Funeral for a Basque

pagegeui lane

Last week, I went up to Susanville with my mother to help bury my uncle, Marty Paguegui, who lived on the eponymous street you see pictured above.  I’ve never been to Susanville, not being close to my uncle.  It’s a wonderful place.

On the surface, I don’t belong in a place like Susanville, not at all.  Susanville is about 80 miles west of Reno.  It’s in the mountains — 4,200 feet — it snows up there.  People ranch, and they work construction (which is what my uncle did), or they work at the High Desert Prison, one of those huge new prisons the state of California’s thrown up in all kinds of out-of-the-way places.  When you drive out to Paguegui Lane, you can see the prison from a long way away because it has so many lights outside and there aren’t that many lights on in Susanville at night so nothing competes with it.

Me, I’m from a place that’s easy to get to, any season at all. And people here don’t ranch, let’s just leave it at that.  Side dishes with mayo, particularly ones with macaroni?  Not much in evidence in Berkeley. But surprisingly yummy when eaten in the parish hall of the catholic church in Susanville after mass, or at my Aunt Vicky’s house, in Maxwell, which is off I-5, on the way home from Susanville. I’m not sure you’re supposed to discover how much you love a place when you’re on a funeral mission, but there you have it:  that was mostly what I did.

My uncle — who was in his early 70s — had a lot of friends.  The funeral mass was crowded with them, and the amount of help they gave was huge and without any hesitation.  It was lovely for my mother and my cousins to have people volunteer to do things they couldn’t do.  For example, my uncle left his important stuff in a combination safe.  He’d given the combination to two different people, but on the Sunday when we needed to open it, the combination was nowhere in evidence.  So, how do you get a safe open on a Sunday in Susanville?  Well, you take it to the local locksmith, a heavily tattooed ex-con, and he drills it open in about two seconds so you can get the instructions for the funeral, the will, and the cash he didn’t want to put in the bank.

My uncle was a handsome man, in that way Basque men can be handsome, with a white smile in a dark face, the kind of guy who loves to dance, and has a way of talking to women that makes them feel that they might possibly be the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world.  As a result, he was not that successful with women long-term, but he clearly had a lot of short-term fun.  So much so that when it became evident that one of his wishes for his funeral was to have women pall bearers, the rush to volunteer was immediate and fierce.

Here are some other facts about Susanville:

  • Things start early.  Starbucks is open at 4:30 a.m.  That’s so the prison guards and the ranchers can get a latte on their way to work.
  • The local AM radio station, KSUE, has a very popular swap program every day, a program in which you can, for example, let people know you’re willing to swap your used generator for a ride-on lawn mower.  And if you show up at 4:30 a.m. at that radio station, which is in a little house by the fairgrounds, there will be a guy there who’s wide awake, and he’ll read the announcement of your uncle’s death and the funeral mass to come a couple times a day, just to make sure the word gets out.
  • You’ll discover, when you walk outside your room at the Best Western, after your mother’s woken you up to go to the radio station, that the air is cleaner and fresher than any air you can remember in a long time, and the moon will just be sinking beyond the edge of the horizon and you’ll notice that the sky is huge and open and so beautiful you want to stand there in the parking lot and not move because you know it’ll be a while before you see the morning in quite that way again.  And you’ll see this is why your uncle spent most of his life up here.  Because it is beautiful in a way few other places are.
  • When the Irish priest in Susanville is on vacation, his place is taken by the Rwandan priest whose parish is up the road.  This Rwandan priest will hug your mother more than a few times, and he will give a remarkable homily about life and death, which you know he’s seen a lot of, even though he looks like he’s barely thirty years old.
  • People will invite you to come back to Susanville because your uncle was their friend.  And you will come back — to a party in a few weekends, and to the big lamb barbeque your uncle gave every year, the one where the old Basques stand around telling jokes, charming women, living a good, full life.  You’ll come back because you like this place, this early-rising, kind, surprising place.

And that is where I’ve been, and what I’ve been doing, since I last posted about how good the food at the Berkeley Bowl looks in the summer.


18 thoughts on “Funeral for a Basque

  1. Funerals are awful–for family members even more so. But–I am glad you were in good company and that you all sent your uncle off with great spirit.

    I do love small towns (even though I’m in love with New York City and Berkeley). I’m in one right now, where the neighbors offer 2 mow your lawn when your house is empty, who try to chase away the woodpeckers who peck at your most-of-the-time empty house, who snowblow your driveway just to be nice, and where sharing is implicit. It’s a good place to be if there’s ever an Apocalyptic event.

  2. My condolences on losing your uncle, even though you say you weren’t close. When we lose a family member it’s still a part of us. He sounds like he was quite a character. Sounds like he lived in a good place, with good people around.

  3. What a remarkable tale you weave. You had me down on that parking lot on your way to the radio station and I stood with you in silence and listened to the last of the stars moving…

    My condolences on your uncles death. May you take the memories of his charming rascal self and bring them into your naming of many Susanville side dishes…

  4. I’m so sorry to hear of your uncle’s death, but glad that the event was lightened by the discovery of an amazing community. We don’t have places like this in England, and we are the poorer for it.

  5. Thanks for this one. Very moving; and also inhabited somehow by the spirit of the man.
    I\’m a sucker for funerals and never miss one if I can help it. I\’m not morbid, but there\’s something about a community coming together to celebrate a life which I find irresistible.
    Quite apart from the occasion, Lily, your writing is inspired here. I was with you every step of the way.

  6. Joseph, Well, I’m glad you were right there with me!

    Dear John, I hadn’t expected it to be such a terrific week — I think you’re right: there’s something about being in a community when people stop, come together, and eat macaroni salad in celebration of life that’s like nothing else I do.

    Oh, but litlove, you do! All those lovely villages, the ones where not much seems to be happening but, in fact, a lot really is — those are England’s Susanvilles.

    Lilalia, He was a charming rascal, I think. A wonderful guy.

    DD: You’re right — a wonderful place. I’m amazed I never went to those lamb barbeques — my mother did, and although she mentioned them every once in a while, I assumed they were for people other than me. The thing I really loved about my week up there was learning how welcoming people can be.

    Dear Jade — sounds like the true tahoe! Does that woodpecker-chasing-away thing work though? They’ve always seemed impervious to insult.

  7. Bloglily, if you need someone to go with you to a lamb barbeque, um, YOU KNOW HOW TO REACH ME. 😉

    In all seriousness, my condolences on your uncle’s death, and know that I caught my breath along with you when I read about that pre-dawn parking lot. Beautiful, beautiful job bringing us right there.

  8. Genie, Oh good! Between now and September, there is always chaat, where lamb is lovely. Oops. I became a vegetarian in November. Actually, I am a selective vegetarian, which leaves room for the barbeque.

  9. Bloglily,

    Wonderful post. It very much reminds me of something Kathleen Norris would write (I was just reading Kathleen Norris before I read your post, in fact).

    I suspect that what you experienced in Susanville is the alchemy of a funereal which makes presiding at “services of witness to the resurrection” (that’s what we Presbyterians call the funeral mass) one of my favorite responsibilities as clergyman. When it’s done right a funeral is a powerful, healing moment in the life of a family and a community.

    I hope I get to meet that Rwandan priest someday.

  10. Funerals can be amazingly life affirming and healing – I hope that was the case for you mother. And what an amazing sounding place – sounds like nowhere I’ve ever experienced.

  11. Your uncle sounds like a smart guy: didn’t he get you up to Susanville after all? I might be overtired & done in by the incessant rain, but from beginning to end you made me cry in the best way. Welcome back. xo

  12. Dear Marie, I’m very sorry to hear about the incessant rain, which is beautiful in its own way, just not when it’s incessant. The daily-ness of life with children can sometimes be difficult, can’t it? I hope you get out today, and go someplace good.

    DWW — You’re absolutely right. All the mourning seemed to occur before we arrived. When we got there, the occasion and the place conspired to make all of us happy to be living our lives.

    Ben, It seems only right that the end of someone’s life should be the time for a powerful, healing ceremony. How wonderful that this is your profession, to preside over something like that. So few of us get to bring that to people. By the way, the Rwandan priest, Father Bernardin, is the parish priest at Our Lady of the Snows, in a town called Westwood, which is not the same as the place where UCLA is. Westwood is thirty miles from Susanville, near some beautiful lakes. Just in case you’re driving up that way. xoxo

  13. BL–I love the contrast of Berkeley and Susanville. About 20 years ago, on a camping trip to see bald eagles, a friend and I drove through the town; so very different from our cities by the bay.

    It’s partly for contrast like this that my wife and I go up to the foothills every year or so. Sometimes losing the anonymity of the city is bracing. I agree with you about the air, and the sky at dawn, and I’m missing them now, too.

  14. I loved the way you described the details here, Lily, from the parking lot in the dawn to the food and the personality of your uncle. Great writing, and I hope you get back to Susanville some time and tell us about it too.

  15. My condolences on the loss of your uncle. Susanville sounds a lot like the little towns that dot northern Michigan where I grew up. I long for them even while I know I wouldn’t actually enjoy living there now…

  16. I’m sorry to hear you lost your uncle. Susanville sounds a bit like California’s answer to Lancaster County: a great place to visit and to set stories, a little more difficult for real-life living.

  17. It seems to me what you re-discovered in this bit of Basque country is what you already had found in Tail of the Yak ~ “Verre de amitie.”

    Here’s to your uncle, and his family, and their friends, and the neighbors, and the clean air and the time to breathe them all in.

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