My mother died the day before Thanksgiving in 2007 and was buried a week later. My brother came for the burial. I wanted to do the service myself and I didn’t want anyone there who hadn’t been supportive of him and me. Four people made the cut: Lisa, my mother’s next door neighbor, Kathie, my mother’s angel down the street, and Radcliffe and Marie.
I had written two poems I wanted to read and I had a funny song to sing. It was important to me to see the casket go into the ground. I wanted to toss the ceremonial handful of dirt and we wanted to put the last of our father’s ashes in the grave. I told Alex that anything he wanted to say would be part of the service. But Alex was having his own experiences around the death and wasn’t expressing any desires or returning any phone calls or e-mails. Since I was of the opinion that no one but the two of us mattered, I felt free to arrange things the way I wanted them.
I drove to Olympia the day after Thanksgiving to go over The Arrangements. Mills and Mills funeral home was a warm, comforting place. There was always coffee or tea available and usually some cookies. At reception were little promotional packets of Kleenexes and of forget-me-not seeds. Everywhere I turned there was another bowl of candy. I met Christi, who had spent hours on the phone re-assuring me that no one could over-ride my mother’s contract with them and that they were prepared to call the police if there were problems with the priest, hell bent on his orthodox funeral.
I looked at headstone designs, by-passing all the praying hands and crosses, and chose a design of roses. My mother was Bulgarian and Bulgaria is famous for its attar of rose.
Back at the house, I called Taz, the neighbor’s dog, and let him come inside and run around, sniffing and exploring. My mother had never let an animal inside her house and my parents had a love-hate relationship with Taz. He was at first reluctant to come inside. I pulled him in with dog biscuits. It was a new regime. No religion at the grave. Dogs in the house. It felt wonderful.
Somewhere, both out there and inside me, I felt my mother’s understanding, approval, and gladness for me. I sensed that she understood what it had been like for me to be her daughter. Anyone who had a problem with that, I didn’t care to be around. That included almost all my mother’s friends.
I got a call from Winifred, someone I had heard my mother talk about. I assumed it was a condolence call, but thirty seconds into it she said, “You know, we were all upset that you changed your mother’s phone number. And you took all her mail. She didn’t like that at all.”
I was stunned. My mother had just died. I had unlisted her phone number three years ago. It was as though this woman had been holding it in, biding her time until she could give me a piece of her mind. Or maybe, in the same way the priest was a receptacle for my anger, I was a receptacle for various people’s anger toward their own children.
“We couldn’t get a hold of her,” Winifred went on. “I was one of her best friends and I didn’t know how to get a hold of her.”
I stammered, “Well she could dial a phone. I don’t know why she didn’t give you her new number.” I wish I had added, “since you were such good friends” but as I said, I was stunned. “My mother was secretive. She didn’t talk about her church friends with me.”
“I am completely open with my children. I tell them everything.”
I felt some sympathy for her children just before my mind began whiting out the way it does when I feel very anxious. I fell back on canned thoughts.
I said, “You knew she was mentally ill?”
Short pause. “What was her diagnosis?”
“Diagnoses are for the convenience of drug companies,” I said. “She was one of the hundreds of thousands of undiagnosed mentally ill in this country and no one knew it better than her family.” The speech came easily as I had said it so many times at the care center.
“Well,” Winifred huffed. “She was a lovely person and a wonderful cook and we had good times at her dinners. That’s how I want to remember her.”
“Well,” I had finally found myself. I imitated her huffiness. “That’s why you’re not invited to the burial.”
And I hung up.
Our small burial procession trooped out to the canopy on a cold morning in early December, me chattering about Six Feet Under which I think amused the funeral directors. I read my poems, tearing up at the end. Alex made some comments, and then we all talked. Everyone had funny stories about Mary. Miss Mary, as Kathie called her. The time Miss Mary’s pants and underwear just dropped off her shrunken body to the floor in a Safeway store. Mary and her dinners. The time Mary picked all Radcliffe and Marie’s plums while they were on vacation so they wouldn’t rot and made preserves.
Mary and the afghans. My mother was famous for making large afghans with a loose crochet stitch and giving them to just about everyone that walked in the door. She passed them out like other people might pass around candy from a bowl.
“Did you get one of my afghans? I have a blue and a purple one here. Which one would you like?”
All the neighbors, all her friends, and their children and grandchildren had one each. The priest and his family each had one. So did the priest before him, the man who was now the appropriate hierarchical entity to tell my mother’s priest to leave me alone, the one who intervened so graciously about the funeral. Former friends who now Wiggled Their Bottoms in an Ungodly Manner in church, and their families had several. Any of my friends who had gone with me to Olympia in the past 25 years had one. Certainly everyone at the burial had received several. My mother kept trying to give them to me. Half a dozen had passed through my hands over the years. I never wanted them but my policy was to take them and give them away. It was easier than fighting with her about why I didn’t want another or why I didn’t want that one.
“What’s wrong with it? You said green. It’s green”
“That’s not my idea of green. I said forest green. Oh never mind, give it here.”
I think about my mother’s afghans sometimes when I have 15 bottles of homemade framboise that I think will delight everyone on my Christmas list for the third year in a row.
I prefaced my song “Ain’t It the Truth” by Harold Arlen by saying that my father would have loved this but not my mother, at least not while she was alive. However, wherever she was on the day of her burial, I heard her laughing.
Life is short, short, brother, ain’t it the truth?
And there is no other, ain’t it the truth?
You gotta grab that rainbow while you’ve still got your youth,
Oh ain’t it the solemn truth?
You know that long as there’s wine and gin
To drown your troubles in,
What’s all this talk of sin? (I winked at my brother)
Rise and shine, and fall in line.
Get that new religion, ain’t it the truth?
For you is dead pigeon, ain’t it the truth?
Cause when you’re laid horizontal in that telephone booth
(the funeral home staff snickered appreciatively)
There’ll be no breathin’ spell, that’s only natural
Ain’t it the gospel truth?
We watched the casket being lowered into the ground. Everyone had flowers or mementos to toss in. Alex and I scattered my father’s ashes. We trooped back to the hospitality room at the funeral home and warmed up with coffee and cookies. We chatted about the house and the massive job the clean-up would be. I told everyone they could have a good browse through the house and were welcome to anything they wanted.
I looked at Alex, “That’s okay with you, isn’t it?” He nodded but he looked like the lost child he had always been. He hardly knew what he was agreeing to and probably was uncertain he had the right to disagree. He found he had that right once we tackled the mess that was my mother’s paperwork.
Next Installment: The Estate