My sister, Juliann, called me six times in the 36 hours since Mom died. I lost track of the number of emails she sent. She wrote to offer advice about planning the funeral and the flowers and the photo boards. Then she called to hear how it went planning the funeral and the flowers and the photo boards. Being four hours away is difficult for her, especially now. After one call, which I take at Dad’s kitchen table while we’re eating lunch, he says, “It’s about killing her not being here.” I nod. She doesn’t want to miss anything.
Juliann calls for the last time, just an hour before she’ll get in the car to drive here. When I pick up she says, “Am I being a woodtick?” She cackles into the phone in a way that reminds me so much of our mother. Woodtick was my nickname as a clingy kid.
“You’re my phone-tick,” I say. “Call anytime. I know how hard it is to be away.”
I tell her we saved the photo boards for her to put together for the funeral, so she’ll have a job when she arrives.
Since Mom died, I’ve called Ger a few times, and I’ve been with her often. On Friday night—after going with her to the funeral home, the church, the flower store, and Golden Age—I resist calling to ask, “How are you doing now?” On Saturday morning I pick up my phone to call her, and she’s dialing me. Later I call to ask when she’s going to Dad’s. I call about what I should bring to Dad’s. I am her phone-tick. She is my link to Mom.
When I was maybe four or five years old and our parents went out, Geralynn was often in charge of David and me. At bedtime, she’d hold me in the old rocking chair, and I’d say to her, “You’re too bony. You’re not like Mom.” She was fifteen. I can remember the way my face felt against her thin shoulder. I could never find a comfortable spot, mostly because she didn’t have nearly the “padding” that Mom did. Large families like ours functioned because older kids took care of younger ones. My mom used to say that I had five other mothers: my older sisters.
Saturday when I get to my dad’s his driveway is full of cars, so I park on his front lawn. When we used to bring Mom home from the nursing home I parked in this spot, right next to the front door so we could easily walk her up the four front steps and into the living room. When she could no longer walk, her son or my son carried her from car to house and back again.
Today Joey and his wife park on the street and walk towards my Jeep as I unload my food and drinks. “Why’d you park there?” Joey asks me.
I shrug. “Cause my mom died.”
He bursts out laughing. It quickly becomes my phrase of the day. Want another chicken leg? Sure, my mom died.
Joey carries my case of Miller Lite into the house.
Early this morning my neighbor called to see when she could drop off food for my dad. His neighbors did the same. These are items we rarely eat: fried chicken with deed-fried potato wedges—what we Midwesterners call “jo-jo’s”—maple Danish, brownies with thick chocolate frosting. Delicious, but terrible for us, as if when a loved one dies all dietary rules are suspended until after the funeral. There’s an ice cream bucket full of pasta salad, a bowl of fruit, coleslaw, pumpkin bread. Every time I open the fridge I spot more food and think of that Harper Lee line from To Kill a Mockingbird, “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between.”
We all sit around Dad’s kitchen table, a smorgasbord laid before us. Joey and his wife eat a piece of fried chicken over a napkin. My dad nibbles on whatever gets passed around. Trays of sliced summer sausage and cheese or cut up vegetables. I notice bakery buns with the price tag scraped off of the plastic wrapper. This minute detail, a gesture between neighbors, makes me choke up alone in the kitchen.
My son stops over before he goes out for the night. He eats two pieces of fried chicken over a large Styrofoam container, the top warped from the heat of the chicken or the warming lamp. He gathers his bones in a napkin to throw away and saves the remaining thigh and breast pieces for someone else. This is a family affair. No one uses a plate.
“Have a donut,” I say. “Your grandma died.” My dad giggles. Alex stares at me.
“I was going for funny,” I say to Alex. Dad laughs some more.
I pack two huge maple Danish for my son to take home. I’ve been divorced for over seven years, but whenever I give Alex food I still send enough to share with his dad. My ex-husband lives just down the street; technically he’s my dad’s neighbor.
Ger and I are supposed to be looking through old photo albums so Juliann can make a photo board for the visitation at the church. We plan to take framed photos of Mom and the family and as many pictures as we can arrange on the 3-foot by 3-foot fabric-covered boards the Horan brothers gave us. Instead we sit at the table, drink beer, and talk about food. I’m tipsy on two beers. “I’ll have another,” I say to Ger. “My mom died.” We laugh and laugh.
My husband arrives in the midst of our second round of grazing. He’s still new to this family and to all of these people packed in a relatively small space. He sits at the table and everyone passes him chicken and coleslaw and jo-jo’s. He’s a guest, so I offer him a plate.