Cremation changes our deaths

Marking the first loss

When a man answered the phone at a local Minneapolis crematorium, I prefaced the reason for my call with feeble qualifiers for my inquiry. My father died and chose cremation; I began. Recently, he asked. No. A long time ago. I decided not to be present, not to see his body before the cremation. Would it be possible for me to visit with a staff member about the cremation process? The man on the other end of the line received my question graciously. I was thankful. Come by tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., he replied. I hung up the phone and exhaled.

I arrived at the cremation society the next day and sat in a mauve room with lace curtains and low light. A mahogany table sat between two finely upholstered chairs, the fabric the shade of the painted walls. A matching loveseat faced the wall to my left, perpendicular to the seat in which I fidgeted. The muted light cast motionless shadows of a marble urn on the wall. A vase with a lid, I thought ruefully. Outside, a hearse idled, the driver waiting for the signal to proceed to the cemetery. In a room of an exquisite quiet, barely alert to the strains of classical music wafting through the building, I waited.

Daughter grieves for a father.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky died on June 30, 1980.

The door opened. I introduced myself to a man in his forties or fifties, with chestnut eyes magnified by thick lenses. After explaining the reasons for my visit, he appeared both curious and solicitous. He spoke slowly, listing the available alternatives for concluding services: burial, cremation, entombment, and donation to a medical facility for research purposes. Thirty-three percent of dispositions are cremations. Concern over the amount of space set aside for cemeteries, more than the cost, accounts for cremation’s rising popularity, though the choice to be cremated does not preclude a funeral. Indeed, he encouraged final services for both the benefit of the deceased as well as the living.

The man paused while I scribbled notes. He crossed his leg and stroked his well-kept beard. When I asked him why he chose to become a funeral director, he replied that he came of age at a time in history when death did not frighten the living, when the passing of a loved one was marked over a period of days and months to accommodate the tides of grief.

Our conversation turned to the desires of the departed and their families. What is the most unusual item, in your experience, that a person has been buried with? I asked. Raising his hands for emphasis, he ticked off a litany of things he once deposited in a casket of a woman: a six-pack of beer, Eddie Arnold records, a Dairy Queen cup, two pairs of socks, some carpeting, and a bottle of whiskey. She loved beer and whiskey, Eddie Arnold, and Dairy Queen ice cream. Her feet were always cold, and after years in the same house, she finally saved enough to carpet the floors.

As he finished the list, the funeral director remarked, “Good thing we put the body in the casket first!” After forty minutes in conversation, I was convinced that his gentle commitment to both the living and the dead, and the pride with which he spoke could melt a stone. I asked to see the crematorium. I followed the funeral director through the hushed hallways. I could not help but think I was slightly mad to be in this place on my lunch hour, as if I was an amateur reporter scribbling notes for a three-inch article in a neighborhood paper, only to be lost amidst the want ads and garage sale notices. At the bottom of the stairs, a compact maze of rooms and hallways unfolded like the cellars underneath a restaurant.

The cold temperature of preservation breathed between pale, gray walls. I swallowed hard, realizing the draft originated from refrigeration. Silently, I told myself not to cry in front of this kind man when he opened the door to the cremation chamber. Usually, a cremation lasts between two to four hours he began. Most family members do not attend. In some communities, like in the Hindu culture, tradition requires the oldest son to light the pyre or push the ignition button in contemporary crematoriums. Once laid in a shallow cardboard container with handle grips, each body is placed inside the brick chamber. Varied sources of heat reach temperatures of 2,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Skin, organs, and muscles vaporize immediately.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

After cremation, a body’s silhouette, mapped by bone fragments, lingers. The cranium, femur, tibia, humerus, and sternum fragments are swept into a container beneath the chamber and are ground to ashes. Though his lips moved, gradually, his softly spoken commentary evaporated, and I fell into the real reason for my visit. I was seeking forgiveness.

Forgiveness for turning away from my mother’s sage counsel that I see my father one last time. Forgiveness for swallowing my grief so wholly until it poisoned my spirit’s well. Forgiveness for disavowing any intimation, my grief required a marker. And forgiveness for failing to see the affirmation of life in the rituals left behind after death.

Sometimes it takes years to mark a loss, especially when the loss is not only the inevitability of death but the passage of a history that has defined you.

When art was my mystery

I had loved art as a child. Swirling my paintbrush in red and white, watching the bristles turn to pink delighted me. There were pallets of carefully measured primary colors, rationed to avoid the excesses children adore, margarine containers of muddied water, too clouded to rinse the color from the old brushes, two-foot-high easels with pieces of masking tape in the corner imprinted with each child’s name, and denim smocks riddled with dried paint.

The morning I stood before my easel with my pallet in hand feels like yesterday. Autumn leaves of red, orange, and yellow sprinkled my construction paper, spinning in gales of a silent wind. I had an active imagination and could hear the leaves chattering in the breeze. I believed the leaves, like the birds, sensed winter approaching. I would paint my picture and preserve the leaves until spring.

I did not hear Mrs. Johnson hesitate behind me until I felt her fingernails grazed my neck as she snatched my hair and pulled my head back. Her voice shook with rage as she hissed in my ear, “You are painting the wrong way! You will ruin the brush!’

My voice stammered as I tried to explain why some of the leaves needed stems. Mrs. Johnson responded by seizing more strands of my short hair. My eyes swelled with hot tears. I knew if Mrs. Johnson saw my disobedience, she would pull harder. She growled in my ear once more, “Anna! You are painting wrong! You are not supposed to hold your brush that way! Stop painting upwards,” before wrenching the brush from my quaking fingers, reinserting it between my thumb and forefinger, and squeezing my little hand until my fingertips throbbed.

Head down, I watched my tears evaporate into the paint fragments of my smock and could feel the stares of my classmates on my back. That day, art became a mystery, secrets others knew but refused to share with me. When once I had seen the music of colors, shapes, and brushstrokes, I saw only an ugly, wretched piece of yellowed construction paper. In those few brief, devastating moments, art lost its innocence. The belief that I should never try to paint or draw or write stories again without risking the wrath of others is rooted firmly in my consciousness.

Over the years, half-heartedly, I raged against the memory of childhood betrayal by landing parts in school plays and memorizing literary pieces for oral interpretation contests in high school, but mostly I capitulated. For a study away semester in college, I had desperately wanted to go to Florence to study Michelangelo and Botticelli, lose myself in the maze of Renaissance architecture, and sip red wine as the sun cast a burnt orange glow over the cobblestone streets.

Instead, I went to Chicago to study urban politics. Partly due to the money I knew my mother did not have but mostly a result of not having the temerity to resist my childhood wound, the prospect of traveling to Italy disintegrated.

Art continued to be both a mystery and curiosity. Occasionally flirting with a class or entering a museum, I stared at paintings and sculptures from a place of ignorance and shame. Art history stymied me with its complexity and breadth of history. I lacked the language to interpret what I saw and felt in contemporary or modern galleries.

Art intimidated me. That is until I discovered William Blake.

With anger and passion, outrageous Biblical storylines, the radical artist pulled me into his web of madness. In graduate school, the passions for art and mystery, myth, and story returned and took hold of my heart. As part of the semester, I studied Blake with reverence and astonishment, I wrote a serious of fictitious letters to my rebel hero, and with the guidance of a kindred spirit, I found my voice on the page.

The following is one of the last letters in the series I wrote when our relationship had bridged the gap of time, and I learned my resistance to the hunger of the soul was futile.

My dearest William,

Last night, my fingers entwined in yours, you led me to the edge of an endless pool of red-hot fire. Molten rocks exploding, surging rivers glowing with their own consumption. In awe, I watched you reach into the fires of imagination. Spoonfuls of flames cupped between your fingers bloomed like lotus flowers with petals of sapphire, emerald, and gold. Terrified your hands would burn, I wept into your palms until the flames vanished. I held your hands to my cheek to soothe the blisters, my eyes would surely see, but when I turned your palms over in my own, your hands had healed.

Again, you reached into the fire to gather a bouquet of imagination’s fury alighting tree limbs and stones, books of poetry, and lost photographs. Beneath heaven’s starry blanket, I leaped to extinguish the flames with my breath. I stamped my feet mercilessly until my bare soles bled. I searched in vain for waters to control the unruly blaze. I begged you to harness the fires, fearful of their roaring heights. Your eyes twinkled with a hint of madness. Your gaze pierced through my own skin, boring a bloodless hole into my trembling heart. I wept again, begging you to discipline the frenzy until I sank to my knees, convinced my own horrible, fiery death was at hand.

It was then you knelt beside me, your hands on my face, wiping the tears of dread from my eyes. In a voice as gentle as a man in love, you said to me, “Why do you resist that which you know you cannot,” holding my eyes to yours until I surrendered to the flames of my own imagination and desire.

Anna

Looking for war

Deep inside the bowels of the Imperial War Museum, I stand with a group of tourists and British nationals waiting to enter a simulated bomb shelter. Once inside, the guide instructs the assembled group to sit along with the wooden seats along the far walls. Grade school children on summer holiday giggle and poke at each other before their parents issue admonishments. A sliver of light from the guide’s dimmed torch pans the room before the door closes, leaving a giddy hush and pitch-black darkness behind.

Before I came to England, my mother’s friends, Pam and Derrick, excited by the prospect of my return and curious about my writing, gathered articles and books, photographs and newspaper cuttings about the war for me. One day, a package with a half-dozen photographs of an old bomb shelter that the previous tenants had constructed in their house’s back garden during the war arrived. Along with the photos, Derrick had painstakingly sketched two drawings of the shelter’s interior in pencil.

If you are interested, Pam had written, there is a virtual Blitz experience at the Imperial War Museum in London. And now, without warning, the simulated air raid siren of the Blitz experience Pam referenced in her letter shrieks. Exaggerated voices of a fictitious family penetrate the whining signal warning of imminent bombs. The mother’s voice’s veracity reminds me of a character on the television program, Eastenders – sharp, nasal, and perpetually angst-ridden.

Dishes clatter. Ration cans tip over and roll across the floor. The mother argues with the children’s grandmother. An unseen baby howls inconsolably. The siren’s wail climbs steadily, drowning the conversation. The thin walls start to shake.

During the war, my mother slept in a steel-plated Morrison bomb shelter like this museum reproduction in her family house’s front hall. At night, during the air raid warnings, my grandmother carried my sleeping mother down the stairs to the prefabricated shelter. Knowing nothing of bombs and war, my mother slept gently tucked inside metal walls. Pushed against the wooden staircase, the wire mesh sides and the roof, a plate made of heavy steel, ideally shielded anyone inside from caving beams and bricks if the house sustained a direct hit. Inside, a steel-enforced mattress accommodated two adults and two children. The front side slid vertically, and when the air raid siren bellowed, my mother and her family climbed inside to wait for the All Clear siren to howl.

Though it was cramped and overheated, the shelter was stocked with food, handbags, ration coupons, gas masks, a flashlight, and books. In the daylight, like Pam and Derrick’s predilection for disguise, my grandmother covered the wire mesh with a tablecloth and planted a vase of roses in its center. The pressure of this life lived through never registered in my young mind as a child. However, I tried to imagine what being inside a shelter must have been like, listening to the planes swooping over the rooftops, the rapid-fire of artillery, and the piercing sound of warning sirens.

Prepared for the first ‘bomb,’ I wait to step back into my mother’s life. The walls of the museum shelter tremble like a Disneyland ride. I am as yet, unconvinced by the simulation. The Eastenders’ voices ring hollow. The muffled outbursts climb in intensity until the war outside unleashes torrents of earsplitting blasts. Parents beside me quiet their children and whisper, “It’s not real, love.” After a particularly potent explosion, I lurch forward, convinced the shelter walls would implode, leaving all of us exposed. Even the Eastender characters have grown quiet. I cannot see my hands gripping the edge of the seat, but I know my knuckles are white.

The line between history and the present evaporates.

My mind races. How will the coupons last the month? Will this shelter be enough to keep my family safe? I know the questions I ask myself are manufactured, yet I will focus on the answers. Is this how legacy is transferred from parent to child? Gradually, the bomber planes dissipate, the time around explosions lengthens, and the shelter walls stiffen.

When I emerge into the bright lights of the museum, I am shaking.

When the desert unfolds

It is not in every landscape that one searches for God.

But in the terrible, terrible beauty of desert mountains

where roadside shrines bunch together like wild rose bushes, we sit

on Joy’s porch talking about heaven and loss, drought and wind. She sighs,

“If heaven is no better than this, I’m o.k.” Her flinty brown eyes flare

like polished agate in the sand. A woman waters green thickets across the road; pulling the hose behind her, she weaves through blanched tree stubs

between the animal bones scattered around the paddock. Her dogs bark

as the blue pickup circles again. The buckskin mare moves closer to the gate.

Does the desert always smell like apples?

Falling asleep, I listen to cicadas rubbing their legs together like violin bows

and the voices of children playing tag in the hot wind. Under a splinter of the moon,

I dream of history with secret ancestors. Along this diamond road,

dust rains from lavender stains in the sky. Under the promise of its turquoise

swallowing red rock and fawn-colored lizards, the horse, the fading sun,

the smell of apples does not belong to me, but they could.

A Loss So Exquisite

(the old cowboy finds it uncomfortable to sit in a chair)

and when he walks, his limbs form an exquisite denim wishbone.

On horseback, he has built his house a thousand times over – in the valley, on the mesa,

cast out in the middle of desert sand – he is marooned among stretches of pinion pine

in the elbow of a river. Octopus arms and crimson floral hands bend in the wind

before storm clouds gather. His horse’s pointed hooves follow charcoal steers,

their bodies, enormous stains, form dust tornados across acres of cracked golden wheat

across tree branches the color of burnt bone. A silver and icy blue bird’s tail unfolds

on the red rock like a Victorian fan. Under a desert moon, he counts the stars

balanced between Greek constellations and the long shadow of his life.

he is lost, lost in a sweet fantasy of gentleness.

(heaven is different for everyone)

perhaps a pinch of the desert, a cup of sea, or a quart of pine leads to salvation

in the end. Do sanctuaries only complicate a person’s relationship with God?

And what of men once raising their spires from stony rubbles on the backs of myth

knowing many would never see the climax of marble and mortar. These men suffered.

In the desert moonlight and across an ocean, others came upon their cathedrals on dangerous peaks

with turrets like elephants’ toes. Weather built these sanctuaries closer to the sun until the priests came,

shouting sermons from unfinished mounts of stone. The wind swallowed their faith,

their holy words falling on deaf ears of reluctant souls. And when rainy fingers tumble,

does Moses still part red rock, each shard split apart deep beneath a counterfeit sea?

(buried in my glass heart)

and alone on a carpet of dunes by the ocean, I awoke baptized. Shivering from weariness, the apricot streaks of dawn cast shadows

along the tanned ridges of my feet. I waited for the tide to rise. On the edge of a desert sea, it is not the relief of rock beneath my feet

but the crown of the incline and the distance between the ridge and the car that lengthened like a swollen river. When I climb out

of the canyon, my stiff, strong limbs step first one foot, then the other, like a rider without a horse.

I move across the shadow of bronze earth, knowing that I have lived too long without intention.

Is a passport still a winning ticket?

I type “British embassy + Washington, D.C.” into the Google search function of my computer. With one click, I am immediately thrust into a world of immigration, visas, employment regulations, and tips for foreign travelers.

“Welcome to the Consular and Passport Services section of the website. In this section, you will find information about applying for or renewing a British passport and about the services we provide for British citizens in the USA.”

I click on the Application Form and wait for the document to download before spying the Dual Nationality for Adults and Children link.

Split between two worlds and countries“Although acquisition or use of US citizenship does not of itself jeopardize retention of British citizenship, and there is no objection on the part of British authorities to a dual citizen using a US passport, it should not be assumed the reverse is true. The US authorities expect dual citizens to travel out of and into United States territory only on US passports. British citizens who are also US citizens are therefore advised to consult the US State Department (or if overseas a US Consul) before taking any action which might be regarded as inconsistent with their status as US citizens.”

Does this mean that if I obtain a British passport after all these years, I may lose my US citizenship? Frantically, I click through the pages to find the British Embassy’s phone number and dial the D.C. number. A tinny automated woman’s voice answers.

“Good morning, and welcome to the Embassy of Great Britain. If you are inquiring about a visa, press one. If you have lost your passport or if it has been stolen, press two. For citizenship inquiries, press three.”

Suddenly nervous about making this phone call bordered precariously between the legal and the criminal, I cradle the receiver between my shoulder and my ear and repeatedly press three. A male voice abruptly ricochets across the line. I scribble the man’s answers to my questions on a handful of post-it notes and thank him for his time, printing out another application before the dial tone buzzes in my ear. My application is in the afternoon mail.

Each day when the mail comes, I leap to the front door like a dog expecting its master and flick through the ads, and the credit card offers only to discover that nothing from the British Embassy has arrived. Again.

One day, after a month had passed, there is a letter.

I am heartsick. Instead of a shiny new passport, the letter has a list of requests. Another call to the British Embassy and another thirty minutes in the phone queue produced a bit of reassurance. I type another letter – signed, sealed, and mailed – I wait.

Less than a week passes, and there is a response from the British embassy in a crisp, white envelope with another list of requests, including school records covering as many years as possible, a clear copy of my resident alien card or US passport, and a letter on letterhead paper from a professional person such as my doctor, dentist, teacher, religious instructor, etc. stating how long this person has known me and in what capacity. This person must also sign a photo of me attesting to the face this photo is a true likeness.

School records. How the hell am I supposed to get my grade school records as my grade school is now an assisted living community; the chances of obtaining my grade for French and Reading in the fourth grade are slim to none. I have my college and high school diplomas and transcripts. I spend another day making phone calls and collecting the information requested that I already had in hand. The letter to the British Embassy flies off my keyboard without effort.

Six weeks after my initial application, my British passport arrives with little fanfare in a tightly sealed envelope requiring confirmation of its receipt. On the cherry red cover, the words European Union, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Passport are sandwiched between the United Kingdom’s lion and unicorn insignias. Inside, the first page, emblazoned with a gold inscription with a copy of my photograph pasted next to block letters, reads,

Surname: Sochocky

Given Names: Anna Irena

Nationality: British citizen

No longer on a treasure hunt, in my hands, I am holding gold. With this passport’s addition to complement my American one, I am now legally entitled to travel on two passports and work anywhere in the European Union.

A passport may only be a ticket into a country, not a culture, but now I have the opportunity to claim both.

Moving up a generation

After the private funeral, one of the attendants assigned to manage my mother’s services leads me into the room set aside for the visitation. Trays of hand-cut sandwiches, bowls of marigold yellow potato salad, and a selection of sugar cookies arranged in buffet style line white linen-covered table. Strong coffee brews. Classical music pipes into the room. I am alone for a moment. To assuage my scarce appetite, I pour a Styrofoam cup of coffee and move to stand by the ice-etched window. Outside, after nights of sky-saturated storms, the sun shines, dazzling warmth into the room. Tempered by mourning and memory, I turn away from the glaring reflection of fresh snow.

I have grieved in this room before.

Once upon a time, doctors and nurses streamed into this funeral parlor. My mother and I sat on a plush floral sofa. Synthetic. Lifeless. On display. Strangers to me competed for my mother’s attention and offered me posthumous advice. Be strong like your father. Do well in school, Anna. Face after face drifted past. Everyone knew my name. I knew so few and stayed silent. The voices of former patients reverently recounted how my father had saved their lives. His passion and fierceness beat back my illness, balding men testified. Friends from school huddled around the entrance to the same room I stand in now. Only when their mothers nudged them did my confused friends enter. Emotionally stunted by adolescence, none of us had the vocabulary for loss.

No sandwiches. No salad or cookies.

The room thirty years ago lacked reassurance, so the morning of my father’s funeral, I set my grief on my dresser, promising to return to it another day. Thirty years later, I cannot afford to be silenced and disengaged by grief again.

Librarians, like doctors and educated wolves, travel in packs. Gathering as police officers or military personnel do when one of their own has fallen, my mother’s co-workers stream in from the freezing temperatures — a circle of women sporting tightly permed heads and sensible winter boots forms around me. The woman who drove the bookmobile when I was a child, Shirley, timidly enters the room. Three decades fill the distance between us. We hug awkwardly.

Bookmobile, circa 1975

“Do you still check out too many books, Anna? Your mother and I used to have to edit your stack each week. Your mother was such a special lady,” Shirley pronounces, moving to blow her nose.

“Well, instead of checking out too many books from the library, I buy too many used ones on Amazon,” I answer with a wink. “Thank you for coming, Shirley. Please have a sandwich and a cup of coffee.” The memory of plastic covered, well-worn books I cherished as a child fills my head. I wonder if the engine of the antiquated bus still hums off-key. In the mirror over Shirley’s shoulder, I see the reflection of me sitting with my knees tucked and pressed up against my favorite bookshelf, stacking treasures beside me.

The reference librarian followed by the woman who staffed the video and young adult books department arrives, and soon the group of women that formed the nucleus of my mother’s life for seventeen years swells. I nurse a now tepid cup of coffee. My concentration wanders. I only retain snippets of stories told. Janet moves into the fold and supplants my attention, nodding and laughing at all the appropriate moments. I willingly fade into the background. Shifting from greeter to listener, I am relieved by a sudden wave of anonymity.

While the book women trade recycled stories about the library and my mother and nibble on ham sandwiches, I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a slight woman dressed in a waist-length, brown, faux leather jacket. The mysterious woman nervously shifts back and forth and tries to catch my eye. Gripping her bag as if she is stranded not on an iceberg of grief but in a dicey neighborhood after dark, her behavior attracts my attention. I do not recognize the woman. During a brief lull in conversation with the librarians, I excuse myself. In two long strides, I am at the agitated woman’s side.

“Thank you for coming this morning. I don’t believe we’ve met, but you likely knew my mother. How did you know my mother?” I finish securing a context for this stranger. The woman with closely cropped, dyed hair erupts into a spasm of desperate sobs. Who is this woman?

“Why don’t you and I sit down on the sofa,” I suggest pointing to a loveseat positioned underneath the wall’s mirror. I take her hand, bone-cold from the morning I rub her hands in mine and wait. Still ignorant of the woman’s identity, I retrieve a couple of Kleenex squares from my pocket and hand them to her.

The nameless woman’s words come slowly. Tangled and chastened by an attack of sadness-induced hiccups at first, her story crystallizes like a car gaining traction in the snow, Not from the library, not from a past life as a doctor’s wife, the woman sobbing beside me is Sherry, my mother’s hairpiece stylist. For as long as I can remember, my mother wore a tasteful hairpiece, a well-coiffed bun perched on the back of her head to cover thinning hair and a bald spot. In every childhood photo in which my mother plays a supporting role, Sherry’s tailored handiwork’s silhouette is evident.

Once gaining her composure, Sherry speaks of how shocked she was to pick up the newspaper and find the obituary I wrote. “Your mother was such a kind lady. When my son died, she called and wrote to me. I still have those letters. She was so very kind.” Sherry’s effort to choke these few words out into the air produces another round of tears. Is she grieving for my mother or her son? The circumstances of the son’s death had always been in question. Although never charged with murder, the son’s wife had come under the glare of police suspicion when the husband’s autopsy detected poison in his body. Sherry, convinced of her daughter-in-law’s role in her son’s death, poured out her suspicions to my mother. “I won’t keep you,” Sherry interjects as I shake my head no and insist she stay for a coffee.

“I won’t stay. I just wanted to pay my respects to your mother. Thank you for sitting with me. Even though this is the first time we have met, I can tell you are kind like your mother. I will miss your mother,” she declares, rising to her feet and slipping out the door like a shadow.

“Who was that woman?” Janet asks in mid-step. Approaching the sofa where I remain sitting, she announces, “I think the librarians are getting ready to leave.”

I nod and glance over at the disassembling group reaching for purses and coats. In the midst of the pending departures, my husband, Steve, holds coats and guides arms into sleeves. Though he has met so few mourners, Steve falls into conversations stunted by shock and sadness with ease, comforting strangers with a kind word or a brief but firm hug. Though I have barely had a moment to say two words to him since early this morning, I will be able to manage this day because I know he is close.

“The woman you were talking to was pretty upset,” Janet hints a second time, bringing me back to the present.

“Oh, that was Sherry, the woman who did my mother’s hairpiece for years. I never met her. Her son died, and I think she was thinking about him as much as Mom. Nice woman. Probably will never see her again, though. Funerals are weird that way, I guess. You have really intense conversations that evaporate as quickly as they brew. If she signed the guestbook, I’ll send her a note.”

With one eye on the entryway, I make a mental list of new arrivals, greeting and thanking each person individually. I recognize my mother’s acupuncturist and his assistant, but their faces will not stay with me. The car salesman who sold my parents each of their Buicks since the late 1960s corners me between the sofa and the entrance. His body language, polyester trousers, and a cheap gold chain peeking over his shirt collar suggest anything but chaste condolence. I squirm. Nod. Smile. Say, thank you. I raise my eyebrow. Janet sees my signal. Just as the one-sided conversation switches gears to what a lovely young woman I have become, Janet swoops in with the news that another guest has arrived. Leaving Janet to distract the harmless flirt, I intercept new arrivals.

A stout, short woman surveying the gathering of mourners enters the room and stops abruptly. Evaluating each person with beady, twitching eyes, her gaze lands on me. I examine her for a moment as well, and after a deep inhale, I reach her in one stride with my hand outstretched.

“You must be Anna,” the stranger declares, taking positive note of my conservative but stylish suit. “I’m glad you are not wearing black. So predictable and dismal. I am Madge Wilson, your father’s senior nurse on 4 East Ward. I never met your mother though I am sure she was a lovely person, but I recognized the name, Sochocky, in the obituaries and knew that she must have been married to your father.” Madge takes a wheezing breath and turns to sit on the couch by the door. I follow silently. I suspect there will be little opportunity to squeeze a word between Madge’s monologues. For this, I am thankful.

“As I said, I was your father’s senior nurse and, boy was he a challenge to work with each day. But he was the best doctor on the ward, and he liked me because I stood up to him. Madge, he would shriek, standing in the doorway to his office, and I would take my own sweet time getting to his door. Your father was an excellent doctor, though. So compassionate. Never gave up when so many others would pack it in too early. He used to call me into an examination room and put his feet up on the gurney while I cleaned up the mess left behind. Domestic, he wasn’t. And another interesting feature of your father is he was obsessed with the condition of his bowel movements. He always wanted me to judge his stool samples. Very strange. I think he was a hypochondriac,” Madge muses, before exploding into laughter.

The content rather than the location of her telling leaves me nonplussed. My father’s hypochondria, the subject of his daily constitution’s quality and condition, often drove him back to Duke University for evaluation.

Janet shoots me a look over Madge’s shoulder. I stare past both Janet and Madge wondering how many people can count stool sample stories told by a woman who does not even know the person who has died as part of their ‘strange things that happened at my mother’s funeral stories’? If Madge weren’t so genuinely quirky and florid with her description of my father’s obsessive medical habits, grief would win the battle for my attention.

As the two hours pass, I retrace not only the past of both my parents but moments of my own adolescent life as well. During a lull, my high school English teacher and yearbook advisor peers into the room. Dressed in corduroys, an elbow patched topcoat, and a thick fabric tie, he smiles and hugs me.

“Thank you so much for coming, Doug. I am just about out of conversation with people I barely know, if I know them at all. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I am exhausted.”

“I know. Talking to everyone is so tiring, but I saw you making your way around the room like a skilled politician,” he winks and pats my arm. Politics, as well as books, cemented our friendship from the beginning. “I had to come. I was so shocked to read her obituary. She was such a lovely woman. Let’s sit down,” my favorite teacher gestures to the couch where I learned about my father’s stool obsession only moments before.

Sinking into the familiar fabric pricks me like a balloon, and I burst into tears that I have managed to keep at bay since the private service. As he had done thirty years ago, Doug retakes the reins as my confidante and listens to my rambled recounting of the past six months. Shaking his head, he comments, “The past few months must have been terrible for you and your husband. I have requested a Mass be said in your mother’s honor.”

“Doug, I’m afraid that my ambivalence about God hasn’t congealed much over the years, but thank you. Thank you for having a Mass said for Mom, and thank you for coming. Mom really liked you, but I suspect that’s because you always gave me good grades and kept me out of trouble with the priests and the nuns.” I grimace and then smile at the memories of how many occasions Doug had rescued me from punishment after one of my argumentative outbursts.

“Parent-teacher conferences were always enjoyable when I saw your mother. And I gave you good grades because you earned them. You probably still earn them. Besides, you are the best yearbook editor I ever had the pleasure to work with past and present.” The visitation numbers swell again, and Doug rises to his feet. “I signed the guestbook. Take care of yourself, Anna. Please. I know you are facing a mountain, but take care of yourself. I’m really glad I came,” he finishes.

When my high school boyfriend, Mark, sans braces, walks across our thirty-year gap, the two of us engage in a nostalgic but vaguely uncomfortable conversation. I stay mute, growing disconnected from the ambiance of a distant history he retells, a history of summer evenings when we drove through a maze of unpaved roads. For six adolescent weeks, summer evenings passed sweetly but awkwardly between us. With Elton John whining through the glowing dashboard, the ping, ping of gravel jumping under the tire rims, cracked the melody of Benny and the Jets into pieces. The sweet smell of corn stalks dangled in the muggy air. Red-winged blackbirds descended on plowed remains in the fields to feed. This was the South Dakota I once knew, the South Dakota I had to leave.

Condolences and nostalgia only carry a conversation so far, however. Our exchange about humid summer evenings collapses into a discussion about how Mark cannot believe he is raising two teenagers. I glance at my watch when he turns his head for a moment, making a mental note to ask for his email when a disembodied photo waves in front of me. Mark laughs. Both of us have seen this photo before.

In the Polaroid image, crepe paper decorations and a stenciled sign read: “Welcome Back, Anna. Dino and all of us love you.” At the sight of my first horse, his head thrust over his decorated stall door, standing under the sign, crepe paper strings falling off the dirty walls and gently waving in the breeze, I am catapulted back thirty years. For a moment, I look at the Polaroid image of the sign made by my stablemates. I turn to see my high school riding instructor’s brown eyes welling with tears and collapse in her arms.

Too many reminders. Too much conversation. Too many days to come as a motherless daughter. The emotional tank I filled early this morning is running on empty. The string of condolences, repeated replays of stories and saddened questions about the cause of my mother’s death left me mentally scorched. When the room empties for the last time, I exhale all the conversations, all the tears, and all the memory stirred by the grief of others. I sit alone on the sofa. Kick my heels off. Lean back into the plumped pillows, staring without focus into the empty room.

My mother’s funeral may be over, but the aftermath of her death has only just begun.

I have moved up a generation.

Black and white footprints in a snowstorm

Long before I knew the details, I understood that my parents’ lives were formed differently. Indeed, the worn, brown photographs from my competing European bloodlines testify to this divergence of history. On my mother’s side of the Culley family, I have many photos of smiling great aunts and children enjoying a day at the beach before the war. The women, legs tucked beneath them like rabbits, sit on wool blankets. The children, naked except for their bonnets and diapers, clumsily shovel teaspoons of sand into marmalade jars or coffee tins.

I move the pictures around like pieces to a puzzle, putting them in order by a person, by location, by pastime. All the pictures of my mother with her family at the beach in one pile, all my grandmother’s photographs holding my mother in another. I play games with these images and concoct stories about the women in the photographs for entertainment, not from necessity. This side of my family moves through everyday life, photographed next to the things they valued – a prized rose, houses, and farms. I imagine days spent by the sea and afternoons rowing on the river and smile at their proud poses in military uniforms and nurses’ capes.

Yet, like five o’clock shadows, fathers, grandfathers, and uncles do not figure prominently in my life on this side of my family either. The absence of photographs is my proof for this hypothesis. I can only fill a small corner of my dining room table with the few photographs I have of the Culley men. Unguarded moments like the one of my mother’s Irish grandfather and great uncle sitting by the seaside in three-piece suits while reclining in canvass chairs are rare images. These men belong to history, not memory.

Even my mother had difficulty recalling much about these men who are largely silent and have always been silent to me. Conversely, photographs of the next generation of Culley men – like my mother’s first cousins, Ted, Alan, and Fred, dressed in military uniforms and ready to die for God and country – were men I sat across from during Sunday dinners, the table long and plentiful of both food and history.

Culley women have always been a different story. Dozens of their photographs demand center stage. Year after year of class pictures record my great Aunt Stella gazing intently at the camera beside her eager-faced and freshly scrubbed pupils.

Before she married my Scottish grandfather and relinquished the Culley name, my grandmother stands on the Loma ship deck with her right hand behind her head and her left knee half-bent, posing like a film star against the railing in a photo taken in 1931. In another, my grandmother sits with six other nurses, not on a bench outside the West Suffolk hospital but in a boat. All are dressed from head to toe in World War I uniforms, their crisp caps starched into stone, and their pinafores pressed sharply by the iron blocks heated on wood-burning stoves.

I cannot reenact stories told or untold with my father’s family photographs that are left. I only have one image each of my grandparents, my great grandfather Jonah (his name I learned from a condolence card my mother received from a man in Chicago after my father’s death), and my father with his sister, Olga, in Ukraine. I have several prints of my father in Rimini’s detention camp and a handful of tiny, square photographs of him as a young man, the context, location, and story unknown.

Among the few photographs I have, some, like the photograph of my Ukrainian grandparents, are so damaged that the images look like part of a ship’s wreckage, half-hidden in the sea’s sandy bottom. White streaks and creases have weakened Their faces, and only parts of their bodies are visible. This damage makes sense to me. After all, my grandfather and grandmother have never been anything more than apparitions. Because of the ruined image, I inventory my grandparents’ parts I can see.

Grandmother Irena. She sits on my grandfather’s right hand on an invisible chair. Patches of her thinning hair look like straw pulled back in a bun. Her close-set eyes sink into her face like an owl’s beneath her bony eyebrows. Her nose, angular and square, overshadows a serious mouth set in a straight line. The half-moon circles under her eyes sag into her cheeks. Her lace collar, an island of beauty, stretches over her cardigan. I see where her sweater ends, and her opaque arms begin, one hand folded over the other in her lap. Her shoes are stout and heavy; her limbs are frail from age, not simply hunger. Her body is diminutive; her face austere.

Ukrainian grandparents

Michael, my grandfather, really does look like a specter that might wither at the first hint of sunlight. Much of my grandfather’s body is hidden; only the arc of his shoulders, the left triangle of his coat, the collar, the edges of his shirtsleeves peeking out from under his coat, his stocky fingers, and the fold in his pant leg emerges from the ghostly background. I cannot see his feet though I can tell he is a small man in stature but with a stolid chest like a horse’s barrel. His dark suit blends into the trees and the sallow stains of the photograph. His bald head, thin lips, and protruding ears are the clearest parts of him. The edges of his long coat cover his misty fingers above the crease of his trousers. His blanched collar mistakenly suggests he was a priest like his father, Jonah. My grandparents’ necklines, her lace, and his false holiness shed clues to their personalities and are marks of their wholeness.

I do not have any pictures of my father as a child. In black and white, my father has always been a man. He wears adult clothes. A military uniform. A doctor’s coat. A wool sweater and khaki pants. I cannot quite picture my father as a child, his dark, thick hair falling over his huge, blue eyes. I cannot see him learning to walk, clinging to his mother’s skirts like a dancer’s barre. Even as a child, he surely looked like a man dressed in neatly pressed trousers and a crisp white shirt with a pair of suspenders and beautifully polished leather shoes. After the war, in photographs I have, he rarely smiled. A shame, really. He had such a brilliant grin. His blue eyes twinkled like sunlight on water, and when he poured his entire body into laughter, he seemed surprised like a child startled by the sound of his own voice.

War erased my father’s past like a pair of footprints in the snow after a storm, leaving me the scar of his silence. His photographs are like open wounds to me because, unlike my mother’s family, I knew precious few of the survivors.

Pedaling away from the past

The pain in my left knee is so unbearable that my joint buckles when I try to walk. For the past six days, I have watched hundreds of other riders succumb to injuries, weary muscles, and the blistering heat, but now, after nearly a week on a bike ride to raise money for local HIV/AIDS hospices, I cannot stand on my leg without wincing. I lie down on the immaculate lawn of an anonymous suburban Chicago home and reach into my backpack for the Advil, washing four capsules down with warm, lime Gatorade.

Mobile medical crews hover like grounded helicopters waiting to pounce. If I am too far from the finish line in central Chicago, one of these crews will radio ahead, and my bike and I will be loaded on one of the flatbed trailers rolling past me.

The deadline is 2:00 p.m. It is 11:00 a.m. I am forty miles from the finish line.

Each passing flatbed truck renews my resolve to bike every remaining mile. Yet, I know that more than my knee is collapsing in suburban Illinois. In a maze of twisting roads and cornfields, I have painfully acknowledged that the career I have built-in politics is one I no longer wanted. Drawn to anyone stained with a history of suffering like my parents, I wondered if my work had been nothing more than a feeble attempt to assuage my own anguish over the residual effects of my family’s narrative.

The commitment that had once been genuine crumbled with each passing mile, and by the time I had reached the eastern Wisconsin border, I doubted my integrity completely.

I might have chosen a different path. On the eve of my graduation from college, my British journalism professor, a quiet mentor who would later die tragically from lung cancer at the age of 62 a few years after I graduated from college, tried to persuade me to get a job writing instead of as a union organizer.

During the last week of class of my senior year, on an afternoon that portended long, lazy summer days ahead, he and I walked across the lush, green college campus lawn towards the parking lot of the college’s fine arts building after having coffee together.

“So, you are going off to Mississippi then to Montana, is it, to work for a union? Are you sure that you have made the right decision? There are many ways to make a difference in this world, Anna, besides being a professional activist. Many heartaches go unrecorded, political policies that remain unchanged because no one understands how the decisions made affect people. In this country. In Africa and Europe. In South America. On every continent,” he mused in his clipped British accent, leaning against his car.

“Yes, that’s why I am so excited to be making some real change in this country, especially since I am going to spend the summer in rural Mississippi working for a civil rights group before going to Montana,” I said with a vaguely false conviction.

“Life has not changed in the South Anna; in fact, life is almost the same as it was in the 60s. People are poor and disenfranchised, neglected by those who have the power to make a difference, but Anna, we also need witnesses to history, not just people to try and often fail to make a change. If no one is there to witness how the human condition unfolds, problems go unrecorded and, worse yet, unresolved. You are such a good writer, Anna. I am afraid that you will be worn out chasing cause after cause by the time you are thirty. Writing allows you to step back, reflect, debate, consider. It would help if you wrote,” he said emphatically. “Think about it.” Squinting at me in the brilliant afternoon, he moved to open his car door.

I never saw my professor again.

I did not want to be a witness. A witness was all I had been in my life, I thought angrily. A witness to my father’s anger and loss witnessed my mother’s loneliness living in a country that was not her own. Let someone else be the bloody witness. Besides, politics is what I did. Politics is what I knew. Wasn’t it?

Indeed, weeks before the ride ten years after my college graduation, I had solicited dozens of opinions from others about graduate school options. People in my orbit pointedly steered me towards law schools or MBA and public policy masters programs. Yet, my journalism professor’s advice nagged at me.

The last dose of advice I swallowed came during breakfast with a professional colleague. Between bites of pancakes, my friend was resolute in her opinion. “All your experience in politics will go to waste if you don’t focus your academic interests in the same direction. People look to you as a leader, and a graduate degree in your field will only solidify your position.”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right to me. I want to write…” I had answered, my unsteady words quelled by the clatter of dishes and requests for coffee. Something, or rather, someone’s opinion, had nagged me for months.

Though I had ignored my journalism professor’s sage advice to write, I wondered whether he had been right with each turn of the pedals. Somewhere along the line, I had abandoned what my heart had always wanted – to write – and what it had always needed to understand – my history. Surely the prospect of going to school to study creative writing was not a Herculean effort?

My journalism professor had envisaged my eventual disintegration. His declaration, like my family’s history, had certainly pursued me like a panther tracking its prey across every state border I crossed. An hour passed before I guardedly begin to stretch my knee.

I swallow more Advil. With trepidation, I climb on my bike, forcing myself to concentrate on the brilliant blue sky and the acres of horse farms sprawling in front of me. I count telegraph poles marked with the ride’s crimson ribbons for miles. Once I reach the Chicago city limits, the pain in my knee has evaporated, and my decision was made.

A segregation of mourning

In last week’s blog post, I wrote that perhaps death was the great equalizer. Yet, class and gender once segregated the commonality of death between rich and poor, men and women.

The Victorian Age, marked by good manners, industrial and technological advancements, the widening chasm between rich and poor, and that pesky ‘woman question’ wrote its own chapter in the book of mourning etiquette, too.

A complex set of rules, guided by one’s station in life, dictated appropriate mourning behavior and rituals. In the house, clocks would be stopped and reset to the deceased’s exact time of death. Mirrors covered with black crepe prevented the deceased spirit from being trapped in the glass. To prevent the devil’s possession of anyone still living, photographs were turned over.

Superstition may have guided a household; mourning between the genders was segregated by fashion and behavior. A woman’s funereal clobber, comprised of black clothing meant to conceal a body’s shape and a veil of black crepe, became known as ‘widow’s weeds.’ Mourning jewelry rose to prominence in the upper class. People often wore a cameo brooch or a locket designed to hold a lock of the deceased hair.

The dictates of appropriate mourning behavior did not end with the content of one’s wardrobe, however. Widows were expected to not only wear their mourning ensemble for at least two years and up to four years and were discouraged from entering society for twelve months. During a widow’s mourning period, clothing restrictions were relaxed at six or nine-month increments, effectively ensuring the grieving woman lived as a hostage to her grief.

Money and status plays have always been central to how a passing is marked and a person recognized. Anyone who has had to plan a funeral for a loved one understands that death is a business. Caskets and urns, florists, and stationary are not contemporary choices of the grieving. Indeed, the Victorians may have originated the entire industry!

However, fashion, behavior, and money may not be the preeminent influence on one’s approach to mourning. The Victorians may have been Christians, but deep in the cultural bloodstream beats a Pagan’s heart, too.

Indeed, superstition weighed heavily on behavior as much if not more than social mores. I leave you with a handful of superstitions to ponder courtesy of the Victorian age!

Never wear anything to a funeral, especially shoes.

Stop the clock in a death room, or you will have bad luck.

If you don’t hold your breath when going by a graveyard, you will not be buried.