(c) 2016, Tara Moeller
“She’s coming?” Amanda stares, mouth gaping enough to show the little white teeth the dentist has given her. “She’s coming to the funeral?”
I shoot a quick glance to the side. Amanda’s mother weeps in the front pew, her shoulders heaving under the great dull blackness of her dress.
“Yes, she’s coming. They were married for fifteen years. Why wouldn’t she come?”
“They’re not married now!”
I want to say that, technically, her mother isn’t married to him now, either, but I bite it back, swallowing the bitter words. They get stuck on the way down and I choke, covering it with a cough. “They were still friends.”
And they had been. My mother had always kept a good relationship with my father after the divorce. She made sure I was still a part of his life, and that he was still a part of mine.
“She can’t be here.”
“It’s not invitation-only.”
“My mother is coming. Don’t worry, we’ll sit in the back pew.” I turn on my heel and leave, swallowing even more angry words. I think I am going to be sick.
There is no one sitting in the back pew and I drape my black cardigan over the back, spreading it out enough to mark the seat for two people. I can’t sit down yet; I need to move; I want to beat my fists against the wall.
Father Mulroney would not approve.
From the back of the church, I can still hear my stepmother, her sobs loud and wet. I can hear Amanda, speaking to her in a stage whisper: There, there Mummy. It’s okay Mummy. I’m here.
A hand touches my arm.
I start and turn: My grandmother, his mother.
The pearls at her neck are old – my grandfather gave them to her when they were first married. She wore them at her wedding. It was the “something new.” She still has her veil, carefully packed in a vacuum bag, along with her embroidered lace handkerchief – the something blue.
They are for me when I get married.
But the pearls are old now, yellow instead of white, restrung after I pulled them off her when I was three. I was told the story when I asked her about the faint scar on her neck. I think I was twelve when I asked.
I raise my brows.
“Any sign of her?”
I shake my head and turn back to the tinted window. Rain drops race down, leaving tracks. My reflection is dim in the window, next to my grandmother’s. I have her nose and I am a few inches taller than she is now. I remember when she used to be taller than me, staring down that long nose in disappointment.
“She’ll probably arrive just before, so no one gets upset that she’s here.”
My grandmother snorts; an unfamiliar sound. Her reflection sneers; an unfamiliar expression. “I doubt that woman would even notice. Unseemly, wailing like that.”
I can barely remember my grandfather’s funeral; I was only five when he died. All I can remember is sitting with my mother and my father and my grandmother, staring at a closed casket. I think I fell asleep.
“To each their own, I guess.”
We stand silent, watching for her, just inside the double doors. The tinted glass keeps out the sun, keeps the chapel in perpetual shadow. Raindrops gathering momentum down the glass, joining together, little streams making little rivers that race to pool at the bottom. They streak downward, making our reflected faces cry without our mascara running.
The rain thickens for a moment, the heavier drops battering the roof. The drops hit the pavement, the ground, the grass; some of the drops bounce–hailstones. There is a flash of lightning, followed by a slow roll of thunder. The wind buffets the windows and they shudder.
After a violent minute, the wind quiets and the rain eases back to a drizzle, and I see her car, at the back of the lot, a small compact squeezed between someone’s Mercedes and an off-road, jacked-up-by-three-feet truck.
“There she is.” I grab my grandmother’s wrist, and it feels skeletal in my hand. A tall, lean woman in a black dress walks toward the church, her head down beneath a black umbrella.
My grandmother cranes her neck, the pearls sliding, spinning with the movement. She doesn’t smile, but she nods her head once.
“I’m going back to the front. Maybe that woman has calmed down.”
I think my grandmother is being overly optimistic but I don’t say it out loud. That would be rude.
When my mother reaches the door, I open it, pulling her in and taking her umbrella to shake the water away. She smiles at me and reaches her lips toward my cheek, her hands heavy on my shoulders, forcing me to dip down to receive the kiss. Her lips are cool and her cheeks are damp from the rain.
Father Mulroney smiles at my mother, though it is not a big, welcoming, glad-to-see-you smile. It is thin and papery; an “oh god – you’re here” smile.
Mother nods at him without smiling and we pass him by, sliding into the chapel and the back pew. I sit near the aisle.
My mother nods and smiles at Mrs. Corprew, who is sitting in front of us. The woman’s steel gray hair is cut short and spiky, even though she is likely going on seventy. She wears a trim, dark-gray suit with a deep purple shirt; she is not wearing a hat. She was dad’s secretary for as long as I can remember.
Frowning, I realize that I have never met Mr. Corprew. For a moment I consider that slight, but then Mrs. Corprew smiles back at us and turns in the pew, reaching one hand of the back to grasp my mother’s hand.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” She whispers the words to my mother but I catch the quick glance in my direction.
My mother smiles back; her eyes crinkle at the corners and the dimple in her cheek winks. “So am I.”
The music starts, a deep bass of mourning, slow and painful. I can feel it rattle in my chest.
My stepmother’s wails punctuate the music, a duet of horrible sorrow. Amanda sits next to her mother, her arms around the woman’s shoulders, patting away like the woman is on fire.
I reach out my hand toward my mother and she takes it in hers, squeezing gently, stroking it with her other hand. I try to ignore the wailing without success.
My mother appears to be succeeding though. She sits serene in the pew, staring ahead at the open casket, her mouth soft, neither smiling nor frowning. The diamond studs my father gave her for their tenth anniversary twinkle at her ears, like little stars.
Those, too, are destined for me when I wed. Her dress, in airless storage since the day after she wore it, is waiting, too.
The heart-shaped gold locket my father gave me when I turned sixteen, the year after the divorce, weighs heavy around my neck. Inside is a photo of him from college, from before he met my mother. On the other side, there is a photo of my mother, from when she was in college, after she met my father.
The eulogy begins and the wails from the front recede. My mother inhales a single, sharp breath. Her eyes water and her nose begins to seep. The gentleman in front of us, next to Mrs. Corprew, turns to offer my mother his handkerchief. She shakes her head, carefully taking one of her own from her purse. I cannot see them, but I know that her initials are embroidered in one corner, in an emerald green slant, with a little yellow rose beneath them.
She put them there herself. She buys plain white, soft cotton squares and hand embroiders the initials in the corner. When I was seven, she taught me how to embroider my own initials. The thimble had been too big for my skinny fingers, so I hadn’t used it. I remember getting upset when I pricked my finger and got blood on my new white hankie.
My mother had given me a new piece of cotton and new thread and I used the thimble and didn’t get any blood on the second one. She had taken the ruined one and embroidered a camouflaging pink rose over the red spot, carrying it in her purse for years.
She wipes her eyes and nose, her movements slight and unassuming, careful not to smudge her makeup. It is not over-done, but I can see her face powder; it gathers in the lines at the corners of her eyes.
When the eulogy is over, Amanda helps her mother stand, holding her up. A red rose is in her mother’s hand; I can see it shake from the back, a petal falling before she gets out of the pew. Amanda and her mother walk to the casket; the woman shaky on her feet, and Amanda stumbles keeping her upright.
She places the rose on my father’s chest, nearly falling head first into the casket, but Amanda pulls her back.
My grandmother, standing in the pew, starts forward, then stops when she isn’t needed, waiting to help Amanda get her mother back into her seat.
Amanda stays standing next to the casket. I rise and walk forward. The aisle seems endless and I feel heavier the closer I get to the front.
A woman waits–it’s the organist–two white roses in her hands. Amanda takes hers and quickly places it in the casket, jerking her hand back like something bit her.
I am oldest, his daughter by birth. I should have placed my rose first.
Amanda doesn’t even wait for me to place my rose before pivoting and trotting back to her mother. I place my rose and catch the stem of Amanda’s with my fingertips, placing it next to mine. Exhaling, I let my hand linger on his chest, just for a moment. He is cold and his suit is stiff.
My father was always warm and soft, hugging me, holding me. He smelled of cigars and old spice and orange slice candy. He always had a bag of that candy in his pocket; if I’d had my way, he’d have one in there now.
But he doesn’t. Instead, is has his rosary and small Bible, never opened.
I turn away from the casket.
Amanda sits next to her mother, the woman once again sobbing. My grandmother still stands in the pew, watching me. When I pass, she reaches across Amanda and her mother, grasping my hand and squeezing it. I stop and she leans over, kissing my cheek, giving me a one-armed hug. I hug her back, a quick squeeze.
She lets go of my hand and I walk back to my mother. When I sit, my mother reaches for my hand and holds it. She does not squeeze, just holds. I hold back.
My tears start, welling behind my eyes, a heavy, wet pressure. I try to keep them back; I don’t want to cry here. I don’t even know most of the people sitting here in the church. These are people who knew my father, but not me: business contacts, coworkers, country club members. Some are from after his life with my mother, when I was only a part-time child. They don’t know me, either.
My mother offers me a clean handkerchief from her purse, but I shake my head, pulling one of my own from my pocket. It is neatly folded, the soft green of my initials small in one corner, an ivy leaf swirling beneath them.
Soon, the final prayers are said. My stepmother leads the procession from the church, followed by Amanda, then my grandmother. I remain in the back pew with my mother.
My grandmother catches my eye and nods. I pat my mother on her knee.
I get a watery smile in return.
Many people pat my shoulder and nod to my mother, passing by in a slow march out the door. It is still raining; the swirl of wet sweeps inside. Just inside the door, my stepmother speaks in low tones to those leaving, Amanda’s higher voice, an echo.
I cannot hear my grandmother. Perhaps she has braved the rain to go to the church’s hall, a separate building on the edge of the parking lot, a covered portico stretching between the two buildings.
When the last mourner files past, I exit the pew, my mother close behind.
“Just a minute.” Her voice is small in the grandness of the chapel, and just a bit raspy, though she hasn’t smokes in over a decade. She walks to the front and stands by my father’s casket. I join her there, and stand beside her, arms crossed over my stomach, hands clutching my elbows. It’s hard to look at his face; it has no smile, no frown–no expression at all.
My mother, too, does not wear a smile or a frown, but there exists a softness in her features instead of stiffness: in the droop of her lips, in the slack of her cheeks, in the red rimimg her eyes.
She sighs, the sound coming from the deepest part of her. Reaching into her purse, she pulls out a small, withered rose, the red faded to purple. It shakes in her hand, one petal falling to the floor.
There is another sigh, this one softer, shorter. She gently places the dried rose next to the fresh ones, resting her hand over my father’s now-still heart before trailing the fingers of her other hand over my father’s cheek, her thumb glancing over the corner of his mouth.
I pick up the dropped petal and keep it in my hand, thinking, at first, to put it in the casket with the rest, but it crumbles. My fingers crush it even further, releasing the last remnants of fragrance. I brush my palms together to get rid of the last pieces sticking between my fingers.
We turn together and leave the church arm-in-arm, our legs moving in unison, right, then left, then right again. We are not in a hurry; the rain still falls, the sky still dark. Slow-moving cars wend their way through the parking lot; not everyone is going to the reception.
We share the black umbrella, strolling, avoiding the gathering puddles. She will not be at the graveside service. I want to leave with her, but can’t voice it, knowing I have to stay here; that I must go to the reception and then to the interment.
There is a small part of me that wishes I was five and asleep, being carried to the car on a strong shoulder. The car would be warm, its engine humming steady beneath the erratic staccato of rain. I would be safely belted in, a rolled sweater placed under my head.
My grandmother waits at the separate door to the hall. I raise one hand so she knows I have seen her. She nods and disappears inside, the door closing on the wind and rain.
Mother hugs me at her car, brushing the dampness of her cheek on mine. She grips my shoulders tightly. I grip hers just as hard.
“I’ll be at dinner.” I whisper.
“I’m planning your favorite.” Mother whispers back. “We’ll talk, after. You can tell me about your classes, your job, and your new man.” There is a gleam in her eyes.
I want to laugh at the gleam, to share the brief expression of joy, but I feel like I will only choke instead. So I hold on to it for later.
She drives away, and I watch without waving. I don’t care that I am getting wet, standing alone in the rain. Turning, I shuffle to the reception, no longer bothering to avoid the puddles. The hems of my trousers are wet and water runs down my hair and down the back of my sweater. The wet creeps into my shoes, soaking into my hose and creeping upward to my ankles. I shiver.
I know my favorite black flats will be ruined, but deep inside, I feel that I deserve to lose them to the rain.