by Suze Allen
from her memoir – Unconditional ~ a Grandmother’s Love & Last Days
“I thought you said that your car wouldn’t make it?”
Mom stands in the bathroom doorway in a black flowered dress.
“It’ll make it. It’ll make it, Ma. I just got skittish, overly sensitive about it. It’s a funeral for God’s sake.”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”
“What, vain? I was including God, Ma. We could use HER right about now.”
“You are fresh. That’s all there is to it. Plain old fresh.”
“Anyway Ma, when we last tuned into the real world, I was telling you that Boots and I will take my car and you all can go together.”
“Us all? I do not want to ride up with Ken and Ami. You know Ami is not my favorite person.”
“So let them go together and you and Dad go in your car. What’s the big deal?”
“I do not understand why we have to take three cars up to Wilton. It doesn’t make any sense. It would be cheaper to take two cars, but no, you and your sister have to be together,” Mom spits, like sisterly love is acid on her tongue. She harrumphs off to the downstairs kitchen to call my brother Ken and his girlfriend, Ami.
She hates the idea of my sister and me alone in a car for a 3-hour drive. Thinks we’ll spend the whole trip talking about her. She couldn’t be more right.
Dad’s barked directions snap at the air. He doesn’t know why but he’s siding with Mom. He habitually picks up her ax and starts grinding it.
“Slow down, Dad, I need pen and paper.”
As I write I can hear my sister singing Neil Young in the shower, more off-key than Neil-God himself. That’s how she refers to him. Neil-God.
While I read the directions back to Dad, the belt around my large intestine tightens another notch. I scramble for the muscle relaxant I stashed in my purse. I wish my sister had orchestrated this car thing. Mom’s energy rolls off her like water off a duck’s back. In fact, in situations like these, Boots advises me, “Be a duck. Quack. Quack.” I am a duck with ulcerative colitis. I swallow 3 pills.
“Please do not be late for this funeral. Your grandmother hated lateness.”
I roll my eyes.
“You know she did.”
“Mom, I love you and we will be on time.”
I pull her into me.
Have a safe trip.” She hugs me claustrophobically tight.
I watch Mom and Dad from the upstairs window of what used to be Meme’s apartment as they climb into the Chevy Lumina. The autumn sun bounces off colored leaves and catches the white gold of Meme’s wedding set, Mom has jammed over her own wedding band. Her ring finger looks like sausage ready to erupt.
“I wanted that ring,” I say out loud to no one at all. It feels weird to want the things of a dead person. But all of Meme’s things have already been doled out. Her trailer sold. I’m suddenly lonely.
“Hey Boots, get out of the shower. We’re gonna be late.”
The water keeps running.
I pad restlessly around the apartment where my sister and her daughter now live. I can’t remember what it looked like when Meme lived here. It was the place I knew her least. I look out the side door window across Berwick Road at the small white house with the black shutters. It hasn’t changed an iota since Meme lived there with Grandpa. I see myself in the picture window, 6 years old, wearing Meme’s apron and black pumps. I have a waitress pad and pencil.
“What are your specials? ” my Grandfather inquires.
“We don’t have anything special just beets and rice pudding. Pick one and hurry it up.” Meme casts me a warning glance about being fresh.
“Say, do you have a boyfriend, young lady?”
“Grandpa, you know I do. His name is Romeo Beets, you know that.” I am annoyed with my customer.
“Is his wife’s name, Pickled Beets, by any chance?” my Grandpa teases.
“Grandpa! he doesn’t have a wife. He has me.”
“So, is this funereal enough?” Boots’ freshly showered body pushes its way into my frame of memory.
“You look pretty,” I reply. We’re both in flowing black dresses, only she wears Birkenstocks and I wear platforms.
“Okay, I’ll just grab my one-hitter and we’re off.”
“Boots, no getting high for the funeral. Come on.”
I re-apply my Nuts about You lip color and go outside to chant over my nothing-but-trouble Volkswagen Rabbit.
“Please make it to Wilton. Please. For Meme. Please bunny rabbit. I promise I’ll feed you high test all the way.”
The drive is thankfully uneventful but beautiful. The Maine Fall precedes winter like a lobby full of impressionistic paintings. Every now and then there is barren tree.
We make one quick stop in Rumford, for snacks and gas. Inside, the clapboard convenience store, it smells like trapping scent. Eight guys sitting around the breakfast counter are chucking eggs-over-easy down their hatches. The smell of bacon wraps itself around the trapping scent and does somersaults in my stomach. All eyes turn to the girls in black. Conversation ceases.
“Can I help you ladies?” smirks a large cashier with a bloody apron.
“Ten dollars, pump 1,” I say softly.
“You want ta pump it yourself or can Hiram get it for ya?”
Although I’m dying to meet Hiram, I say that I’ll get it myself.
“You sure? Don’t want ya ta to smell up that gorgeous black dress, now, ” he says in thick Maine accent. The counter ripples with a community chuckle.
I assure him I’m quite tidy with a gas pump.
“I’m sure ya are. I’m sure ya are. So, just $10 gas, this gum, water and potato chips? That’s all for ya? Nothin’ else?”
I want to say, “Oh, no, that’s not all. I want you more than anything in the store. Could you meet me out back? My sister and I will double team you.” Instead, I nod.
My sister and I get the church giggles while we collect our change. We don’t quite make it out the door before we guffaw all over ourselves.
“Christ, we coulda had our pick in there,” my sister announces in perfect Mainese.
“Ayuh, we sure coulda. We’ll haveta come back when we don’t got a funeral standin’ between us and paradise,” I reply.
The main drag of Wilton forks into a tiny town proper with a grocery store, a post office and a hairdresser’s by the name of Sheer Delight. The road rounds a sharp corner and teeters above a dam, which once fueled the old, abandoned fabric mill next to it.
“That’s where Meme threw the bobbin at Grandpa.” My sister yells out in recognition. Both of us start crying. Suddenly, the whole reason for our being here, in historic Wilton, plops down between us in the car. So much for mascara.
“I need some tissues,” I snuffle.
“Let’s find the cemetery first then come back to that little grocery, okay?” My sister is wise.
The center of town is behind us with the blink of an eye. Rest in Peace cemetery sits on a hill overlooking the river. When we turn in under the sign, all we see is the hearse dwarfed by a giant pile of earth. No one is here except for the driver who is smoking a cigarette; one foot perched on the pile. His driver’s hat sits crooked, like someone just thwacked him in the back of the head.
The Rabbit stalls as Meme’s black coffin comes into view. Everything is all wrong. I leap out of the car to fix it. My sister is not far behind.
“Don’t let him put any dirt on her,” she chokes out as she catches up with me.
“I’ve got to get her out of that box. We’ll take her home. We’ll prop her up in her old recliner and tell her about our day and she’ll be with us.”
“Yes!” my sister agrees as we come upon the great gaping hole in the ground. The driver jumps as if someone has come back from the dead. We stare into the pit.
“She’ll smell,” says Boots swiping the golden plan from my mind.
“And she won’t talk back. And she won’t hold us,” she continues.
“They’re going to put that dirt over her. Is that what you want?” I retaliate.
The driver won’t open the casket.
“It’s all sealed up in preparation for the burial,” he says.
“But we want to see our Grandmother one last time,” I whine.
“I have strict orders to keep the casket sealed. Besides, things shift on the road.”
Things shift. Like Meme’s body is the sole content of a poorly packed moving crate.
“I hope the seal keeps the snakes out.”
Boots and I head toward town for the badly needed Kleenex. It’s a sad and lovely walk without words.
Bob’s Market is tiny but stocked full of your every need. We bring the tissues and some bottled water to the check out counter where a coiffed and dyed vision, fresh from Sheer Delight, reads a newspaper.
Boots and I have a single thought. You can almost hear an angel sing. For there it sits, a beacon in the darkness, The National Enquirer, Meme’s beloved tabloid. Her gospel truth. Our final gift.
Perfectly pleased with ourselves, we high tail it back over the dam, our thoughts swirling and rushing like the water below. A shiny red Ford 4X4 drives up along side us, going in the opposite direction. A young Mainer with a John Deere cap cocked on his head, shouts at us over the river din.
“You with that funeral up at Rest in Peace?”
“Yeah,” I say looking at my watch. It’s ten to 2.
“It’s Hiram,” my sister whispers. “He’s finally come to pump our gas.”
“Some lady sent me down to getcha so’s you wouldn’t be late.”
“We won’t be late. Thanks anyway.” Jesus Mom.
“She was pretty insistent that I getch ya.”
“Alright.” We cave into our mother’s wishes, hike up our dresses and climb up into the cab. A hunting rifle sits on a gun rack behind us. This guy could be our brother. But he’s not. He’s a perfect stranger, doing the work of our maternal devil.
It’s an awkward but quick ride to the cemetery. Guide boy keeps looking at us out of the corner of his eye like we were a rare species he was transporting to the zoo. He’s not far from wrong.
“Thanks for the ride,” I call up to him once my sister and I are safely on the ground. The whole funeral party is watching us make our way. My eyes are thin slits aimed at my mother, who is standing near the six-foot hole. More than anything I want to push her in. Her and her Bible and her voracious need. I’m sure Boots would help me fill in the dirt.
“It’s only ten til,” I growl at her.
“I asked you to be here on time,” Mom fires back.
My aunt takes over to stop the lynching. “Well, everyone is here and well, we wanted to get going. It’s a long trip from New York. Okay, Suzie?” She hugs me. I grit my teeth.
My grandmother’s four children stand at the edge of the grave as my Born-Again Aunt Elaine begins the service: “Blah, Wah, wah wah, heaven. Wah, blah blah blah, with Jesus.” When she’s finished, which isn’t soon enough, my Uncle Russell, who now lives in Canada, tells us a story.
“Rosie used to feed this homeless guy who ud come into the store in York, pretty regularly. I was helpin’ out when I was home from college one week and he came in. He was a ratty ole fellow. But Ro Ro was real chatty with him while she made him about the biggest roast beef sandwich I ever laid eyes on. She talked to him like he was anybody, like he was just some regular customer. When she passed him the sandwich, that guy held on to her hands real tight. Ro Ro didn’t bat an eye, just smiled back at him and squeezed his hands. You could tell how grateful he was to her. On his way out, he walked right over to me and said, “Young man, your Mother is a saint.” He was right, that guy was. Mom was a saint.” His voice catches on his feelings and he stops.
I can’t look at Mom as she takes her turn. Her dress has billowed out like a sloop’s mainsail. She’s reading from the Bible. “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…” And so on and so forth and on and on. I barely listen. When she finally thwops the Good Book shut, her eulogy takes an authentic turn.
“Rosie took good care of me and my kids. The best of care, really. We never wanted for anything. I could always count on her but now she’s gone.” Her voice cracks as she looks at me. I look at her then back at my feet, our loss a momentary connection.
My Uncle Kenny, who is usually the life of the party, is as sullen as I’ve ever seen a person. He mumbles something I can’t understand while Aunt Norma rubs his back. Boots is crying too hard to speak and my brother Kenny is too shy, so it’s my turn.
“Meme loved Vidalia Onions and baked potatoes and playing cards. And she loved all of us. Her love was perfect. If heaven does exist, Meme is there now buying groceries for Jesus and Mary. But I bet they don’t stock this at Heaven’s check out stand and I knew Meme would miss it.” I hold up the National Enquirer.
Everyone laughs in spite of themselves. And then it’s time. My Dad, the Uncles and the hearse driver lower Meme into her grave while we sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
Boots and I step up to the hole and let The National Enquirer flutter down into the deep forever.