...i've written about my only aunt privately, never had anything about her published (to date)...but over the last year i've done a massive amount of writing about my childhood and my aunt keeps coming up...i've never quite known how to publicize that writing...i suppose i've been waiting for "the right moment" and have finally realized there is not a "right moment" for truth...it is what it is...
...joan didion's words: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
...and: "In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of sayinglisten to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions--with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating--but there's no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space."
...and my own:
Sheila is late, as usual. But this time—instead of delaying Christmas dinner, or the Easter egg hunt, or blowing out candles—we can’t postpone why we're here: to plan Grandma’s funeral. We’re meeting with the Director of the mortuary at 11am. It’s 11:05 and he’s standing in the lobby with Mom and me—that strange piped-in organ music coming from somewhere, the smell of formaldehyde filling my pores. A smell so familiar because of the visits Grandma and I took to Texas to bury her sisters one by one, then her eighty-six-year-old mother. A smell that makes me think she should be standing here, tapping her foot and smoking a cigarette and saying, “Let’s just start without Sheila."
Instead the funeral Director says, “I’ll need to begin. I’ve got another family coming in soon.”
Mom’s cell phone rings. “We’re here, Sheila. Where are you?” She rolls her eyes and motions for us to go ahead into the conference room. Mom hasn’t slept in three days. She keeps relaying the last thing she said to Grandma over and over in her head, hoping to change it, to add an I love you to it. Their last conversation came over the phone. Grandma had insisted her chest was tightening and she needed an ambulance. Mom had said, “I’ll be right there.” Before Mom could make it the paramedics arrived. Just in time to help Grandma fall into unconsciousness. In time for her heart to pop like a balloon.
I haven’t slept either. In the last 48 hours I’ve packed a suitcase with things I don’t even remember, flown across the country with my husband in tow, and haven’t eaten. It was this way when Grandma’s relatives died, when my high school classmates died; I can’t even look at food. And I hate myself for knowing that this was coming and not telling anyone about it. Just two months before she died, I flew from my home in Georgia to Grandma’s apartment in California to assuage her constant nagging about never seeing me. But in my gut was a dark feeling that I’d never see her alive again. I remember the final hug I gave her just before I left for the airport. Her ribs seemed to press through her thin skin and I felt that if I squeezed too hard she’d crumble. I held her shrinking frame, inhaled the smell of Pall Mall smoke and Aqua Net from her hair. As I drove away, I watched her standing on her porch waving, until I turned the corner and she disappeared. I tried to imagine her going back into her apartment, sitting down at the glass-topped kitchen table to a microwaved cup of coffee and a lit cigarette. But the image wouldn’t come.
The only reason I’m at the mortuary instead of in bed trying to sleep away my guilt is because Mom asked me to be here. My stepfather is no comfort to her now, but my presence somehow reassures her. As she listens to her only sibling prattle on and on about her tardiness, a picture has already begun to form in my mind of how Sheila will see this situation: I was the “favorite” grandchild, the only one raised by her mother. What she’ll see is intrusion.
And what I’ll see in her, of course, is much worse.
In the last year of Grandma’s life she often mistook me for Sheila. That is, when we spoke on the telephone—sometimes more than once a day because she’d forgotten we’d already talked—she would call me Sheila and my skin would crawl. Too harshly I’d say, “Grandma, Sheila is your daughter, my aunt. You’re talking to Joyce.
She’d snap, “I know that.” The rest of our conversation would then be marred by the fact that I’d pointed out her dementia, the most obvious symptom that she was dying from something she was too afraid to have diagnosed. But I could never keep myself from correcting her. I am college-educated, happily married. I have a career and own a home and car. I’m the opposite of everything my aunt stands for, and to have Grandma make this mistake somehow meant to me that she saw something in my life that resembled her daughter. It made me furious.
I’ve never known my aunt to have a job. She used to be an Executive Secretary. Then one day her heel caught on an office rug and down she tumbled, all five feet two inches of her. Although the fall wasn’t far, it was enough to require surgery on her lower back. The procedure would have cured her had the surgeon’s knife not slipped, severing a nerve that would leave her permanently disabled. Numbness would sporadically overtake her legs and this is how I came to understand Sheila’s existence: It was impossible for her to work again, she had to marry men who could support her, and whenever she walked or stood for more than an hour, she’d have to lie down flat on her back to ease the pain. There we’d be, strolling through the mall, and the next thing we knew Sheila would be inside a shoe store, staring up at the ceiling tiles. She didn’t mind if salespeople approached her with quizzical stares, she’d just giggle and say, “I have a bad back.” Although these salespeople didn’t understand how a bad back translated into Sheila on the floor, she’d just giggle again and say, “I’ll only be here a few minutes.”
This is the mental image that comes to mind whenever I think of Sheila: on her back in the middle of Grandma’s living room floor in her requisite “uniform”—tapered jeans, a button-down shirt, tank top, and sandals. Of all the things she could have bought and worn with the large settlement she’d won after the surgeon’s slip, this was her choice. And it only took two years of this choice for her, and husband number three, to go through it all.
When Mom tucks away her phone we’re seated around a too-large table with the Director. He’s balding and walks with a crutch because of a recent foot surgery. Then in prances the Planner; she’s dark-haired, self-tanned, and taloned. Sheila will like her.
“My sister’s Hummer was vandalized,” Mom tells us. “She’s with the police now and says she’ll be here as soon as they finish the report.” I secretly hope by “vandalized” Mom means “destroyed.” Sheila proclaims to “Support the Troops” dying in Iraq, but has yet to realize that her gas-guzzler is part of the problem. The destruction of this vehicle would be a small bit of justice as far as I’m concerned.
The Planner opens a binder and uses her magenta fingernails to flip to a page with rectangles. It’s the cemetery and, because Grandma hasn’t planned for her own death and has only $3000 to her name, we’re reduced to looking at plots nearest the gardening shed, which is also closest to the highway and dumpsters. Grandma’s final resting place will be a rattling nest tinged with the smells of horse manure, exhaust, and decaying flowers. The casket choices are worse. What we can afford looks cheap, because it is.
Sheila arrives as the Director is explaining the costs for embalming, use of the mortuary, and other expenses we can’t pay for. Already Grandma’s precious $3000 isn’t enough to rent the room to memorialize her.
“Sorry,” Sheila says, looking at the four of us, her eyes landing a little too long on me. “My car was vandalized. Two little boys, about twelve, spray-painted it.”
We say nothing. Her words fall on the open binders of caskets and plots and flowers and tallies of costs that are causing Mom to sweat even in the cold room. I flip through the Planner’s notebook hoping I’ve overlooked a casket package we can afford that doesn’t look so tacky.
Sheila giggles and continues, “The police caught them right down the street. I just couldn’t press charges. Besides, they made them wash it. It came right off.” She giggles again and turns to Mom. “Mickey, do you think I should take it to a car wash?”
Mom stares at her and sighs.
The Director introduces himself, as does the Planner, but neither of them takes the time to really look at her. The perfect makeup, the frosted and feathered hair, the acrylic nails, the open-front blouse with matching tank underneath. Her appearance is a contrast to Mom, who threw on jeans and a T-shirt and stopped wearing make-up three days ago. “We’re trying to figure out what to do, Sheila,” Mom says.
“Oh. Yeah,” Sheila says in a suddenly serious tone. “Hi, Joycee,” she says to me.
I hate this nickname. I mumble in her direction without looking at her and the Director begins explaining what he’s already said to me and Mom. It’s clear by his cut-and-dry tone that he’s got that other family on his mind, probably people with money. People with a pastor. A unified family. I want to leave, but Mom reaches for my hand when the Director repeats the part about embalming. She doesn’t want to do it, but because Grandma’s been dead three days we either have to consent now or bury her tomorrow. We have no choice because of the cousins flying in from Texas, so she concedes and begins to silently weep. The Director leaves to notify the mortician that the process can begin.
“You mean Mother’s here? Already?” Sheila says.
“Yes, Sheila,” Mom says. “Where else would she be?” She sniffles and begins to comb her purse for tissues.
“I just didn’t know,” Sheila says. “That’s just weird. Mother’s here and we can’t see her or anything.” She guffaws. This is her alternative to giggling. Sheila only has three speeds—giggle, guffaw, and scream.
I turn to the Planner and ask to see the plot diagrams of the cemetery again.
“Who are you again?” Sheila asks her, suddenly professional. “What’s this map you’re looking at?” Again, things are explained. A meeting that should have taken an hour begins to stretch into two as Sheila and Mom try to figure out how to pay for everything. It isn’t until the Director returns to bring us into the “Show Room” that the reality of our inability to pay sets in. The cheapest casket package is $9000. “Didn’t Mother have one of those insurance policies?” Sheila says, looking from me to Mom.
I shrug. How would I know?
“No, Sheila,” Mom says.
“She paid into something,” Sheila insists.
“Maybe years ago,” Mom sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. “But she didn’t have anything current.”
“She told me she did.”
“Well, you know Mother,” Mom says.
The Director leaves us to “discuss our options” although we all know we don’t have any.
I tell Mom that with my credit card and savings I can contribute $13,000. The fact that I can instantly produce this money must cause some sort of glitch in both of them because they stare just a moment. Then Mom says, “Your Grandmother wouldn’t want you going into debt for her.”
“Why not?” I say. “She did for us.”
“No, Joycee,” Sheila says.
I’m not sure if she’s agreeing with Mom or disagreeing with me.
I’m about to protest again and tell them that I could just loan them the money when Mom gives me the narrow-eyed look that means she knows what I’m thinking. Before I can say anything she says, “No,” so loudly the urns vibrate. And I know what she really means is that Sheila would never pay me back or even make the offer. She’d see it as a hand-out that she deserves. So I leave them alone to decide where they’ll find this magical money. After all, I’m not Grandma’s kid; I never wanted to be her kid even though people thought I was.
I moved in with Grandma in the spring of 1986, just before my ninth birthday. Mom, a newly divorced, single-parent, had to move several hours away and take a job to support my younger sisters. Since I was the only one of her three daughters in school, she didn’t want to further disrupt my life by making me move too. What should have been a temporary stay, however, somehow morphed into a long-term move. I lived with Grandma for eight years, and in that time, at the start of each new school year, teachers and classmates would always make the mistake of calling Grandma my mother, and I’d have to correct them. She rarely did.
For every school play she sewed costumes for all of the kids whose parents couldn’t afford it or couldn’t be bothered. The Wizard of Oz, Old Mother Hubbard, Robin Hood it didn’t matter; she made corn stalks, trees, monkeys. Even though I never once asked her to do it, she charged all the materials, went into debt so I had the best Prince John robe the school had ever seen. Always kids and teachers would say to me, “Wow! Your mom is great!”
And I’d have to say, “She’s not my mom.”
Then I’d be met by an odd look, like I’d just told them my mom was a ferret.
I was Grandma’s constant companion. She brought me with her on trips to Texas to visit her nieces, nephews, sisters, brother, and mother. These relatives—who knew my mother, had grown up with her—would refer to Grandma as my “mama.” I finally gave up trying to correct them all.
At more than one time Grandma said to me, “I might as well have been your mother.” This always hurt. I was a child, protective of Mom even though I rarely saw her. But I knew that she loved me and was working hard in another city to support my sisters and to give Grandma a little money for my care.
In the funeral home lobby Sheila’s fourth husband, father to her third child, is seated on a small sofa. Because they weren’t married until I was in high school, I’ve never considered him my uncle. He’s more like Sheila’s boyfriend—a dark-haired racecar builder. He’s a funhouse imitation of Elvis Presley. The jumpsuit Elvis. Someone who would be cool if I were a still a teenager, or over the age of fifty.
When he sees me he jumps to his feet and wants to know what's going on and why I’m here. As I start to explain, he interrupts, saying, “You need to let your mother and aunt handle this. Your grandma was always pinning you three against each other. You have to remember that.” I don’t know what to say. I’m not one to sugar-coat things, but I know it’s not the time to air this information. Especially since she’s around here somewhere being embalmed, her organs being sucked from her as quickly as her life had been just days earlier.
He’s right though. Grandma’s favorite game was to get one of us mad at another one and watch as we all came unraveled. We’d inevitably fall to her for guidance and wisdom. This made her feel useful. Over the years, Mom and I and my two sisters figured this out and discontinued playing the game. Sheila and her husbands and kids, though, kept it up. Grandma would call and explain to me the fight she’d just had over the phone with Sheila that had ended with cursing. And I’d listen and say, “That’s awful,” and move on to describing something that I was planning for dinner.
I can’t put much stock into this late addition to our family either. He wasn’t around when Grandma was younger, when she would hand Sheila’s kids money while I ate toast for dinner. When she’d allow them to drink her icy Cokes and watch cartoons while I had to trim the grass with scissors and drink water from the garden hose. He doesn’t understand what I sacrificed so Sheila and her kids could act like they were better than me. But I’m not in the mood to argue, I don’t have the strength. So I give him the benefit of the doubt. Then says, “You know, I told Sheila you guys should just take all of her stuff and burn it.”
And it hits me like the nausea I’ve had for the last few days. While the rest of us have been grieving and fasting and going without sleep, Sheila and her husband and children have been planning which of Grandma’s things they are going to inherit.
While I lived with her, Grandma taught me to clean. I polished her walnut dining furniture every weekend. I vacuumed when her back was out. I mopped on my hands and knees. I bathed because shower curtains were too hard to clean. I learned that you should never sit on a couch because it will look unkempt. The only time furniture should be used was for company. Sheila, her husbands, and my cousins were always company.
I have the same memory of Sheila and her crew that I can plug into every family get-together or holiday: I’m between the ages of nine and sixteen and Grandma and I have spent all morning cooking. We’re well-dressed—and I’ve been warned that a spot on my clothes will mean a whipping. Mom has arrived with my sisters and we’re catching-up on the living room floor while Mom helps Grandma get the china from the hutch. Sheila should have been at the house an hour ago. We’re just about to sit down when they burst in, Sheila rattling off an excuse. She hands us all gifts that are exactly alike, save the differing colors, gives Mom and Grandma useless hand soaps and bath salts. Her kids pick at the food we’ve prepared and demand McDonald’s hamburgers. They drink soda while sitting on the couch. My sisters and I are delegated to clearing the table and hand-washing the dishes while my cousins plop down in front of the television. Grandma wants them to play cards, but they ignore her or say things like, “This is a stupid game.” No matter they’ve only been at the house for an hour or that Grandma hasn’t seen them since the last holiday, Sheila announces that they’re leaving to go to the movies because “the kids are bored.” Grandma hands Sheila a one hundred dollar bill, which means that later in the week I’ll be bent over the checkbook trying to pay bills that she has no money for. On the weekend, I’ll be brought to the local Swap Meet to sell off toys and clothes and knick-knacks so Grandma will have cigarettes and Cokes. In adulthood I would treasure the lesson of hard work, the value of a dollar, the necessity of a clean and orderly home, the feeling of sunlight on my shoulders as I worked in the garden. But as a child I resented Sheila’s fun. And I hated her for never once acknowledging that I had to make up for the void she caused in her mother's life, to replace the daughter that was never around.
I see my own bitterness. I hate that I haven’t risen above these memories, that I let them sting me. Perhaps I could let them go if I knew, if I witnessed, any change in Sheila’s behavior over the years. But I never did. For two years near the end of her life, Grandma had to live with Mom because Sheila refused to allow her to live with her, even after Mom had a breakdown, began seeing a psychiatrist, and had to take anti-depressants in order to deal with Grandma’s increasing frailty. When Mom finally found Grandma her own apartment, Sheila refused to move boxes, claiming it would hurt her back. Her oldest daughter claimed to “not do manual labor” while the rest of us, including my mother who had also had back surgery, sweated into the night trying to get everything just perfect.
At our last Christmas together, Grandma got everyone a card and put a one hundred dollar bill inside. Mom, my sisters, and I discreetly put the money back into Grandma’s purse, knowing that we were all too old, too employed, to take money from a sick woman who had no income other than Social Security. Knowing also that she wouldn't even notice the money was returned, the dementia was so bad. Yet my cousins, who’d inherited all of their mother’s career initiative, waved the bills in Grandma’s face and said, “That’s all we get?”
Mom steps into the lobby, eyes Sheila’s Elvis-husband, and asks me to come back into the room with the Director. Since it’s obvious we can’t pay for burial, he’s now explaining the costs for cremation. “But what will God do to bring her body back together?” Sheila says.
I want to scream. Sheila hasn’t been inside of a church in at least sixteen years, yet she’s worried about ashes in the hereafter. If she suddenly believes in an all-powerful God, wouldn’t it make sense to believe that he can do whatever he wants, including putting Grandma whole again?
As if she’s read my mind, Mom says, “Sheila, why are you worried about this?”
The Director clears his throat and addresses Sheila. “Well, most churches don’t look at cremation that way anymore.”
Sheila looks down at her lap, as if she were a reprimanded child. “Mother didn’t want to be cremated. I was just voicing what I thought she’d say.”
“I know that,” Mom sniffs, “but Mother isn’t in that body anymore.” She looks at me for support, but all I can do is shift in my seat. I know Grandma was terrified of cremation, probably because of footage she’d seen of the Holocaust. She often fantasized about her funeral—with hundreds of mourners and roses and a choir singing May the Circle Be Unbroken.
“So we have a memorial service. Then, what? We go watch her be cremated?” Sheila asks.
“No no,” the Director says. “We move the body to our crematorium in Hollywood.”
“Oh, wow,” she giggles. “Wouldn’t Mother love that? When we were kids we used to live there.” How the idea of Grandma being reduced to a can of ashes near Sheila’s childhood home is supposed to be reassuring is beyond me, and again I want to scream.
Mom hands the Director the $3000 in cash that Grandma had in her purse when she died. She writes a check for the remaining balance and, as usual, Sheila has no money. While she rents a house the size of a small strip mall, drives a Hummer, and can afford trips to the beauty salon, she doesn’t have a bank account. She says to Mom, “I’ll pay you back.”
I flip through a binder of flowers and order a huge bouquet of yellow lilies and red roses—something I should have sent Grandma while she was alive. It's a bouquet that reminds me of the flowers we grew together—blood-red Mr. Lincolns. These are the roses that I’ve planted at my own house. Every spring when they bloom they remind me of being young. And with their scent I appreciate the time it takes to grow something, to pull out the weeds, to make it look beautiful.
Sheila and Grandma fought all the time. Once Sheila called the house late at night after we’d just finished watching the evening news and were about to go to bed. The phone rang and before Grandma could say hello the screaming began. I could hear Sheila’s high-pitched voice across the living room. Finally, because she couldn’t get a word in, Grandma exclaimed, “Oh, grow up Sheila!” and hung up the phone. Then she promptly took the ringer off the hook and said to me, “I forgot your aunt’s birthday.” Sheila was 41 or 42. One of those unimportant numbers between 30 and 50 that no one remembers.
As the years passed, their fights worsened. Sheila refused to understand dementia, didn’t take the time like Mom had to research the disease and troubleshoot how to deal with Grandma’s hoarding of towels, frying pans, and canned goods. So when Grandma forgot that she’d packed away all of her old family photographs, she called to accuse Sheila of stealing them. Instead of offering to come to her apartment to find them, Sheila screamed right back.
I suppose I should forget all of this. Instead I could recall birthday parties for her kids with store-bought cakes and swimming in their huge in-ground pool. Or Christmas Eves at Sheila’s house with the enormous tree and wrapping paper to match her ornaments, the hors d’oeuvres so rich and plentiful we’d nearly pop from satisfaction. These were the rare times that Sheila cooked, and then it was just cocktails weenies, meatballs, ham rolls. If she ever did prepare an entire meal on any other day of the year, everyone in the family knew about it. She’d be sure to call Grandma and say, “Well, I’m cooking dinner tonight. How do you make those good mashed potatoes?” This wasn’t meant to be an invitation.
We’ve now been at the funeral home for over three hours. It’s taken us this long to decide that we'll have a small wake and hire a minister to say a few words. It will allow Grandma’s few friends to tell her goodbye. I’ll have to return to bring the mortician Grandma’s make-up and clothes for the service, which means I’ll have to go to her dark apartment. I’ll have to enter that small empty space and see the paramedic’s tubing in her bedroom where they tried to revive her, the vague smell of her hair and face powder in the air, the bed where she was lying—thin blanket thrown back, her head imprint still on the pillow. The cup of coffee in the microwave. Her last pack of cigarettes on the counter.
And I’ll have to prepare the eulogy because Mom has asked me to speak even though I’m not sure exactly what to say. For so long my life has been tied up in the memories of living at Grandma’s house, something no one else understands. I know that I want to communicate how truly lost I think our family will become now that Grandma has died, how lost and empty I am, how all I have left are recollections of days polishing her furniture, or hand washing her china, or tending the roses and lawn. Of washing and rolling her hair, of massaging her legs when they cramped, of cooking meals for family events that always ended badly. But if I say all of this the other grandkids will look at me like I’m imagining things. Mom would be the only one who understood.
In the parking lot we’re about to climb into Mom’s Hyundai just as Sheila says, “We’re gonna go eat. You guys wanna come?”
“I’m not hungry,” I say through gritted teeth. I’ve decided to wash my hands of her, to let her have it—her with the griefless face and half-adult husband. I’m about to point out all of the stupid things she’s said today, about to ask her what her contributions really were to her mother's life besides taking money, leaving home and rarely coming back. That she is a terrible daughter because of how unfairly she’s treated everyone. I’m mustering the strength to do it and turn to face her head on. But in doing so, I get a good look at my mother. Her skin is loose and gray, her eye sockets nearly purple, her hair oily and disheveled. I lose my tongue and swallow all the bitterness of the morning—shamed into silence.
“I’ve got to make some phone calls,” Mom tells Sheila.
“Okay,” she quips, “should I come by later?”
Mom sighs and rubs her eyes. “Fine, Sheila.”
“Mickey, are you okay?”
Mom takes a deep breath. “My mother just died, Sheila.”
“She was my mother, too,” Sheila says, feigning indignity.
“Yes,” Mom says, getting into the car. “I know.” She sighs again and starts the engine, leaving Sheila and her husband standing near their enormous vehicle, staring at what I can only assume is the place where the graffiti had once been.
It occurs to me at that moment that the reason I’ve never felt like Sheila’s niece is because what I’ve witnessed of her behavior are things that nieces shouldn’t know about their aunts. But they are things sisters might share, might judge. I was Grandma’s part-time daughter, somewhat sister to this woman twice my age whose presence today is untouched by time or grief. But unlike the sister-bond that she and Mom might share, we share only the shadow of the woman whose body will soon become so much ash. My odd upbringing, my grandmother-mother, might be to blame for all of this, but she is long gone now and in her wake all we’re left with is the detritus of our memories.