As I climb into bed, I notice the bedclothes have a slight odor of oranges—the fruity smell of ketoacidosis, the scent of diabetes out of control. Mom has slept here recently. Why? A fight? I don’t know and don’t want to know. I know enough already. I don’t want to know any more. Let knowledge seep slowly from the seams of Pandora’s Box. Tie the box with thick ropes, wrap them round and make a lock of sturdy, hard steel. Don’t let me in. My guarded innocence is both manipulative and false, manipulative because I convince my conscious self not to notice things and false because I’m living a lie. Is there a truth? Don’t look. Blind me, God. Give me back my childish belief in good parents and good children when future was unknown and the past were stories my parents told me. In the then present we played in silvery twilight. Red Robin, Red Robin. Hide, you’re it.
Mom’s orange sweat and breath lurk on the pillow, her individual scent. It clings to the bedclothes and in the air after her passage. The scent remained on her clothes and on anything that came in contact with her body. She couldn’t smell it herself and Dad never mentioned it. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want her to borrow my clothes. I would have to wash them when she did. I told her I didn’t like the smell and that she couldn’t wear my clothes. It hurt her. I’m sorry I hurt you, Mom. I’m sorry. I was mean, and I’m sorry; I wasn’t there to keep you alive. The world was offering itself to me. I longed to explore it’s glory. I wanted to go everywhere, see everything and, as Eve’s daughter, to know and taste it. There seemed to be only two choices, stay with her or leave. Staying was like climbing into a cage and giving her the key. Her need clutched and clawed, detaining me. If I left, she would die. I knew that. I sensed she would be dead when I came back. In her death, she holds me still in a prison of guilt. I’m exhausted. I fall asleep breathing in her body’s ghostly, stale fragrance.
The next morning I hear stirrings downstairs but ignore them. I want to hold onto the dreams, loiter in the unconscious. I hear Dad at the bottom of the stairs. He clears his throat, and raising his voice as if he is speaking in front of a huge auditorium and must make his voice carry a distance.
“Time to wake up.”, He yells.
I’m forced to wake and respond. This is a trait of his. He seldom raises his voice. He doesn’t have to. His commands come out in a whispered hiss. He doesn’t like anyone to speak loudly. When he has something important to say, he clears his throat, raises his chin an inch and belts it out as if he was reciting the Declaration of Independence in a football stadium. I go downstairs. He is making poached eggs and toast, the standard family breakfast. I ate it every day of my life before I left home. It was Mom’s idea of a complete breakfast, that, and an orange cut into four sections. Her nurse’s training and diabetes gave a rigid order to many things she did. The nurses training only gave her a framework for her natural stringent nature. I’m hungry and will eat anything. It’s really nice of Dad to fix breakfast for me.
I go to him and kiss his smooth, damp cheek. He has just shaven and uncharacteristically has worn shaving lotion. He smells good. I pull away quickly to avoid a lip kiss.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Like a rock,” I say, “I was really out. Getting here took so long.”
“That’s right,” he says still at the stove, “I forgot. How long was your flight?”
“About twenty-one hours. What time is it?” I ask, “You said the viewing would be at ten?”
“It’s only eight-thirty now. No need to worry.”
For him there is no need to worry. He has been up since five-thirty this morning. He has attended the six o’clock Mass and received communion. He has done this every day of his life. He would never talk about why. After Mass, he came home, showered and drank his coffee before calling me.
“I’m not worrying, Dad. I just wanted to know what the time frame was. Will she be buried today after I see her?”
“Yes, she will. Are you OK with that?”
I pour myself a cup of coffee and sit down at the table.
“Of course, don’t worry. I’m a big girl now.”
“I know and I’m a big boy but, believe you me, this is hard.”
“I guess I was wondering how this would be done? Do I say goodbye to her and then they take her away and bury her? Usually you go to the cemetery right after the mass but now there will be no mass so I wondered how it would be handled.”
“Oh, a mass was said, Honey. Everybody was here for it. Remember, I told you yesterday. My sisters, Gerry and Marie, Gerry’s husband, Boots, and Marie’s two, Judy and Bud, all came down from Pittsburgh. There were lots of people there.”
“That’s not what I meant. I mean, do we go out to the cemetery or do the funeral parlor people and the cemetery people take it from there?”
“Of course we go out to the cemetery. What did you think?”
“I don’t know. I’m jet lagged. Will there be a priest and everything?”
“Sure there will, honey. Did you think I would let her be buried without a priest? Father Burgess will officiate the ceremony. You remember Father Burgess, don’t you?”
“Yes I do. He’s been a fixture at Saint Marks since I was in kindergarten.”
“What time is it scheduled?” “Honey, I told you. At 10 a.m.”
“I mean what time will the burial ceremony be?”
“About 11 AM. Father Burgess has something else to do this afternoon and I didn’t think it mattered to us. The viewings at the funeral parlor are usually in the afternoons and evenings so it’s easier on everyone concerned to have it done in the morning. Is that OK?”
I realize now Dad is still insecure about the arrangements. He wants to hear that he has done well.
“I think it will be perfect. You really did well, Dad. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Honey, I tried. I want it to be nice for Kay. I loved her very much.”
He is in the dependable mode characteristic of most of the men in our family. For a death, they show up. Dad always showed up. He showed up at the hospital and showed up for funerals. It is comforting to have him near.
“I did too, Dad. We both loved her.”
I want all the ritual, the whole thing, the grand Catholic shebang. I want a misty, rainy day and a slow procession of black flagged cars. I want to watch the traffic stop permitting the cortege to pass together and unbroken though red lights and stop signs. The other drivers wait until we pass. If Catholic, they make the sign of the cross and murmur “God rest his soul.” I want to watch the women in five inch heels sinking into the damp ground forcing them to walk on their toes, their elbows held by dark coated men with solemn, drooped expressions. The women wear their best black dress, shoulders draped in prideful fur stoles and on their coifed heads they wear small Jackie O hats, half veiled, making lacy shadows on demure hidden faces. I want to watch them teeter and be caught by attendant men. I want to see them ball up lace hankies too full of tears and mucus to be of use. I want to see the jaw clenched men pull out ironed, folded, and stain free handkerchiefs to offer them. The ritual of my youth hasn’t survived modernity. Ritual completes the important events in life, bringing with it a sense of closure.
Rituals protect me during difficult times. I know what to say to someone who has lost a love one. I know the expression my face should have. The phrases I say are correct and well worn. “I’m sorry for your loss”. And, “She is in a better place.” My mien is serious, slow and measured.
Dad hems and coughs either to clear his throat or to attract my attention. When I look at him, his face seems to have fallen; the taut and alert expression that looks out to the world has been replaced by one of open vulnerability and fear. The confidence and control, the intelligence and power, have been peeled away, revealing a raw, supplicating countenance.
I listen intently to what he has to say.
“I think you will like the spot I picked for the grave site. It’s shady and on a hill overlooking a lake.” He holds his hands out before him as if framing the lake in his mind. His head is lowered and his watery blue eyes look up at me. I’ve never seen Dad so naked. “There’s a space for me right beside her and oh, I forgot, Kay will be buried deep so there will be space for you on top.”
They will bury her deep? Deep, I think? The phrase is strange and reverberates in my mind.
“I don’t want you to be left out. It’s a real peaceful spot. I think Kay would have liked it.”
“I’m sure she would have, Dad. Where is this spot?”
“I just told you, honey.” “I mean which cemetery? “
“Woodlawn,” he says.
“That’s not a Catholic cemetery?”
He tilts his head slightly on angle, assessing me. Slowly, he says, “No, it’s not a Catholic cemetery but the ground will be blessed all the same. It will be a Catholic burial. Funny, I didn’t think you would be concerned about such things.”
On several occasions Mom told me she wanted to be buried in blessed ground. Actually, that’s not exactly what she said. She said if you committed suicide, they wouldn’t bury you in consecrated ground. That thought kept her from committing suicide. She wanted consecrated ground. She earned it and can have it. It’s already arranged.
“The ground will be consecrated all proper. I guess we’re both a little wrought up. Anyway, there will be plenty of time for us to have the viewing. Father will meet us at the cemetery at eleven am.”
“I’m going upstairs to get dressed. I’m grungy and need to shower. I may need the iron.”
“The ironing board and iron is downstairs, honey. It’s all set up.”
“I know, Dad. I used to live here, remember?”
“Do I remember?”
The slack rawness from a minute ago is gone. His eyes light up and he looks pink and fresh. A smile suffuses his face, rushing in to the fill the space.
“Of course, I remember. You are my little girl, well, I guess you are a woman now but I still think of you as my little girl. And, you know what? Honey, you never change. You look just the way you did when you were twelve. You used to have short hair then. You looked so cute! If you knew how cute you look in short hair, you would have it cut.”
“I like it long, Dad. Tom likes it long.”
“Oh, Tom, What does he know? He’s only your husband. You listen to your old Dad.”
“OK, Dad. I’m listening but it’s my hair. I can do whatever I want with it.”
He holds his left palm outward, as if to hold back an attack, raises his left eyebrow and says, “Do whatever you want. I know better than to argue with a woman.”
I sigh. He is OK. In my head, Mom says, “You should always have a little black dress. You can dress it up or dress it down and it will always be there for a funeral.” I don’t have a ‘little black dress’ and fret about what to wear.
The shower washes away the pollution left from traveling. I put on something suitable, no ironing necessary, and fish out pantyhose. I’ll need them for warmth. I’m dressed and still have a little time so I put things away, laying toiletries on the vanity. My room is a made over attic without dormers. It’s very long but there is only a narrow space in the middle where an adult can stand up. From there it slopes down sharply on both sides. The lower side walls are about two feet high and full of little cubbyholes for storage. If I sit up suddenly in bed I crack my head. I need to slide down to the bottom and then sit up. I’ve adapted over time. Tom couldn’t acclimate and constantly hit his head cursing. “I don’t know how you can stand this.”
Under the eaves Dad put two dressers and a bookcase, stained in maple. He didn’t want me to destroy the tops so he covered them with pale green formica. The windows have pink and green printed curtains matching the vanity’s skirt. The vanity’s arms open out so I can put my legs under it. A little drawer is suspended from the top for storing my things. I feel soft and loved. My earlier frustrations yield to a feeling of calm. There are good times to be remembered. Both anger and love are in the pot. I must take it easy; allow my emotions to meld together. My parents worked on this project together. It would certainly seem they loved me. The room smells clean. I haven’t smelled a room so clean since I left home. Mom washed the woodwork and floor moldings once a week. She was the cleanest person I ever knew. I hear Dad clearing his throat in preparation for calling me.
“Honey, are you ready? It’s time to go.” He shouts.
“I’ll be right down.” I go downstairs. Dad’s in the kitchen locking the back door. He is dressed in a pin stripe suit and cordovan wing tips. He looks nice. It’s obvious he has taken care with his dress.
“I’ll go out and warm up the car until you are ready.”
“I’m ready now, Dad. We can leave together.”
“Where are my glasses? I know, I was in the bedroom. I was reading the holy card we passed out at Kay’s memorial mass. I saved some for you. I thought you might want to have them.”
“Thanks, Dad. It was nice of you.”
Mom kept the holy cards from every funeral she attended so she would never forget the people. It’s not something I want but I get curiously maudlin when I read it. It seems so strange to see my mother’s name on one. There is a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the front, a representation I find violent and bloody. It’s the same version my mother’s mother, Mamie, hung on the wall of the room where I slept when I visited her. Jesus is reaching into a jagged bloody wound, pulling out his dripping heart and offering it to us. I didn’t like the eyes looking at me, following me. It frightened me when I was a child. Mom asked Mamie if she could take it down until I left but Mamie refused. My mother put a scarf over it so I could go to sleep. On one side there is Mom’s name, Anna Kathryn Cunningham, her birth date, November 13, 1919, and her date of death, October 17, 1969. On the other side is a religious tract. Heat rushes to my head. I want to sit down and cry, cry for her, cry for me and for both our lives. Later, I will do that. For now I put the card on the coffee table.
“Have you seen my keys?”
“What did you wear to church this morning? They may be in the pocket of that jacket.”
“You’re right. You’ve always been a smart kid.” He grabs the back of my neck and gives it a friendly shake. I feel a little roughed up but I smile at him. I love him. I know he must be going through hell right now and I want to make it as easy on him as I can.
“You can stay here, honey. I’ll go warm up the car.”
“That’s alright, Dad. I’m ready.”
We go out the door, stopping while Dad double locks it. He opens the car’s passenger side first and assists me in, an almost forgotten chivalrous gesture. He starts the car and we sit waiting for it to warm up. Then he carefully backs up to the end of the driveway.
“Ready on the right?” he calls.
I forgot about this. He likes the passenger to be an assistant. The assistant’s responsibility is to watch traffic on their side and tell him when a car is coming. When there is no traffic the passenger sings out.
“All clear,” I yell.
When I am driving he will perform the same service for me. The funeral parlor is a huge hundred-year-old white clapboard house on Frederick Road. We park behind it in a parking lot landscaped with creeping yews and blue junipers trimmed in perfectly matched rounded mounds. Red leafed dogwoods interspersed among the bushes reach thin branches to a grey sky. A rich thick layer of dark mulch creates a nourishing visual canvas to the red, green, and blue foliage. We enter though the back door into the subdued, quiet atmosphere. Our footsteps are soundless on the thick dark carpet. We approach a man seated at a table in the hall. He rises somberly to greet us. The atmosphere is genteel echoing a faded, long gone wealth. The lighting gives the effect of perpetual twilight. I settle into the somber spell of the place. The man directs us to a room. The door is open and we go in. Mom is lying in a bronze casket with a pink satin interior. It is shocking to see her there. It’s as if I didn’t know she was dead until this moment. I’m not prepared for it. I feel overwhelmed. I want to ask her. “Why did you do it?” as if she was able to control her death. “It isn’t time”, I think. Dad takes my arm and leads me to the casket.
“I think they did a good job. I got her a really good casket. They’re so expensive. They really gouge you at a time like this but you have to pay it. You don’t have a choice.”
Dad talks about the flowers and how everyone thought she looked so peaceful. He wants approval but I can’t talk. I feel exhausted from the rampant emotions usurping my soul. Mom is wearing the dress we bought for my wedding. It was the nicest dress I ever remember her having. She wouldn’t have spent the money herself but she didn’t want to embarrass me so she let me dress her up. It was my money. Dad didn’t have to pay for it. It was like playing dress up with her. I insisted she have the dress fitted and altered to fit her large stomach. Mom was thin and tough except for her stomach. A thirteen-pound baby born dead not only presaged a long lasting depression but left her with a swollen stomach, a permanent reminder of the event. She was large boned with athletic legs, muscular and well-shaped, and square strong shoulders on a five foot four frame. Her hands, folded over her chest holding a rosary, are rough and the knuckles are swollen with arthritis. They are the hands of a washerwoman or a farmer. During her life ropy blood vessels stood out like mighty rivers on her arms. She was a strong looking woman, a mountain woman. She could and did work hard all her life.
I kneel on the velvet pad and stare at her. This is the last time I will ever be looking at her, the woman who was my mother, who gave me breath and warmth and nursed me as a baby, who helped me when she could and who withstood my petulant criticisms without complaint. She is also the woman who made my life miserable, who was so unhappy with her own life that, in her actions at least, she cursed the very air around her. She tried to live a good life according to her faith and believed in a patriarchal and unforgiving God, the God of her father, and the God of her husband. Her God brooked no questioning and required a unquestioning adherence to His will as interpreted by the Holy See, the Cardinals, the Bishops, the priests, her father, and lastly by my Dad. Dad used religion to control her; to bend her to his will. Whenever he successfully demeaned her, a look of suppressed glee would start to escape from his control and he would turn his back to us so we couldn’t see it. He wanted to be top dog whatever the cost. Her God was without mercy. He was cruel and demanding. I couldn’t accept her god and created my own who loved me and wanted me to be happy. Thank God for my imagination! My god is forgiving. He loves all of me all the time. He teaches and protects me. I couldn’t live with her God. I hated Him. I want to say a prayer but don’t know what to say. I settle on the Hail Mary.
Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee:
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God,
Pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Mom, I know you loved me with your whole heart. I always have loved you and always will love you. You look sweet and peaceful as if death has cleansed you of unhappy thoughts. Be happy, Mom. It’s your time to be happy now.
Dad comes up and kneels beside me. “It’s time, honey. It’s time to go.”
I realize I must have been kneeling there a long time. “In a minute”, I say.
I want to kiss her but I can remember the feeling of dead lips on mine from my grandparent’s wakes. The adults encouraged the children to kiss them but it was frightening. I’m afraid now and debate with myself whether or not I should do it. I may regret it later. I’ll never have the opportunity again to kiss her goodbye. I lean over and breathe in the scent of powder and barely, ever so gently, touch my lips to hers. She’s dead. The magical electric force of life is missing from her skin. It’s as if this were the first time I realized it. As I rise up from my awkward bend over the casket, I see her smile. I look closely. Yes, she did smile. Maybe this is a sign. Maybe she’s telling me she is happy now. Dad comes up and puts his arm around my shoulder.
“Let’s go, honey.”
The drive to the cemetery is ethereal, as if I am drifting on a cloud of dark emotion. The cemetery grounds leap into fall and the leaves are beginning to turn. The air is crisp and clean. God has turned on the air conditioning. There is a green artificial grass carpet around the hole where she is to be buried. Father Burgess is there with his head bent in prayer. The casket is supported over the grave, a rectangle hole dug in Maryland’s red clay. I am distressed to see this. She will actually go into the ground. I think about worms and creatures in the earth. It’s upsetting but it’s right. Why am I so shaken? I thought this would be cold and ceremonial. I’m surprised at my emotion. I can’t handle it or deal with it. I can only exist.
Father Burgess comes over and shakes my father’s hand. He takes my hand in both of his and says he’s sorry. He says Mom was a wonderful woman and she is now at peace in heaven. These stock phrases move me but then everything moves me. If anything should happen, I would be completely helpless. Father Burgess is ready. He opens his prayer book and we bow our heads. I keep a nervous eye on the casket. I’m afraid it will fall into the grave before we’re finished the prayers. Father solemnly reads the rite. His words are low and clear.
“Our sister, Anna Katerina, has gone to her rest in the peace of Christ.
May the Lord now welcome her to the table of God’s children in heaven,
With faith and hope in eternal life, let us assist her with our prayers.”
As soon as he starts to pray, my shoulders droop and I feel more relaxed. The soft murmurs of the prayers are familiar and my eyelids are heavy. I take a breath and my relaxation deepens. My eyes peer out through slits and I want to sleep, to rest, to let the world go by without me. My eyes roll upwards and I have difficulty holding my lids open. I’m peaceful. It’s almost over, I think. The prayers are a litany and have a hypnotic rhythm. How many times has Father Burgess done this ceremony? How many times has he borne witness to someone’s burial? Only the faces change for him, not the liturgy. His duty, as a priest, is to baptize us when we are babies, give us our first communion, stand tall as we become soldiers of the faith at twelve, marry us, and finally bury us. He recites the same prayers he has said for decades. He reads the verse in a low drone. We respond with: Let us pray, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, or Amen. I slip as one mesmerized into a lowered state of consciousness. I hear Father Burgess say the verse and I even hear myself and Dad say the response but the words of the prayer are only a hum in the background. I attempt to pull myself awake but I can’t. I am too tired to continue the effort and slip gratefully into a soft nest of ritual.
Father Burgess sprinkles the casket and the surrounding ground with holy water. I remember Nana, my father’s mother, an Irish immigrant, who believed in a fabulous world of fairies and little people. She was lovely and warm with enough bosoms to make a soft, yielding pillow for my head when I was little. My room, the room assigned to me when I visited, was a tiny one, only big enough to hold a cot sized bed and a treadle sewing machine. There was a small narrow closet and a window looking over the back porch to the alley. The sewing cabinet was filled with treasures: buttons, bobbins, thread and little things.
There was a hospital down the hill, about a block away, St Francis of Assisi Hospital. It was where Mom studied and later worked as a nurse. She earned a scholarship to study there. She came to Pittsburgh with hope to start a new life away from the suffocating smallness of the Pennsylvania mountains coal-mining town where she was born. This was how she met my Dad. He was standing on the corner by the hospital. The memory of a song pushes in. “Standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by.” Did I say that aloud? I am embarrassed and chastise myself. This is your mother’s funeral. Pay attention.
Father Burgess prays,
“Then she will see you face to face
And in your light will see light
And know the splendor of God,
For You live and reign forever and ever.”
“Amen,” we pray.
Father Burgess and Dad have their heads bent in prayer. They didn’t see me get silly about the song.
Mom trained for a period of time in the Psychiatric ward. There was a woman with incurable syphilis who was kept locked in a padded cell for her own protection. She wouldn’t wear clothes and would defecate on the floor and rub it on the walls of the room.
“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
Through our Lord Jesus Christ,
We commend to Almighty God our sister, Anna Katerina,
And we commit her body to the deep:
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
“And unto dust we shall return,” we respond. I like the last part of this verse. On Ash Wednesday the priest says “Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, and dust to dust.” as he makes an ash cross on our foreheads. In response we say “And unto dust we shall return.” I’ve been waiting for these words.
“The Lord bless her and keep her,
The Lord makes his face to shine upon her and be gracious to her.
The lifts up his countenance upon her and give her peace.”
“Amen,” we say.
Mom would give the patient her dinner through an opening in the door. If the woman saw her, she would scream and throw feces at her. I remember photos of Mom in her nurse’s uniform. She looked pretty and very prim and proper. One was a black and white portrait, probably for the yearbook, with her cheeks and lips tinted pink.
I remember another story about things that happened to her on the job. I was fairly young but I guess she didn’t have another confidante.
“The Lord bless her and keep her,
The Lord makes his face to shine upon her and be gracious to her.
He lifts up his countenance upon her and give her peace.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
There was a special room where the hospital kept medicine. It was locked all the time so the patients couldn’t get in. One of the violent patients locked Mom inside with him. He formed a coat hanger into a weapon.
“Lord, you consoled Martha and Mary in their distress:
draw near to us who mourn for Anna Katerina
and dry the tears of those who weep.”
“We pray to the Lord.” Father Burgess says.
“Lord, have mercy.”
“You wept at the grave of Lazaarus, your friend, comfort us in our sorrow.
We pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
The man tried to kill her with the coat hanger, but Mom screamed and an orderly came to her rescue.
“We promised paradise to the repentant thief, bring Anna Katerina to the joys of heaven.
We pray to the Lord:”
“Lord, have mercy.”
I asked her what an orderly was. She said orderlies were always men and very strong. They were needed to handle the people in the Psychiatric ward. The insane are extraordinarily strong, she said, way out of proportion to their size. Her nurse’s cap was ripped from her head and her uniform was torn. She was badly frightened.
“Our sister was washed in baptism and anointed with the Holy Spirit;
give her fellowship with all your saints.
We pray to the Lord.”
“Lord have mercy.”
When I slept at my grandmother’s house, I used to think about the Psychiatric ward whenever it was time for bed. I imagined a crazy woman with long, unkempt hair at the window of my little room. She had escaped from the hospital and was standing on the back porch roof just outside the window. She begged me to let her in because she was cold but I knew if I let her in, she would kill me.
“She was nourished with Your body and blood;
grant her a place at the table in your heavenly kingdom.
We pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
When my mother was going into diabetic shock, she was incredibly strong. I would have to wait until she went further into shock before I could get near enough to help her.
“Comfort us in our sorrow at the death of Anna Katerina;
let our faith be our consolation,and eternal life our hope.
We pray to the Lord”
“Lord have Mercy.”
Sometimes the woman was already inside, hiding in the closet or under my bed. If I got out of bed, she might grab me.
“With longing for the coming of God’s kingdom, let us pray.
Our father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive up our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”
Sometimes at night Nana would come down the hall to use the bathroom next to my bedroom. I would call to her to help me. She would bring holy water and douse the whole room with it.
Through the death of your Son on the cross you destroyed our death;
Through his rest in the tomb
You hallowed the graves of all who believe in you;
And through his raising again
You restored us to eternal life.”
Sometimes, when I was really frightened, she would get the Extreme Unction kit from the wall. Every Catholic home has a cross hanging over the door announcing this is a Catholic home. This one was special. The back came off to reveal a small bottle of Holy Oil, two candles, and linen cloths. If someone died, it was there at the ready.
“God of the living and the dead,
Accept our prayers
For those who have died in Christ
And are buried with him in the hope of rising again.”
Nana used the oil to make a cross on my forehead to keep away the evil thoughts. It made me feel better and I would go to sleep. I somehow know the prayers are over. I come alert for the end as I always do.
“Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord,” Father says.
“And let perpetual light shine upon her. Amen.” we respond.
Father ends with, “Thanks be to God. Amen.”
Father Burgess crosses the intimidating space between us and solemnly shakes Dad’s hand. He cups my hand between his. It is a gentle gesture like holding a small bird or wild thing so as not to crush it.
Father says, “God bless you, Anne. May she rest in peace.”
“Thank you, Father.”
Dad stands close to Father. He gives him a small wad of bills. Father pockets it, and walks down the hill to his car and slowly drives away.
No one else is here. Always there have been other people present in this cemetery: the undertakers, friends, relatives and neighbors. Then everyone, family and friends that is, would go back to someone’s house and there would be platters of deli lunch meat rolled into little tubes held by ruffle edged toothpicks, rye bread, rolls, coleslaw, and potato salad and the adults would have highballs, Seven and Sevens, or rum and coke. But we are all alone on the hill.
“It’s a pretty spot, isn’t it?” Dad says.
We look down at the lake. Swans swim imperiously and serenely at the far end of the lake. Closer in ducks gather quacking noisily around a young family tossing bread to them. It is too sweet, too picture perfect, an airbrushed poster.
He continues, “I think she would have liked it here. It’s very peaceful. It’s what I liked about it.”
“I’m sure she would like it, Dad. It’s beautiful.”
“See the ducks and swans. I think it will be pleasant to come up here and visit. It’s a purdy place, a purdy place.” He says mimicking the Eastern Shore islanders. “It sure is a purdy place.”
I am looking at the hole in the ground with the casket suspended over it. I realize we will not attend the actual burial. The gravediggers will be alone, unattended. I hope they will be respectful of her. I want her to be protected. I don’t want anyone joking over her grave.
Aloud I say, “When will they bury her?”
“This is it, honey. It’s all there is.”
“Let’s go. I’m cold.” In fact, I am shivering visibly from emotion as well as the cold.
“Well then, let’s go. We can come back another time,” he says. I hold his arm as we descend the hill to the car.
Goodbye, Mom. I love you.