Ten years ago, we cleaned out Mother’s closet as we moved her to an apartment after Father’s death.
“We should have done this sooner,” I told my sister.
“I didn’t want to take away her independence,” she said.
“She was crawling to the bath tub.”
“I didn’t know how bad her back was.”
You should have, I thought to myself. You live here.
Don’t criticize, I’m sure she thought. You moved away.
We were still shocked by the suddenness of Father’s death. I sorted through his personal items in the bathroom and threw everything away. Shavers, half-empty bottles of cologne: everything. Given our distant relationship, I felt as if I was invading his privacy. But no one else wanted to do it. I avoided his clothes, moving to Mother’s side of the closet.
A plastic bag sat on the top shelf, near the back. It contained large, shiny-white ladies underwear, including an old-fashioned slip, with price tags still attached.
“Is this a gift for someone, Mom?” I asked. She sat on the bed, looking overwhelmed.
“Oh,” she said. “That’s for my funeral. Make sure you don’t lose it.”
The underwear looked like it had been there for years. It’s definitely too big; she’d lost weight since her surgery. How long ago did she buy this stuff? I gave the bag to my sister.
“For her funeral,” I explained.
In fairness, how should she respond? Death planning was big for Mother. She and Father bought their cemetery plots when they turned 50. They chose them jointly with their friends, eight or so couples — other immigrants from the old country. Since none of them came to Canada with family, they decided they would adopt each other and be buried together. Mother was also clear about the healthcare she expected in her last days: no tubes, no forced feeding. I wish Father had been that clear. Would’ve made things easier. Mother and Father also both wanted church funeral services, open casket. But the underwear, that freaked me out.
* * *
Ten years after Father’s death, the funeral director’s office still smells like disinfectant. I’m not sure if the hollowness in my stomach is hunger or loneliness. The thought crosses my mind that the smell might be embalming fluid. The hollowness moves to nausea. I look at the director’s card, which he has proudly placed in front of us on the table: “Planning Director and Chief Embalmer.” He seems like a normal person with a morbid job. But a necessary one, because some people actually believe this type of burial is appropriate.
Casket with wheat motif. Crustless sandwiches. Fruit and vegetable tray. And the cheese cubes with the frilly toothpicks. Don’t want Mother’s friends to think we’re cheap. Memorial card.
“When I die, cremate me. Sprinkle my ashes in Vegas,” my sister whispers to me.
“Sprinkle mine in New Hampshire,” I whisper back.
“Flowers?” asks the funeral director.
We both start to cry the tears we’ve been hiding behind walls of hospital humor.
“Is there a problem?” He reaches for a tissue.
“Not really,” I respond.
“You’ve both been incredible,” he encourages. “You should see some people — they can’t make up their friggin’ minds.”
What kind of funeral director says friggin’, I wonder.
My sister starts to flip through plasticized sheets of flower arrangements from Roma Flowers & Gifts. The arrangements have names: “Colorful Memories,” “A Life Well Lived,” “Timeless Topiary” and “The Classic Compote.”
Compote? As in stewed fruit?
“Too green,” my sister says as she points at an ‘upright spray.’ She points to another. “Too colorful.”
Not showy enough. Tacky. Too pink. Nothing is good enough for Mother’s flowers.
“She loved roses,” I offer.
“Let’s do roses,” says the funeral director.
“She loved glads. Remember she grew them on the south wall?” my sister adds.
“Roses and glads, then.” He shuffles his papers.
“She liked carnations. Too commonplace?” I ask.
“I’ll get some more tea,” he says.
I wonder if he said friggin’ tea under his breath. This is going to take a while; her expectations are high. I doubt she can see us now – but just in case. How do you represent a woman’s life dedicated to growing plants in a few bunches of flowers?
Mother introduced me to my first flower when I was a toddler — the dandelion. It was not a noxious weed on our lawn but one of my first toys.
“Look for the longest stems,” Mother said.
I picked as many as I could, the milky sap sticking to my fingers.
“First, lay three together and start a braid. Then add a new one, and another, and another.” The yellow chain grew from her fingers.
I would wear those yellow necklaces for days; Mother stored them in the refrigerator at night to keep them fresh. Sometimes they were bracelets. Often they were crowns. Dandelions wouldn’t look good on the coffin, I tell myself.
“How about yellow?” Is my sister reading my mind?
Then I remember the clothes she chose for her burial. “Too Easter,” I respond. “With the purple dress.”
“Oh, God! Thank goodness you thought of the dress. How awful if we would have clashed.”
We look at the back of the door, where we had hung a suit bag with Mother’s dress, shoes and the large white underwear.
“He’s going to wonder why the underwear’s so big,” I say. “He’s going to think we’re losers. Do you think we should explain?”
“I’m not explaining,” she says.
“Me either,” I say. Maybe he just won’t use it.
“All white, then? Lilies and peonies?” The funeral director has come back with the teapot.
“Winter white. Perfect,” I say.
My sister nods and blows her nose. I pour more tea. As I peruse the funeral home’s brochure, I read that more than 150 decisions must be made in the first 24 to 48 hours of an individual’s passing. Preplanning, however, brings these decisions down to a few. Maybe Mother knew selecting flowers would be enough for us.
The funeral day brings a snowstorm and a temperature of minus-25 degrees. The long staircase up to the church’s entrance is icy. We watch four pallbearers, all strangers, struggle up the steps. They are staff from the funeral home. We couldn’t find any family members young, strong and healthy enough to carry Mother on her final journey. And there should have been six pall bearers, but the funeral him didn’t have enough people either. So the four were carrying 50 percent more than usual. I hope they don’t call the union, he told us. The casket finally arrives inside the church, and the flowers look magnificent on the blonde wood.
Mother’s mass is sung. Father Peter’s voice drones through the entire service, with answers sung by a Sister and my mother’s few surviving friends who know the responses. Musical instruments are not used; the beauty of the human voice is to be unhampered, although my childhood recollection of the rasping voices of old men, who smell like mothballs and cherry lifesavers, was not the best introduction to musical harmony. The Greek Catholic church was built, keeping with the Byzantine Rite, in brick, in the form of a cross, with seven cupolas representing the seven sacraments. The largest central cupola is more than 100 feet high, and I stare up at it from my pew. Leaning back, kneeling on hard-worn wood, I am mesmerized by murals of angels holding staffs. They have white- and gold-tipped wings extending from behind flowing robes, below wavy tendrils of hair. These scary, outlandish figures gave me nightmares in my youth. Father Peter swings the chains of the censer with his wrinkled hands. Sweet, white incense smoke rises above the gifts of bread and wine, up to the angels. Plumes of smoke merge with feathered wings, bringing our prayers up to heaven .
I read the eulogy. Two pages of thanks, mostly to Mother’s widowed friends who have hobbled in from the storm on their canes. I have to stop reading from time to time. I dare myself to look up through the fumes of burning frankincense, and I see a blur of dark coats and hats, the stark white flowers in clear relief, like a moon garden planted to shine in the darkness. The casket is opened and, in procession, we approach and pause to say our last goodbye.
I hope we did things properly, I tell her. She looks peaceful, but strange. The funeral director made her look beautiful, 30 years younger. No wrinkled underwear in sight. It is not the image I want to have forever in my mind, but I’m stuck with it. The priest performs a final blessing, and as the casket is closed for the last time, a gust of wind enters the church with the opening of the back door, blowing the seeds of my memories over our friends.
My son is not present. He visited a week before Mother died, and at 13, seeing the decline of dementia was enough. I wanted him to remember his grandmother remembering him with a small smile.
“I could’ve come, you know,” he said when I came home.
“Grandma wouldn’t have wanted that. You know how important school was to her.”
“I know,” he said. “But I could’ve handled it.”
I should mention heaven and faith to comfort him. But I don’t because the words escape me. As does the faith.
* * *
“What are you doing?” my husband asks, taking the rake from my hands. I’m tearing up the leaf-covered grass in our garden. December, and still no snow. Not that I care as long as I am in my sanctuary. The chimes my father made from steel pipes are ringing in the winter wind.
“Looking for dandelions.” Tears stream down my cheeks. “I need to make a salad.”
“I know,” he says. “That would be delicious.” He hugs me. He knows dandelions were my first flower.
“I’m an orphan now.”
“You’re a mother.”
“I was there for her last breath, you know.”
I don’t want to scare him with the death rattle: the small sound she made because she could no longer swallow. I’ll save it for my nightmares. It wasn’t horrific at the time. Somehow it is in retrospect.
“Here’s some.” He looks away and tugs at some leaves. I know he is trying to hide his own emotions. He loves this crazy garden as much as I do. He knows Mother would have been awed by the love and blistered hands we have given it, although I see it as an acre of my people, and he sees it as a palette of color with which to paint. Highland Garden, and its secrets, came with the house we bought six years ago. Downtown on a ravine, we had no idea what kind of garden it was, or what it would become.
“The frost makes the leaves less bitter,” I tell him.
“What are they good for again?” he asks. He’s humoring me. He knows talking about plants soothes me.
“Detox.” I tell him. “Dandelion wine is good for the blood. They make coffee out of the roots.” I wonder if I have the energy to dig up some roots and grind them. Autumn is the perfect time.
“Maybe not today,” he reads my mind. “Let’s stick with the salad.”
We walk back to the house.
“They’re fairy clocks you know,” I say.
“Clocks. Dandelion flowers close at dusk and open in the morning light.”
“Your first flower is a clock.”
“It is,” I agree. Mother would have liked that.
I look back at the lawn. Back through the passage of time. I am a toddler again, sitting on a lawn covered in white dandelion snowballs. Mother picks a silky white parachute and hands me the stem. The garden was the only place I got her attention.
“Blow,” she says. “Then make a wish.” And I watch a puff of air disperse the seeds, maybe 150 or so, across the lawn.
That one small breath was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with plants.
A diversity-loving Canadian, Alexandra has lived her life in thirds, in Alberta, Quebec and Ontario. Her previous careers in the design and business world give her a unique perspective. Alexandra lives and gardens with her husband, 14-year-old son, and most recently rescued dog.
Alexandra, I’ve been where you were. You brought back the memories – the things you say to yourself inside your head because you can’t say them aloud at the time. I love your writing style and imagery.