It was hot in Grandmama’s apartment where we gathered for the family tradition of testing the corpse. Grandmama always liked it hot and never wanted any of us to act on her behalf to ensure there was a fix to the heat level in her particular suite of rooms. She always said, it is good for my circulation and supports my tropical sensibilities. She had the complexion of Martha Washington, a regal American bearing that suggested nothing of anything having to do with tropical climes or a constitution able to endure such. And there she was dead in the dining room, laid on the table, in the manner of our long line of southern ancestors.
“Horrible, just horrible,” said Mama beneath her breath while she poured a drink from the sideboard. My sister and I had been pressed into hopping on a same day flight from our respective colleges because of the body lying in an airless room, having been assisted to another realm of existence by a death doula. My ministering daddy was there of course, to press the holy oil onto her forehead and heart, to lay the family coins on her eyes. He was Grandmama’s only son.
Mama wasn’t amenable to such barbaric customs she called them. “Cremate me, right away,” she said while for once she offered each of us a whiskey though we were beneath the legal age.
“When I die they will carry me out feet first,” said Grandmama when she and I were making sugar cookies in her tiny kitchen, her blue veined arms and hands, delicate as china, working over the dough and helping me shape it into little balls. “You want to know why?” I could always count on Grandmama to tell me the truth. “So I don’t look back and take you with me, so I don’t drag you down to the grave.” And she wiped off the residue of dough on her hands and took a long sip of her now cool oolang tea.
Grandmama would have thought it rebellious that Mama wore bright orange to a deceased’s household, foolhardy even given the dead’s propensity to call people who did not present themselves in shadow in the traditional black. But no, Mama not only wore her favorite billowy bright orange chiffon dress, and the flashy burst of flower earrings with the rhinestone tendrils trailing down and her slingbacks. Devil shoes, Grandmama had said.
My sister and I tended the kitchen, distributing cups of punch and plates of little sandwiches Grandmama’s maid Effie had made that morning. When it came time for the traditional mirror ceremony, all of us – cousins, aunts, uncles – gathered round, though it meant nothing now that a death doula was qualified to declare the end of life. But Daddy insisted. It is what Grandmama would have wanted, he said while everyone looked on, Grandmama laid out so beautifully on the table, her silver hair swept back, her face as serene and lovely as I’d ever seen it. Mama rolled her eyes. I could see her across the room from where I stood beside Grandmama’s body.
Daddy held the small mirror in his hands, the oval one surrounded by little gold filigreed loops. He had instructed my sister and I and the cousins to gather on either side: “When I hold this mirror up to her mouth, you are to tell me if you see any breath on the mirror. We cannot bury your Grandmama while she is still alive.”
My cousins were all younger than my sister and I and my aunts were extremely concerned that my father was creating nightmares with his insistence on this antiquated tradition. Daddy was pretty intense however, though unlike grandmother he took things less seriously. He was just trying to show a younger generation old Southern customs. And he thought kids were too sheltered for their own good. In our family, ghost stories at Christmas were as important as gifts themselves, and from the time you learned to speak, you were expected to speak of the dead in story form, however rudimentary. Mama would tip a little extra bourbon into her eggnog on those nights.
Daddy ceremoniously lowered the mirror to Grandmama’s mouth while the kids kneeled keeping their eyes level to the table top so they may spot any errant breath upon the reflected surface. We all froze that way for some moments, the heat ticking through the radiator pipes. From the corner of my eye I could see Mama slip out onto the balcony overlooking oaks draped with Spanish moss, filtering the dying pink light. She lit a cigarette and let a plume drift around her magnificent head of short golden hair.
Soon it would be time for me to sit in airless rooms at the college far away, the weather there stricken through with winter’s frost, listening to concepts just beyond my grasp. How I wish for the simpler times when Grandmama and I had tea, when she told me of her times of adventuring in Alaska, and saying the Lord’s Prayer when an intruder invaded her home. She had bitten his arm when he lunged at her and, alarmed, he jumped from her third story apartment.
By a vote of silence all cousins had apparently decided Grandmama was truly dead.
I couldn’t be sure but when we left Grandmama to be alone with the doula I felt a faint pressure on my arm. Was that Grandmama’s hand? I doubt she would try to pull me to the grave. Knowing her though, she was surely yanking my chain.
I love you Grandmama I said softly, smiling at her antics, and stepped safely across the threshold. I looked back at her body on the table, regal as a queen. She ruled her household with iron but there was a softness too.
When I started writing fiction a few years later, I would never write of a living person without writing of a dead one too, or at least the shadow of the dead. My creative writing professors had no truck with stories outside of strict realism. By now, Daddy had gone to be with Grandmama and I had a baby at home and a husband too. I lit a candle and incense for them both every day and let the fragrance waft into our humble apartment while I conjured up the dead just like Daddy had taught me to do while my baby dreamt a peaceful sleep of the living and the innocent.
Be damned with them I can only imagine my Grandmama saying of my professors. I risked low grades, but somehow it didn’t matter. I wrote of the dead lying on door frames between chairs, families waiting for bodies to rot to ensure death, ghosts haunting southern estates reminding my ancestors of war and injustices, petty grievances and sorrow, ghosts who loved still and wanted to be of comfort to those they left behind.
Mama might even like some of these stories I thought sometimes, perhaps foolishly. Still, I hoped so. I brought her bright sweaters when I visited her at the home. One day I might even give her a bound copy of what I had made or better yet, read to her my gift if she was willing to hear.
Or we could simply drink whiskey in her cozy apartment and look out on the green of the woods beyond her window, deep and silent, and watch the light fade.