You could hear the back door opening and a tentative voice intruding into the dark, refrigerated hallway with an inquisitive “Hello?” She made her way towards the lighted office at the other end, and found an officious-sounding man who greeted her pleasantly. “Hi!” she said breezily, as if she were at a picnic instead of the local funeral parlor, “My name is Laurie and I’m here to pick up my father’s ashes to take them to the cemetery—Y’all just called my mother’s house to tell her that they just arrived.” The officious-sounding man confirmed her pronouncement and discreetly corrected her by saying, “Yes, Ms. Covelle, we have your father’s cremains right here.” If you knew Laurie, you’d know that she hated euphemisms for their sniveling cowardice, for their dishonesty disguised as refinement and good taste; but she reserved her disdain for the next volley. “Perhaps you’d be interested in purchasing a very nice urn? We have several very attractive and tasteful styles available. Would you like to see them?” “No, thank you,” she answered politely. “My father would totally hate spending the money on an urn. In fact, if he could have seen that beautiful coffin my mother bought for him, he would have died all over again. I can still hear him saying, ‘Don’t forget, Rosie, just a plain pine box—no frills.’” The officious-sounding man very reverently murmured, “I understand” and placed the plastic box on the solid wooden desk with an only slightly perceptible thud, the very merest indication of his annoyance with the always-honest Laurie. A shuffling of paperwork ensued: receipts crisply torn along perforated lines, certified death certificates folded and reverently eased into heavy cardstock envelopes, pens scratching no-nonsense signatures at all the X’s, and finally, the officious-sounding man reminded her not to forget the cremains. She was a little surprised that there was no discreet sturdy paper bag with twine handles for the plastic box, but she quickly adjusted to the reality of having to pick up the plastic box with her own two bare hands without the ceremonious intervention of paper. It was heavier than she thought. “What is this? About 10, 15 pounds?” “Yes,” he said quite officiously, “just about.”
She shuddered as she carried the paperwork and the plastic box into the oppressive heat of that blindingly white July day. Inside the car, it must have been 120 degrees. After rolling down the windows, she said, “Well, Paw, who knew that you’d be taking your last ride with me?” She put the box on the right front seat and wedged it tightly between her purse and the seat back. “OK, Paw, you just sit tight now…,” and she pulled the seatbelt across the purse and clicked the metal connector into the buckle. It’s not like her to be nervous, but she had this awful feeling that the box would tip over, and she didn’t have the heart to put the box on the floor.
Before she cranked up the engine, she said, “You know, Paw, when Mommy told me that you hadn’t had any bagels for a few weeks before you died because your sugar had gone up, I cried my eyes out. I don’t know why, but it made your dying so much worse. She told me that right before they were going to take you away to be cremated in New Jersey. Right away, I called up the funeral parlor and they said they’d take you away at 10:30. Weezie and I went to the bagel shop and I bought you a couple of pumpernickel bagels to put into the coffin. We had plenty of time to get there, but then there was this crazy traffic jam and we were stuck right in front of the Staten Island Savings Bank for what seemed like forever. Finally, it cleared, and we went speeding up New Dorp Lane. We ran into the funeral parlor just a tad past 10:30 and they said you were gone by just two or three minutes. And we cried, and then we laughed, and then we cried some more. Then we went home. And we dug two nice holes in that little strip of dirt in the front yard that Mommy didn’t cover with cement so you could grow your tomato plants every summer. And we buried the bagels, just for you. And then we cried and then we laughed and then we cried some more.” It was hard to tell if she was laughing or crying now, but she blew her nose, started the car, and began the short trip to the Moravian Cemetery.
“OK, Paw, now here’s the song Weezie and I sang for you that time—remember? You got such a kick out of it.” And then, loud enough to wake up the dead, she sang: “I’d like to hear some funky Dixie Land, pretty momma come and take me by the hand, by the hand, hand, take me by the hand, pretty momma, gonna dance with ya Daddy all night long, I’d like to hear some funky Dixie Land, pretty momma come and take me by the hand, by the hand, hand, take me by the hand, pretty momma, gonna dance with ya Daddy all night long…”*
She was in pretty good spirits as the car smoothly ascended the long, curved driveway of Moravian Cemetery. She parked the car, shut off the engine, unhooked the seat belt and picked up the plastic box. She said, “Well, Paw, I guess this is goodbye, so I’ll say it now. I’ll always love you. You’re the best father in the whole world.” She kissed the plastic box and cradled it in her arms. “I’ll miss you forever.”
And even though she couldn’t hear me, I said, “I already miss you forever—and I’ll always love you, too, Laur.”
Music Credit: “When I’ve Gone The Last Mile Of The Way” – The Alabama Spirituals (youtube.com)
*Doobie Brothers, “Black Water”