by Jody Serey
Two daughters talk as they prepare for their dying mother's funeral.
Gail Fernandez and Beth Sims sat on the bed in their mother’s bedroom in front of a stack of clothing. The lamp on the matching nightstand cast a downward glow. Gail sighed, and stretched her back. “Turn on the overhead, Beth. I can't see what I'm doing.”
Beth reached behind her, and flipped the switch on the wall. She looked around, and said, “At least with it off you can't see the dust. We’ve got to get in here and clean.”
Gail nodded her head, then paused. “Do you think it's time to sell the house?”
“Probably. Mom doesn’t need it.” Beth set aside the blouse she was inspecting, and glanced at her watch. “Are we making any progress here? We’ve been at it for an hour.”
Gail looked out the window. “It’s starting to rain. Great. Nothing like picking out burial clothes for your mother during a thunderstorm. Now, what were we saying about the house?”
“Mom will never be here again. We might as well sell it.”
“Do we have to tell her?” Gail asked.
“She wouldn’t hear us now, anyway, honey.”
Gail put a pale blue silk shirt back onto a hanger. “This is pretty. Did she ever wear it?”
“I don’t think she had the chance,” Beth said.
Gail smoothed the skirt of an ivory linen suit. “This one looks too mother of the bride.”
Beth peered at it and said, “It was mother of the bride. I thought planning a wedding was complicated, but this is definitely worse.”
Beth said, “This is sort of like putting together a honeymoon outfit in reverse. When you pick out a travelling suit, you know the bride isn't going to be wearing it for long. It's for the pictures of her leaving the reception.”
Gail took off her glasses, and set them on the nightstand. “I guess a funeral outfit is the same way. It's going to be worn for a long time. And it’s for leaving.”
“I want Mom to have something nice. The funeral director showed me a catalog of outfits that go on with Velcro. Can you imagine?
“That pre-needs guy? Boy, what a job title. The original pay now, go later plan.”
Beth smiled back at her sister. “The part of that Michael Jackson video that never made sense to me is where one of those dead ladies has on a hat and high heels.” Beth continued, “I don't think they bury you with your hat and shoes.”
“You’ve never lived in the south.”
Beth opened a plastic shoebox labeled in her mother’s precise printing -- “summer sandals”. She closed up the box. “Open-toed. I think we need to put pumps on Mom. If we don't, we'll have a hard time explaining it to the rest of the family.”
“What rest of the family? You, me, a few relatives. And she’ll only show from the waist up.”
“Yes, but I'll know she’s barefoot, and it will bother me,” Beth said. “You don't go anywhere important barefoot. Never.”
“Then why not put slippers on her? Embroidered,” Gail suggested. “Would that count?”
“Perfect. Do you want to write that down?”
“Yes, I’ll write it down.”
“Do you still carry your phone number in your wallet?”
“If I'm ever hit with amnesia in the middle of the Food Giant, I'll be able to get home again.”
“Gail, don’t make jokes. Remember what happened to Mom?”
“I wasn't kidding.”
“How’d WalMart find you?
“Mom had one of those emergency cards. When I got there, she also had a cart full of pool toys.”
“She doesn’t have a pool,” Beth said. “She doesn’t even have a suit.”
“She said she was going to Florida with the children. At the time, her youngest grandchild was twenty.”
“Well, she kept the toy box until your kids were in junior high.”
“Did she hang onto any of the dolls?” Gail asked. “I used to sit on the floor and play Barbies with Julie. I was so damn bored. You know, I feel sort of like I'm picking out outfits for a big Barbie doll now.”
“Terminal Barbie. She comes with fifty feet of plastic tubing and a durable power of attorney.”
“Do you have to buy the hospital bed separately?”
“God, Beth. We’re making jokes. Is that terrible?”
“No, it’s not terrible. It’s called coping.”
“Do you think it will be long now?”
Beth shook her head. “I’m glad the hospice nurse threw us out, though. She said we needed a break, and we did.”
“Now we’re fussing with clothes. Why is it women always resort to things like this when there’s a crisis?”
Gail shrugged, then sighed. “It’s how we’re programmed. Casseroles and outfits.”
“Remember the first five years out of college? Everybody got married. I wore pink and peach for years. And you’re right. It was all casseroles and outfits.”
“And this black they’re wearing now. Can you imagine having a wedding with the girls all in black?” Gail looked up briefly and said, “Do you suppose we have to include pantyhose? Almost nobody wears them these days.”
“Let’s not. She hated them. And won’t we all be in black?”
Gail shook her head. “No. I mean, I won't. Black's too morbid for my taste, even for a funeral. And Mom doesn't own anything black.”
Beth patted a plastic bag. “There's a velvet hostess skirt in here that's black.”
“I gave it to her. But it’s midnight blue.”
“Well whatever it is, it’s pretty. How do you think Dad would feel about all of this? Mom’s still here and we're going through her clothes for something to lay her out in.”
“He'd have done the same thing,” Gail assured her. “He and you always liked to plan things ahead of time.”
“It’s what I know how to do,” Beth told her.
“I still feel guilty that you get stuck with all the paperwork when there’s a family crisis.”
“I don't mind. I don't cook.”
Gail smiled. “You can do a lot of other things.”
“Thanks,” Beth replied. “I told Mom we’d take in a couple of outfits and let her choose one.”
“Do you think she knew what you were saying?” Gail asked.
“I’m not sure. But we’ll do it anyway. And at least we will have tried.”
Gail nodded in agreement. “We always did try. It’s part of our charm. But we’re not going to win with the relatives, no matter what we do.”
“We do great funerals, Gail. We stop just short of an open bar and a polka band. But seriously, can we have music?”
“Sure. What would you like?”
Beth sat with her hands folded, and looked out the window. After a moment, she said, “It might be nice to have some harp music. With a live harpist. I mean nothing taped,” Beth told her. “Almost any song sounds good on a harp.”
“You want to talk food while we’re making plans?”
“Sure. You’re the cook.”
Gail folded a handkerchief, and put it on the stack of clothing. “Mom never went anywhere without a clean hankie. At any rate, I'd like to have a real luncheon. Something with all her favorite foods.”
“Mom’s?” Beth asked her.
“The ones she hasn't been able to eat for years.”
“But honey, her favorite foods were chocolate and cheese. And tacos.”
“I promise, we can do it nicely. There’d be other things, too.”
“She’s dining through latex these days,” Beth replied. “But if you’d like to have a salute to sodium in her honor, I think it’s fine,” Beth said.
“Really? I just don’t want to lose Mom in all of this.”
“It happens all the time with grooms. They’re sort of like the deceased.”
“Enlighten me, honey,” Gail urged her sister.
“Well, you can’t have a wedding without a groom. You can’t have a funeral without the deceased. But neither of them really have anything to say about what gets done.”
“I see your point,” Gail admitted.
“The bride’s mother really makes the decisions. Mom consulted some book for months before we got married. Don’t you remember?”
Gail shook her head firmly. “I've tried not to.”
”Well, you were a lovely bride and the wedding was quite traditional. And Mom made the decisions. Sort of like we’re doing now.”
“Beth, I’d like have things completely her way just this once. What should we do?”
“That’s what we’re in here trying to decide.”
“So we are putting on a traditional funeral?”
Beth didn’t look up, but nodded. “I think we should. After all, Mom would for us. Regardless.”
“She would. So what should she wear?”
Beth replied quickly.“Something with sleeves. She hates florals.”
Gail looked surprised. “I didn't know that. Everything she’s got has flowers all over it.”
“That's because all she’s been in are those tent things. And they run to roses.”
“Not to be confused with the Run for the Roses.” Gail’s joke was as thin as her smile.
“No, she wore a suit and a hat to that,” Beth said, remembering.
“The Kentucky Derby. It must have been early 60s.”
“Dad got tickets and they stayed in a nice hotel.”
Gail moved her leg, and wiggled her toes out of her shoe. “They were fighting a lot in those days.”
“There was a lot that went on that we didn’t see. But whatever it was, they got past it. And Dad took that picture of her coming out of the ladies’ room at the race. She never liked it. There was a water spot on her lapel.”
“The sign saying ‘ladies’ didn't bother her?” Gail asked.
“Not as much as that little water spot.”
“I think she'd like a corsage -- violets and some roses, but they'll have to be silk. They’d stay nice.”
“Well, it’s not like somebody’s going to crush her gardenia while they’re dancing.”
Gail looked around her mother’s bedroom, and her eyes came to rest on the television. “We watched a lot of television in here. Remember Kennedy’s funeral?”
“I remember watching TV for days.” Beth replied.
“Everything shut down. Remember? The radio stations played classical music. And Dad stayed home from work.”
“Dad was home. I kind of liked it. It felt safe to me. Isn’t that odd? The president was dead, and I felt cozy. Now everybody talks about where they were, and I never say, oh I was drinking hot chocolate with my dad.”
“But about the relatives -- I think they'll show up.”
“Maybe so, but do we have to have them to the funeral luncheon?” Beth’s voice was tired.
“If they come, you feed them. Kind of like ants at a picnic.”
“I'm talking about aunts -- the kind that go with uncles.”
“We've still got to be nice.”
“I haven’t been to many regular funerals. Mostly scatterings.”
“Scatterings?” Gail asked.
“Where they scatter ashes. One time, we had to hike into a game preserve and everybody got a little bag lunch and a bottle of wine.”
“It was an okay day. Beats the heck out of what we’re trying to do now.”
“What are we trying to do?”
“Just do it right. Do you think she needs a program?”
“You mean a booklet? It might be a good idea,” Gail replied. “Some things about her life, but also poems, songs, pictures. That sort of thing.”
“In case we forget why we’re dressed up and crying on a Tuesday morning?”
Gail stood up and motioned for her sister to follow. “Let’s quit for the evening. We’ll finish later. Tonight, there’s still later.”
Beth picked up her purse and her sweater, and looked at the stack on the bed. “I guess we can leave these until tomorrow. I’ve got to check on silk flowers and a harpist.”
“I’ll call the caterer. I think we’ll be expecting about fifty people, don’t you?”
Beth nodded. “That should be fine, and if there’s anything left over, we can send people home with something for later. That’s what Mom always did.”
They walked down the hall, turned off the light, and stepped out onto the porch. Gail turned the key in the lock, and the tumblers clicked softly. The doorbell light glowed softly with its empty welcome as the traffic sounds came forward to meet them.