Wednesday, May 23, 2007
I didn’t learn that they were called “clients” until just recently when I helped my grandmother typeset her book, and she wrote of staying home on Friday and Saturday nights, playing board games with friends in their little walk up apartment over the mortuary. They stayed in, couldn’t go out, because they might get a client call.
By the time they became clients they couldn’t call, of course. Someone else would place the call to come for them, to take them to the small stainless steel room in the basement with the cement floor and the large drain to be primped for their last party.
My first memory is of the hearse that my 16 year old uncle parked in the dusty and barn-like garage. Long and black, something from the 50s or 60s, it was the first car I loved for its lines alone. (Later I’d fall in love with classic cars, and collect four dollar models the way my brothers collected matchbox cars. I set them on my bookshelf alongside my horse figurines, until I figured out that girls didn’t like cars, and I gave them all, regretfully, to my brothers, who threw them into the smash up derby that was their matchbox collection, while I packed that part of myself away and tried to be a normal girl.)
But I remember the hearse, and I remember my aunt telling me it was long and low to carry coffins with dead people.
So I knew something was up, but I didn’t think anything strange or unusual about it. Maybe because dead people were always someone else, someone unknown to me. Old, usually, and strangers.
But that summer day when I was four? five? and running wild on my grandparents’ farm – I don’t know where everyone else was, I don’t know why I was wandering alone, but back then you could be four or five and do that. Or maybe that was just us – hippie kids – maybe the other kids weren’t running wild in quite the same way. (I have very few memories of my mother being present in the Sonoma chapter of my life, unless she was sleeping, or drinking at a party, or chatting with someone else. She was in the middle of her divorce from my father, and separating herself, even then, from the children that made her married. Becoming, even then, someone new.)
I remember a few things from that summer day when I was four or five and wandering wild on my grandparents’ farm, and I can’t remember if they all happened on this one day, or in an amalgam of days that came together over time in my memory.
I remember standing by the honeysuckle trellis and pulling off the white blossoms and sucking out their sweet nectar. I remember standing still when a bee buzzed by, convinced that if he thought I was a statue he wouldn’t sting me for fear of breaking his stinger.
And I remember that I decided for some reason to be terrifically brave and cross through the pasture where the bull lived. He was no where in sight, which may have had something to do with my courage. Or it might have been that I liked the terror he stirred up in me, liked the way his strength made me shake, the way the full potential force of him made my heart pound.
I skirted through the pasture, breathless (not from running), and headed for the outbuilding where my grandfather worked. I stepped from the heat of the summer day into the cool of the shed, where dust danced in the sunlight coming through the windows, and the world felt quiet, like it was lined in padded satin. That impression probably came from the bolts of batting that stood on end along one wall, and were used to line the coffins.
The room was full of them, boxes and boxes, mostly shells waiting to be finished – to be lined with soft fabric, to be fitted with the hardware handles that would allow their loved ones to lift and carry them to their grave.
There was a buzz of activity and the hum of noise. I don’t remember who else was there, or if my Bumpa worked alone. He was at the far end of the room, buried to his elbows in some assembly task. He was profoundly hard-of-hearing from birth, at a time when you didn’t acknowledge those things for fear of appearing weak. He read lips mostly to get by, and his deafness made him louder than most, more brash, more goofy even, because his words were rounder, softer, not as crisp. He capped almost everything with a wonderful belly laugh and wasn’t afraid to roughhouse – he’d always steal my nose. I was a little bit afraid of him, the same way I was afraid of the bull.
He didn’t hear me come in and wouldn’t look up until I had more than halfway crossed the room, surrounded on either side by the boxes that would house the strangers that I would never know.
He didn’t look up, he didn’t shout out his hello, until I came to a full stop in front of a coffin that was just my five-year old size.
This was new information.
A conversation followed. I don’t remember the details. There was me wondering what and him telling me, confirming that yes: that one’s for a child. The coffin was complete – the wood was pale, the liner was yellow -- and I remember having the sense that it already had an owner. But that might have been me, filling in the blanks, trying to get my head around the fact that people like me – my size, my time in the world – that people like me died.
That I could die.
That I would die.
The rest of the memory from that summer day is more of that amalgamated sunshine, green fields, sweet smells, and wandering. But a heavier kind of wandering, and a weighted kind of wondering.
I spoke with my grandmother the day after my grandfather died. She was tired, but content. He had a good death, surrounded by his family, with none of the tubes or interventions that he dreaded might disrupt his passage. He was ready to go, and talked in the days before of being tired all the time. Of being tired of all this.
His last requests were simple, almost Spartan: Dressed in casual clothes, no suit, but go ahead and dress me in those $300 shoes that I just bought. (They’re nice shoes.) A simple box – the second most simple coffin available for sale at this place. (“We always wondered about the people who bought the cheap coffins,” my grandmother laughed. “I guess now we know.”) Then cremation, and a ceremony in Napa later this summer, when the kids are all out of school, and the most people possible are able to attend.
My grandmother, always one for details, articulated for me the biodegradable cardboard “pillow box” that they’ll package his ashes in, the note that they’ll give her for the plane ride from Phoenix. “The kids were wondering – did I want to do that? Did I want to carry his ashes with me?” she said. “Maybe it’s because we were in the business,” she said to me, “but it doesn’t bother me at all.”