My Grandmother’s Funeral

published on Wilmington Blues (website)

I don’t know when I first realized the trip home for my grandmother’s funeral was going to be agonizing. You would think it would be the plain fact of losing a woman who played a big part in my childhood, but the typical disappointing look on my mother’s face was probably more responsible for setting my bad mood in motion.

"There’s the single, successful woman," she said as I trudged up the walkway with the weight of my overnight bag nearly pulling my shoulder into the floor. Now normally when you hear someone make a comment like my mother’s, it’s said with pride bursting from every syllable. But not when my mother said it. Instead it was tinged with sarcasm and bit of disappointment. I guess I can understand where she’s coming from. She was married at 19 and had all four of her kids-all girls I might add-by the time she was 29. My mother was never really independent so she didn’t know what it meant and therefore didn’t like any woman who was, especially when that woman was her daughter.

I smiled politely even though I knew the hour-long ride from the airport was going to be filled with criticism disguised in the form of curious questions.

"So, how was your flight," my mother asked.

"It was okay. I didn’t sleep much though."

"Well, I never have much trouble sleeping on planes. Of course I have your father to cuddle with."

And so it began. It took less than three sentences for her to inject her first criticism of my single life. She was getting quicker.

I smiled like I always did and began to tune her out, scanning the conversation only for statements that required a response from me.

She started into mindless banter about Tammy’s wedding. Tammy is my youngest sister and she was getting married in the fall at the ripe age of 21. She would be the last of my sisters to tie the knot and begin a life of partnership (although my sister, Connie’s partnerships never seemed to last.) That made me even more of a thorn on a rose of a family, blooming with happy couples and grandchildren popping up like the morning dew.

When we finally reached the car, my mother had stressed that 21 was a wonderful age to get married about 10 times. For those of you who are keeping score, I’m 26 and have never even been close to getting married. I never really had the time for a serious relationship. I was much more concerned with laying the groundwork for getting out of the middle of nowhere than boys. Besides, boys never took much interest in me until I got to college and by then it was too late for them. But don’t get me wrong. In high school I wanted nothing more than a too-big varsity jacket and oversized class ring to wear, both of which would ultimately belong to the boy I was going to marry. But I was smart and therefore ignored by the teenage version of the male species. At the time it made me quite depressed, but I was young and eventually got over it.

When we finally pulled into my parents’ dingy garage, my head was pounding from not having a cigarette since before I left for the airport, not to mention the unending flow of words from my mother’s mouth, but the thought of seeing my father perked me up a bit even though it was entirely possible that he would be upset over the loss of his mother.

My father and I were never especially close, but he always had words of encouragement when I needed them most. Never once did any criticism like what came from my mother leave my father’s lips, and I loved him for that.

But instead of seeing my father’s loving face and big, round physique when I opened the door, I was greeted by Tammy’s big, round, red, swollen eyes. She tried to say "hi" to me, but couldn’t even talk through her sobs and instead just threw her arms around me in her normal effortless fashion.

Tammy was the emotional one of the family. I wondered how she would ever get through her vows on her wedding day. Maybe they could sneak some tissues into her bouquet.

After a few minutes of collecting herself, Tammy was finally able to mutter a few words.

"Oh Bethany. Isn’t this just horrible? I can’t believe Grandma’s gone." She started sobbing again, then blew her nose in an already overused tissue that had been crumpled up in her small, perfectly manicured hand.

"I mean Grandma was one of the greatest women I ever knew," she said between sobs.

The last thing I wanted to do was be disrespectful to my grandmother, especially in front of my sister, but come on. A great woman? Not exactly. My grandmother raised six children and never uttered the words "I love you" once. She never did anything other than sit at home and make babies. But then I guess that would constitute a great woman to Tammy, whose lifelong goal was to never set foot in an office.

I pushed these thoughts out of my mind and patted my sister on the shoulder before heading into the living room.

I found my father sitting quietly on the couch reading the newspaper. He glanced up at me and smiled.

"Hey, Bethany."

I threw my arms around his shoulders and hugged him.

"How are you doing, Daddy?"

"I’m okay. Did you sleep on the plane?"

"Not really, but I napped a little in the car."

"How’s your job going?"

"Great. I couldn’t be happier."

He smiled and started reading the paper again. Our conversations were always brief, but there was something about the way he always looked at me that made me feel at ease.

"You better get changed," my mother said, interrupting my moment of happiness as she flew through the living room and up the stairs.

I headed into the guest bedroom and quickly stripped off my jeans and sweatshirt and changed into my black pantsuit. I attempted to run a brush through my hair, but with little success at accomplishing anything that looked very nice. After a short while I gave up and headed back out into the living room.

My mother threw me a disappointing look.

"I should have known you were going to wear pants."

I didn’t pay any attention to her, but followed my father and sister out to the car.

It was bitterly cold, even for a winter in the Midwest, and the car was covered in a small layer of frost. My sister and I piled in the back seat. Tammy was still crying and clutching a wadded tissue that she used to dab her eyes every minute or so.

We were all silent on the drive to the funeral home. I found myself staring out at the big black branches weighted down by huge mounds of white snow. They drooped out over the narrow road almost as if they were offering the snow as a gift to me. It lifted my spirits just a bit to be surrounded by such beauty. But it ended all too soon when we pulled into the funeral home parking lot.

Danielle, my oldest sister, was getting out of her car with her husband and three kids, the youngest of which immediately ran into the snow and sat down. Danielle, in typical motherly fashion yanked him up by the arm and brushed the already melting snow off his behind. She proceeded to lift his chin so he was looking at her and pointed her finger at him while muttering something I couldn’t understand in a harsh whisper.

"Hey, Danielle," I said, walking toward her. Her son stared at me with that shy, blank look little kids can be known for.

"Who’s that, Mommy?"

"That’s Aunt Bethany. Do you remember her?"

"No," he shouted, then giggled and ran to his father.

Danielle hugged me.

"How have you been? How was your flight?"

I was about to answer when she suddenly screamed at her other two kids to stop throwing snowballs at each other and then ran over to stop them, leaving me to finish my conversation with the empty air.

There were already a lot of people at the funeral home. Numerous aunts, uncles and cousins greeted me, all asking the same questions-how was I, how was my flight. After offering the obligatory hellos to all of them, I managed to make my way up to the coffin.

My grandmother looked peaceful and homely as ever. Being a housewife her whole life hadn’t done much good for her looks. Not that that really meant anything, she just always looked tired and about 20 years older than she really was.

I reached in and gently touched her hand. I was slightly surprised at just how cold it felt. I guess no one really expects a human hand to feel cold and stiff, especially when it’s one you held a hundred times as child.

"Well, well, well. Look who’s here."

At the sound of my sister, Connie’s voice, my misery was finally complete.

Connie is one year younger than me and has always blamed me for every problem she has ever had. There was intense competition between us while growing up. By no fault of anybody, I just happened to always do better in school and get into less trouble. My father quite noticeably was always proud of me while Connie desperately sought his affection and approval, which she never really received.

I turned from the coffin and smiled as gently as I could at Connie.

"I’m surprised you had the time to break away from your big job in the big city to come here. Especially since we all know you didn’t care about Grandma," she said.

"That’s not true. Why do we always have to do this?"

"Do what? I’m just telling the truth."

"Whatever." At that point the family pressure finally cracked me and the need for a cigarette was unbearable. As I walked toward the door, I noticed Connie’s 5-year-old daughter, Isabelle, sitting by herself, swinging her legs back and forth because her feet couldn’t touch the ground. At that moment I couldn’t help wondering what life was like for this little girl and if it held any hope for her at all.

Isabelle had been the product of Connie’s first marriage, which had ended shortly after Isabelle’s birth. Connie went on to marry two more men in the course of three years and was now skipping around between boyfriends. You might think this may have swayed my mother from encouraging Tammy, her youngest daughter, to marry early, but that obviously was not the case, and I thought about the irony as I saw Tammy with her head buried in her fiancé’s chest.

I practically threw open the door to escape the cloud of family disapproval and pulled my cigarettes from my pocket.

As I stood there trying to relax, various people walked into the funeral home and looked oddly at me, as if asking me who I was with their eyes. I appreciated the anonymity. I didn’t feel like I could handle many more family encounters just then.

When I finally went back inside, the place was almost completely full of people. My family was seated in the front. Connie ignored me as I walked by, like usual. Whenever we saw each other, she would always say some harsh words then stay away from me. I took my seat on the end of a row and much to my relief next to Danielle’s shy husband who didn’t really know me. That meant I wouldn’t be bothered throughout the ceremony.

The ceremony was much like any funeral you’ve been to. My grandmother’s minister did some praying and then did a long description of my grandmother’s life. As I looked around the room, I noticed I was the only woman over 20 who didn’t have some kind of significant other with her. And although I was ashamed I was thinking it, I felt a little sad and envious.

I know it’s normal for you to think about life and death when someone close to you dies, but this was the first time it had happened to me where I was at an age to really understand and evaluate my own life. I looked at my sisters and wondered if they were happy. Didn’t they feel unfulfilled in any way? None of them had a decent job, and Danielle was the only one beside myself who had a college degree, and yet, that didn’t bother them. Having a husband or boyfriend or children seemed to be enough. Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe living alone in a big city on the fast track to VP wasn’t the best way to spend my life.

When the ceremony ended, we all filed past the coffin one more time and headed for the cemetery. After a brief service at the gravesite, all the mourners headed to their cars. I was about to follow my mother when I noticed my father standing there alone staring at the coffin as it was slowly lowered into the grave.

I walked up and put my arms around him.

"She was a great woman-in her own way," he said.

"Yes, she was." I’ll never be able to understand it, but my father has an uncanny way of knowing exactly what’s troubling me at any point in time and he knew it then too.

"Being around your mother and your sisters is a bit overwhelming for you isn’t it?"

"Yes, but I think it’s a good experience. It’s making me think about a lot of things."

He turned and put both his hands on the sides of my arms.

"Don’t start to question yourself. I know your mother makes you feel like an outcast for not being married, but what does she know? You know who you are and who you’re going to be. You’re not fumbling through life letting someone else decide your future. You have control. Don’t ever let go of it. What you have is perfect for you. And although I don’t like to admit it, what your sisters have is perfect for them. You were the only one strong enough to go it alone. That’s why I’m so proud of you," he said. He patted me on the shoulder and headed toward the car.

Once again, he had been brief, but it was enough.

I grabbed a rose from the spray by the headstone and threw it in on top of the coffin.

Was everything okay and the direction of my life, my fears and insecurities completely resolved? Of course not. But I was one step closer to resolving them.

Copyright 2004 Nicole Tanner

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