It was a hot afternoon, which was to be expected in mid-May. Wool was proving to be a bad wardrobe choice. Lara tugged at her dress collar, trying to unstick it from her neck before she stepped into the house. Ellie saw her from the kitchen window and waved enthusiastically, in her large red dress. She bobbed like an airborne geranium.
“She’s wearing red. Why on earth is she wearing red?” Lara mused to herself. It was not the first time that her sister’s wardrobe choices had baffled her. Today, of all days, she thought might be an exception. Evidently not. Lara stepped over the threshold into the kitchen, and Ellie bounded up to greet her.
“It’s so good to see you! You look — you look well.”
“Can I take your coat?” The life-sized geranium asked, looking sidewise at the heavy black trench coat, the lapels of which Lara now gripped with both hands.
“I’d rather—” Sweat beaded afresh on the back of her neck. “You know what, sure.”
Ellie stowed the coat and made several offers of food and drink; Lara accepted ice water. The grandfather clocked chimed half past 12, and Ellie ran downstairs to gather the last of the snacks before the guests arrived. Lara sipped her water, letting the ice cube rest against her lip as she gazed out the window. It was an obnoxiously beautiful day, really, it ought to have rained. As it was, she stood with her ice water in a black wool dress, feeling appropriately uncomfortable in the too-warm kitchen, and as her feet went numb in her court heels, she wondered how many times she had stood in this very spot with her grandmother, putting the finishing glaze on a massive apple pie. Eva used to look up through the bay window every time, and on days like this, would murmur, “You know, you brought the sun with you today, sweetheart.”
There was still food in the cupboards, left over from Eva’s last few days. Cookies, peanut butter, marshmallows, the kinds of things you fed someone to try and keep their weight up.
Eva was the only grandmother who would give you Cheetos as a mainstay of a Shabbos dinner, which she excused because she was a candle-lighting atheist, or, as her husband put it, a pyromaniac. Still, she was a romantic. She knew the Sabbath prayers by heart, having learned them phonetically. She said, “As long as your heart was in the right place, someone was sure to hear you.”
Lara suddenly found herself in front of the bedroom door. It wasn’t a long journey from the kitchen to the bedroom in that tiny rented house, but she hadn’t felt her feet move; maybe it was the shoes.
She tried the door, but it was locked.
“She’s being taken care of,” came a voice behind her.
“How do you mean?”
“She’s being prepared for viewing.”
“So, they’ve already embalmed her.”
“Why do we have to embalm her?”
“Because when people’s bodies rot, Lara, they get smelly and ugly and it makes people sad.”
Lara blinked. Her uncle’s tone confused her, so she spoke slowly back.
“No, I know what the process of embalming is designed to do. I want to know why she was embalmed, given that I’m pretty sure she didn’t want to be viewed at all.”
Her uncle took a step back. He had not spoken to Lara in many years, and it was taking him some time to recognize that his niece could both drink and vote, and probably not for his candidate.
Ellie walked over and laid a firm hand on her uncle’s arm before he could respond.
“Lara, honey, it wasn’t specified in the will.”
“But shouldn’t we remember how she lived?”
“They were Catholics, honey, remember? And grandpa was cremated, so he didn’t really mind either way.”
The lock on the bedroom door clicked, and the coroner gestured for them to come in.
Lara walked over to the open casket and gazed down at the woman inside. She touched the thick, shiny wood.
“Isn’t there some kind of shroud we can use to cover her?” she whispered to Ellie.
Her sister stiffened slightly. “People will want to say goodbye; they didn’t get to with grandpa. Speaking of which, we should head to the church.”
Lara and Ellie were both young when their grandfather died. To be fair, it would be odd if they, too, had been old, but they remembered the ashes and lots of hugging. And a lot of incense. Catholics were really into that. Karl’s will had been extensive, full of footnotes and asides. Eva, his wife, was not so decisive. But what she lacked in organizational skills, she made up for in drama. A short, birdlike woman prone to mood swings, she had oscillated between talking constantly about the expense of caskets and threatening to survive them all out of sheer spite. At 93 she very nearly had. The weeks leading up to her death reverberated with slamming doors, raised, tense voices, and group emails written in haste as her dementia dictated one will and testament to her son, and the opposite to her daughter.
The funeral itself proved to be the longest hour of Lara’s life. To her surprise, Lara found herself giving the opening eulogy, because her cousin had a bout of stage fright. Nobody had told her this, so she made her way through some Seamus Heaney quotes that Eva had particularly loved and lowered her sunglasses when she returned to her pew.
The venue was not the real issue. The fact that they had hired a priest rather than a rabbi was more for the comfort of the Madison Park crowd than anything else. Karl was a semi-practicing Catholic, so maybe it was best to hedge bets on the off-chance Eva would get to see him again on the other side. After all, Eva had always attended church with him, which was easy enough since he only bothered with Christmas and Easter. It was only after Karl failed to wake up from his afternoon nap that Eva began taking Lara to shul. The cantor had kissed Eva on both cheeks and high-fived Lara.
After that, Eva’s Shabbos dinners became a semi-regular escape. She never served gefilte fish, because she couldn’t stand the texture. She ignored the whole kosher schtick because Manischewitz made a mockery of wine, and her husband had loved bacon, so she carried on the habit, for his sake, of course. Lara’s parents never came to Sabbath at Eva’s house, but word spread among her school friends that Friday night was pizza night at Eva’s house, and there were usually musicals playing by the time dessert was served. The children would later find themselves humming or mumbling the Hebrew blessings in the hallways, occasionally switching into “If I Were a Rich Man” when they forgot the words. Temple De Hirsch Sinai had rainbows painted on its sidewalk outside, so when Eva spoke her Catholic husband’s name during the yahrzeit portion of the service, the whole congregation stood with her.
Dinner at home the night he died was jovial, a celebration of his life. But there was no challah, and Lara’s parents did not go to shul. Eva didn’t mind. Lara stood and hummed along with the cantor, whose name was Yaakov, and who had given her a high-five. So, there was no challah, but there were candles. The family sang “Amazing Grace” around the table and they ate and talked until the sun went down.
She stood by the bedroom door now, watching the guests flow back into the house. Orcas Island was a casual place. She noted that only a handful of people wore black. Of course, how silly of her. This was meant to be a celebration of life. The casket lay open at the far end of the bedroom, and she wondered if anyone realized that Eva wasn’t really in there. She hadn’t been for days. The wax figure looked more Russian in death than she ever had in life. She would not be buried out of the Old Country, no matter where she lay. The Old Country always took back its own. Her cold forehead was kissed repeatedly by friends and well-wishers; those who did not wish to touch the corpse laid a gentle hand on the edge of the casket, and so it went.
Many of the guests did not recognize the immediate family.
“Ah! So, you’re the granddaughter!”
Lara nodded to a man two heads shorter than she was.
“Eva and Karl were wonderful. You must miss them so much.”
Lara blinked back sharp tears, she nodded mutely again.
She did not say that she missed Eva the day the old woman lost her touch and couldn’t use her walking stick anymore. She did not say that she missed her grandmother the day she forgot how much she had spent at Nordstrom’s and refused to stop shopping. Not the day that she left the kettle boiling while they were out at lunch. By the fourth visit to Harborview Medical Center, Lara stopped saying “goodbye” and simply said “I love you.” It saved time.
She missed Eva the first time she had a panic attack in the darkened sanctuary in the temple, as she prayed silently and tried not to dampen the prayer book. Her eyes ran like leaky faucets that night. She prayed that Eva would have the strength to just let go. She prayed this did not make her a bad grandchild, but she could never be sure. It wasn’t just for her; it was so that her dad would no longer have to take phone calls from a dark hospital bed at all hours of the night. It was so that her mother could stop fainting from worry.
Yes, of course she missed Eva. She took a sip of wine and looked over at her sister. Ellie seemed light, lit up, maybe it was the fluorescent red dress. Actually, she seemed relieved that it was all over. She made the rounds with a plate of cheese and crackers, proffering them like a waiter at the Ritz.
The short man was still talking.
“And I really appreciated the homily. When did she die?”
“Three days ago.”
“Ah, she died on Easter, how appropriate. Anyway, she’s with Karl now.”
The mention of Easter balled Lara’s hand into a fist, which she quickly shoved into her pocket. She leaned awkwardly against the wall, trying to hide the unexpected twitch. Her fingers brushed against metal. She felt a chain, and then…a tiny star. She smiled and agreed that she was sure Karl would have appreciated the timing. The chain dug into her finger, and she excused herself to visit with the wax work.
The coffin seemed so far away. It was not large room, but the heat simmered up from the cream carpet and it took several long seconds for Lara to make her way to the long flowerbox. There shouldn’t have been flowers on the coffin at all. But then again, the viewing itself probably should have been out of the question in the first place, so did it really matter? The red roses swam before Lara’s eyes. She didn’t realize she was allergic, she should probably get that checked. She pulled the little bit of metal out of her pocket – it was a Star of David necklace given to her by a friend at temple. The star winked in the lamp light. Lara looked up at the ceiling and laid a finger to her lips. She placed the star in her grandmother’s upturned palm. A hand lighted gently on her shoulder. Lara flinched and looked around. Ellie was standing next to her wearing a sad smile.
“You can put it around her neck, if you like.”
Lara stared at her. Did Ellie know?
“Are you sure?”
“Sure. I’ll do it.”
Ellie reached in and gently tucked the chain behind Eva’s neck and positioned the star on her very still chest.
The floating geranium leaned over and hugged Lara tightly and whispered, “Baruch Dayan Ha’emet.” Blessed is the true judge.
“Is that how you say it?”
Lara smiled and leaned her head on her sister’s shoulder, suddenly exhausted.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s how you say it.”