I gaze at my mom in her casket, and I have to touch her. I can’t help myself. Her arm feels like a hunk of wood through her dress, a thin piece of kindling. I’m not sure what I expected the first time I touched an embalmed person. Not this, I suppose. Her hair feels the same, except it’s crisp with hairspray. She is wearing a camisole under her dress, no bra, so I’m not sure what could be holding these missile silo breasts in place. It takes everything in me not to poke at her new bust. Her nails are polished, and a finger on her right hand is smudged, just like when I did her nails.
We chose a photo of Mom and Dad to go in her casket. It was taken a few years before they married: Mom is sixteen and leaning against Dad on his family’s front porch. “Love birds,” she’d say about this photo. Today it’s tucked in the casket lining above her head. Also displayed is a crucifix that my dad wanted with her. I’ve seen it hanging in their house all my life, and for the last fourteen months it hung above my mom’s bed at the nursing home. Until yesterday, I didn’t realize that the back of the cross slides open and inside this secret hollow all these years has been hidden a small vile of holy water.
My nieces and nephews, all college-age through their thirties, mill around the back of church with my son. “Want to go up and see Grandma?” I ask him.
He shakes his head.
“No thanks,” my nephew says. Grief experts say it’s necessary to see the deceased to say a proper goodbye, thus the ongoing popularity of open-casket wakes. My son and his cousins are all adults. They can choose to stay back here and look at photos of their grandma or go see her in her coffin. I watch Juliann’s daughter, who crawled into bed with her grandma the last time she saw her just a week ago. Today she wants no part of being close to the front of church where Grandma is laid out.
My dad is up near Mom. Some of my sisters stand near him. Others are in the middle aisle, so we See siblings can talk with guests at different parts of the long line leading up to view Mom. I choose the back of the church with a sister to greet visitors as they come in. As I gaze into these old faces, the people I once knew emerge from many wrinkles and layers of fat. “Oh yes,” I find myself saying, over and over, to different folks, “Of course I remember you.”
My parent’s friends and relatives, many of whom I haven’t seen since I was a girl, say to me, “I know you’re a See.” Some say, “Which daughter are you?”
I overhear a lot of laughter as guests gaze at the large picture boards we’ve put together with many photographs of Mom at each stage of her life. Even a stranger could see how much fun she had.
A woman clasps both of my hands in hers. “You have hair just like your ma,” she says. “When she was a little girl she hid under a chair every time she had to get her hair combed.” I look deep into this woman’s face, and I still have no idea who she is.
“This is your Aunt Helen,” another of the aunts says to me.
“Of course,” I say. Those last years when we still cared for Mom at home, Helen was the sister she often asked for at bedtime. I always told her, “Helen’s out on a date. She’ll be home after you’re asleep.” It was an answer Mom accepted, and then she let me change her into pajamas. Helen was the beauty of my mom’s black and white photo album, the sister who attracted all the boys. Or perhaps it only seemed so to my mom who was four years younger.
Now Aunt Helen says to me, “We’d wet your ma’s hair down and run our fingers through it. Then we’d get the horse comb. We didn’t have brushes in them days.” I imagine how lovingly Mom’s older sisters treated this little girl with tight, tight curls. They all cared for each other, in part because it was such a large family and because they were orphaned. Mom was eight when her mother died of cancer and ten when her father was killed by a drunk driver.
Seven of Mom’s fourteen siblings now remain, and four of them were able to come some distance to be here today. My Aunt Evelyn, who lives two hours away, told me, “I’ll walk to Virgie’s funeral if I have to.” She’s eighty-seven. Her son drove her.
This stream of bodies entering the church seems endless. My parents know a lot of people, and my siblings and I have many friends and co-workers who come to pay their respects. My older brother’s friend, a neighbor boywho is now fifty-seven and still cute, says to me, “Will you write my obituary?”
I tease back, “You bet, but all I remember about you is that I once peed on your shoes during hide-n-seek.” It’s true. I was three years old and hiding with him. I didn’t want to take a bathroom break, and I got frightened while hiding in the dark garage. I peed my pants while standing close beside him. Apparently I trickled on his tennis shoes. When I was a teenager waitressing at a local supper club, he reminded me of this nearly each time I saw him.
I sneak away from guests to go to the bathroom and to eat my granola bar. On the way back in, I say to my brother, “We just need to get through today.” I am naïve, of course, to think that our grief will be over after the funeral, but this requiem mass will be a step towards digging out of our heavy sadness.
A Horan brother signals to us that the funeral will start in five minutes, which means he will close the casket. I touch my mom’s hair one last time and then sit with my husband. All of us are seated in the pews, waiting. My dad is beside Mom, leaking tears, as the undertaker removes her jewelry and hands it to him. We all watch Juliann’s daughter walk up to the open casket at the last moment possible. She puts her arm around her weeping grandpa and says goodbye to her grandma.