Mr great-grandmother was the first dead person I remember having the pleasure to meet. Her hair was beautifully quaffed, much like the Donald’s, a little less orange. Her hands rested peacefully upon her abdomen, nails done with care. Her makeup was classically simple. Beautiful.
I walked toward her casket with my aunt, who was the ‘scary’ one. Head down so as not disturb her (my aunt) but I couldn’t wait to see inside that casket. (I was 4 or 5 years old.) Looking her over one side to the other, I touched her hands, the collar of her blouse, and buttons. Then, without thinking (obviously!!) I poked her eye, but not too hard. Yuck. Then her lips which were painted for the occasion. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t clinching my fists, not one skipped breath. My aunt on the other hand was beside herself. She pulled me back to our seats, squeezing my hand until I almost cried. We got home and she ritually washed my fingers, cut my nails, and smacked my ass with all the gusto she could muster. Though I may on one hand have deserved such discipline, on the other I didn’t. I was after all, my fathers daughter….
My father Thomas was a hard working man, always early and never more than a call away for those in need of his special touch. Thomas was a funeral director. Throughout my childhood he worked in the business of dealing with death. In his own youthfulness, he drove the town ambulance when the dead needed their final ride home, eventually going to mortuary school, then honing his skills at prominent funeral homes where we grew up. When I was 8 or 9, he bought out his employer and finally had his own business. Two funeral homes, along with a partner, who he loved like a brother.
It may seem odd, perhaps morbid to some that I so loved being with my dad at work. Most of my precious yet fading memories are of spending time with him, watching the patient and loving care he showed to those who had been dealt such a terrible loss, and watching his gentle respect for the deceased. I learned much watching the way he interacted with both sides of life. Humble and intentional, always the gentleman. A man of profound integrity. His employees were our family. Birthdays were celebrated there, fireworks on the roof, bonds that remain to this day.
The building itself was brick, and not like today’s buildings that are quickly raised. It was a work of art. Old, with looming shadows and majestic window frames with ivy that grew over most of the walls. My favorite time to gaze upon it was in the morning as the sun rose to greet the day, that golden hue bouncing off the dew that had gathered in its ivy leaves. It shimmered as though jewels had been placed in each crevice.
My brother and I would wander the halls. He loved the elevator, I did not. Even for me, it was too much. ( I always thought of it as a slow descending box to the depths of hell…fire and brimstone. Of course, it was just the basement.) My dad and brother would set out early in the morning, coffee with the guys, then if the sun was out it was right to work…wash the hearses, then sweep the garage while they dried in the sun. I was more involved in playtime. Racing with the casket carts, and with the garage floor so clean…those carts would literally fly. So fast that they were often out of control. Thomas never got angry unless there were people there making funeral arrangements, visiting their loved ones who’d since passed. There was a little fridge with soda, which we often raided as we ran amuck.
As I grew older, my fathers chosen profession became an embarrassment and I often found myself the butt of cruel jokes. Kids daring ‘the dead girl’ to take them along for a first hand account of death in all its doom and gloom. Asking if I ‘saw some dead guys guts.’ They assumed I liked dead people…and in comparison to the their own need for teenaged brutality, I did. A person in a casket has found their peace, their suffering has ended. The kids that tore me down were selfish and longed for me to feel pain. My dads funeral parlor offered sanctuary…none of the teenagers who bullied me followed me past the corner it stood on. They weren’t worthy, and frankly too chicken shit to follow.
I did have a friend that came in a few times, timid and always stiff as rigor mortis. She was very close to me until she wasn’t. After staying the night and my brother having bothered us all day…she had spit the largest ball of phlegm, through the screen of his window, directly ON HIS FACE. Acting like it was no big deal she walked away laughing. My little brother began to cry. I was beside myself for him. How could she? Repulsed I did what any middle-school aged girl would have…acted like I didn’t care and plotted my revenge. A few weeks later this friend walked with me to dads office, and knowing he wasn’t there I nudged her down the hallway to a viewing room. It was dark, and I told her to step inside while I looked for him. No one could wander the grounds except me or my brother, I told her. Convinced of my honesty she stepped inside. I pulled the accordion style door closed with a quickness, and turned the light on……
A scream unlike anything I’d heard came from the depths of that girls soul. Immediately I turned on the light and pushed open the door. Down the hall she went, hands covering her cheeks, sobbing. (Inside the viewing room was a VERY well aged man, in his 90’s with his casket open.) Out the door she ran, never to return…to where I’m still not sure. We never hung out after that, but I still had my honor. Nobody spit on my brother but me. Period.
In my adult years it became a place to reminisce. My father sold his funeral homes, choosing instead to finish living out his life with a vodka bottle as his best friend. I would stop in when I was visiting just to see the place. Maroon and chalky brown carpet eventually was torn out. Beautiful paintings were gone. Desks and chairs swapped out for newer models. Many of my fondest memories…gone but not forgotten. Turning the door knob to a life without, but never over.
The last time I went to the funeral home, still with my fathers name on the sign, was for his funeral. He was dressed in his go to gear…work shirt, red suspenders, notebook and pen in his chest pocket. His hands rested on his chest. He was peaceful, handsome, clean shaved. We drove 36 hours with kids and dogs to be there. The book lay out for mourners to sign. The coming and going of so many lives he had touched, now coming to show him the same respect he willingly gave, over and over, for all of them. It wasn’t traumatic. It was far from uncomfortable. It was home. I kissed him. His forehead, his cheek. I rested my hands on his. I said “Hello Daddy. You’re home again.” My brother had followed my fathers footsteps, and in true form, was there to greet me. We both knew it was a perfect ending to his life. To be where he was at his best. My eyes met with my brothers and in that moment everyone in the room melted away, my heart swelled with pride. Eyes filling with tears I realized, he had become his fathers son.