(written as a three-part series of entries in the wee hours prior to dawn on Tue 16 Oct 07)
First of all, you must realize that this isn't true (including this
sentence). So if you snicker, feel no guilt (unless you are into that
sort of thing). I thought this tale would be in keeping with the coming
of dead days, a season of dormancy and barren starkness, with roots delving
deep into the dense coal-streaked ground. Feast yourself on this
It was a cold miserably wet dank day, the day my grandmother died. It was just as wet, though less cold, the day she was displayed at the funeral home. In comparison to those days, the day she was buried was downright balmy.
It was in January 1993, and my grandparents had been married for almost 55 years. The key to their marriage was that they had clearly delineated spaces and routines. They had lived for the previous ten years in a modular unit, a mobile home, really. The front door entered into a space just between the living room and the kitchen, as marked by carpet to the left (living room) and faux-tile to the right (kitchen). The left half of the trailer (I can say that now, grandmother is not here to glare at me for such a cheap label) was hers and the right was his domain. She spent most of her waking hours in her rocker in front of the television which was lord of the living room, and highly revered (in all my 22 yrs, I was never allowed to touch the controls for changing the channels, adjusting the volume, fixing the ghoulish green tint that Bob Barker sported on the Price is Right!). The furniture was in pristine condition, although it was not covered in plastic (as was commonly used by her generation). No, but neither could I sit on it (the floor was my place, and if there was a way she could have prohibited me from sitting on the carpet, she would have). Just through the living room, with its myriad of antiques displayed just so in shadow-boxes, was her bedroom with an attached master bath.
Now my grandmother was a very modest woman, and would shut her door upon retiring. During the day, a heavy black poodle cast in iron stood guard and held the door open to the living room. Her bathroom was rather nice, but not used much. The toilet was, of course, but the garden tub and the separate shower stall were stacked with boxes filled with things that she moved with her from a sturdy little house some ten years prior. Sliding pocket doors separated the bathroom from the bedroom and so modest was she that when using the toilet, she would not only remove the cast iron poodle and close the living room to bedroom door, but she would also close the bedroom to bathroom pocket doors.
Please, remember this is not true, not any of it. My grandfather's domain began with the kitchen. Oh, he visited the living room for a brief spell every day, usually early afternoon, and would watch a few minutes of television with my grandmother. Then, saying that the cushions were not kind to his back, he would leave and return to his side of the trailer, having done his daily duty.
The kitchen was his, he did the cooking (frying eggs every other day, having toast and oatmeal on the off days) and he did the dishes. A small laundry sat off the side, and he did that too. At the end of a short hallway lies his bedroom. Just before his room was a small bathroom, functional and spare. His shower and tub were vacated of boxed memorabilia and were indeed used, at least twice per week. His bedroom was small, but neat and held his own small black and white television which was atop his CB units and his amps, receivers, and other things that allowed him interaction with the outside world. In those days, computers were not common, never mind the internet. My grandfather would chat as the Peaceful Quaker while watching muted professional wrestling (which had a cinematic quality, silent films had nothing on the antics of Hulk Hogan and his ilk, especially when viewed in the formal black and white that screamed, "classic" at me).
They had a very scripted life, my grandparents. Their routine varied little and was most likely worn like an old comfortable coat. And like the coat, it became tattered and worn and frazzled, but was still donned religiously.
One day, my grandfather cracked the eggs into the fry-pan and called out to my grandmother, "oh honey! your breakfast is almost ready!" He set the pink 1950’s melamine plates with their eggs and toast (Sara Lee's Lite bread for diabetics, please thank you) at their places and settled himself down to read the paper. Now, my grandmother always read the obits first, but he read the front page and then laid that section next to her plate and he went onto read the next section, which was usually the sports’ (it was a small paper, it was a small town).
It wasn't til he had rinsed his plate, fork, knife, and orange plastic cup that he realized that she had not stirred from her room. He called out to her as he hobbled to her door, his cane sure and steady but his legs not so. Once there, he tapped gently, and now began to feel a bit of hesitation. Perhaps something happened, she had been feeling poorly. She was 5'2" (eyes were not blue, but brown) and I think it would not be a gross overestimation to say that she was every bit as round as she was tall. She was the absolute worst kind of diabetic there is, the kind that thinks they are getting one over on the doc but are merely harming themselves with non-adherence to the prescribed diet, exercise, and then frantically observing the orders just prior to a check-up. Why, didn't she just two weeks before bump her head on the door knob whilst moving that damned poodle and end up in the hospital because she scared him with her fainting spell? And didn't she give him hell over it cuz they kept her in the hospital til she was stabilized and learned how to give herself the needle?
Now, he turns the knob and ever so gently pushes the door open. He knows something is wrong. He sees the empty bed so knows that she isn't having a lie-in. With increasing dread he crosses to the closed pocket doors. Here, he hesitates, for he knows that nothing good lies behind this door. He knows that the silence is not good and yet he can't put this off any longer. So he slides the door open and sees her, sitting on the toilet, frozen in mid-strain. Her face tortured and her glazed eyes open.
He knows in that instant, before he even realizes that he knows; what has happened. She woke in the night, heaved herself off her bed, waddled to the bathroom, slid the pocket doors shut, and wedged herself in the space between the end of the sink (those fancy spindles separating the sink's long counter and the tiny toilet alcove) and the outside wall of the trailer (on the other side of which was a metal shed). He knows that she most likely strained a bit too hard (either to move her bowels, a Herculean effort, or to stand from the toilet; probably a bit of both) and her heart gave out under the laborious task at hand (having gone beyond the call of duty for a good twenty years, the doctor said).
He sees all this, and knows it, just like that. He limps back to the kitchen, where the wall unit is mounted, and places a call to his son; cuz really, what do you do? He knows she's dead, and you can't exactly call the morgue to come pick her up, now can you?
A few hours later, he watches as the shrouded form of her is maneuvered awkwardly through the hole they have made when they removed the door-jamb from its frame. He resists his daughter's pleading that he come home with her. This is his home. A bit banged up, sure, but still his. He turns and sees the dismembered bedroom door, a hole gaping there too. And he knows that the bathroom is a mess. Well, he thinks, at least the pocket doors are alright. And he squishes down a stray giggle, aghast at himself. For they had to cut the sink's counter off and remove the faux-wall so that the tiny toilet's space could give up its occupant. When his daughter protested, he said reasonably, that it wasn't nearly as bad as removing the side of the trailer, now was it?
Finally, his daughter drove him to past the point of endurance and he sent her away, telling her he just wanted some time to be. Already, she was poking through her mother's things, and squirreling away the good jewelry and trinkets. Already, she'd opened the closets and pawed through the hanging clothes. Already, she was making plans for her inheritance (that would not materialize until his death, if then).
He was tired. And he was old. And somehow, he had to get thru the next few days.
Part 2: The Viewing
(as seen from the granddaughter's perspective)
When I was a child, my grandmother was hospitalized (I think that time it was for a hernia, well, one of them). I was so young that they wouldn't let children visit, but they would allow me to wait in the little stale common room, just opposite the bank of elevators. I remember sitting there, bored out of my skull, uncomfortable, and trying not to let it show. My parents were sympathetic to my plight, and engaged me in conversation in an attempt to distract me from the agony of waiting. And yet she still did not materialize. I am hazy on all the details, but I do recall with a sharp clarity, that still makes me chortle, one shining point of camaraderie with my parents.
All was quiet on the floor, and then in the distant, a slow lumbering rumble was approaching. I sat up straighter in my chair, peeling my bare thighs off the sticky plastic and squiggling back into the chair, absolutely no sign of slouch to be shown in grandmother's presence, no sir, no way. My father, the son of said grandmother, who would receive a call from his father years down the road, leaned close to me and said, "sh, she's coming now" and the rumbling grew louder, and my spine was so straight there was no curve, and my father continued, "she's coming. yep, here she comes" and a white clothed orderly pushed a laundry cart past. You know, one of those deep canvas carts that held huge mounds of white sheets, all tussled and balled up. I was still perched on the edge of my seat, so my feet could touch the floor (having decided that it would be more proper than letting them dangle) and my dad said (rather boldly, rather loudly), "and she pops up! waves (he demonstrated), 'hi there! hi!' there she goes!" as the cart disappeared into the elevator. I gaped at my father, his eyes merry and bright, his face lit with a smile that was rare and heard my mother smothering a guffaw that escaped a little in a barking kind of way that called forth a giggle from me. And since it was ok, and a good thing it was cuz I doubt I could have held back, I snorted and snickered and chuckled and before you know it, the three of us were weakly collapsed over each other there in the waiting room of the hospital. I don't recall if I ever did see my grandmother that visit.
Viewings are such barbaric affairs. They had their place and reason, but such a god-awful waste and aren't they just too gaudy? My mother always warned us that if we insisted on a viewing for her, that she would come back and haunt us indefinitely. Unless we could rig it so that she would sit up and give us all the bird at random intervals. That's just the way my mom is. I love her so, sigh.
My grandmother's viewing was, well, a carnival. I sat toward the back of the drawing room that opened into the funeral parlor. Such fancy names, yes, but it was an old house and it was a small town and that's the way things were done, there and then. I watched my aunt, and her daughter, steal scene after dramatic scene. I tried to feel sympathy for them, or at the very least remind myself that their tears, wails, nay! cries of despair and the rest of the gnashing of teeth and rending of clothing may have very well been sincere. As of yet, I had maintained a low profile, and I liked it that way.
However, it was not to be. My cousin, oh she of the dramatic tears, came to me, knelt before my chair and clasped my hands in hers. She snuffled and her blotched face crumbled again. Then she bravely stood, hauling me up, and fastened an arm around my waist and began to walk me up to the coffin, saying, "i'll be by your side, I can't believe no one has offered to be with you in your time of need, in this hour of grief, ohhhh you poor poor thing." I briefly thought of pulling away but the struggle would have been unseemly and it really was easier to just go thru with it and get it over. Or so I thought.
As we neared the coffin, with its lid closed on the bottom half and the upper half propped open as though to display a jewel, I saw with great discomfort that the single rose that I had bought at the florist with my lowly student funds (I was 22, in college, the first in my family to go to college), the rose that designated me as her granddaughter, as though defining our relationship is some deeply symbolic way, that I knew was a farce...the damn rose was the only item in the coffin with her. It was clasped in her hands, on her chest. And say, didn't her chest look immeasurably smaller than I'd ever seen it? Yes, why she looked downright snug in there, but it wasn't as though the coffin was extra wide or anything. Well, those morticians can work wonders I suppose.
My father joined us just as we neared the coffin and he leaned his head down toward me and I flipped back to when I was a child, in the hospital waiting room and dad trilling, "hi there! hi" and waving enthusiastically. The laughter burbled out, I quickly clapped a hand over my mouth, spun on my heel, and dashed toward the front porch. My mother saw my exit and joined me out there, with the rain steadily dripping from the eaves and the air too chilly for other mourners. My cousin, of course, came to be a part of the drama and my mother cut her off, steered her back inside, saying, "she's just overcome, she needs a moment." as I brayed laughter into the rain and the whooshing spray of the passing cars, truly crying now, crying tears of laughter. My mother stood guard, knowing that I was unable to stop my chuckles. As they would die down, another round would burst out of me and I just couldn't stop. That's the way I remember that day, in January 1993.
Part 3: Bizarre (and final)
Moments, brought to you by the funeral (and the sound, pft!)
If you've read the prior entries, the story til now, then you may be experiencing a mixed bag of reactions and thoughts. That's alright, really, and who am I to say differently? Especially given the entire macabre tale. This will wrap it all up, the death of my grandmother being far more amusing (and useful) to me than her life. Sad and horrible to say, perhaps, but oh so true.
At the viewing, my cousin (miz drama-sin) was a bit put off by the rose, my rose, in the coffin. It was an affront of sorts. After all, everyone knew that while my brother was the favorite grandchild, I was the most abhorred. The one who was merely tolerated (at best) when the family gathered; the one who was constantly berated to the others, at least they were much better than me, they sniffed and all was well with the world.
My grandmother had a certain soft-spot for elephants (not a huge stretch of the imagination there) and collected them in all shapes and forms. She had small delicate glass ones, large china ones with red and gold paint, wooden ones made of jig-sawed pieces that fit in 3-D. She had plush ones, stuffed ones, cute ones, realistic ones. She had Dumbo and little trains of them, trunks twisted around the tail of the one in front. She had ones that had little carts balanced on their backs and ones who appeared ferocious, their tusks sharp and dangerous. She had gray ones, and pink ones rearing up as a mouse scurried by. She had elephants on teacups and carving platters and mamma's with their babies. She had elephants everywhere, on the walls, in the shadowboxes, under the coffee table, on counters, dresser tops, above the door. It was impossible to miss the rounded figures; every where your eye rested, there was one or two, or even more.
My cousin had stolen into my grandmother's room and whilst her mother took piles of whatnot, my cousin took the small plush toy that she'd given my grandmother. It was a gray furry thing with delicate pink inner ears, white felt tusks, and cutely widened eyes. Its mouth was slightly open, and it would squeak when squeezed. Well, it had when my cousin first gave it as a gift. It wheezed now. Age attacks even stuffed toys, you know.
My cousin brought the ratty tattered thing to the viewing, cradled in her arm, tucked under her elbow when not being bandied about as though it were a badge of pride. When she saw the lone rose, central to the reposed figure, my cousin asked my grandfather if she mightn't put the elephant in the coffin with grammee (after all, she adored the creatures in life, wouldn't she want its company in the here-after?). He agreed, and she waited til the very end of the viewing, having informed the funeral director that the elephant had a place of honor with the deceased (this the same cousin who attempted to show me pictures of both of my grandparents in their coffins, holy shit woman, have you no sense of propriety? apparently not), and inserted the elephant into the coffin, tucked in for infinity.
The morning of the funeral, my brother arrived via bus from quite a distance. He was to be a pall-bearer and was much respected. After all, he was the favored one. His eyes red rimmed from grief, from sleepless bus travel, from a little recreational therapy...quite possibly all three.
I'm standing grave side, behind the row of her children; standing behind my seated father (I think I am safe from giggles now, besides, he cannot lean down toward me, now can he?). The ground is so wet that we are all sunken, squelched into the mucky mire. There had been some confusion at the hearse, as men jostled into position, like jockeys primed. They heaved the coffin up, surprised at how light it was (she was a big woman, short yes, but heavy) and they began to come toward us, under the tented freshly dug grave, finding their stride, settling into the rhythm of their own walk and the others'.
As they draw near, my brother falters, sinks to his knee (is it the mud? the grief? the weight of the moment?) and then I hear it. An asthmatic wheeze emitted by the shifting bulk inside the coffin. I see no reaction from anyone, anywhere. So I question, did I really hear it? Then as heregains his footing, my brother rightens his burden; and I hear it again. This time there is no mistaking the dry tired wheeze of the damned stuffed elephant trapped, needing more space from its accompanying occupant. Glancing around, I see bored stiff expressions and slackened numbed cheeks and jaws. It doesn't seem to register with the others, but this time I know I heard it.
After the graveside words are said, I feel the surrealism of the whole affair coming to a point; as the crowd and family has left, and I am standing to the side, not far from the grave, waiting for my father to finish speaking with his brother. They have begun to lower the coffin into the grave, a half-hearted drizzle has hastened the job. I hear the faintest protest of a wheeze coming from the cut bowels of raw heavy earth, streaked with coal, one last time as I turn toward my father, with a faint smile on my lips.
Dear reader, there is nothing left to say about those days in January 1993.