We met the pastor just inside the front door of the church so we could talk about the services. My husband Jim came in with his brother Chuck, followed by their brothers Jack and Tom.
The pastor shook hands all around, repeated everyone’s names, then took in the sight of the four Fortune men, and my own two sons standing with their father and their uncles.
“Well,” he said, chuckling. “There’s a whole bunch of you, isn’t there?”
Oh, yes, there is a whole bunch of them. And I love nothing more than to see them all together – all those smart, good men I love so dearly. But this was a hard, hard day. Their mom died. She died on March 7, and I can’t yet type those words without feeling the sting of tears behind my eyelids.
My friends sometimes tell me stories about their frustrating, meddling mothers-in-law. I never have any helpful advice to offer. My mother-in-law was a woman I would have ordered straight out of a mother-in-law catalog. She’s the one I would have picked.
It stands to reason; she raised the man I picked. She was the heart of a family I feel lucky to have married into. She was terrifically smart, sharply funny, but also gentle and loyal. She was open and loving and genuinely kind.
So are her sons. So are my sons.
So we all met in Augusta, Ga. -- one of the Fortune boys coming from as far away as Oregon -- to say goodbye and to reconnect with the people who remember their mom best and will miss her most.
The stories were really something. I learned a lot about her over those days in Augusta – about a woman I’ve known for 16 years who welcomed me like family back when I was just the 24-year-old girlfriend she had no good reason to believe would stick.
I heard about her years raising her four rowdy, funny boys in a three-bedroom rental house on Fleming Avenue, and I heard about the career she launched at the elementary school once her youngest started kindergarten.
They called her a bookkeeper or an assistant or something like that. But everyone agreed: She ran the place. In fact, when the principal of that school took a new assignment at another school, he asked her to come along.
“He knew what he was doing,” one of the kids from those days, now middle-aged, recalled. “He knew he couldn’t do it without her.”
Over those days in Augusta, more than one of those middle-aged kids talked about always feeling like the “fifth Fortune” – always feeling welcome in her home, always feeling like one of the family, like one of her kids. Always knowing that, if they were having a rough day at school, the door of Mrs. Fortune’s office was open. That she would listen.
She would have loved that. All those fifth Fortunes, flipping through photo albums and recalling all the good reasons they loved her.
It’s hard to accept, the idea that someone who was so important to us is gone from us. She was smart and strong and beautiful. She loved my sons like they were her own, and she raised my husband to be the devoted man who gave me a safe place to keep my heart. And she’s gone from us.
My own family doesn’t do the formal ceremonies surrounding death – the visitations and services and all that. I think my parents have actual written instructions in their wills forbidding any of it. We cremate, quietly. We donate bodies to science.
We’re not Southern. We’re not churched. In fact, we’re deeply secular humanists. (None of which my mother-in-law ever minded in the least or even brought up, by the way. She just loved me and that was all. No questions asked.)
But I came away from those days in Augusta with a deep appreciation for those unfamiliar traditions of shared farewell. The coming together and the sustaining comfort of communal history revisited.
I even came around on the question of the open casket. “It will scare the kids,” I quietly predicted to my husband when he told me the plans. But, you know, it didn’t. Our younger son approached his grandmother’s coffin and asked if he could hold her hand.
“Of course,” I said. “Of course.” And he did.
Later, that kid gave me the best laugh of the day. Into the reverential silence that followed a long, solemn prayer, he chirped, “What was THAT all about?”
Oh, my funny, sweet boy. Your grandmother would have absolutely loved that.