We were sitting on the settee after her Mother’s funeral, when my cousin who’s more like a sister, looked at me. I was getting ready to leave and was reminding her of my minister’s wise words. “Tend your grief. Live slowly because grieving takes time, energy,” I was planning on departing then but she responded. “I know. I will. You miss her don’t you? You miss your mother every day, I know.” I answered in silence, turning away. Not able to handle that question. Not in daylight with so many others in the room. Not then, especially not that day, so soon after we had placed her Mother in the grave. This time without singing How Great Thou Art. Remember when I sang that song to Daddy at the beach? He cried but never told me how beautiful my voice rang out when I got to the verse about about how Christ shall come to take me home with shouts of acclamation. He was already too sick for us to talk about it out loud, even then.
My aunt, the one who looked and sounded so much like my father just last week, has left us. In July, we were sharing chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. “I’m ninety-two, Julia, can you believe the oldest is the last one left?” “Yes, I can and boy am I glad you’re still here. I’d miss you and this delicious cake if we weren’t celebrating!” And so we laughed together, one last time. Her birthday present was a Christmas book she had given Momma in 1966. They were best friends. College roommates. That’s how Momma met Daddy. I think he became quite close with his sister that semester, after laying eyes on Momma, he was smitten. I found a love letter he wrote asking her to come to State for the football game and a fraternity dance. “I know I will need to be studying but if you can come I want you to.” You know she came too. Not really that romantic. The rest of the letter was a big whine about his animal husbandry and physics lab and horticulture work. Again not very romantic until the very end. He signed it with this, “I got a letter today from a girl that must still be as sweet as she was last weekend.” Oh my goodness! I had to read it several times, tearing up at the tenderness that I know came hard to my Father. Think of the fun they had that weekend. He was worried about finding her a place to stay and buying tickets for the game and dance. “Let me know as soon as you decide because I have to find you a place to stay. It takes a lot of planning.”
And it does, doesn’t it? Take a lot of planning. I told my cousin, who’s more like my sister that a funeral is a strange thing. You are supposed to be grieving but instead you are answering questions like was she Jaycee Woman of the Year for Granville County or Woman of the Year for the Granville County Jaycees? Do you want gardenias for the pall bearers? And if they are not in season and have to be ordered and two days is not enough what is your second choice? How many rows do we reserve in the church for family? And did she teach twenty years or twenty-two? On and on the questions without good answers repeat like a refrain until really there isn’t time for grieving. Or praying. Not much anyway. Then you have to decide what to wear. Do you wear her favorite color or yours. Black because it protects you from others’ emotions, an absorbing color or pink because she loved roses. Do you want fried chicken or chicken salad or both? And when people come up to you to shake your hand, asking, “You don’t remember me do you?” and you say “I recognize your face but your name is escaping.” Wondering silently who plays twenty questions with a daughter on the day of her Momma’s funeral, but not saying it out loud again.
That’s why I didn’t bother to answer when she said, “You miss her everyday, don’t you?” If I had answered her, it would be the truth. I could never ease over with a fib. Remember, I told you that she is more like a sister than a cousin. She loves me. And I love her. And that means when we have a disagreement, she shows up and she argues and I argue back. That’s how pure our love is. Solid so that we never disappear on each other or agree for the sake of simplicity. Never. I couldn’t even just nod my head when she asked me. God knows I wish I missed her. How refreshing that would be. Missing her that is. Simple, sweet with clear, cut lines around the hurting. No, it’s more like I wonder if my heart can ever feel whole again. Wonder if I”ll ever take a deep breath without the aching that envelops. Bone deep aching that doesn’t exist outside the bounds of my missing. That it’s more like losing a limb, say your right hand, than losing a person. It’s like you can forget for a moment but that the place of forgetting isn’t really anything you recognize. More of a shelled out, hollow version of the person you used to be. But definitely not the person you knew to be you. As it turns out it’s not Momma that’s gone so much as me. So you see how I couldn’t answer her question that afternoon after the funeral? Sitting on the settee in the parlor where we used to jump up and play fruit basket turn over. Where I once saw her reserved father do a headstand. Yes, in the living room. Remembering how we laughed and laughed from the bottom of our bellies, the same place we are mourning from now.
I could have turned to her and told her, “God no I don’t miss her. I won’t miss your Mom either.” But I will ache to hear her ask me every time she sees me if I’m working or if I’m working too hard. How my husband’s business is growing and have I found a house to live in. I will miss her sweet tea that has so much lemon. As Daddy said,”Lord, Deek doesn’t know how to make ice tea but she sure can make good lemonade.” And I’ll really miss her coconut cake. Who do you know that still grates their coconut? I’ll miss watching her comb her really, really long hair, twisting it around her head in a bun like MaMa, her mother. Truly will I ever see that magical motion of silver wrapping a halo in a perfect swoop again? No I won’t and that takes my breath away too, catching in my throat and making it hard to swallow. Makes my eyes tear and the ache in my chest expand into a tightness that constricts until it scares me. I’ll miss her beautiful house and her garden. Her fussing about who has come and who doesn’t call or come enough. Who”s having the family reunion and how much BBQ should we order this year? I’ll miss her telling me to get up and move that vase of flowers to left just a scooch and to please tell Lewis to cut a few more roses because that other vase looks skimpy. I’ll miss her stories. The ones about “Momma said a level teaspoon of salt for the beans and Katherine thought she said eleven! Whew, those were salty beans, nobody could eat them.” I’ll miss the cup of Christmas tea that she used to serve, reading that poem together again. We shared it for the last time at her birthday party even though it was in July.
I’ll miss all that but her, no I won’t miss her because the woman that fell seven months ago and broke her hip and couldn’t walk, garden or cook was not my aunt. Just like the woman that couldn’t walk or eat this winter was not my Momma. Praise God those two have been released from their suffering. Nobody should have to live that way. And God knows that although neither one complained, it must have been really hard. Sad and lonely to see yourself and all the bits of you melting away week by week. First you can’t drive, then you can’t read, next you can’t walk and soon you can’t even feed yourself. Who you are at that point is pretty confusing so I’m sure that the question of missing, of who is showing up and who is not there anymore becomes more pressing with each passing day.
But you see why I had to look away when she asked me if I missed her. I never have been good at lying, probably never will acquire that talent. I love my cousin and almost sister too much for fabrications and falsifications. Way too much. What we have is far too precious. Just like what our Mothers had together, back at Teacher’s College when my aunt’s brother, my father, came over to the dorm room and met Momma. Three young college students made a vow to honor and love each other until death do they part. That’s exactly what they did. And what we’re going to do too.