I started this post on Wednesday, September 29th. It has taken me this long to feel like I could actually complete it. This is how it began…
Sitting in a bar in the Sheraton in Atlanta, Georgia is the last place I expected to be on a Wednesday night. The bar is crowded with people traveling on business. Behind me is a man playing guitar with a group applauding his every move. A white-haired man walked by and joked that I had taken his seat. Great pickup line, but then he moved on. Too bad.
Meine Schwester is upstairs watching tv. She’s exhausted. Mentally and physically. I’m just me. In a hotel bar wearing a tank top and short skirt, typing away on my computer, watching the scene and drinking a local pale ale. Our brother, Sparkles, should be on a plane on his way home. An impromptu family reunion in Georgia.
How the fuck did I end up in Georgia?
Sunday morning I was in sunny California with the promise of a beautiful summer day in autumn. I planned to sit outside in the backyard with my pets and read a book. Life was stable. Life was secure.
Then my Meme called.
I had called her the day before. No one was home. I didn’t leave a message because I had nothing important to say. I continued walking the dog in silence. Sunday she called me back. She’d lost Safari out of her Dock on her Mac. I said I could help her fix it. She said she had to turn on her computer first. While we were waiting for it to boot, she told me Laura died.
Laura, my Aunt Laura?
Aunt Laura had a heart attack on Saturday night. They couldn’t save her.
She had just turned 50.
And like everything in my family, it wasn’t that simple.
Aunt Laura had left my Uncle three years ago when my Cousin went off to college. She moved to Georgia and remarried. She was convinced that everyone in my family hated her.
She couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I can’t pretend that I wasn’t a upset, but I understood that it wasn’t because of me. Whatever happened between her and my Uncle is their business. I’d told her this, but I don’t think she believed me. We emailed a few times. Talked on the phone a couple times. We tried to meet up in California while she was on a ride with her new truck-driver husband, but I couldn’t really seem to convince her that she hadn’t divorced me. Amazingly, in the last couple years, she and her husband had managed to travel to all of the lower forty-eight states.
I called my siblings. I made arrangements for my pets. I hopped on a flight to Atlanta. Sparkles was there waiting for me. We got a hotel room for the night and waited for Meine Schwester to arrive the next afternoon. We spent an unreasonable amount of time at the airport. I didn’t mind. Airports feel like home. Then we rented a car, and on Monday afternoon, we drove to Hartwell, Georgia.
Hartwell is in the northeast corner of Georgia, on Lake Hartwell, across the state line from South Carolina. Looking at a map, I realized that a decade ago, while grading Advanced Placement Computer Science exams, I’d spent a week at Clemson University, just up the lake. I never expected I would be back here.
We met up with my Uncle and Cousin after they flew in to Greenville. It was good to see them, but strange not to be visiting them in Maine. We spent the night and tried to build up our courage for the viewing the next morning. I can’t remember having ever been to a viewing before. I must have. I’d thought it would have been so traumatic that I would remember. But I don’t.
The funeral home was just down the street after turning left at Bojangles. You know what a Bojangles is, right? I didn’t. The funeral home looked like I’d expect a funeral home to look. Dark wood furniture. Tissue boxes strategically placed. Mirrors and artwork that look like they were straight from my great grandmother’s house. Perfume smells pumped in with the elevator music that permeated every corner. I wondered who decided what music to play. Is there a large market for that?
We were early, so we waited patiently. We braced ourselves to see her body. Aunt Laura’s new husband arrived alone. It turned out that all that was happening was a little paperwork and some decisions. We went away with the dread that comes knowing that we’d have to torture ourselves for another twenty-four hours. I exhaled deeply as I exited the building.
We drove out to the house to see Aunt Laura’s mother. I hadn’t seen her in years, maybe decades. It was awkward. Strange to be in a house where my aunt has been living for a while. Strange to see her new life. Strange to meet her new husband. Strange to hang out with the black woman who helps take care of the house—we had a great conversation, but I couldn’t stop thinking how The South still seems so backwards. Strange to be visiting her mother without her. Strange that her mother has two chihuahuas, but they are not the same yippy, nippy chihuahuas that I remember. These two actually liked me. I have chihuahua fur all over my clothes to prove it.
The day was spent sipping fruit juice and listening to the birds chirping unaware in the backyard. Questions were asked timidly. Everyone was walking on eggshells. We were all getting to know each other at the most inconvenient time. Awkward is putting it mildly.
We snuck out for a bit and went to lunch. The first place we tried was closed from two until four—we had just missed it. But as we were leaving, an older woman suggested to us a fish shack down the road. So we bit.
Meine Schwester had never eaten Hush Puppies before. I’d never had fried pickles. I also can’t recall ever eating some place that fried every food item. I could feel my arteries hardening as we ate. Meine Schwester and I indulged in their wine selection. It may have been boxed. I really didn’t care.
Dinner that night was at a Mexican restaurant with my two siblings and my Cousin and Uncle and I again. Two pitchers of margaritas, we toasted to Aunt Laura. We felt like we could finally be ourselves. We talked about everything. We recalled stories of Meine Schwester and Aunt Laura getting drunk at the Bear’s Den and then walking the yellow line all the way to the High Street House. Old guys asked them if they needed a ride. The cops stopped to find out if they were okay. They made it all the way back to Great Grandma’s house. In the morning, Great Grandma asked quizzically why Meine Schwester and Aunt Laura were sleeping in the same bed. I guess she never had to share a bed with her brother.
I remember the time that Aunt Laura brought Brother K and I to her grandmother’s house in Vermont. On the way home, Brother K and I started breaking out with chicken pox. Aunt Laura had never had the chicken pox and relegated us to the back seat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her drive closer to the steering wheel. Or so fast.
After the two pitchers of margaritas, we stopped off at Walmart. Meine Schwester found a child’s size t-shirt she could wear that reads “I [heart] Army Boys”. I ran up and down the aisles after finding myself lost from the pack. We bought Oatmeal Creme Pies to honor Brother K who couldn’t be there. And we purchased a bag of candy corn to satiate Sparkles’ sweet tooth.
And that is where the post ended on the night I was writing it. The white-haired guy decided to come back to his table. We talked. He bought me a beer and we talked some more. He’s in sales. Sells packaging. Never thought that the global economy and China would hurt his business as much as it has. He has two boys in college. I realized I’m physically old enough to have a child in college. That scared me. I didn’t tell him. He still thought I was much younger than I am. We closed the bar. I went back to my room—alone—like a good girl.
Now it is almost two weeks later. I just finished watching the Tuesday Nightcap that Wedding Singer does every week. And I decided it is about time I finish this post. So here is the rest of the story.
Laughter. It is how my family deals with tragedy. It is the Irish in us. We joke. We tell stories. We spend precious time together because we know how little it will seem in the end. But most of all, we laugh. But when we think that no one is looking, we have heart-to-heart conversations that come from out Swedish side. We say what needs to be said. We cry. And we try to hide it.
Wednesday morning, my siblings and I awoke in our wedding suite at the Best Western in Hartwell, GA. I think I’ve shared my bed more with Meine Schwester in the last few years than with men. Sigh.
Sparkles was sleeping on the pull-out sofa with no blanket. The night we moved in, we discovered there was no bedding for the sofa bed. So he went downstairs and asked for sheets. They gave him sheets. So he asked for pillows. They went into the back room and found him pillows. By then, it seemed that a blanket was too much of an imposition, so he gave up. Lucky for him, Meine Schwester likes to keep the room at a Hawaiian seventy-eight degrees, so no blankets were required.
We gathered our wits about us and together with our Uncle and Cousin, we went to the funeral home to accept what fate had produced. Quaker’s meeting has begun, no more laughing, no more fun. Once when I was teaching, I had sung that children’s rhyme under my breath while erasing the whiteboard. One of my students overheard it and asked what I was singing. So I told her. She then informed me that she is a Quaker and meetings aren’t always serious. Fifteen minutes of class that day was dedicated to understanding what Quaker’s meetings are all about. It was fascinating, but nothing like a viewing.
We waited for the rest of the family to gather and then we went inside to see Aunt Laura for the last time. I couldn’t look at her. I studied the wall coverings and the funeral home’s choices in lighting. I located every box of tissues and the only garbage can. It was too close to the body for me to dispose of tissues, so I had to keep from crying. My Cousin finally lost it. My Uncle started crying. My siblings were doing what we all do best. Managing. Sparkles came to me and asked if I could drive Laura’s mom back to the house because she forgot something. I jumped at the opportunity to leave. My escape!
We held hands as we left the funeral home. I drove her back to the house. I can find my way around Hartwell without a map now. We had short little conversations. It was still hard to speak. I was ignoring the tears that were escaping from my eyelids. If I don’t acknowledge them, then they don’t exist, right?
We got to the house and Laura’s mom came back out with a camera. She’d forgotten her camera. For just a moment, I was angry. I’d purposely left mine home. I know I’ve taken photos at a couple of funerals over the last year, but they were different. It is hard to explain why. So why was I mad? I took a deep breath and remembered that everyone grieves in their own way. It may not be what I would choose to do, but it is what she needed to do. One of the hardest things to deal with in life is the loss of a child. Especially one who you thought would be there for you as you pass. She was dealing the best she could. Who am I to judge?
We drove back to the funeral home. The hour had become constant movement from the viewing room to sitting outside. Spend a few minutes inside trying to hold it all in, then spend a few minutes outside telling stories and laughing. Then the laughter moved inside. Sparkles joked that we should have gotten her some golf balls. Aunt Laura used to spend the summer at the lake in Maine hitting golf balls off the dock, then diving for them. She’d spent hours in the lake with her home-made floaty mesh net, using a snorkel to retrieve balls off the lake bed and pile them in her retrieval contraption.
Laura was the cook. The cookie jars were always full, the freezer stocked with ice cream, and dinner on the table for every meal. Even though my parents had divorced and left town decades ago, all four of us would return to Maine to find that Laura had made “home” for us. And Meine Schwester will attest that if you came “home” from college and strategically left your dirty laundry next to the washing machine, it would magically appear, clean and folded, on your bed.
Laura was a surrogate mom to Meine Schwester and my sister-in-law, The President. She was there for them when they needed it the most. But that was Laura. The one you could count on to help out the family in time of need.
Although I did not agree with Aunt Laura’s extravagant holiday decorations, I did appreciate her sense of cleanliness. The most time I ever spent directly with Laura were two weeks when I was home during the summer. It was the year that she and my Cousin were moving up to help take care of the family. My Uncle would follow as soon as he could find a job.
The housing situation was convoluted. When I’d gone off to college, my grandparents, who’d always lived across the street from us, moved in with Great Grandmother in town. My Mom and my three siblings moved into my grandparents’ house when Dad and I moved away. But then my siblings were all off to college and Mom had moved away as well, so Laura and my Cousin would move into my grandparents’ house.
Laura and I spent a week trying to make room in the two bedroom, one bath, former one room schoolhouse for her and my Cousin to move in. We hauled trash to the dump, including Meme’s depression-era collection of plastic containers, and we boxed up things that should be kept. We tried hard to make space without creating family strife.
At the end of the week, Bumpa, my grandfather, was in the hospital. So everything had changed. Laura and my Cousin would be moving into the big house with Great Grandmother, Meme, and Bumpa. I was planning on heading back home to Connecticut, but I spent the next week with Laura doing the same “spring cleaning” to Great Grandmother’s house that we had done to Meme and Bumpa’s house. We made room for everyone, then Bumpa came back from the hospital so he could die.
Death. It usually doesn’t bother me. Great Grandmother was a hundred and two when she died. Bumpa, Nana, and Grump all made it into their 80’s despite their alcoholism and chain-smoking. Two years ago I took Meme out for Ethiopian food with The Boys for her 85th birthday. It was the first time she’d gone to a restaurant where she was expected to eat with her hands and drink honey wine.
My family lives long, healthy lives. Until The Cancer kills them from their Smoking. iDad and P gave up smoking a couple of years ago and I’m grateful. But even with the vices, my family lives on for decades. So Aunt Laura’s heart attack at age fifty was a shock.
A few minutes before it was time to leave the funeral home, I walked with my Cousin up to see Aunt Laura. She looked like a wax mannequin. I kept expecting her to jump up and scare the shit out of us. I wondered if she liked the clothes she’d be cremated in. I wondered if she was wearing anything on her bottom half. I hoped that this was a reputable funeral home. I looked again at the lighting. I thought about the perfume being pumped out like the elevator music and wondered if it was there to cover the stench of decaying flesh.
And I said goodbye.
Sparkles snuck up behind me and we stood in silence. We didn’t laugh or joke. We didn’t cry. We stood quietly wishing that we’d made our peace a few days before.
Where I am now, I owe to Aunt Laura.
And my Uncle. They gave my siblings and I the world. If they hadn’t moved from Florida back to Maine in 1998, then one of us—most likely me—would have had to give up our dreams of a career and moved back to Maine to take care of everyone. Instead of spending two weeks making room in the Yellow House and the High Street House for Laura and my Cousin, I might have been alone making room for me. Life would have been completely different for the last dozen years.
I owe them both the world.
I don’t know if Laura knew that or not. I hope she did. And I hope my Uncle knows as well.
It was time to leave the funeral home and go back to the house. But our minivan couldn’t return to her mother’s house straight away. We needed a little break first. And we knew exactly where to go.
When Bumpa died, Meine Schwester was in Australia. My Uncle was in Florida. School had just started for me. We decided to hold the funeral when everyone could get together in December. It was a traditional Catholic mass. One of the last times I’ve been back to Saint Thomas Aquinas. Since Bumpa had given up drinking the decade before his death, we couldn’t very well all get drunk, so Laura declared an Ice Cream Social. At the conclusion of the mass, we all retreated to the basement where the Church Ladies dished out ice cream sundays to all the attendees.
After Laura’s viewing, we declared Ice Cream Social. A trip to Dairy Queen and ice cream for all!
Besides, we’d done our drinking the night before.
Some night, Laura, when you least expect it, I’ll walk the yellow line too.