“Oh, doesn’t she look lovely?”
“Yes, they did a really nice job.”
We all searched for something original to say, but this was all we mustered. And it was meaningful in that the deceased would sigh relief to know that she was decomposing in style and carefully coordinated accessories. It helps to have a decorator in the family. Truly.
But now, how to be truthful without being mean? How irreverent is it really to mention that while her make-up lent color to her cheeks, the beige foundation on her hands made her seem waxy and dead? Her bright coral manicure was flawless but her fingers long as a concert pianist’s and spotted as a Florida snowbird’s. The sight of the shining pointy nails combined with the dark mahogany coffin could only make me think of Ann Rice. Telling the unglamorous gospel about sacred experience is aptly distancing, providing the perfect emotional defense when one is already well-defended.
“Eileen, you look lovely,” my Grandmother said directly to the corpse. Eileen lay permanently resting in the pink chiffon, pearlescent beads, and white sequins often brandished at ballroom dance marathons. She’d worn the dress to her daughter’s first wedding,” my step-sister explained. Since the groom turned out to be a scoundrel, and a homo-sexual scoundrel at that, it wasn’t the happiest moment of the woman’s life. Still, she had asked to be buried in pink, and in a pinch, this was all anyone could find.
Surprising even myself, I gasped. “I thought her favorite color was purple,” I told my substitute sister. “No, it’s definitely pink,” she informed.
“But she has that purple room in her house.”
“That’s just the guest room.”
“I’ve been giving her purple all this time,” I accused like I’d discovered some long-standing practical joke. “Purple pendants, purple flowers, purple hand towels with reindeer on them.”
Since I graduated college, Eileen had begun sending money: $100, sometimes $500. It embarrassed me. I rarely sent a thank you note; sometimes I forgot to make the deposit.
My sister added, “They had a pink casket. We thought about it; we almost got it, but it was too . . .”
Briefly smiling, pseudo-sister nodded. This was one of those rarely achieved moments of kinship that made us each feel great, though we never said so aloud.
We met when we were six, and our first fight was over how to fill our time. We were at her grandmother, Eileen’s lake house. I had discovered that if we looked, we could find dusty, broken quartz rock revealing smooth pinkish, sparkling contents. Chelsea wanted to make our Barbie and Ken dolls make out.
“Why do you want to look for rocks all the time; rocks are stupid,” she said.
“Rocks are interesting,” I replied disregarding someone I had already deemed an inexplicable alien life form.
“Rocks are not intestering.”
Dropping my most recent find, I looked up at her. “It’s ‘interesting,’ not intestering.” I said it pretentiously and a bit too loudly.
We fought until we were sixteen. She told me that Jewish people were going to hell. Scornfully, I asked, “Really? Haven’t they been through enough?” Her mom told my dad that Chelsea was afraid of me. This made me feel guilty and not just a little self-satisfied. From there, Chelsea and I simply avoided one another.
From the age of thirteen, we lived in the same house, but ten years was an exhausting battle for us both. At age sixteen, I stayed in my room and read or spent time with friends’ families until I could escape to college. She stayed in our hometown, had kids, and decorated people’s living rooms. I went away, searched for more cool rocks, and went home as infrequently as possible.
I was standing closer, but my brother-in-law noticed my Grandmother’s tears before I did. He rushed to slide a simple wooden kitchen chair behind her as I watched the 95-year-old matriarch’s shoulders shake. I suddenly liked him better, which was a relief because I wanted a reason to like him. I wanted him to be good the way I wanted Darth Vader to turn out to be good in the end of the Star Wars Trilogy. But I was scared and thrown off guard. I thought I was closer to Eileen than Grandma was, and not even I could cry. At least I couldn’t until I saw her cry. Then I cried, but only a little. She collapsed into a chair too small for her and her grief.
Grandma and Eileen weren’t related. Did the two of them even get along? I’m fairly certain they didn’t get along. In recent years, they would share an hour or two together post-dinner in the living room, Eileen reading US Magazine while Grandma’s chin rested on her chest in slumber.
Once during their seven-year courtship, my dad broke up with Lana, Chelsea’s mother. Soon after, my Grandma and I bumped into Chelsea and her own Grandmother at a downtown Travelogue. It was about the Smoky Mountains, and in the lobby, one could sip Cool-Aid from paper cups while touring an exhibit of Appalachian taxidermy. We stood by a red fox with rigor mortis and pondered what to do. My grandmother encouraged me to exercise southern grace by saying, “hello,” but Eileen shot us a look and steered Chelsea quickly away. Clearly, we had entered enemy camp.
The funeral home carpet was so mauve it made me feel my spaghetti dinner. I excused myself to find the ladies room, that ever welcoming and generous space so available when one must hide alone to pull one’s flailing self together. I closed and locked the stall door and “breathed to my knees,” as my yoga instructor challenged me to do in such moments. This was not enough to curb my runaway internal dialogue. I imagined what it will feel like to see my own Grandmother lying dead, waxy, and made over by the local king cosmetologist to the rich and cadaverous.
Was I wallowing or just preparing myself?
I wiped my nose on thin, rough toilet paper. Funeral homes should have Charmin. Is not their purpose to provide comfort and gentle, squeezable softness?
So selfish of me – to be only thinking of my own impending loss as my – sister? Is that what she is? As Chelsea’s greatest comfort lies lifeless and gone. Eileen was one of the three – five people in the world who loved my sister most. I knew this wholly, and I wished I could feel more for her and for the woman who had been both mother & grandmother to her the way mine has been to me. But I suspected that my lack of appropriate feeling was genuine.
(As pittance, I would at the very least self-flagellate for being a bad person.)
I did care, but I didn’t know what, if much at all, I felt for them. I kept trying and I kept pretending. I kept trying to convince myself otherwise. As my aunt told me once, “You’re an only child, and she’s the only family you’ll have one day.” I know that this reality weighs heavily on my sister too and that she also tries and pretends and sometimes convinces herself that things are different.
If only they would have at some point slid a chair beneath my crying kin, perhaps everything would have been the way we keep trying to make it. I never thought they liked me either, and I was always trying so damn fruitlessly hard to please. Despairingly contrasted we were, then and now.
I’m not a smoker, but for some reason I briefly visualized myself a sullen observer in the corner of the parlor, taking drags off a cigarette and turning my head to exhale. Imaginary addiction, a merely moderate black sheep’s coping mechanism.
My step-mother stood far from my father. He looked like this did not come as a surprise. Come to notice it, my step-sister stood far from her husband too. This did surprise me.
Soon, when I’m in this very same funeral space again, I thought, I’ll be clinging to Elrond’s arm like a broken and pathetic creature. But Eileen was like this with Frank. She seemed embarrassed to be with him. She was too Republican to be feminist, and yet men were the enemy. All of them, no matter how kind. Well except for my brother-in-law, but he’s a doctor. And he’s charming, never revealing a hint of vulnerability.
Eileen acted proud of her marriage. Frank was from prominence, but her disappointed heart permanently adorned her sleeve. Nevertheless, their family remained steadfastly united by their common belief in God’s will, predestination, and low taxes. I wanted to feel the same poetry & romance as others when my sister announced that Eileen died on the same date and at the same time as her husband had six years prior. Again, God clearly wanted it that way. But I was skeptical.
From where I stood, it always seemed that Frank was around to swat spiders and fix hinges on broken cabinets. Eventually, he became (or was he always?) the sort who incessantly talked at and never listened to. I see the same thing happening to my father as he learns to shut out the world, an ineffectual defense from constant harping abuse.
“No one wants to listen to you talk about war, James. Stop scratching your bald head, James. Do you want to go more bald?”
One time, we were traveling in Texas. My dad and Lana got into an argument over the volume control on the t.v. set. Dad lost some of his hearing when he was a navigator in Vietnam. Like quarreling siblings, like me and Chelsea pre-1986, one would turn the volume up before the other would grab the remote and turn it down. They went on like that for a while; I sought refuge in the restroom.
Then, there was the time that Dad’s commuter van got hit by a Dodge Caravan. I watched the two of them talk on the stairs. Lana wouldn’t go to the hospital with him b/c she had an appointment at the Acura dealership. She was in the market. Dad had a concussion.
Chelsea defended her mother; I defended my father.
(But he’s an engineer, and how else are they supposed to get his attention?)
On the one hand, I can kind of understand it, these patterns and ruts, but this is the real story about why I don’t visit. I suppose it’s not that uncommon once one leaves.
Not knowing how to deal with disbelief, my sister compliments me on my dress. I compliment her too. Dolled up in madras, her seven-year-old son sits well-behaved, showing signs of knowing and not knowing enough to know. His name is Chaplain, a title really more than a name. He’s a cute kid but like most of the men in his family, starving to be noticed and appreciated. His sister is too young to be there. Their dad’s mom is home with her, watching Kung-Fu Panda.
I smile and try to notice when and who needs space. I’m determined not to go until I make myself feel something more. I briefly converse with my step-mother’s cousin who, over dinner, clandestinely revealed that she’s an Obama supporter. I let her know that it was safe to unleash her secret to me; it even provided me a sort of catharsis as though we might suddenly lend one another, even as strangers, the courage to brazenly announce our political preferences. As if everyone didn’t know. It wasn’t a good time.
I grab gift baskets of high-quality coffee items and give them to Lana and Chelsea. I say it’s to get them through the next few days of relentless estate management and funerary ritual. Lana hugs me and tells me she loves me. I say it back and really want to believe us both.
My sister and step-mother depart together in a large, black Toyota Landcruiser built not only for transportation but also as a potential dwelling should the latest election, in fact, be the dawning of the apocalypse. I leave with my dad and Grandma in her 1991 sea green Buick. Dad tells me that the downtown neighborhood we’re in is being re-developed by Lexington’s nouveau hippie elite. Surrounding the mortuary are food coops, crack houses, coffee shops, and tattoo parlors. He knew I would approve of this, and he transparently hopes I might move back. I never knew Lexington had craftsman-style housing.
I watched the night time through the car window and tried to figure out why Eileen would take her last breath at the same minute that her husband, so seemingly disconnected from her, would take his. I didn’t really believe in God, but I was the only one who noticed a custom, back-lit business sign outside a bridal shop. Cosmically, it bore one word: “Frank.”