Memoir Offers Insights on Death

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory

By Caitlin Doughty

Copyright 2014.

 

This author, with a degree in medieval history, a star of the online video series, Ask a Mortician, shares the first few years of her experiences working in the death industry. She starts with her first job as a crematory operator in San Francisco, explaining in detail the cremation process and how she was the one to do the actual cremating. She also describes going with another employee to collect bodies and observing the embalming process.

She then talks about how she eventually moved to Los Angeles where she attended a mortician school and became certified. After another job collecting bodies, she gained employment as a funeral director. She also shares her disillusionment with embalming and other techniques used to make a corpse look natural before a viewing. She suggests taking responsibility for what happens to you when you die.

She also talks about her life growing up in Hawaii and how she took an interest in death after seeing a child fall from a second-story balcony of a shopping mall. She touches on the history of death and how other cultures deal with it. In the end, she relates the details of her grandmother’s passing. Her story begins in the morning at the San Francisco crematory and ends at night in a nearby cemetery.

Because of my experiences with death over the years, I was fascinated by some of her stories and horrified by others. Despite the grimness of the subject, I found myself laughing at some of her anecdotes.

When she described shaving a corpse for the first time, I was reminded of the time I saw my late husband Bill’s body at the nursing home before he was taken away. Shaving him was far from my mind, as I stroked his hair and talked to him for the last time.

When Doughty described picking up bodies at hospitals, nursing homes, and people’s homes, I thought of the two people from the funeral home who came to pick up Bill. Soft-spoken, the woman assured me they would take good care of him. When I asked about arrangements, the man said someone would contact me. You can learn more about my experiences with Bill’s death in My Ideal Partner.

When I started reading this book, I was afraid of death, and I still am. I didn’t think Caitlin Doughty could explain what it’s like to die. Nobody really can. Once you find out, there’s no way to tell others.

My brother, a physicist, once said that when you die, you simply don’t exist anymore, but what is that like? When pets die, they are said to have crossed a “rainbow bridge.” Christians believe that when you die, you see Jesus and are reunited with loved ones passed.

I would like to think that when my time comes, I will cross a rainbow bridge and be reunited with Bill, but what if that’s not the case? What if you’re aware of what is happening to you after you die?

What if Bill heard the last loving words I said to him including my promise to see him on the other side someday. What if he knew he was being wrapped in a shroud, strapped to a gurney, transported to the funeral home, and placed in a refrigerator?

Both my parents were cremated. What if they felt the pain of the flames, as their bodies were being burned until there was nothing left but bones?

If you or your family chooses to have a viewing, necessitating an embalming, what if you feel the instruments cutting into the artery on your neck and into your abdomen to drain blood and other internal fluids and infuse chemicals that make you look more natural? Of course lying in a grave for eternity could be boring but certainly better than burning or being stabbed.

I hope I don’t die for a long time, and maybe when I do, someone will know something. In the meantime, this book is a great start to understanding what can happen to your body after you die.

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Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

Click to hear an audio trailer.

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Graduation Revisited

Last year, I shared this poem when one of my nephews and a cousin graduated from high school. Today, my other nephew Tristan is graduating from high school, so this poem is worth a re-post. It’s an acrostic, so you’ll note the first letter of each line, in bold font, spells the word “graduate.” Click below to hear me read the poem and sing a song I remember performing years ago with a choir at a graduation ceremony. Congratulations to Tristan and anyone else graduating this year.

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Graduate

 

Go out into the world–never look back.

Reach for the top–always look forward.

Aim as high as you can.

Dream as big as possible.

Use your mind, heart, hands,

and know you can do anything.

Trust your instincts.

Energize your life.

***

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Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

Click to hear an audio trailer.

Like me on Facebook.

 

Guest Post: Ida Matilda’s Cream Pitcher

Today, I’m pleased to have Lynda McKinney Lambert as a guest. She’s the author of Concerti: Psalms for the Pilgrimage (Kota Press, 2003) and Walking by Inner Vision: Stories & Poems. (DLD Books, 2017) She’s also an artist and teacher who suddenly lost her eyesight ten years ago. You can read reviews of Walking by Inner Vision on my blog and on the Vision Aware site. Here’s one of her poems, which you can also read on her blog. It’s about her grandmother’s cream pitcher, a photo of which is below.

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Ida Matilda’s Cream Pitcher

by Lynda McKinney Lambert, 2017

 

I loved to spend endless, languid

days at Grandma’s house, sitting

around her plentiful kitchen table. Ida

Matilda’s raisin-filled cookies, sprinkled with

granulated sugar,

apple pies and yeast breads served hot from her oven

tart cherry desserts and homemade blackberry jam.

I poured heavy cream this morning, from her

old ivory creamer, a

little piece of McCoy pottery, circa 1940, Art

Deco, with faded daisies and pale green

leaves, beside

a glass vase of old-fashioned pink roses on a

soft cotton table-cloth, the color of Ida’s blushing cheeks.

Creamers like this had a mate but the open sugar

bowl, now lost.

Reservations were never necessary

even when times were tough, she served her

husband and 7 children

around the abundant table. A tolerant

Mother, she filled her creamer with sweet

milk every day.

Patiently I touch the smooth brown glazed

handle

Ida’s cream pitcher felt cool in my

septuagenarian hand

today. It spilled out the sound of her laughter

caused me to cinch my fingers around its girth

her pale eyes were the ice blue winter sky.

Every time I hold her cream pitcher it

reveals memories of refreshing new cream.

***

The picture to the left is of Lynda’s grandmother with other family members. Now click below to hear me read the poem.

 

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Pictured above, Lynda stands next to a bouquet of flowers. You can read more of her work on her blog. Here’s a link to where you can learn more about Walking by Inner Vision and order the book.

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Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

Click to hear an audio trailer.

Like me on Facebook.

 

Memoir Portrays Mother-Daughter Relationships

Glitter and Glue: A Memoir

By Kelly Corrigan

Copyright 2014

 

In the 1990’s soon after graduating from college, Kelly Corrigan set off on a trip around the world in search of adventure. Broke in Australia, she found a job as a nanny for a widower’s two children, ages five and seven. In the five months she spent with the family, she learned what it’s like to be a mother and not to have a mother and about her relationship with her own mother.

She describes caring for the children, the little boy who immediately accepted her, and the little girl who was aloof at first. She also explains how she developed friendships with the widower’s step-son and father-in-law, often flashing back to her own childhood, how her mother viewed parenthood as something that had to be done while her father was more affectionate.

After returning to the states, she moved from her home in the East to San Francisco, found a job, and eventually got married and had two daughters. She talks about her relationship with her daughters, a time when she thought she would lose her mother, and her own cancer scares.

I’ve never been on a trip around the world and doubt I’ll do that now, but it was fun to read about Kelly Corrigan’s adventures. She tells a great story about mother-daughter relationships but also delivers a powerful message. You never really know what you had until it’s gone. This Mother’s Day, whether your mothers are living or not, I hope you’ll take time to appreciate them.

***

Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

Click to hear an audio trailer.

Like me on Facebook.

 

Poem Depicts Florida Wildlife Adventure

Last week when I posted “Thirty-Foot Sloop,” a poem about my Pacific Ocean misadventure, someone asked me if I ever tried sailing again after that. Well, I have, but not on the high seas. When I visited my brother and his family in Florida, we often took trips down the Loxahatchee River, which is a lot smoother. Last year, we rented a canoe, and I wrote a poem about what happened. Click on the title below the picture to hear me read it.

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My sister-in-law snapped a photo of this creature with her iPhone before she and my brother back-paddled the canoe away from it as fast as they could. 

THE ALLIGATOR

 

A warm March afternoon under a cloudless Florida sky,

floating down the Loxahatchee River,

I sit on the canoe bottom, cramped,

while others paddle.

In a narrow section,

where we hope to spot wildlife, it appears.

Not a snake, but still a deadly creature,

it stands among plants on the bank,

gazes at its reflection in the gleaming water.

I don’t see it–they do.

After snapping a picture,

we sail far, far away

while icy fingers of fear massage my spine.

***

Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

Click to hear an audio trailer.

Like me on Facebook.

 

 

Barfing on the High Seas

One morning years ago at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Los Angeles, while most of my extended family was gathered for my uncle’s wedding, we were sitting around the pool, discussing what we would do that day. The men wanted to go sailing, and the women wanted to see some sights. At the age of twenty-three, I’d never been on a sailboat but had done my fair share of sightseeing, and being young and visually impaired, I didn’t find that at all appealing.

When I invited myself to go sailing with my brother, dad, and two uncles, they readily agreed, and we set off. At a marina, we found a captain willing to take us on a three-hour cruse for a fee, which would increase if we made a mess. Before heading out, we ate lunch at a nearby establishment where I had a cheeseburger with French fries and a Coke. Once we hit the high seas, I wished more than ever that I’d gone to look at museums and other attractions with my grandmother and aunts.

I wrote a poem about this experience several years ago. Kathy Waller’s 100-word short story inspired me to post it. Click on the title to hear me read it.

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THIRTY-FOOT SLOOP

 

In the summer of 1984, my family sets sail

from a marina at Redondo Beach, California.

The rented boat glides through smooth port waters.

 

A college kid, the only woman on board,

once we hit rough waters,

my stomach revolts.

Moments later, while holding the leaking sack

containing what was once my lunch, Uncle Tony asks,

“Will the EPA mind if I throw this overboard?”

 

“No problem,” says Shawn, the captain.

He hands me a bucket,

places a hand on my shoulder

while I let it all out.

 

A helicopter whirrs overhead.

“They’re making a movie,” Uncle Jon speculates.

Oh boy, I always wanted to be in a movie,

I think, huddled over my white bucket,

Barfing on the High Seas.

 

Later, Shawn reminisces about man overboard drills.

Still nauseated, I glance at the water, the shore.

If I jump in, try to swim,

will I make it?

 

After three hours, back in calm waters,

I step onto the dock,

exhausted, sunburned—it could be worse.

***

Afterward, I learned that the women not only saw some sights but also went to an ice cream parlor where they encountered a celebrity from Hill Street Blues. Oh well, some choices we make in life aren’t always good ones.

***

Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

Click to hear an audio trailer.

Like me on Facebook.

 

Blog Party Now Live

Welcome to my first ever blog party to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Break out the Bailey’s Irish Cream and soda bread or whatever you consume on this day, and let’s have a great time.

I’ll start by re-blogging a post I wrote several years ago that’s fitting for St. Patrick’s Day. After reading it, you’re encouraged to find a favorite post, either from your blog or someone else’s, and paste a link to it in the comments field along with a brief description of the blog.

The post you submit can be about anything, not just the Irish or St. Patrick’s Day. After you do this, you can look at other postings in the comments section and get to know other bloggers, and they can get to know you. Let the party begin.

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Book and Movie Tell Tragic Adoption Story

 

In 1952, you’re a teen-aged girl in Ireland. After a romantic encounter with a man you meet at a fair, you become pregnant. In shame, your family sends you away to a convent.

It’s a breech birth. The nuns have little or no medical training. Other women and children have died during childbirth and are buried in unmarked graves nearby. The mother superior believes that the pain of childbirth is God’s punishment for carnal sin so no drugs are administered. In agony, as the nun removes the baby with forceps, you beg her not to “let them put him in the ground.” Miraculously, a healthy baby boy is born. Thus begins the story of Philomena, a book I’ve read and a movie I’ve seen.

Martin Sixsmith, author of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, (2009) and Philomena, with Dame Judi Dench, (2013) is a British writer, Russian scholar, BBC presenter, and former advisor to the government in the United Kingdom. He has written about Russian history, the scandal surrounding the adoption of Irish children by American parents, and other current events. Besides two books about Philomena Lee, the Irish mother forced to give up her child for adoption, his other work includes Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, (2012) and Spin. (2005) In his writing, he has also focused on political communication in government.

The book, Philomena begins with a short introduction by Dame Judi Dench, the actress who portrayed her in the movie. Martin Sixsmith then starts by describing the birth of Philomena’s son Anthony and their lives afterward in the convent. Philomena and other girls who had babies out of wedlock were prisoners there for four years, working to pay off the cost of their care, so to speak. She did the laundry seven days a week and by night, she and the other girls sewed clothes for their children who stayed in the convent until they were adopted. The mothers were allowed daily contact with their children and naturally, they developed close bonds.

Sixsmith also touches on the sale of Irish children to American families. He describes how some Irish government officials tried to block such adoptions but were thwarted by the Catholic Church. In 1955, Philomena was forced to sign papers giving Anthony up for adoption, and he was taken to the U.S. to live with a family in Missouri. Mary, a little girl at the convent about the same age who developed a close friendship with Anthony, was also taken by the same family who didn’t want to separate the children.

Most of the remainder of Martin Sixsmith’s book is devoted primarily to Anthony’s story. The family who adopted him and Mary changed his name to Michael, and Sixsmith describes his life growing up in Missouri and Iowa. The friendship between Michael and Mary grew stronger in America, and in later years, Mary was the only one in the family who supported him. All through his life, Michael wondered about his natural mother. His adoptive parents, who knew the truth, thought it better to tell him that his mother abandoned him.

Sixsmith explains how Michael first realized he was gay as a teen-ager. A priest at Notre Dame University encouraged him to purge himself of his desires. Michael tried but found himself becoming more and more involved in homosexual activities.

In the 1970’s after graduating from Notre Dame and receiving a law degree from George Washington University, Michael worked for the National Republican Committee in D.C. and eventually became the chief counsel for the White House. Sixsmith pinpoints the irony of a gay man working for the Republican Party during the Reagan and Bush eras when homosexuality was considered taboo and Republicans blocked funding for AIDS research. This, combined with feelings of abandonment Michael harbored from his childhood, caused mood swings and bouts of drinking and engaging in sadomasochistic activities. Most of his relationships didn’t last long.

In the 1970’s Michael and Mary made a trip to Ireland in an attempt to find their mothers but were told by the nuns at the convent that they had no records. In the 1990’s, after Michael developed AIDS, he made a second trip to Ireland with his partner, Pete Nelson, and was told that records from the 1950’s were destroyed in a fire. They later learned at the bed and breakfast where they were staying that the nuns deliberately set the fire because of an investigation into the Catholic Church’s practice of selling Irish children to American families for adoption. Michael died a year or so later, never knowing about his mother. At his request, he was buried at the convent in Ireland where he was born.

At the end of the book, Martin Sixsmith devotes a couple of chapters to Philomena after Anthony was taken from her in 1955. I would like to have read more about her, but she may not have wanted her life revealed in such detail. After Anthony left the convent, the nuns sent Philomena to work at a school for boys in England, and she eventually became a nurse. She married twice and had several children and grandchildren. She made frequent trips to the convent in Ireland to inquire about her son but was rebuffed by the nuns every time. She kept the secret of Anthony’s birth from her family for fifty years.

After she finally broke down and told them, her daughter introduced her to Sixsmith, and the three of them visited the convent in Ireland. By this time, there were different nuns with more liberal views, and through other channels, they were able to learn of Anthony’s life in America and that he passed away and was buried at the convent.

I liked Martin Sixsmith’s style of writing this book. Besides giving us a journalistic rundown of all the events, he takes us into the lives of the main characters, telling us what they were feeling and thinking. The book was written like fiction, and I was compelled to keep reading to the end.

On the other hand, the movie doesn’t tell the whole story and uses some artistic license. After Sixsmith meets Philomena’s daughter at a party, he is introduced to her mother, and the two of them travel to Ireland to inquire about Anthony. The nuns tell them their records from the 1950’s were destroyed in a fire and show Philomena the contract she signed, giving Anthony up for adoption that stated she agreed not to try to contact him. Sixsmith later learns from locals in a pub that the nuns started the fire.

The search for Anthony takes Martin and Philomena to Washington, D.C. where they learn of his life and passing. After talking with Mary and Pete Nelson, they learn of Michael’s burial at the convent in Ireland. Upon their return, Martin confronts one of the nuns, and Philomena finds her son’s grave and says goodbye. I enjoyed the performances of Dame Judi Dench and the other actors, but the movie left a lot to be desired, compared to the book.

According to Sixsmith, Michael requested that “Danny Boy” be sung at his funeral in Washington, D.C. before he was taken to Ireland for burial. I can think of no better way to end this post. Please click this link to hear me sing this song. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

Click to hear an audio trailer.

Like me on Facebook.