a memory

Author: angiem, 01 14th, 2014

Dan Dinescu Photography

Dan Dinescu Photography

Arad, Romania

January 1981

The snow whirls thick snowflakes over the houses, and the bare trees resemble silver pins in a downy cushion. The icy gusts of wind that rattled the shuttered windows throughout the night, have since died down. It is late morning. The heavens touch the shingled rooftops, bloated and heavy. It is the week of the worst snowstorm the city has seen for years. The snow spills and spills on buildings and houses and streets and people and sheds and gardens. From inside the house, the entire world appears to be suspended in a snow globe: a white bubble of silence.

We’re all gathered together in my dad’s childhood home, the mud brick house with walls three feet thick and double windows. We are all together – my dad and his six siblings, their spouses, the children – all gathered around the open gleaming casket of my grandmother.  She is oblivious to us, her eyes shut, her hands folded on the white silk of her blouse, the blouse she had commissioned from the seamstress for just this purpose: her death, her burial.

We are not alone. There are people everywhere, in this room, in the next, in the hallway. They have come to pay their respects. They come in their Sunday best, with polished shoes, and starched collars.

Manners aren’t forgotten in a time such as this, no matter the weather. They sit and stand and cry and say a word of kindness. They lightly kiss the offered hand of the women, with a quiet: “I kiss your hand madam.” They embrace the men, and kiss them on the cheek. Their voices are hushed, their eyes downcast.

They come with homemade bread and chicken soup and pork sausage.  They clear the tiled front steps and shovel the pathway from the courtyard gate to the front door. They chop wood, stack it, and feed the orange mouth of the fireplace. The air is stale with their smell: with the smell of sweat and garlic and sausage.

Grandmother’s sons howl outside the door like little children. They slobber into each other’s necks. Why did their mother have to die? What will they do without her? Who will they run to with their problems – for a word of advice, acceptance, their favorite mutton stew?

In the beginning of it all, when the doctor gathered all six of them and their sister, in the cold blue and white tiled hospital hallway, when he told them to take their mother home, that there was nothing he could do, they seemed prepared. They had the front room cleaned out from top to bottom, dusted the heavy furniture, cleaned the emerald green brocade window drapes, beat the rugs. They ordered the most expensive coffin, packed the pantry with pickled green tomatoes and cucumbers, and called the minister to come and anoint her head for the transition.

They butchered a hog and threw a party, invited family from near and far. Grandmother said her goodbyes unhurried, in a civilized manner, amidst tears and smiles and cakes. Her children sat with her and waited, moistened her parched lips, held her trembling hand, fed her tiny spoonfuls of soup, and positioned her frail body.

But something must have happened to them when she crossed the threshold from the known to the unknown world. Because something in them is out of whack.

They walk in circles and press white-tipped fingers into their temples. They hold on to each other. Their eyes are wild. Their hair stands on end. They moan and rock on the balls of their feet. They are unashamed in their sorrow. They are not the fathers we remember. Their pain scares us. They scare us. They do not see us anymore. They do not see their wives or their friends. They only see each other. They only see their dear mother.

When the adults leave to relieve their cramped legs and bursting bladders, when their stomachs rumble for the world to hear, begging to be fed, the children sneak into the room. We make our way to the coffin, peer into our grandmother’s face. We dare each other to touch her, we move the lips to see if they really are held together by a pin, we imagine we see her eyelids quiver, we giggle nervously that we are so daring near the presence of Death. We run out into the hallway terrified when a loud knocking comes from where her feet should be, and collapse into tears of relief when one of our older cousins admits that he hid under the table to scare us. We get our ears pulled by one of the aunts for our lack of disrespect, get sent into the kitchen to wash the dishes and clear the tables.

Outside the window the falling snow blurs the edges of the acacias across the street. The crows and the ravens begin to croak. The room slowly empties. The fire in the tiled fireplace has died. The crying has stopped. The inevitable moment is here. The horse-drawn glass hearse has arrived. It is time to line up for the funeral march. The minister sends everyone out of the room. This is the uncles’ final moment alone with their mother. They shut the door after themselves. Shut everyone else out.

My sister and cousins and I glue our ears to the cold panel of the door. We hear muffled voices and then, much later, the tap-tapping of the lid being nailed down.

Our mothers seize our arms and pull us away. They bundle us in layers of wool and feathers and send us outside.

Helping fingers point us to where we should go.

Our breaths are smoke in the frozen air, our noses and lips turned to marble. We touch them with gloved hands from time to time, to make sure they are still there. The snow settling on our eyelashes prompts us to imagine ourselves as old people.

We hunch our backs and lean on imaginary canes. We get a fit of giggles and feel guilty for them. So we imagine ourselves old and dying, dead already, and we are serious again.

Family, friends, neighbors, and what seems to be the entire city, are packed on the narrow cobblestoned street, shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to accompany grandmother’s soulless body to its hole in the frozen ground.

“It took all night to dig the hole.” The whisper passes through the crowd. The whisper tickles our ears but makes no sense. We haven’t met Death before. We don’t know he likes to take the bodies with him into the ground.

After the coffin is secured inside the hearse, after the uncles remember to take their places next to their wives, after the wives account for the children, after a moment of silence, we march through the icy streets, led by a brass band.

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6 Responses to “a memory”

  1. Stephanie @ La Dolce Vita Says:

    What a powerfully written piece. You really have a way with words. So evocative.

  2. Ava Says:

    This memory reads like poetry. Love, love, love!!!

  3. Victoria Says:

    Wonderfully written Angie. Every detail is perfect and creates the scene in my mind.

  4. Elena Says:

    I like reading about the traditions of your childhood in Romania. I wish we did that here. My mom died after I got married years ago and I still am not over it.

  5. Dale Frounfelter Says:

    …so beautiful my friend.

  6. angiem Says:

    Thank you for your lovely compliments, dear friends. And thank you for reading this super long piece. :D

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