My sister and I are walking down a long pink hall in the nursing home at Charlestown. A Catholic seminary in its former life, it’s now a huge complex of buildings on the south edge of Baltimore, apartments for affluent retirees, and an assisted living building. We pass a few patients sitting in wheelchairs and nodding at the television. We’re here to see Aunt Kate. Julia goes over to the nurse’s station and asks for the number of Mrs. Hopkins’ room. She steers me by the elbow and whispers, “This is it– this is her room.” Kate is not our aunt, not a blood relation, but my godmother. Her closeness to us was born out of my mother’s friendship with her. They were just neighbors at first, then they were two women who had their first babies late in life. They became as close as some sisters.
I haven’t seen Aunt Kate for a couple of years. It’s obvious that she hasn’t had a perm since then. Her hair, still mostly black with a few streaks of white, is blunt cut, held back in a tiny ponytail. She is in bed, covers up to her chin. They’ve put little socks on her hands, impromptu mittens.
“Hi, Aunt Kate,” says Julia cheerfully. “We came to see you.”
“Oh, dear,” says Aunt Kate, looking at us from her lying down position. She starts to cry.
“What’s the matter, Aunt Kate?” says Julia, very sweetly, as if Aunt Kate were one of her children, who are still quite small.
“I can’t remember.” says Aunt Kate, then again. “I can’t remember.” She continues to cry.
“Don’t cry, it’s okay if you can’t remember. We’ve brought pictures,” says Julia. I am always impressed by Julia’s preparedness. Out of her large handbag, she pulls out a little binder of snapshots. I know she has pulled these from a dozen large albums. She has made a little anthology for Aunt Kate, just for this visit.
“Here’s a picture of you and our mom; that’s Sara, our mom,” says Julia. It’s a photo from a cruise in the Seventies. They are wearing long gowns. Kate is more than a head shorter than Mom, and she is wearing a pastel flowered dress that seems to have no shape. But tall, silver haired, dark eyed Mom is dressed is a pale green satiny thing. You can see her wonderful figure; the satin hugs her breasts just enough but it isn’t too sexy, not cheap looking. She’s wearing sparkling drop earrings, rhinestone but you wouldn’t know. She looks elegant and happy.
“I can’t remember,” Aunt Kate says again, and tears are running down the sides of her face towards her ears because she is still mostly lying down. Julia and I pull our chairs closer to her so our faces are nearly touching hers.
“It’s okay,” says Julia. “You two had some good times together. This was one of them. You were on a cruise. Dad was there too. You three took a lot of good trips together.”
Aunt Kate lifts her head a bit and looks at us. The look in her eyes changes slightly; she has attached on to something she recognizes from the past. “I know she was my good friend,” she says pointing to Mom’s image.
“She was your friend.” Julia echoes. Now Julia and I are both crying. Aunt Kate is crying too.
I signal to Julia and we get up from the stiff chairs and walk away from the bed for a minute.
“I think we’re upsetting her,” I say.
“Maybe,” says Julia. “Maybe we should get ready to leave soon.”
“No, just a few more pictures, some of us,” I say.
We sit down again. Julia takes out more photographs.
“Here I am when I was a little girl,” she says to Aunt Kate. “And here’s one of Isabelle.”
“I lived with you for a bit when I was little,” I say. ” After Daddy had his fishing accident, when he was in the hospital. I learned to eat fresh peaches at your house, do you remember?”
Of course she doesn’t, and I don’t know why I thought I could jar loose a few cells in her crackled brain so that she would reminisce with me. It strikes me that Julia and I are going through this exercise just to make ourselves feel better about Mom. I start to cry.
“You were very good to me,” I tell her.
Aunt Kate studies the picture for a minute, then looks at me. “You are very big now,” she says slowly. ” And you have such pretty…glasses.” I am puzzled, they’re just ordinary wire rimmed frames.
“Eyes,” Julia whispers to me. “She means eyes.”
“Thank you,” I say and kiss Aunt Kate. She has almost no wrinkles. Her skin is smooth and tawny. It’s the Indian blood, I realize.
Julia tells Aunt Kate we must be going. We hug and kiss her again. Julia stops to talk to a nurse in the hall while I pretend to read the notices on a little bulletin board in the hall outside Aunt Kate’s room. Julia is taking in information like a social worker. She’s so good at getting the straight story from just about anyone. I watch her talking–so animated, her hands moving quickly to punctuate her words. Then she cocks her head fast, towards the door, to tell me it’s time to go.
“I want you to see one more thing,” she tells me. “The chapel. It’s beautiful.” We walk down the stairs and out the front entrance of the building, past the same smiling young receptionist who gave us directions a half-hour earlier. As we walk out into the cold air I start crying again, this time huge sobs and a seemingly unstoppable flow of tears.
“I feel so empty, I feel like my whole life is falling away,” I say.
“No, it’s not leaving, it’s all still here, it will always be here,” she says,” taking my arm and pressing it against her side. “Come on, this chapel is lovely, it will make you feel better to see it.”
We enter an old stone building; it must be part of the old seminary. A couple of young guys are sitting behind a desk there too, and they point us down the hall to a new-looking door. There is a little vestibule with a plaque saying how some cardinal began building this chapel in the 1920’s but ran out of money before it could be completed.
Inside the chapel is all little mirrors and tiles, on the fat pillars, on the altar floor, just thousands of tiles in mosaics. Statues of angels leaning out of the wall above the altar. Like the Roaring Twenties, all excess and wealth and showiness. I am still crying, and I sit and think about Mom. Yesterday we went to the funeral home to identify her body before she could be cremated. Her body, her corpse I had to keep telling myself so I don’t really believe it’s her, lay on a plain gurney, a burgundy blanket covering her up to her chin. We had to go into the basement of the funeral home; it was carpeted and painted, but it was still a flight down from the ground floor. Then Julia and I had to give all the statistical information to the young woman at the Cremation Society desk.
She was pleasant and businesslike, and when we finished with the forms, she said, “You may see your mother now. She looks pretty good. But we had to clean her up a bit because there was a lot of blood, and some scratches on her face.”
My heart started pounding. Her body looked so small, lying on a gurney, covered to the chin by a burgundy blanket. She looks okay, but not really asleep. I kept telling myself, this isn’t really her.
Julia started crying that time. “It isn’t really her,” I whispered. It’s just her body, Julia.” I didn’t want to touch the skin; I didn’t want to feel it cold and stiff; she’d been gone for hours. I touched her hair. It was soft and so white and thick. I wanted to go back into the Cremation Society woman’s office to borrow a pair of scissors, to take a lock of hair. “Goodbye, Mom,” I said almost in a whisper, and Julia and I held each other for a few minutes. I looked down the long narrow low ceilinged room at coffins, propped open, revealing lush satin linings. I am glad Mommy is going to burn up in a burst of flame, I thought. This is the way she had always planned for it to end.
On the way back to Julia’s house we stop at a Dunkin Donuts for coffee; we drink it in the car as she drives the beltway home. We don’t have any music, and we don’t say very much. Maybe we talk about how much it will cost. Maybe we talk about how long I will stay before I fly home. We speak about how glad we are there isn’t going to be a funeral, a Mass or anything. Mom’s wanderings through various denominations has made it clear what she didn’t want; she didn’t want the Funeral Package. Not a Mass. Probably nothing Protestant either. We aren’t in California so we can’t do a New Age thing. We will have to work something out over the next weeks, something she would have liked.
When we get home, Julia takes a long bath. She fills the tub with Epsom salts and pins up her hair. She props her head on one of those inflatable plastic pillows that are supposed to look like a scallop shell. From several rooms away, I hear her crying. I ask her if she’s okay and she apologizes for crying so much. I take her a mug of herb tea, and leave her alone. Actually I’d love to be alone myself right now, in the bath and crying. Instead, I check my email on Julia’s old computer but there’s nothing there for me, nothing from anyone. Especially, there’s nothing from Mike. He’s silent from his end in LA. If I could talk to him now, what would I say? Please make me feel better sounds so pointless, as if he could do anything anyway.
We have the memorial service for Mommy on a sunny day in February. Julia’s boys are dressed up in these suits she’s bought at the Goodwill store; they look so grown up. Alex plays the violin, he’s chosen the Chorus from Judas Maccabeus, in his Suzuki book. I play “All Blues” on the piano, with the music teacher from Julia’s school on trumpet. Julia reads a poem, all I can remember of it now is “the refrain, “I had a mother who read to me.” Then Mommy’s old protégée Sis gets up and tells some funny stories not even Julia and I had ever heard about Mommy at work. Afterwards a blur of our friends from high school, the few who stayed in Baltimore, come over and kiss us, and there are a lot of teachers from Julia’s school, and some old neighbors, and Mommy’s handsome young lawyer Al, who’s been married three times. “I just loved your mother,” he says. He’s got dark brown hair and blue eyes and doesn’t look old enough to have been married so many times. Julia has her arm around my waist and is being very sweet. There are flowers from my friend Joyce who lives in Washington State, and two of our old teachers, nuns, from high school are there, wearing civvies as Dad called them, regular middle aged lady outfits with printed flowers, sensible shoes. When we get home, we spend the afternoon sitting and eating with our old neighbor Mrs. Frank, who has driven up from her retirement home in Annapolis. She is a laid back, chatty woman who doesn’t seem in a hurry to leave like everyone else. After she finally goes, Julia points to the box with Mommy’s ashes on the top of the CD player and says, “In the spring we have to decide what to do with these.”
But that spring, we can’t decide. We’d asked Mom once where she wanted her ashes scattered. Dad’s we put in a tributary of the Chesapeake, the Choptank River. Julia and I drove to the Eastern Shore one day in August with her boys, they were still small then, and we walked out on a stone jetty Julia had found on the way back from Ocean City. We were near a place where our father had fished many times. We told the boys what we were about to do, tried to explain that the ashes would be more like chunks than the ashes they were used to seeing in the fireplace, and we opened the tin. We each took some and strewed them on the water. The current was swift. It seemed to take a short time to do what we had come so far to do. On the way back we stopped and bought watermelon and corn.
But Mom always said she hated the water; in fact, she was a poor swimmer and afraid of it. “Oh, just put me in the garden,” she would say. But which garden? What if Julia sold the house and moved? Of course, she would, eventually. Where could we dump those ashes that would be a timeless, forever spot? And why did we fool ourselves into thinking that even the sea was some timeless way to dispose of their remains? I had no garden to speak of either, and we might not stay there forever anyway. So the ashes sat on top of the CD player. “Mom liked music, let’s leave her there awhile,” Julia said. Really, I was happy she was taking care of them, I would be uncomfortable with them in my house. It’s been three or four years now and I think Julia’s moved Mom around a few times. Right now she’s in Julia’s bedroom, near the books. Maybe this spring we can finally figure it out. Or maybe we will just wait twenty years.
“It’s going so fast,” Mike said as we spoke about our work and our lives, all the books we’d read and talked about. I remember that he was standing up and I was sitting on the green sofa, at his old apartment on West 104th. It was years ago. He took my face in his hands for a minute, looking down at me. Again, he murmured, “It’s going all too fast.” It was early summer, and we went for a walk, then, in the golden light.
Reprinted from moondance.org (2000) and The Woven Tale, Spring 2017