When your mother dies, you will take care of things. You’ll call her friends on the phone and tell them one by one that their friend has died. You will listen as they nod and wait for them to tell you stories about her but they won’t. They’ll keep what they remember until later. Now is not the time, they think.
You’ll arrange what happens next. You’ll pick out her casket, standing in the basement of the funeral home in the small town where you grew up, and you’ll waver between the burnished copper one and the one with shadowy hints of pink, thinking to yourself, what would she like, as if you’re buying her a new nightgown while she lie ill in the hospital. You want to get the right nightgown because it will make her feel better if it’s right. It’ll deepen her sadness if the nightgown is wrong, too floral or fancy, not what she would wear. She will think you didn’t consider the choice long enough or take into account the taste she showed you year in and year out for all of your life. You don’t want to err.
You’ll search through her closet for what she should wear. When you do this, every fabric will feel like velvet even the ones that aren’t, every dress will look thin and inconsequential as if a real person could never have fit inside them, nothing that she owned will seem right to you but you will settle on something because it is your job to take care of things. Standing in her room looking at her things, you will feel like a visitor in a museum that has your entire life on display, every lamp, the bedspread, the books on the table, her radio tuned to the same station for years on end make you feel like a child and you will feel a tiny shudder in your throat that tells you that it won’t be long until you are crying.
But you don’t because you need to take care of things. If there are people coming from afar to pay their respects, you need to worry about where they will stay and whether that place will be comfortable for them and represent your mother well. Everything you do for the next few days will be about making people feel welcomed and cared for; that’s what your mother would do. She would be in the kitchen making lasagna, making sure there are ashtrays for relatives who still smoke in people’s houses, checking to see if there is enough toilet paper and clean towels.
Your mother, she would take care of things, she would kick off her heels after the service and make a pot of coffee, stand in the kitchen, leaning against the counter, and talk to everyone, one by one. Maybe she’d even light a cigarette and lead people in the game of remembering funny things about the person who has died so that suddenly the kitchen is loud with laughter and the people in the living room are wondering why.
You will clean up after everyone leaves, use the last of the tin foil to cover the neighbor’s macaroni salad, and cram every leftover into a refrigerator that, until this morning, had held only a quart of milk and an old bag of carrots. The refrigerator is robust now, bountiful, a dozen people could come to dinner every night this week and there would still be plenty for sandwiches later. That’s what your mother would say, if she saw what people had brought, there will be enough for sandwiches later, she would say, always looking ahead.
When your mother dies, you will fill the space. You will replace her with yourself. It’s what she would want and, besides, you have no choice.
Note: My mother died 13 years ago; this piece recalls some of the mood of that time.
#53/100: 53 in a series of 100 in 100