I realize I’ve spent a bit of time now writing about how losing my mom, Luza has affected me. I’m not saying that apologetically. She was a tremendous part of my life and for so many years.
And I have a lot to say on this particular subject, but today I want to share how we went about organizing a Celebration of Life.
How do you go about “wrapping it up?” When Luza passed away on January 14th, my sisters and I went about the business that needed to be taken care of: dismantling her house, giving away her things (as per her instructions), bagging and donating her clothes. Taking time to stop and weep. Bagging and donating and making decisions about all the things left behind.
There were decisions to be made about furniture and washers and dryers. But also there was the real business stuff. Closing bank accounts and notifying social security, selling her house, and of course, making “arrangements.”
“Making arrangements” is the catch-all euphemism for “how do we eulogize, memorialize, remember her, and celebrate her life?”
In all modesty, this is the stuff I do best. My mom left notes. No will, per se. Just little pieces of paper tucked into her drawers where she knew we’d find them. Sticky notes on the bottom of items. It was almost like a treasure hunt.
The best one was, “After I’m gone, if you have a party to go to, go. If you have plans, go enjoy your plans. Remember me by getting on with your life. Don’t stop living. I would go, too, if I could.” Isn’t that just delicious?
I have to appreciate that about her. She was very much of the belief that life goes on. And lived accordingly.
“Don’t wear black. It’s stupid.” That’s what one of her instructive notes said. Made me laugh out loud. I think when she was a child she was forced to dress “in mourning” as was the fashion of the day in the 20’s. She was having none of that nonsense.
We included a footnote to the invitation: In honor of her beautiful life and legacy, we encourage you to wear something bright.
She left very specific instructions for flowers she wanted. “One bouquet. 6 red roses for my children. 16 pink for my grandchildren. 12 yellow for my great-grandchildren.” That might have been my very favorite request of all.
So I set about creating an event – it had to be An Event – to celebrate her 102 years of life on this earth.
Not a funeral. Never a funeral. A Celebration of Life. With instructions to please wear bright colors. It was to be festive, you see.
I collected all her photo albums and had my sisters take every picture frame she had in the house and get them to me.
I had photos printed of her with each one of her grandchildren and children and good friends and I had those photos put into these very frames that came from her house. They ended up displayed on these shelves during the Celebration.
I perused my vast collection of archived photos of my mom.
I created a photo book of her life. There were only 2 criteria for the photos – they had to be of Luza, or of Luza and…
There were thousands. She lived for almost 103 years, people! So even choosing the photos that would go into the book was a painstaking process.
It always came down to her and the most important people in her life – her family of origin, my dad, her kids, her grandkids, her friends, her great-grandkids. I wrote down these groups on a thousand post-it notes. I made decisions to include certain photos, skip over others. How do you honor a woman who still into her 100’s had very active friendships? This work was the hardest for me.
Or maybe that made it easier.
Then I took those photos as well as video we had from all the years we’ve been making family videos. (Note: I’m so very glad I went out of my way to videotape my mom in her last years.)
Here’s her famous Cuco and Yayo video. (Get popcorn.)
Luza had a wonderful collection of teacups – “tacitas” in Spanish. Our last Christmas in Cuba was December 24th, 1960. My aunt had given her a set of 4 artisan made demi-tasse cups. She brought those with us to the US. She couldn’t have known that these would become a prized possession in our new home here in America.
She amassed a collection of over 1,000 teacups. Anytime a friend or family member went on a trip or visited someplace fun, they always remembered my mom and her collection. And so it grew.
We set up a display at the Celebration of a representation of that collection.
We wrapped and gave one to each grandchild as a remembrance of her legacy, along with the previously discussed gifts for each one.
As we were wrapping and pulling teacups for the memorial I couldn’t help but notice that some of the memories represented were my own.
Of places I had gone and remembered to bring her back the souvenir, or of things we had done together or places we had gone or memories we shared. It was both lovely and bittersweet.
My sister, Alina has a gorgeous home for entertaining. She generously offered to host the event. And serendipitously, an office situated off of the family room, which she calls The Chapel (because it has a couple of funky tinted windows) became the place where we created a Shrine to All Things Luza. It was all just perfection.
In the Shrine, we also had two of her favorite coverlets and explained their significance. Lucy took it upon herself to add the museum-type explanations to each of the items displayed. It was so very lovely. I kept thinking, “Luza would so love this.”
I created a Spotify playlist of lots of her favorite Latin music which played throughout the day.
And the food? Well, we had it catered by Porto’s Bakery, of course.
The menu was very Cuban and and very varied. Medianoche sandwiches, potato balls, meat pies, pastelitos de carne and pastelitos de guayaba, fancy pastries. But also chicken salad, potato salad, and a Mediterranean salad. Lox and bagels, too. It was a brunch, after all, and because she loved all kinds of food. Isn’t it funny the things that stop you in your tracks as memories surface?
We gathered for an official “service” portion of the day with my niece, Kelley’s husband Jay officiating. He spoke of her life, the things and people she loved, her faith in God, and how we were all really her legacy. It was perfect.
I created a 20 minute video recapping her life and those she loved in which I included video of her talking and sharing. Including this memory that I had filmed of her recalling her first-born, my sister, Ofelia.
As you can well guess, there were no dry eyes in the house.
The rest of the day was full of reunions and remembrances, with lots of old friends coming to pay their respects.
I was super grateful for dear friends offering to work the kitchen and keep the food trays filled giving us the chance to just grieve and be as present as we could possibly be on this day.
I especially loved watching the grandchildren – ranging in ages from 52 down to 21 – as they told stories of growing up with Luza as their grandmother. Their love for each other and pride in their shared legacy was palpable.
We took a thousand and one photos during this precious reunion full of happiness and sadness mingled together.
All of us with smiles on our lips and eyes glistening with tears, dressed in bright colors, and telling stories in honor of The One responsible for all of this life and sweet craziness, Luz Aurora Verdés.
A life so very worthy of celebration.