- Courtesy Of Molly Stevens
- A memorial for Maggie Sherman in Burlington
I used to go to a lot of weddings and the occasional funeral. Now that I'm 62, it's the other way around.
Exacerbating the trend: Since COVID-19 changed our lives — and deaths — people have put off marrying and burying because it's been too risky to gather in large groups. That's the primary reason I've been to four memorial services — and one long-awaited knot tying — in the last six weeks. It may explain, too, why they were all such thoughtful tributes.
A June 4 celebration of my lipstick-loving neighbor Maggie Sherman, almost four months after she died, was just the kind of party she would have hosted, in her backyard, with a view of the lake. Friends made sure there was a pop-up museum of her art in the driveway, including a mannequin decked out in the outfit she wore as "Honey" the diner waitress. The attendees, a who's who of Vermont culture, dressed in the colorful hues Maggie loved. Honoring a last wish, some brought her favorite chocolate desserts.
Three weeks later, an equally artsy crowd gathered to send off filmmaker and artist John Douglas at Burlington's Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center. Appropriately, in the six months between his death and memorial, Douglas' longtime partner, Eleanor "Bobbie" Lanahan, finished a movie chronicling his remarkable life. For 45 minutes, we watched him — in home movies and photos — make his way from a gilded childhood in Chicago to Charlotte via Harvard University, Vietnam and a commune in Putney. Anti-war activism with the Newsreel documentary collective launched his artistic life.
As one of his granddaughters put it: "He was a really cool grandpa."
From the Film House, the crowd walked to the Karma Bird House Gallery at 47 Maple Street to see an exhibition of John's work. The show includes examples from a series of naked self-portraits in which he wields an M16 rifle. No matter the pose or location, the gun covers his genitals. But in one larger-than-life image from his last chapter, Douglas bares all, complete with a catheter.
The next day, my partner and I drove to Newport to attend a graveside service for Frank Fiermonte, the father of our friend Phil. Frank was that area's country doctor for many decades. His former patients eulogized him with stories about house calls in the middle of the night and lifesaving diagnoses. People didn't need appointments to see the doctor in those days. His workday wasn't over until he'd examined them all.
Frank died in Vermont on April 21, 2020, at age 99. At the time, Phil was living in Montréal with his wife and, because of the pandemic, couldn't cross the border to handle the arrangements. If he'd entered the U.S., he wouldn't have been able to return to Canada. Now he was finally laying his dad to rest, next to his mom and across the road from a golf course Frank loved to play.
He would have liked the lunch, too, at Le Belvedere restaurant in downtown Newport.
Three weeks later, a country supper brought us to Danville, where Sen. Jane Kitchel hosted a memorial meal to honor her late husband, Guil, who died at the end of June. He didn't want a service, she told the crowd, but with the help of relatives, she served up some of his favorite dishes: baked beans, ham, lobster mac and cheese, green salad, homemade ice cream. Kitchel hails from a tribe of practical public servants who, even in grief, prioritize others.
Friends and family feasted under a tent on the lawn, alongside some of the other things Guil cherished: antique tractors, old cars, lush gardens in full bloom. On such a beautiful day, in that bucolic setting, the event felt more like a wedding.
We squeezed in one of those, too, in Grafton. Twice postponed because of the pandemic, it was the best planned, executed and art-directed wedding I have ever attended. During the dance between the bride and her father, for example, she surprised him with a video gleaned from old home movies.
As yet another virus variant spikes cases around the country, these moments of collective mourning and celebration feel that much more meaningful.