05 October 2009

The viewing

It was a viewing at the funeral home, on a drizzly and chill gray morning. The family walked in nearly on tiptoe, their footfalls further hushed by bland carpeting and sympathetic wallpaper. They were almost comically all-sized, from the eldest sister--equal in height to her mother--to the next in line, whose towering awkwardness mimicked his father's, and then the two youngers, one suddenly a head taller than the other. Semi-formal clothing constrained their movements to jerkiness as they sought to relax in the somber glow of the room.

The room tunneled to an endpoint where their elderly cousin rested, in view, pastel colors all around her. The children did not want to approach the casket, and their parents were not about to insist on it. As they all milled about, a safe distance away, they saw a lone figure approaching by the sprays of flowers. His movements were made tentative by his age and deep sorrow. In front of him, laid out in peace, was his sister, the last direct family member in his line. He had never married; she had never married. For awhile, the children had thought that these two relatives, who welcomed them so fondly with each visit, were another set of grandparents. There had been no need to disavow them of that, back then; the simple mistake brought universal joy.

The family found a semicircle of seats in the room's entryway and sat. A few hushed words were exchanged back and forth, and the younger ones leaned on their parents' jacketed arms. As the weight of minutes passed, and cousin Bill remained near his sister Dottie, the older son suddenly began to weep. Then the older daughter, the younger son, the younger daughter...a chain reaction of raw grief. The mother saw it happen, abashed by the intensity of their mourning. She dispensed hugs to each, stroked their hair, whispered reassurances; their slender shapes were warm in her arms, but disconsolate. A Kleenex box was passed, and the four children's reddened faces were shielded as they tried to stem the tears. How extraordinary, their mother thought, and how foolish that she had not anticipated this emotional surge.

The children cried because they knew, all four of them, what a sibling bond means. How no one will ever know you the way your sibling does. How you will do anything for a sister, a brother. They knew from their parents' conversations all week that Bill had been tasked with making final arrangements for a woman who had once been a girl, whose toys he had shared, whom he'd teased and probably exasperated--he being the youngest. And even from a distance, they could see that the face in the casket was not anything like the person they had known...she was truly gone.

First cousins of Bill and Dottie began to arrive; there were not many of them left. From the entryway, watching her distant relatives greet each other in front of the coffin, the mother saw how much these men and women resembled the previous generation: their parents, her great uncles and aunts. Seeing their faces in profile, eyeglasses glinting in the light, it was uncanny. This branch of the family was slight in stature, and though they wavered and hesitated with age, their pride remained fierce. She was witnessing time, manifested. Her own mother was once one of them.

This was the weekend that her decision to come to Maine, to retrace her mother's path, became right and true and fixed. Her place, her home, her people. How much she had gained...and now, her children, too.

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