Funereal by Lisa Romeo

My Noni, my mother’s mother, died when I was eight. My mother still cried 30 and 40 years later, on the anniversary day, the same date her first granddaughter was born, though the timing didn’t mitigate, maybe because the child is not her favorite grandchild, or because nothing good softens that loss. She cried each time she heard certain Italian songs, especially those on a scratchy black and white movie she had on videotape. She cried every March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, because her mother’s first name was Josephine. She cried on the phone every May when she said she was sending me $20 so I could buy flowers to put on her mother’s grave, which I never otherwise visited, not because I didn’t love my Noni and not because I don’t miss her, but because I don’t believe in cemeteries and embalmed burial and because I don’t think Noni is there, under the dirt and flowers, and because I prefer to think about those who have died instead of visiting them. But I always said okay, okay I’ll do the flowers, but some years I put the money in my wallet and forgot or ignored the chore, and used it toward new eyeglasses for one of my sons, basketball league sign-up for the other, lunch for me, flowers for the front of my house, my own garden that grows above something else, but not bodies. The last time it happened, the last time my mother was able to read a calendar and send the money, I used the twenty to buy graham crackers, bananas, and packages of vanilla and chocolate pudding so I could make an icebox cake like the kind Noni usually had waiting on Sundays. I always said, “Yes I took care of the grave flowers,” because in my own way I did. And now my mother’s body lies in an above-ground mausoleum drawer, which I was asked to purchase a few months before she died, at a cemetery five miles from my house, not the same cemetery as my Noni, but not far, a cemetery I could visit easily enough, though I don’t. I had the choice to purchase a mausoleum drawer with or without a bronze vase affixed on the front. I chose one without.       
A few years after my father dies, I have a dream that my father has died, and in my dream I go to the funeral home to make arrangements. I’m sorry, Lisa, but didn’t we, I mean, I know we did have your father’s services here last year, says Joe, the friendly neighborhood funeral director whose kids once played soccer with mine. Yes, of course, I answer, slightly amazed that someone in his line of work could be so obtuse. But  you see, it’s happened again, I explain. Oh, I see, Joe says, opening a file. Well, then. I remind him: no flowers.
At the funeral homes I went to when I was a kid (and I went to a lot of them, being from a large extended Italian-Catholic family), there was always a basement room, a lounge they called it, where I was sent along with all of my cousins under 16. Going to the funeral home was never scary for me then, because I knew I’d get to play in the lounge, unsupervised by adults, except for those who strode through occasionally on their way to the restrooms, or to smoke a cigarette. On both my mother’s and father’s side of the family, it was necessary to attend the wakes of everyone who died, however distantly related, and even if they were not related by blood but were still “relatives.” In those days, in the 1960s, in suburban New Jersey, none of the adults gave any thought about whether funeral homes were a good environment or a bad environment or any kind of environment for young children. We always went along because we always went along. But then, I reached an age when I didn’t have to go along everywhere, and I could decide to stay at home instead of going to funeral homes, and one reason I gave myself was that I hated the smell of funeral homes, the smell of death. And it wasn’t until I was in college and my sorority house was filled with floral arrangements for a dance that I realized it was the smell of flowers that I detested, a smell I would forever after associate with death, even when I became a rather good gardener and grew flowers in my front yard in vibrant hues, but spent a long time at the nursery choosing any new plant, leaning over to smell them and feeling satisfied only when I couldn’t smell anything other than earth. If my husband ever brought me flowers, or a client sent thank-you flowers, or my kids ever sweetly picked flowers for me, I smiled and put them in water but put the vase in a far corner. And even now, I don’t send flowers to funerals, ever.     

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