What we do for the Dead

Written for this week’s Writing Challenge at the Daily Post.  Prompt:  Leftovers.  Thanks for reading.  Visit the Writing Challenge for more wonderfully bloggy posts–fact and fiction–in response to the prompt.

 


 

At my mother’s funeral, an older man, goateed and wearing a beret (the sight of which made me turn away just long enough to roll my eyes), asked me what she was like, really like. “She watched a lot of Murder, She Wrote,” I said, and the man frowned. So I added, “She was very generous.” He nodded and smiled, satisfied.

*****

She was generous: I am the sole heir to a 1920s bungalow on the coast. The living room, kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, and bathrooms are spotless. Beds made, clothes folded, dishes cleaned. I don’t remember her being a neat freak but I do remember her not wanting to burden anyone. It makes perfect sense to me that she made the effort to clean the house before she killed herself.

 

It is the attic that brings me to the cottage today. I finally figured out how to access it, pulling down and unfolding the ladder. Spider webs and dust and heat belch from the hatch as I climb up. I think of all her sorrow stored in the eaves. What makes us banish objects to such spaces? What makes it so hard for us to let them go? Are we hoping that someday we will sufficiently recover from our dread of those yearbooks, that wedding dress?

My mother’s attic seems fixed in time – everything is at least forty years old. I find a box of books and check the publishing dates; each was published before 1980. Life stopped for her after the 1970s. Her faith, her marriage, her children: gone.

In 1984, while I was playing in a punk band, sporting a bi-level haircut, a leather jacket and short black skirt, my mom was literally painting herself into a corner. It was an installation at a small gallery. She painted the floors and walls over several hours while gallery-goers watched through the storefront window outside. She started in the northwest corner of the space, near the front door, with a bright yellow house paint, walls to floor and floor to walls. As she moved to the southeast corner, her destination, the colors became darker so that by the time she had painted herself into the corner she covered the walls, floor and herself in black. I know this from the photographs she once showed me. They are in an album somewhere up here, I’m sure of it. I can picture her standing against the wall, in the corner, fingers splayed, drenched in black paint, very nearly disappearing before the camera. Some dismissed her work as clichéd and others clung to her as if she had discovered some secret about the universe that no one else possessed. It was the beginning of her long decline.

*****

In this attic, I find toe shoes, a clarinet, maps, dozens of maps. I find costume jewelry and charm bracelets, a box of silverware, a mink wrap. Up here, I find a few empty vodka bottles and cigarette butts, which makes me think she had not abandoned all memory, that she came up here to reminisce at least a few times.

Up here, I find costumes she made for Halloween: my princess gown, my brother’s Batman cape. I find broken pottery and dozens of tiny baskets. I am excavating. This is an archaeological dig. Down through the layers. I find the Bible that my grandmother kept and the names of ancestors on the frontispiece that I memorized as a child: Violet Watkins and Samuel Plankton, Jane Wister and Nathaniel Watkins, Hilda Abraham and Wildman Plankton. Wildman Plankton. I wanted so badly to know who he was.

Out of the Bible falls a letter and the letter is addressed to me, sealed still. My heart races. I don’t want to open it, fearful still of alcohol-fueled condemnation from the grave. But my curiosity compels me and the glue separates easily after all these years. At the top, she typed “August 14, 1989.”

Dear Cicely, my Ceecee,

I’m not sure where you are living now but I will take a chance on the last address I have for you. I heard from your brother yesterday that you have made some success for yourself, musically. This makes me so happy. I think about you two dancing to records when you were younger. You loved Al Green and the Stylistics.

Today, I turn 45. You are somewhere, age 25. I hope you’re not lost. I’ve had dreams of you in a box in the ocean, floating and floating, and I can’t reach you.

Do you know what you mean to me? I don’t think you do. How could you know? I never told you. I let your father do all the talking. I’m sorry for my selfishness. I’m sorry for not being there, not being here. I love, love, love you.

Mom

I look at the envelope again. No postmark, no return to sender. She had put it in the Bible and forgot, some 35 years ago.

I don’t cry. I know I was never lost. She had been projecting her own lost state. I’ve been to enough therapists over the years to figure that out. But I am sad. These things we do for the dead—all this witnessing of objects and memory, all the listening we do for clues as to who our loved ones really were — we would have done for them when they were living, if allowed.

*****

She died of an overdose, took a handful of Xanax at the age of 83. I found her in a club chair that was placed in front of the bay window. I look out that window now and wonder what was the last thing she saw – the lake, seagulls and sandpipers, a tourist walking along the beach, the sun setting in the west, melting into the lake like gold paint onto black?

158 Comments What we do for the Dead

  1. viridiana83 July 13, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    This is amazingly beautiful and heartbreaking.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:21 pm

      Thanks so much for your reading and commenting. I’m really happy your enjoyed it.

      Reply
  2. jethag July 13, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    Such an excellent piece of writing, with so much emotion. Rarely do blog posts make me feel so deeply. Thank you for this beautiful piece.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:22 pm

      Wow. Thank you for the generous compliment!

      Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:22 pm

      Thank you for reblogging!

      Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:23 pm

      Thank you for reblogging, Sam!

      Reply
    1. Meg July 17, 2014 at 8:54 am

      Thank you!

      Reply
  3. cookingwithoutgluten July 15, 2014 at 7:33 am

    Thank you for the quiet time to think about my mother. I lost her many years ago, no her spaces to visit, no her things to touch, the forever memory of the hug, I knew was the last, but she did not. Her letters – the warm comfort in dark places. Late surprise that she actually knew me the way I never suspected. I wish we talked about her life. I wish I knew her the way she knew me.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 17, 2014 at 8:56 am

      I’m glad this gave you space to think about your mom. Our loved ones almost always know us better than we think. Thanks so much for sharing and reading. Very generous of you.

      Reply
  4. Thain in Vain July 15, 2014 at 8:17 am

    What a powerful story about the mixed emotions we have about our loved ones — especially in death. It can be incredibly painful to witness those things our loved one saved, desired, coveted, hide. It’s like looking into that private space in our heads where we keep those things hidden throughout our lives. Very good story, Meg!

    Reply
    1. Meg July 17, 2014 at 9:03 am

      Thanks, TiV! Yes, digging through another person’s past is painful. I had to move my late sister’s things into a storage unit last weekend and was surprised by how disoriented I felt. Her books and paintings have been in my basement for the last two years, so I thought I would be ok with moving them. It was way harder than I thought. Really appreciate your empathetic comment and taking the time to read. You’re a good egg and I’m happy we’ve met.

      Reply
      1. Thain in Vain July 17, 2014 at 10:41 am

        Thanks, Kate!! And I’m glad we met too!!

        Reply
  5. Dani July 15, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    Beautifully done, Meg.
    I was transported to that attic.
    Thank you for that.

    Blessings,
    Dani

    Reply
    1. Meg July 17, 2014 at 9:04 am

      Thank you for the kind words and for reading, Dani. Hope you come back!

      Reply
      1. Dani July 22, 2014 at 9:18 am

        I certainly will, Meg.

        Reply
    1. Meg July 17, 2014 at 9:05 am

      Indeed!

      Reply
    1. Meg July 23, 2014 at 9:05 am

      Thank you, WendyJoy! Hope you come back.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: Flower Power | litadoolan

    1. Meg July 23, 2014 at 9:06 am

      It is, indeed. Thanks for the reblog!

      Reply
  7. misstikiwak July 27, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Nicely done; a beautiful simplicity.

    Reply
  8. Silverleaf July 28, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Wow. You gave me shivers. This was amazing – clearly those more in the know saw that, too! Congratulations again on the Freshly Pressed. I love that you brought back the art installation in the last line, and your thoughts on people projecting their own perceptions onto others is SO spot on. We never really know others in our lives, do we? We have an idea, especially for those we are close to, but it can only ever be coloured by our own perception of the world.

    Reply
    1. Silverleaf July 28, 2014 at 10:30 am

      Oh, and the fact that this was prompted by “Leftovers” makes this piece even more impressive. Wonderful interpretation!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: Unpolished and Earthy (Blog Tour) | MamaMick

  10. lostbutnotworried August 22, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    The things we do for the dead…..such a great piece, hit me where i live. thanks

    Reply
    1. Meg August 28, 2014 at 7:55 pm

      Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: What We Do for the Dead | perksofbeingmegblog

  12. transcribingmemory December 25, 2015 at 2:24 am

    I wish I had something better to say besides I loved this but I loved this. It hit me deeply, sadly, and beautifully.

    Reply
  13. Pingback: What We Do for the Dead | oshriradhekrishnabole

  14. Raef Kazi December 25, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    This touched something deep inside of me.
    Superb work

    Reply
  15. Pingback: What We Do for the Dead | Impatto

  16. Chaitanya Haram December 26, 2015 at 5:23 am

    a beautiful piece all in all!! It’s weird we always look for clues from the dead for revelation and introspection!!
    Regards, Chaitanya 🙂

    Reply
  17. Dawn Quyle Landau December 26, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    Evocative and deeply moving. I’m so glad I found this piece. The writing is beautiful. “What makes us banish objects to such spaces? What makes it so hard for us to let them go? Are we hoping that someday we will sufficiently recover from our dread of those yearbooks, that wedding dress?” I think about this a lot. What a treasure trove, your mother’s attic sounds like. Maybe because I am that mother who tucks so many things away? I’m that mother who was a child who lost so much, saving seems to translate to love? Finding a letter, that once was important enough to write… this piece has really moved me. Pulling my hair out alongside you. 😉

    Reply
  18. Extravagant Hope December 27, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    This is such a deeply moving and profound piece of writing. I loved it. It felt raw and honest and human. Fascinating to me how we try so hard to look back, figure out, search for clues from the dead. Well done!

    Reply
  19. Pingback: What We Do for the Dead | lizzymck

  20. itsmayurremember December 28, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    I am a year late but you have my condolences.

    Why is it that we discover more about the living than about the dead? I can’t help but think of this as I read this post. Thank You for sharing the letter

    Reply
  21. onewednesdayx December 28, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    I’m very new to wordpress and randomly stumbled upon your piece of fiction…so wonderfully vivid and emotional. My first follow, yey!

    Reply
  22. Paul December 30, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

    Reply
  23. mozart8346 January 6, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    Your writing is beautiful and breathtaking. Amazing job.

    Reply
  24. paeijweigg January 14, 2016 at 7:28 am

    I love this. Mourning is such a difficult emotion to convey and you conveyed it pretty well.

    Reply
  25. Pingback: Commenting in Other Blogs | GRae Area

  26. uju January 27, 2016 at 9:29 am

    I like this story. It made me sad, but also brought back thoughts of how i handle loss too.
    Beautiful writing.

    Reply

say anything...