lifted up by the warmth and cheer. It was Christmas in January, and Marlys would have loved it.
There was a big spread of all Marlys’s traditional Christmas dishes: Swedish meatballs, baked ham, smoked salmon with capers, Norwegian lefse, and huge trays of cookies and rum balls. The wine flowed, and another dear friend, the folk singer Tom Paxton, sang in a voice that was as clear and strong as it was when the kids were little and we all gathered in the 1970s and 1980s. We raised our voices to join in Christmas caroling, and we looked long and hard at all the wonderful old family photos that had been placed around the room, which was decorated with Nordic elves and sprites made of wood, straw, and wool.
The family members who had traveled from Minnesota to say goodbye made it obvious that while they had come to mourn they were, like all of us, both moved and pleased to feel close again to Marlys, feeling her presence in these rituals of music, good humor, drinks, heartfelt conversation, and generosity. The highlights of the evening were recorded via cellphone for other relatives back home.
Some of us hadn’t seen one another for 10 or 20 years, or more. There really are only two occasions that have the power to bring together far-flung friends and family as we came together last weekend: weddings and funerals. The mood at weddings is, of course, generally bright and the conversation light and humorous, as guests trade stories about the happy couple just starting out together in life. But while the mood at Marlys’s party was bittersweet, it was mostly sweet, sweet as the mulled and spiced glogg wine. We all felt her spirit there. She was a joyful person, someone who positively twinkled when she smiled, which was frequently. It was a celebration of life — hers and ours.