75-year-old Rosie wore tan polyester pants and a leopard spotted sweater to her husband’s wake. It was a Tuesday, and although she normally had her hair done once a week on Wednesdays she did so early in honor of the occasion. Like a restaurant hostess, Rosie smiled broadly at each guest as they entered the funeral home, her face a brighter shade of pink than usual due to the excitement of it all. Rosie and I worked together and she greeted me enthusiastically.
“There were probably 200 people here, even a whole group from the fire department! He was a firefighter, you know. My Romy, he was the orneriest cuss when he was alive, but everybody loved him anyway. Isn’t that right, Lucy?” she asked her youngest daughter, much smaller in stature than the rest of the family. Lucy, mouth quivering, nodded obligingly. Indeed, the town turned out to recognize a home-grown boy, his family having moved no farther away than 15 miles down the road.
It was a motley crew who assembled in front of the closed casket, more of an afterthought than the reason for such a somber event. Small groups chatted and laughed and slapped each other on the back while Romy lay in the dark. I sat in a metal folding chair and said a prayer for this man who was so hard and mean that he refused to let his wife put another outlet in the bedroom when their appliances warranted it; who didn’t allow any changes to his routine or house, ever, not even moving one stick of furniture from its appointed site. One of the first things Rosie did when he was admitted to the county home, when she knew he would never walk through the door, her door, again, was to hire contractors to rip out the ancient bathroom and give herself a decent toilet. She then moved her efforts into the kitchen and installed new flooring to replace the dark, stained, torn piece that she had labored to clean through four decades of children and holiday dinners. Finally the electrician arrived, alleviating the fear of fire that had haunted her because of the highway of extension cords that snaked around the perimeter of her home.
I joined the line to pay my respects just as Rosie was busy reminiscing with old friends, commanding center stage attention. It bothered me that she was unaware her left pant leg was caught up in her winter boot but she was busy making a point. “You were lucky to get 10 cents a quart for strawberries. I remember when I was twelve years old and got 2 cents! Two cents! Saved up all those pennies for one whole summer and bought myself two new dresses and a ukelele.” I gave her one last hug and headed for the exit where the two men who owned the dimly lit memorial chapel, consisting of fake wood paneling, plastic flowers in recycled vases and a vaguely medicinal odor that I didn’t want to think about both raced to get the door for me.
The sharp cold night bit at my ears. I wouldn’t attend the funeral tomorrow, but knew that Rosie would be satisfied to see the fire department turn out in their dress blues no matter the weather. Rosie gave herself only one day off after the funeral before returning to work. She did not appear glum or sad; in fact, her greeting was bright and the customary spring in her step had not faltered. Rosie was all business as I offered my condolences once more and the chance for her to go home, but she quickly rebuffed my suggestion.
“No, thanks. No need of it. I’m fine here. We all expected he wouldn’t last long once he went to the home. What I need to do is get back to work. I still have a life, even if he’s gone!” Her perfectly coiffed head bobbed emphatically as she made her point.
“Well, if you need anything, just ask,” I replied. She acknowledged me with a smile and said absent-mindedly.
“By the way, I may get a call from the painters. I’m going to have my kitchen done over.”
Eternally optimistic, Adele at almost 80 rarely complained and saw only the best in others in order to maintain a sense of denial amidst her sunny disposition. Her first marriage lasted 30 years and this second one of 25 years was to a man that everyone, including his children, knew to be a son of a bitch who only became more controlling and miserable as his illness progressed over the course of five years. He died in agony and went quickly, mercifully, not so much for him but for her. She’d suffered enough having spent over half her life being married to disappointing men.
The piece she wrote about her husband for the minister was in her usual positive outlook, focusing on his good qualities that were somewhat true. When the invitation was issued for a family member to come forward and offer a remembrance or two, no one moved. And so the minister resorted to what Adele wrote as a eulogy, words that she never intended to be read aloud but had written with such generosity that it appeared otherwise. Someone sitting amongst his children snickered to hear a description of a man he or she did not know, selfish behavior that embarrassed his grieving widow.
After the funeral she showed me his garden outside the back door, a raised bed that could be reached from his wheelchair. I wondered if he knew that last summer’s garden would be a final effort. An old metal antenna was stuck in the bed as a post for his tomato plants, which produced a mighty yield. I resisted yanking it out as a way to assert the fact that he was finally gone. Sitting around the kitchen table moments later, she took a sip from her water glass and cleared her throat.
“Poor John. I imagine he knew he’d never work in the garden this year.” She paused in consideration of her next thought. “Well, there’s one thing you can say about him. At least he knew how to grow good tomatoes.” Months later on Father’s Day, she visited the cemetery and was pleased to see that his children had erected the headstone. She spread a blanket on the ground to plant two items; a bouquet of silk flowers she assured me were so high-end that even a botanist couldn’t tell they were fake, and a tomato plant.