By Christine Wenzel
“I don’t suppose you’ll be coming to my funeral.” This matter-of-fact statement popped into our conversation right after my mother asked me to pass the salt shaker. We were having dinner at her favorite steak house.
“Why are we talking about your funeral?” I asked.
“I have already been to the funeral home and picked out my casket.”
“Mom, are you dying?”
“I’m eighty-six years old. I suppose I will sooner or later.”
Long ago, when our relationship was shakier than it is now, I asked if she could please, please eliminate the word “suppose” in conversations with me. If she had a question or a statement just say it, don’t cloak it. She said that she didn’t even notice she used the word.
“I suppose you’re not going to eat that food on your plate.”
“I don’t eat meat.”
“I suppose you think you’re old enough to go out on a date.”
“Yes, Mother, I’m sixteen.”
“I suppose you realize teenage marriages have a high failure rate.”
“Ah, yes, this is the umpteenth time you’ve mentioned it.”
I noted the teenage marriage fact, waited until I turned twenty, and married two days later.
My mother’s dire warnings and the fact that no one in my family liked my choice of husband fueled my high-and-mighty, them-against-us mentality. Which meant that when the abuse started and then escalated, I hid it from them, until I couldn’t any longer. I hold the title of the first—and, to date, only—divorcee of the family.
I was the classic middle child, believing that my sisters received preferential treatment. I think that the friction between my mother and me started early, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to follow in the footsteps of her firstborn, studious, introverted daughter, the one easier for her to understand. My rebellious childhood carried into my adult life. Our disagreements became a habit. When I moved to another country, not so much to get away, but to follow a path that made me happy, it actually helped our relationship. We were good with short visits. It’s hardly worth the effort to try and change someone when you only have a week here and there.
What neither of us ever supposed is that peace would exist between us before she died. Not just peace but we would finally get each other and let each other be who we are. It’s taken me a long time to get here.
An example: I was a demonstrative kid. My dad nicknamed me “Kissie,” a play on “Chrissie,” which I was known as before I got everyone trained to use my more grownup name. Before puberty and teenage attitude set in, bedtime netted a big bear hug and kiss from Dad, then I’d roam the house looking to say goodnight to Mom. I’d find her buried in a book or at her desk, a magnifying glass in hand, studying the condition of a stamp. I’d attempt a goodnight kiss on her cheek. As I leaned in, she’d jerk her head to the side and my lips would brush her ear. I’m not sure if she knew I made a game of trying to plant one on her cheek, sneaking up from different angles to see if I could be the faster one and land that kiss on target. The score was heavily weighted in her favor.
The age gap between my older sister, Vicky, and me is enough for her to have grown up with a different maturity of understanding towards our family dynamics. “You know Mom had two nervous breakdowns when we were growing up. That’s why she was often remote.” Vicky dropped this tidbit into a conversation, suggesting, could I really be that clueless?
“She did? Why didn’t she ever tell me? I just thought she didn’t like kids.”
This new perspective, along with seeing an unfamiliar softness in my mother when she spends time with my son, started me on a path of realization. She did the best she could. I push her buttons. And, we will always be there for each other.
I started counting to ten rather than responding to her unfiltered comments.
“Mom, I just got back from the hospital. I lost the baby.”
“Don’t you think you’re getting a bit old for having more babies?”
One, two three… And once I get to ten, enough time has passed for me to change the script to what I believe she means: “I don’t want to see you hurt or sad, so don’t get pregnant anymore.” In her world, practicality trumps sentimentality every time.
Talking about her funeral is in keeping with her pragmatic nature. I’m just wishing she wasn’t talking to me about it. I actively avoid the thought of her dying. It’s enough of a reminder seeing her body shrink and her movements slow—why do we have to talk about it, too?
I’ve witnessed her busyness around death. I can’t manage being in the same room with a dearly departed, but I’ve stood outside, listening to her tell the funeral director that he had to re-part my grandfather’s hair on the right side. She took the decision to cremate her mom, had a big burial ceremony, and then later showed us an identical urn where she had kept half of the ashes. This half now sits on a shelf in her closet. I assume this gives her comfort. I kept waiting for her to cry when my dad died, thinking that this would be the time her stoic facade crumbled. It wasn’t.
“Mom, let’s leave the discussion about whether I will or won’t attend the formal part of your funeral off the table for right now. I’m more interested in why you are asking me to write your eulogy. Vicky or Janet would be much better for this.”
“You’re the writer in the family,” she says.
I’m tempted to say, Really? You know this even though I stopped sending you things I write long ago? You’ve never commented on anything I’ve written. Good or bad. But I’m past biting back. My sisters and I have compared notes and discovered that although she doesn’t give any of us direct compliments or encouragement, she does often say nice things about us when we’re out of earshot. No swelled heads in our family.
She continued. “Yes, I suppose they’ve been around more than you”—one, two, three … —“witnessing my day to day, my work the awards banquets, my volunteering. I believe you’re the one who can find the words to show who I was, not just tell what I did.”
“A little fast with the past tense, aren’t you, Mom?” A lump was forming in my throat.
“What I’m thinking is you can write about some of the stories, like why geese terrified me—that might get a laugh. And how impressed I was with your father’s presence of mind on our first date when he handed me his false teeth for safe keeping, then jumped into a fight to help his brother. Maybe mention how my father was a hippie before anyone knew what that was and how hard it was growing up with his instability, but I still managed to go to university.”
“Should I mention the time that the doctor’s solution to your menopause was Valium and you took so many you fell asleep standing up and then—”
Before I could finish, she said, “That could be left out.”
As we were leaving the restaurant, she touched my arm. “Could you work on it sooner than later?”
“I assume you want a chance to edit it.” I said.
“I suppose that wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
CHRISTINE WENZEL is a Canadian who has been living in Mexico for twenty-two years. This is her first essay to be published, and she is thrilled that it is with Full Grown People. Her sisters’ names aren’t Janet and Vicky. You can find some articles she’s written about the town she lives in on her website, christinewenzel.com.