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. Pingback: Shared from WordPress | Angkyyeni

  2. Mark Baron July 11, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    What a powerfully written tale. i can’t find words to do justice to the feelings it evokes. Sadness, Pity, Understanding. Acceptance. Aching. Great job, really, truly.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 8:51 am

      Thanks so much, Mark. I really appreciate your reading and kind words. I’m so glad you found it moving. And now, onto to the Thain in Vain prompt! 😉

      Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 8:57 am

      Thanks so much for reading, Sabrina! I would add “The Sentinel” to your list of scary movies. It’s really a B-movie but when I was a teen it scared the crap out of me. 😉

      Reply
      1. Sabrina Lobo July 12, 2014 at 11:01 am

        I’m going to watch this movie. Never heard of it but I’ll search. Thank you for commenting 🙂

        Reply
  3. Jen July 11, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Congratulations on being freshly pressed!! You deserved it with this piece!!

    Reply
    1. Louise July 12, 2014 at 6:56 am

      Poignant, touching and hopeful.

      Reply
      1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 8:58 am

        Thanks so much, Louise!

        Reply
    2. Meg July 12, 2014 at 8:58 am

      Awww, thanks so much, Jen. And thanks for reading and visiting outside of our little YeahWrite rhythm of posts. <3

      Reply
      1. Jen July 12, 2014 at 11:21 am

        Of course! 🙂 <3

        Reply
  4. allthoughtswork July 11, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Kudos on the FP.

    Coming from a catastrophically dysfunctional family, myself, this reads familiar. I came a decade after you but we both arrived at the same spot: still holding out for that illusive love. The letter you found is something my DNA will never provide so I felt a wave of relief when I learned they would leave no inheritance of any kind for me to have to deal with, pick through. I couldn’t find diamonds in a gravel driveway, so matter how hard my seven-year-old eyes were always looking down at the ground.

    I burn through my own history with a similar utilitarian minimalism: Do I use it anymore? Does it have any negative memory? Toss it. In with the new. I’ll leave no attics for anyone, I’ll focus on the future instead, full of diamonds. My therapy is my strange ability to recycle hope. But I don’t look down anymore.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:05 am

      Really appreciate your reading and thoughtful comments. (I’m now following you! Love your blog — I’m a hiking nut too) While the piece I wrote is largely fiction, it is based in some experience. Like you, I never found a letter of love from my mom and didn’t really inherit much except a lot of therapy bills. 😉 But I do believe all of it shapes who we choose to become, and your utilitarian minimalism sounds like a good choice. Keep recycling hope!

      Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:07 am

      OMG! You’re a real, live nuclear physicist! Thanks so much for your kind words and reblogging. I’m so happy your liked the piece. You now have another follower!

      Reply
  5. tnkerr July 11, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    I’m happy to see you here and happier still to see that you brought such a powerful sample of your work. Well done!

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:09 am

      Awww, thanks, Thom! I’m so happy you liked it. Thanks for all your kind and supportive words since I’ve been posting over at YeahWrite. I love that place and the people in it.

      Reply
  6. awax1217 July 11, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    We all fade to black and the loneliness is profound. I am sixty eight so I understand. She is not gone but there in you, which although a much used literary devise is all I got. But you carry on and live each day fully. The best. Barry

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:13 am

      So very kind of you, Barry. It is a fiction work, but based on some characteristics of my relationship with my mom, who died in 1989. So your comments are every bit as appropriate and meaningful to me. Thank you for reading and for leaving such lovely words.

      Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:13 am

      Thanks so much, Pedro!

      Reply
  7. judygurfein July 11, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    Wow, this is powerful. It’s fascinating what we leave behind. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:16 am

      Thank you, Judy. Yes, I feel the same way — and I oddly think about that when I’m an antique store, all those objects belonged to someone and had memory attached to them.

      Reply
  8. petescribes July 11, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    Easily the best thing I have read on wordpress thanks for sharing it

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:17 am

      Wow. What a wonderful comment! Thanks so much, Pete. Really appreciate your reading and kind words.

      Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:18 am

      Thanks so much. I am grateful for your kind words and for reading this little piece.

      Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:19 am

      Awww! Thanks so much for reading. I am glad it moved you…thank you for sharing.

      Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:21 am

      Thank you! It was a surprise and a wonderful way to end the week. I’m thrilled.

      Reply
  9. Therese Lu July 11, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    Simply beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:22 am

      Thank you for your lovely words, Therese.

      Reply
  10. J T Weaver July 11, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    This is wonderful and the ‘Freshly Pressed’ is well deserved. Congratulations!

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:23 am

      Awww. Thanks so much, J.T.! I am grateful for your supportiveness.

      Reply
  11. Mark Cadoret July 11, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    We all have something to say, a tale of some sort to tell. It’s weird that we want to somehow get it all out, isn’t it?

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:25 am

      We do! There must be a strand in our DNA for story-telling. Thanks for stopping by, Mark! You’re such a good pal.

      Reply
  12. literaryphi July 12, 2014 at 3:05 am

    Beautiful and visual. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:26 am

      Thank you for your kind words and for reading!

      Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:28 am

      Thank you!

      Reply
  13. Linda Rae July 12, 2014 at 3:27 am

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:28 am

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Linda!

      Reply
  14. Jessica&Love July 12, 2014 at 3:41 am

    Incredibly moving, thank you for sharing this
    Jess

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:29 am

      I’m so glad you liked it, Jess. Thanks for reading and for your kind words.

      Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:32 am

      Thank you!

      Reply
  15. MamaMickTerry July 12, 2014 at 8:17 am

    Oh Meg! I can see why this was freshly pressed. I loved every bit of it, right down to the last line that left me with goose bumps. Congratulations on a well deserved placement among the best. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Oh the places you will go”
    xo

    Reply
    1. Meg July 12, 2014 at 9:37 am

      Love you, Michelle! I read your baseball piece last night but couldn’t comment ‘cuz I was on the iPhone. It was soooo true and lovely and made me ache for days when sports were a huge part of my life. (Not having kids kinda takes a big incentive out of it the older I get.) Thank you for all your wonderful, kind notes…I know we barely know each other but you have played an important part in my life lately, whether you know it or not! <3

      Reply
      1. MamaMickTerry July 12, 2014 at 2:11 pm

        You just made my day and humbled to think I’ve brought you some good stuff across the miles . I love how little universal powers or chances bring people together and am especially glad that it worked its magic for you and I 🙂

        Reply
  16. jmikins July 12, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    This is beautiful

    Reply
  17. jmikins July 12, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Reblogged this on jmikins and commented:
    Beautiful :(:

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 6:59 pm

      Thanks so much for the reblog!

      Reply
      1. jmikins July 14, 2014 at 7:38 pm

        Thank you for the story!

        Reply
  18. themindlessmusings July 12, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    This is absolutely beautiful. Beautiful and honest writing.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:00 pm

      Thank you for your kind words!

      Reply
  19. obzervashunal July 12, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Bless you for daring to share this with the world… it is, in a word, extraordinary…

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:00 pm

      Awww. Thanks so much. I appreciate your reading and commenting!

      Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:01 pm

      Thank you!

      Reply
  20. Lala Rukh July 12, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    your awesome post engaged me to read till the end…. i always wished i could write like that someday. love your post….beautiful reminisce beautiful memories shared and beautiful love expressed. totally wonderful.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:04 pm

      Thank you very much. I am glad that you were so moved.

      Reply
  21. Jay E. July 12, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    I applaud the courage you had to share this with the world. Beautiful, moving, and haunting. Well done, indeed.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:05 pm

      Thanks so much, Jay!

      Reply
  22. triciatierney July 12, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    Oh my! A powerful and lovely piece. I thought “not a bad way to go – looking out at the sea” and envied the bungalow. And GREAT names – I’d want to know Wildman Plankton too!

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:05 pm

      Thanks! I am so glad you enjoyed it!

      Reply
  23. bendehaldevang July 12, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    It’s beautifully written and authentic…wonderful

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      Thank you for your kind words and for reading!

      Reply
  24. Jessica&Love July 12, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    Congratulations on being freshly pressed. This piece is absolutely inspiring, thank you for sharing it with us.
    Jess

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:07 pm

      Thanks you, Jessica! Very excited about the Freshly Pressed thing. Grateful for your kind words.

      Reply
  25. saifali July 12, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    Mark Baron said what I wanted to already. I would trivialize it to call this good writing. This is much more.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:07 pm

      Wow. Thanks so much for the lovely praise. Does my heart good.

      Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:08 pm

      Thanks so much for reblogging!

      Reply
  26. Nida S. July 13, 2014 at 1:06 am

    So poignant! And real! I am following you for sure.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:09 pm

      Thank you, Nida! Grateful for your kind words and the follow!

      Reply
  27. irenedesign2011 July 13, 2014 at 1:17 am

    Very powerful post. Congratulations being Freshly Pressed 🙂

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:09 pm

      Thanks so much, Irene. It’s such a thrill. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

      Reply
  28. lesleymaman July 13, 2014 at 2:53 am

    What she needed was family – powerful

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:10 pm

      Thank you.

      Reply
  29. Willow River July 13, 2014 at 3:47 am

    I have never experienced death on a personal level before, unless you count the numerous hamsters and a dog my family went through when I was a child. I cannot imagine the heartache that must hang on after losing someone so close to you. I try to imagine sometimes, but it’s out of my depth.
    I think you’ve done an amazing job conveying those thoughts and feelings here. It’s a very depressing thing to know that someone you even vaguely know has ended their own life, and I’m sure a thousand times more when it’s your own close loved ones.
    I hope you’re holding up well. With God’s grace, she’s hopefully in a better place now. I wish you all the best. God Bless.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:12 pm

      Thank you for your thoughtful, kind comments. This was a fiction piece but enough of it is based on real life to know the pain of loss. Glad you were able to sense that. Thanks again.

      Reply
  30. My Heath July 13, 2014 at 4:11 am

    Reblogged this on MY HEALTH and commented:
    I read this and am still shocked. Whats your view?

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:12 pm

      Thanks so much for reblogging!

      Reply
  31. DoorFive July 13, 2014 at 6:02 am

    That was beautifully written. Great job! Keep it up.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      Thanks for your kind words and reading. Appreciate the encouragement!

      Reply
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  33. Melanie L. July 13, 2014 at 7:26 am

    Congrats on getting freshly pressed, Meg! This is a beautiful post. You paint such a vivid picture. And I love how you weave your story and tie it up so nicely! I’m such a fan of your work!

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

      Awww. Thanks, Melanie! You are so kind. <3

      Reply
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  35. Mia Bentley July 13, 2014 at 8:09 am

    Very powerful writing! You’ve given me inspiration for my own material. Thank you and great writing.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:15 pm

      Oh, I’m so glad! Thank you for commenting and reading, Mia!

      Reply
  36. rhymit61 July 13, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Thanks for sharing this. My mother died three years ago. I learned many interesting things about her that I didn’t know from her friends. I really miss her . Congratulations on making freshly pressed.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:16 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment. It is amazing what we learn from those we loved who have passed. So sorry about your loss…grieving takes a long time. Sigh. Best of luck to you.

      Reply
  37. creativeconfessions July 13, 2014 at 10:12 am

    This is beautiful and evoked a lot of emotions within me I can’t even begin to comprehend. Thank you so much for sharing. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:17 pm

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I am glad you found it moving.

      Reply
  38. Cynthia G. July 13, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Yikes. This is really lovely. Congratulations.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:17 pm

      Thanks so much, Cynthia!

      Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:19 pm

      Awww…I’m sorry! It’s all the circle of life…at least, I hope that’s what fiction is. Thank you for your thoughtful reading.

      Reply
  39. inNateJames July 13, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    I’ve said it before to you, Meg, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: Great galloping ghosts, you can write. Every sentence felt delicate, like crystal sitting on a wobbly table.

    Reply
    1. Meg July 14, 2014 at 7:20 pm

      Oh, Nate, you are such a kind, supportive, loving person. Thank you for your sweet self. (I love the phrase, “great galloping ghosts.” It sounds very Batman.)

      Reply

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