…I take another deep, cleansing breath, slip on my glasses, open the door, and proceed out of the diner like a normal person.
The weather is outstanding, warm and beautiful. I’m sure Edna is thankful for this. I’m sure everyone attending Archie’s funeral will comment on what a gorgeous day it is.
People are predictable. In the winter, they stand in a huddled mass of tears, matted down in thick wool coats, scarves wrapped tightly around necks, hands in leather gloves. In the summer, the warm air rings of sorrow and mourners sigh in sadness as cotton jackets and black dresses blow in the breeze. To me it doesn’t matter what season a funeral takes place; I enjoy them just the same.
I stride into the chapel and attempt to hide my pride. While searching for Edna Siden, Archie’s wife, I nod and exchange sympathetic looks with others. I stick my hand into my pocket and finger the obit from the paper, hoping the words will magically transfer into my subconscious. I feel the coarse paper, think about the heavy black ink rubbing off onto my skin, as if the dead’s souls are rubbing on to me. This one reads: Archie Siden, 82, beloved husband of Edna, father to Jack, and brother to Eli, passed away on Thursday due to complications from a heart attack. Archie was a handbag manufacturer and the first to design the Audrey Bag. It looked like a small, round hatbox turned sideways. Audrey Hepburn donned it in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I take a quick scan and survey the mahogany-colored room before seeing if anyone looks familiar. Though the chapel is crowded, I’m able to pick Edna out instantly. Grief is inked onto her face like a large red birthmark. A temporary tattoo of sadness for the permanently widowed.
Edna is a small, plump, gentle-looking woman who appears to be in her seventies. Several people are at her side. They have formed a protective ring around her, ready to catch her should she fall over, should her body finally register the shock. I approach slowly, making my way through her line of bodyguards.
“Hello, I’m Zoe. “Her face is still. Frozen.
“You don’t know me, but I worked with your husband years ago,” I tell her. “In fact, Archie gave me my first job,” My palms are still wet from racing, and I wipe them on my skirt before reaching for her gloved hand to hold in mine. She looks into my eyes and her tears start. “He was a very kind man. Always ready to listen, always had a smile on his face.”
She tightens her grip, half smiles, thinking about what I’ve just said. I can tell she’s recalling a past memory, flipping through a catalogue of moments when Archie was especially sweet. She gives me a firm, quick squeeze as someone takes her arm, ushering her along.
Fifteen minutes later I’m seated in the back pew with strangers. A lonely, eerie silence envelops us as the smell of wood and other people’s perfume mix together. I let the organ music drift through me as I stare at the mourners, captivated by their closeness, by the bond they all possess. I watch as they enter and take a seat in the chapel: husbands and wives who sit close together, hands gripping hands, one the supporter, one the consoled; gay men who clasp each other, hands around backs of heads, and tight hugs; small children who long to run up to the casket and are restrained by their parents. But mostly, I’m envious of sisters who sit so close together that they look as if they are trying to become one body, a mush of memories and history congealed like a thin strand of popcorn hung purposely on a Christmas tree.
Archie’s brother, Eli, is first to speak. He clears his throat and grips the edges of the wooden podium. He talks of a big brother who protected him from school bullies, who took him in during the Great Depression, gave him a job at the factory, and eventually made him a partner when the market crashed and brokers were out of work. He speaks of a supportive, smart, family man. Someone I’d have liked to know.
Later, Edna introduces me to others as one of Archie’s favorite employees from the old days. She beams like a proud parent as her lady friends ooh and ahh, telling me how nice it was for me to pay my respects, how happy it would have made Archie to know he was so well remembered.
“You never forget a man who does so much good,” I say. They nod, eyes glassy.
For the most part, I stay silent. I listen to others who tell stories and share rare glimpses of the recently deceased. I eavesdrop, collecting pieces of random information, all of which I will use to compose my own story, braiding it together into a tapestry of fabricated memories.
Before people leave for the cemetery, Edna asks if I have her address. She and Archie’s family will be sitting shiva. Do I want to stop by?
”I’d love to come, but I’ve got to visit my father at the nursing home,” I say. She smiles. “Such a dear,” she adds, putting her hand on my cheek. It rests there for a moment, soft and warm. There’s an honest and exposed sadness about her which makes me feel terrible for lying. Then she leans forward and kisses my forehead ever so gently. For an instant, I’m five years old, standing on a stool with my name on it, leaning over a porcelain sink, looking into the mirror in my grandmother’s bathroom. I smell Edna’s rosy perfume as it merges with the scent of Ivory soap, which my grandmother used. Her hands, smooth as silk, would lather up my dirty face, rinse it clean, and pat it dry. Afterward, she’d lean in and kiss me right above the bridge of my nose. My grandmother’s lips were tender and warm, like Edna’s gloved hand.
For a moment, I can’t catch my breath. I just want to stand here for the rest of my life with Edna Rosen’s hand on my face. Unexpected tears well up in my eyes. I do my best to blink them away. Real tears are not usually allowed during these processions. They are reserved for the quiet darkness of my apartment.
Edna removes a handkerchief from her pocket. Red petals line the corners; patches of lipstick are smattered in the middle. From my angle, it looks like a small abstract painting. She dabs her eyes. “Oh, sweetheart, don’t cry. He would be so happy you were here.”
This, this is why I go to funerals.
Excerpted from The Joy of Funerals: a novel in stories by Alix Strauss published by Palagram Press, October 2, 2023