As usual, my father stalked into the room, quickly scanning assorted relatives for the most suitable person with whom to trouble himself. Taking inventory of the stock and trade in the claustrophobic meeting room at Winston’s Funeral Home & Crematory, I felt his slate eyes gloss over me, registering nothing on his end but vague disappointment and mild contempt.
The feeling was mutual.
At 40 years old, I still met his steely grey eyes with unblinking icy blue ones. My mother’s eyes. The only difference between her eyes and mine was that hers had been kind. My mother, now four pounds of silent ash, resided in a tacky urn on the table in front of us.
“Your mother wanted a memorial service for her church people to come and pay their deference,” he muttered. He fiddled with his monogrammed high school class ring, a rich blood red garnet set in 10 karat gold. “I suspect you all will be gracious enough to everyone coming around from hell’s half acre to commemorate your mother’s life.” My brothers shifted in their folding chairs, all three of them lickspittals at my father’s company. My feckless sycophantic siblings simultaneously nodded in asset to whatever my father said. They always had.
My father continued: “I don’t want any trouble or burying of hatchets or axes or whatever damn score you think you want to settle,” he spat, eyeing my short skirt. I involuntarily pulled it down to cover my knees. Brittle and thin, I smiled back at him, my eyes still unblinking until they burned.
Yes, daddy. I completely understand.
The funeral had been long, as well wishers and fluffy flowery old ladies made sure we each knew how much my mother had been loved. They went on about how my mother tended new colicky babies, cleaned up after the neighbor boy’s suicide, and picked up prescriptions for infirm choir members. She had cheerfully driven people to chemotherapy and made Campbell’s mushroom soup casseroles for the homeless. Many of her former students came to the funeral, too. Each November, she had frosted dozens of homemade gingerbread men with her kindergartners’ names. They still remembered her although she had retired from teaching ages past.
Mom was never home much when we were growing up. As the youngest and only girl, I had mourned the loss of her presence in my life. I needed my mother. But when she was home from school or endless charitable works, she scurried about our house washing mountains of laundry and piles of dishes. She patched blue jeans and darned socks. She crocheted endless afghans and defrosted the freezer. All the while, she sang. She sang badly, but that was most of the charm of it.
When my father came home from work, dinner was promptly on the table. The rabid pack of hyenas who were my brothers fought over the scraps of affection my father threw to them.
I simply watched.
As the years passed, the boys all played sports to my father’s delight and worked summers at his company. I crawled in the local library that smelled like mildew, diving into cover after cover, pretending to be anywhere else.
At thirteen, my father commented to my mother that I needed to start wearing a bra. She seemed puzzled, but took me to JCPenney that afternoon. On the day she put a sanitary belt and mattress-size feminine hygiene pads on my dresser with no explanation, I walked down to the local drugstore and stole a box of tampons along with a tube of mascara and a carton of cigarettes for good measure.
A few years later, my mother suggested that I start working at the Mexican restaurant down the street for some extra spending money. My father officially quit speaking to me directly when he found me halfnaked in our station wagon with Manuel, the restaurant’s dishwasher, satisfyingly working me over with his calloused hands. The tipoff was the foggy windows. I didn’t repeat the same mistake twice, since strict parents raise great liars.
After high school, I left.
After passing around endless platters of finger sandwiches to unknown mourners with their slow nods, I finally exhaled while watching the cloying crowds finally leave. Seeing just my father and brothers remain among the stragglers, I felt my heart begin to race as a thin bead of cold sweat began trickling down my back.
“Fuck,” I muttered quietly. I put my glass of tepid Ginger Ale-with-sherbet punch down and tried to catch my breath. No. Not now, I breathed slowly and counted by threes. Not now. My vision narrowed into a tunnel.
From my peripheral view, I saw my eldest brother, my father’s favorite, square his shoulders and saunter over to my frantic attempt to appear normal. I straightened chairs and cleared tables. I threw away flimsy paper plates covered in tuna, mayonnaise, and breadcrumbs.
“You okay,” he flatly stated. It wasn’t a question.
“I’m all right,” I replied, wiping the sweat off my forehead and neck with a small paper napkin. Rivulets now freely streamed under my armpits, down my back. Thank God I was wearing black.
“Dad wants us to meet before we go,” he said. “That conference room near the front,” he motioned in the general direction.
“Five minutes. You need help with this?” he pointed at the tables.
“No,” I snapped, more harshly than I wanted. He slightly flinched, looking a bit taken aback.
“Fine,” my brother shrugged.
“No, sorry,” I said softly. “This won’t take long.”
“Okay,” I replied.
I eyed the door hungrily. I needed to leave.
And there we were again in the cramped meeting room at Winston’s Funeral Home & Crematory. All except for mom, as the urn had been packaged up and placed in my father’s Cadillac, her riding shotgun. She would be displayed on the fireplace mantel. I would never see it again.
My father’s ancient lawyer was also in the room, busying himself by pulling out thick manilla envelopes from a banker’s box.
With grotesque formality, my father began: “Thank you for your kindnesses and courtesies in making the celebration of your mother’s life a joyous occasion. Before your mother’s passing, we revised our wills and prepared these documents for you. Your mother wrote each of you a letter before she left us. Seeing that we are all together now, this is just a good of a time as any to get these things to you.”
My elder brother helped the attorney hand out the envelopes that we cautiously opened. Reams of legalese, stapled and notarized, slid out. I glanced at the will quickly, broadly smiling as my panic attack subsided. Replacing the hot flashes, nausea, and fear came the wonderful cool of apathy.
I watched my brothers open and read their small cards, a final message to them written in my mother’s scrawl. There was not a card in my envelope. Instead, there was a small object wrapped in red tissue paper. I pocketed it in my coat for later.
“Are there any questions or concerns at this point? I know you will want to read the will in full as decisions had to be made regarding an Executor and so forth,” said my father’s lawyer, as dispassionately as possible. “Any clarifications I can make?”
“Boys?” barked my father.
They all shook their heads.
“And you?” asked my father with an arched eyebrow.
“It looks okay,” I smiled. “Except for one thing.”
“And what is that?” my father replied, bristling for pushback.
“You misspelled my name.”
My father grabbed my older brother’s copy of the will. He read the first paragraph, lips moving. He placed the document down without a word.
“I’ll remind you,” I said flatly, “that I didn’t pick that particular name.”
“I thought you proofread this,” he castigated my older brother who shrunk noticeably. My father’s lawyer impotently flipped through a few random pages of the rejected document and scrawled down a note or two.
“I need to go,” I smiled weakly and tucked the envelope under my arm. As I took long strides towards the door, I looked back at them all. This family. This family without its matriarch.
As I waited in the sterile airport concourse for my flight, I reached in my coat pocket and retrieved the item in red tissue paper. As I opened it, I found a large high school class ring, much like my father’s. Instead of a red garnet, the stone was a pretty faux sapphire. I squinted at the engraving, my tired blue eyes (just like my mother’s) staring at a name whispered to me only on one occasion: “Bucky Jones,” the name of my mother’s high school sweetheart.