Lights illuminated the beautiful porcelain. The roses draped over it matched the inlaid flowers to perfection. "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" was playing. My sister, Jane, sat in front with her husband and son, and I sat next to them. Friends and family filed in quietly, some I had not seen in years. As the music played, my mind wandered back to three days before, when we had gone together to arrange the funeral.
"Here we are," Jane told me, parking the car in front of the funeral home. “They have flowers too," she said.
We went inside and circled the room with our eyes, taking note of what was there. My heart jumped, and I couldn’t breathe. How can we do this?
Put our mother in a box?
A man in a grey three-piece suit came up to us, smiling an undertaker's smile. "May I help you, ladies?" he asked.
"We're here to arrange our mother’s funeral,” Jane told him. “We need to pick the casket and the flowers.”
"I see," he said, "Well, let’s start with the casket. This model is elegant and classic," he said, "It comes in blue and beige with a semi-plush liner."
Well, aren’t we full of compassion for the grieving. Note to self: don’t die here.
I could feel Jane looking at me, and I knew trouble was brewing. "No, I like mauve," she told him. She said it with a long "o", drawn out.
Oh oh, I thought, here it comes. I knew if I looked at her, I would lose it.
But I did look at her, and we both started to snort. Jane ran over to a casket in the corner and hugged it.
"How about this lovely green number?" Jane asked. The coffin was a muddy army green. Casket man nervously looked for an escape out of the room. Jane led the way around the room as we pointed and laughed at each casket for no apparent reason. Then we both began laughing so hard we couldn't talk.
"Don't make me laugh. I am going to wet my pants," she gasped.
"So what's new?" I said.
That set her off again. "Don't remind me," she said. Then we both collapsed into chairs, hysterical.
"Excuse me a moment," we heard from behind us, "I have to make a quick phone call." Funeral man had left the room.
I was brought back abruptly to the memorial service as the minister began the eulogy. His description of our mother was so generic, she could be anyone’s mother. I peered around the chapel and knew the first subject of conversation over a beer at the family reception would be that he was an idiot or something worse.
"Helen was a devoted wife and mother who dearly loved her seven children and her twelve grandchildren."
Nothing about her fifty-year marriage to a charming abuser. No mention of her surviving one of those beloved children and one adored grandchild. How she was a little gnarly when she drank in the afternoons.That she had the storytelling skills of the Irish, and the ability to drive a car, smoke a cigarette, and smack four kids in the back seat without taking her eyes off the road. A heart for binding up the wounds, external and internal, of children who often deserved more of a whipping than a bandage.
As the minister spoke, I found myself staring at the flower-covered casket and thinking about how we had finally chosen it. While funeral man was out of the room having his phone call, Jane and I had paused for breath in the middle of the room and that's when we saw it. Cream porcelain like the smoothest china. A thin thread of gold around the top. Roses and wild flowers painted into the porcelain, covering the top and sides. Translucent pink ones. Yellow ones. Entwined with pale green leaves.
The liner was a plush, pale pink velvet. Mother would have thrown a fit if she had seen it. I could hear her say, “Oh, good God!” She would have settled for a wooden box.
"I want to jump in and take a nap," I said.
Jane ran her hand over the smooth velvet. "Me too," she replied.
The casket man had reappeared. "Ladies, have you decided?"
"Yes, we have," we said in unison, never taking our eyes off each other. “We'll take this one," Jane said.
“That casket is $3000 over the budget you stated to me.”
“That’s ok. Wrap it up,” Jane said. I nodded my head, but secretly thanked God she was paying.
“Yes, m’am,” he said. The man looked poised to bolt from the room again, but he wrote it up and promised to see it delivered.
My reverie was interrupted by a shuffling down our aisle. Brother Johnny was about to speak. Johnny, the rebel, the poet, the outcast, the jailbird, the baby of the family, the 60’s radical. He had been forced by circumstances to be our mother’s caretaker her last three years. Life must have been challenging for her in that mobile home in urban Costa Mesa, but she had a way of holding her own, even with a pot smoking rebel. Johnny had kept his eulogy a secret from us all.
“She sat in the same chair at the same table, reading the Los Angeles Times, at the same time, every day,” he read. “Lately, she did not see well, so she took all morning to read that paper. She loved UCLA football and visitors. Any party would do. She felt chained to her family, a burden, an heirloom they couldn’t sell. But to us, she was priceless. We feared the day the L.A. Times would go unread, at the same time, at that same table, every day.”
Wow, Johnny. Jane jabbed me in the ribs and we exchanged surprised glances.
As Johnny finished his eulogy, my mind wandered back to the funeral place. My task there was to go to the flower book and pick out a pink and yellow rose bouquet to adorn the top of the casket.
"We'll take these flowers," I said. She loved flowers," I told the man.
"She did? That's nice," he added the flowers to the order with an indifferent smile.
I looked into his bland face and the tears began to drip down my face. You son of a bitch, what do you know about loss?
Jane saw what was happening and said, “Come on, honey. It's time to go."
When I broke into loud, uncontrollable wails, the man dropped his pen on the floor and began to wring his hands. Jane handed him her card and told him to call her for any final arrangements. Then she half-dragged me out to the car. By then, she was crying too.
The memorial service ended with a relieved and rousing group sing of Amazing Grace. Children and grandchildren, aunts and nieces, nephews and cousins, stopped to gaze at Mother's picture in the foyer. Our Aunt Barb came up to me, looking a little sheepish. She hesitated and then asked, "Where did you ever get that casket?” And before she could realize what she was saying, she said, “Helen must have loved that casket.”
"Well actually, Aunt Barb,” I said, “She never saw it.”
Barb giggled. “Oh, of course, she didn’t. How silly of me.”
“I think she would have wanted to kill us for spending all that money,” I told Barb, “but Jane and I decided after all the years of putting up with the seven of us, she deserved the best."
"Well, indeed, she has the best," she said.
As I made my way out the door, Jane handed me a small package in white tissue, tied with pink ribbon.
“You are not going to believe this,” she said. I found this in a little shop in Laguna yesterday.”
"OK. Thanks.” I hugged her tight.
"The casket was a real hit,” she said. “Everyone wants one. They almost forgot to mention Mother."
On the way to the reception, I unwrapped the package. Inside was a porcelain music box. The tiny box looked much like the casket, even to pink and yellow flowers and a gold rim. When I opened it, it played Amazing Grace. The inside was lined with pink velvet and there was a note inside.
"You may not be able to take a nap in this, but you can remember the day we honored our Mother with porcelain and roses.”