My own father died a few years ago and one of the greatest griefs came in the form of an empty parking lot. The funeral home hired parking lot attendants to squeeze in all the cars as if we were showing up at a mega-church with a parking lot ministry on a Sunday morning. But at my father’s funeral, there were no more than a half dozen cars outside the funeral home. He had alienated everyone in his life, including his family.
When I look at my writing, I realize I’m a bit obsessed with funerals. They seem to appear regularly in my work. In my novel Try Again Farm, the main characters have an odd and darkly humorous hobby: they enjoy boosting the funeral attendance at the funerals of all the lonelies out there. “And there are more than you realize,” says Mabel in the story. They look up obituaries in the newspaper and recall those people who had little to no one in their life and they attend that person’s funeral. I wonder where that idea came from?
Over Christmas we went to see the movie Saving Mr. Banks, the story of Disney trying to adapt Mary Poppins to the screen, all to the dismay of PL Travers, the author of the book. Spoiler alert here: Mrs. Travers (a pseudonym) recreated the character of Mr. Banks to represent her drunk father, but the screenplay adapters were struggling to see her vision for the story and for this important character. Ultimately, Mrs. Travers admits to wanting to redeem her father, the man she knew to be so much more than just the compilation of all his failures. I know how Mrs. Travers felt. Unconsciously, I see myself doing the same thing in my writing.
Such is the beauty of writing. Like in Saving Mr. Banks, writers can adjust reality to erase and revise what is ugly and painful. We can make the dad help fix the kite as in the movie, or we can send kind old ladies to boost the crowd in the funeral home, to honor people who often lived without honor in their lives. Such power to change the outcome of painful stories of reality and ease the world’s pain with imagination and words.