THE BLOG
04/13/2007 11:36 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mother and Daughter of Others Less Fortunate

This excerpt is adapted from Jessica Keener's recently completed novel, Others Less Fortunate, a story about a daughter's coming of age in the wake of her mother's tragic death.

Others Less Fortunate

The morning of the funeral, a day streaked with elephant colored clouds, I stood in a small reception room of Reuben's funeral home--returning to the same dim lit holding room, I loitered inside a cold, foggy hole, which is what life is reduced to when your mother dies. Aunt Annette thought Elliot and Robert were too young to attend. Father disagreed and for once I felt grateful toward him. It was our mother not hers.

"I think it'll be too much for them," she said.

"She's not yours," I snapped.

The organ music in the other room grew louder, a whining but distant siren with one long note ramming the air as if the organ player's finger had been scotch-taped to the key. It sounded ugly and rough. An usher in a black suit came up to me to let me know that the service would soon begin.

"Sarah. It's time. You'll sit in front, next to your father. Follow Peter."

The cool draft from the larger room sucked me toward the doorway. Father left the room, tears soaking into his face. He had gone into his own world of suffering alongside Hamlet and Lear, coveting his grief as if God had a limited supply to pass around. But Father was wrong. God had an endless source of it and it flowed through me, through Peter, through my younger brothers. Father just couldn't see.

The organ pitched higher, more insistent and unkind. As I entered the room, I heard the hush of a prurient crowd. I looked down at my feet. There is nothing worse than the pity of others. It was as if this consensus by adults to feel sorry for me was a way of levitating themselves, nailing me to a display board. It demoralized any effort to appear normal. I pulled the veil from my hat over my face, turned toward the altar and saw Mother's casket covered in white roses. I looked away. My stomach twisted and I strangled an impulse to vomit.

I stopped thinking. In the wooden pew, an usher placed a paper program in my hand. Father let out another wail and I heard the crowd shiver in response. People take on the opinion that children can't handle moments like these but it is precisely children--not adults--who are in sync in the presence of death. As the nausea subsided, I sat calm as a tulip bulb buried in the earth. In my dark pit, I simply asked Mother to stay with me, I prayed. Stay close. Closer.

I listened hard for her faint, intelligent voice. I just didn't hear her then. She might still be catching her breath. Anyone killed by a truck would need time to recover. Knocked out, she swam in a different universe, breast stroking to the surface. It would be the very opposite of her life on earth where she didn't swim at the country club, but waded up to her thighs to keep her hairdo dry. She might start playing the violin again. Her fingers would straighten; her back would no longer hurt.

Up on stage, the Rabbi David Meyers took his place at the podium and began the prayers. The organ sounded again, quietly nudging the crowd to join in. I didn't turn the pages in the prayer book. The Rabbi asked everyone to stand. Again the sounds of muted sobs came from behind. I grew dreamy and lightheaded.

Father let out another piercing groan. Aunt Annette reached over and touched his arm. Her hand crossed my lap. Her fingers were long and pudgy, tapered to nails that glistened with a pale, pink glow. Though she was taller than most women, and overweight, she had a gentle refinement. I wondered what it would have been like if she had been my mother.

Then I remembered Uncle Max. He sat up front, behind the podium, twisting the program in his hands. Lilly sat next to my aunt. She held a small, white handkerchief.

Everyone rose again. Uncle Max came to the podium and talked about Mother as a girl.

"Sarah, Peter," he said, leaning forward on the podium "Your mother had a musical gift, which she passed on to you. Cherish it." He went on to talk about her love of gardening, her artistic sensitivity. Then he turned to the casket. "Irene, you'll always be my little sister--." His voice sputtered and snapped. He walked back to the chair and put his head into his hands.

The organ started up again, another meager effort. Aluminum, grimy notes offensive to what Mother, my musical mother, should expect. I hated this crowded room. People nodded and mumbled the words. People obeyed.

Then, everyone stood and six men, including Uncle Max, but not Father, walked up to the stage and spaced themselves evenly around the casket. The Rabbi nodded. The men picked up the box and descended down three steps to the middle aisle. As they passed through the room to the back exit, a ripple of sobs and murmurs followed. An usher leaned over to me and said I could return to the small room reserved for the family. He wore a ruby on his middle finger and his brown hair was capped by a black yarmulke. My aunt came over and led me outside.

I sat in the hearse with Peter, Father, Lilly, Aunt Annette and Uncle Max, my brothers. Four policemen on motorbikes escorted us through intersections in town then led us back onto the highway.

Father bunched a handkerchief and shook his face at a spot on his knee. Peter looked out the window. I imagined Mother up front, smelling of perfume and talking gaily as if the next excursion would be the one that would take us out of our troubles, clear away the unhappiness that cluttered our life. I was deep in my capsule, with nothing to say and I could tell Robert, who sat beside Elliot, was too. He pulled at a crease in his pants, as if he had been put in this car by mistake and was waiting for someone to figure this out and take him away. He turned to the window, too, and watched the police while Elliot beside me took my hand and cried. Aunt Annette handed him a Kleenex. I listened to his sobs, quiet, gentle gasps. A policeman drove alongside us, directing the hearse driver to turn off the next exit, and then the policeman took off again. Another policeman raced ahead to forge an opening for the procession of cars that trailed us. We all turned our eyes to this motorcycle display, this speed-chasing dance. The zigzagging design distracted me. My brothers watched too. But not Father. Nothing dragged him away from the centrifuge of pain.

The cemetery looked like a prairie: scruffy, toasted brown grass and no trees. Headstones lay flush to the ground. I think it was an attempt to equalize the dead and therefore the living. No one could mount a statue larger than the next. In this place, it was the size of the family plot that mattered. Hedges cordoned off our plot. A canopy had been raised on metal poles.

The hearse stopped. Father got out first, then the others except for Peter, who waited for me, but I couldn't move my legs. A crowd gathered outside under the canopy. Elliot and Robert stood beside Father. The Rabbi put his arm around my younger brothers, bent over and whispered something to each of them--another adult outside the family, taking charge. Elliot nodded. Robert shook his head. Other cars drove up and parked along the roadways that sketched lines through the grassy field. Peter turned to me.

"Coming, Sarah?"

I looked over at a mound of shoveled dirt and shook my head.

He moved to close the car door.

"Don't shut it," I said.

The Rabbi looked over at me and nodded.

Even in this chilled season, I couldn't think about her without thinking of her roses. The garden lay brown and dormant now, but in summer, mother's weather, the roses appeared everywhere--in crystal vases in the front entryway, in single stem vases lined up on the kitchen windowsill like models poising in a fashion magazine. Every other day, she emptied the vases and replenished them.

"Makes them last twice as long," she explained.

Each stem was stripped down to display the lean form of its silhouette against sunlight. And the garden, of course, in full bloom was rife with roses. Bushes and bushes of roses.

When I walk outside in the morning, I feel the plants trembling, bending toward me in greeting.

All summer long, she passed hours in her wide brimmed hat kneeling among the thorns, snipping and pruning. Father sat close to the house on a lawn chair as Bennie Goodman's clarinet swan dived out of his office window. On those warm afternoons she secured her glass of Scotch in a hole she scooped in the soft ground.

But to me it seemed that roses were meant to fail at every moment. Just as one bush might bloom, another wilted under attacks of bugs tinier than my eye could see except for the damage done. I can only conjecture that this was precisely why my mother adored them.

I believed she could have won prizes for her flowers if she had tried. Every person who came to the house said so. Such a profusion of roses, including vases of dried buds that stayed all year on display in the downstairs vanity and her bureau top. It got so I couldn't smell them anymore.

Occasionally, she made arrangements for the local hospital. For these, she used cakes of green oasis. Her designs, like her style, were spare--not more than eight roses in a vase cut different lengths, with some leafy greens to fill out the spaces.

"Too many in the vase takes your eye from the individual flower. No rose is the same, you know. They each have character and temperament."

Perhaps she was mourning her garden at this time of year. Her flower heads had turned brown, her petals wrinkled as old peoples' faces. The smell of mulch, those cans and pails of mixtures labeled and shelved in the garage, those bitter odors are all that remained, until another spring.

The officials in black overcoats passed out a sheet of prayers. The Rabbi said something about the life of loved ones lived on in spirit and memory. The cantor sang in Hebrew. Then the men from the cemetery went over to the coffin and began lowering it.

I pulled the door shut and looked out through the window. The Rabbi walked over to Father and handed him the shovel. Father punched it into the mound of dirt, then stood at the edge of the hole and let the dirt fall. He fell apart again, wailing. Peter put his arm on Father, who hunched over, sobbing into his hands. Max took the shovel and filled it with dirt, dark and crumbling like chocolate cake. He flung the dirt into the hole and then he too collapsed in tears, turning toward Granpa's stone, whose grave lay in the same large plot. Lilly walked over and touched his arm. Then the Rabbi handed Peter the shovel.

My older brother went over to the dirt hill and shoveled deep into the middle, filling the shovel to the brim. He walked to the edge and turned the shovel upside down. But half of the wet dirt clung to the metal, so Peter shook the shovel then started violently shaking it to free the dirt. The Rabbi came over and gently took the shovel out of his hand. With Elliot, the Rabbi held the handle and helped Elliot push a small clump over the ledge.

One by one, attendees formed a line behind the mound of dirt and took turns with the shovel. I couldn't imagine Mother in there. I saw her floating above us, a shape long and silken as a scarf that stretched over the whole cemetery. The scarf fluttered in a light wind. A few gray clouds worried themselves into one large cloud in the distance. I would have liked to join the sky as it moved over the horizon to find out where she had gone.