What They Leave Behind

by Carolyn McGovern

Grandpa Joe is sitting Indian-style in the snow wearing nothing but his underwear.

It is February 1st. We just had a medium-sized snowfall. Decent enough to have an excellent snowball fight. Nana is standing at the window, gasping, hand to her heart. She just spotted him.

She flies past me carrying an armful of blankets and coats, yelling, “Lisa, get your coat!” She stops to grab some raisins and carrots from the refrigerator.

I follow Nana to the yard, slushing after her through ankle-deep snow. I gasp too when I spot Grandpa Joe. He is making a snowman, his naked fingers wrinkly-raw from pushing snow together. He has obviously been at it for a while because the stomach part is nearly finished.

His pale blue eyes light up when he sees Nana. “Ah! Raisins. I was just about gonna need those.”

Nana’s hair is wind-blown, exposing her pink scalp. She places a coat around Grandpa Joe’s bony shoulders and joins him in the snow. Instead of Indian-style, she sits on a blanket, legs to her side.

They sit silently, pushing snow together. Grandpa Joe takes a carrot and smiles at Nana like they are pulling weeds in the heat of the summer.

He used to be the president of a very important company where you have to have a smart brain. But now his toes are always dirty from going barefoot all the time.

And now, with Nana gone, who is going to make Grandpa Joe put his shoes on or get him in from the rain?

We are two minutes away from leaving for the wake, and I hear Dad getting yelled at by Mom for cutting the grass Today of all days. Mom is saying something about Dad having a Lack of respect for the dead, and Dad is saying something about the grass needing a cut, and that this is his only day.

Mom insisted that Nana get cremated real quick so that her urn could sit on Uncle Chris’s casket. People said it wasn’t supposed to be done like that, but Mom ignored them.

On the way there, Grandpa Joe thinks he’s going to a party. Dressed up in his good suit, he has no idea. But when we get there, I see right away how easily he could get confused. Everyone is gathered in the foyer, in little groups, talking way too loud. They haven’t seen each other in ages, and they think this is the time to catch up on what’s new.

And they are laughing. My Uncle Chris is just twenty feet away, lying there all dead with Nana sitting on top of his legs, and they are laughing. I don’t even feel it’s right to smile under the circumstances, what with two dead people in a matter of only one day. Uncle Chris had colon cancer. They say that’s what killed Nana. Not the diabetes; a broken heart.

I hear Grandpa Joe complain, “I don’t see the bar.”

The room is like someone’s living room, only there’s a dead person lying there. Roses and Carnations are everywhere, and they smell nothing like flowers. More like skunks. They all have ribbons stuck to them that say something:

“Beloved Mother,” “Beloved Nana,” “Beloved Son,” “Beloved Uncle,” “Beloved Brother.”

There are enough tissue boxes in the room to take care of about 200 noses. Framed pictures are everywhere – Nana smiling ear to ear. Uncle Chris with full cheeks and thick hair.

Grandpa Joe continues his search of the rooms. I hear him ask Dad, “What table are we at? I don’t see any place cards.”

I want to point out to him that there are also no tables. I guess he will figure it out soon enough.

A tall skinny man greets everyone at the door, making sure they form a line to sign a book, so I’m guessing it must be an important book. Mom and Dad form their own line near the coffin with Aunt Maddie and Uncle Derek.

Aunt Maddie’s the one who takes the crazy medicine, and Uncle Derek’s the one who says the F word a lot and smokes those funny cigarettes. Aunt Maddie is wearing dirty pink high-top sneakers and chewing pink bubble gum. She has wiry red hair and too many freckles to count, same as me. Mom frowns at her about the gum.

Once Nana’s sisters’ show up, the room fills pretty quickly with old lady smells. Lilacs and cat spit. The line now is nothing but gray straw hair, wrinkly rouge, and sensible shoes. They cry the loudest and squeeze the hardest.

First comes Nana’s twin sister, Aunt Esther. She grabs my mother and shoves her into her massive chest.

She cries, “They had a GOOD life! It was their time to go … they were in so much pain!”

Aunt Jenny clamps my Aunt Maddie’s tiny face in her puffy hands and says, “Oh Maddie dear, they are no longer suffering … I’m so sorry.”

Many people follow, saying God-related things and apologizing, “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so, so sorry … .”

Off to the side I hear Aunt Linda say, “Such a shame he never married or had children.”

I feel it’s a shame she wore a bright red dress to a wake.

Most people pass me by without saying anything, which is fine by me. Some look down at me, shake their head, and touch my shoulder.

One lady with a birthmark on her face the shape of a guitar pic bends down and whispers, “This is God’s mysterious way.”

Grandpa Joe comes flying through the room and says to Mom, “Lynn, I don’t remember your mom filling out the card. I like fish. I’m not getting stuck with chicken again!” His fists are clenched, and his face is red.

Mom puts her arm around his shoulder. “Dad, don’t worry. I don’t think they’re serving any food today.

He furrows his brow. “No? Not even a buffet?”

Mom sighs. “Dad, how bout’ you sit over here?” She sits him down in a red velvet chair.

He looks confused and I hear him mumble, “I don’t get it. Where’s the dance floor? Your mother loves to dance.”

I take a seat in the chair next to him and squeeze his hand.

Lisa, where’d Nana go?” He shakes his head and smirks. “I bet to the lady’s room. You women. Always fixing your hair.” He hadn’t noticed Uncle Chris yet, lying just a foot away. And as for Nana’s hair, I look to the urn and sigh.

A lady with frizzy purple hair walks up to me and says, “Do you thing you could take your grandfather outside?”

I look up into her pale face, teeth smeared with red lipstick, smiling down at me. She leans forward and whispers, “He keeps walking through the rooms asking if someone can make him a Scotch. We can’t have that.”

I squint back at her. “He’s fine right where he is.”

When she doesn’t move, still smiling at me with the lipstick stained teeth, I repeat, “He’s staying.”

She straightens up, now frowning. I notice she has a bunch of wrinkles between her eyes. She nods and backs off. I squeeze Grandpa Joe’s hand harder.

I look to the casket. Uncle Chris used to be what they called husky, his cheeks chubby and always red. But when he got sick, the fat just melted away leaving nothing but bones, his face turning yellow and hollow.

He now wears his favorite suit, the green one that went with his eyes. His body seems lost in all that material. I wonder about my Uncle Chris being buried in the ground, and how lonely he will be. What about the worms? These thoughts make my body shiver.

I look to the urn, wondering what Nana was wearing when she was cremated. Was it the flowered dress she wore to weddings, or the yellow nightgown we got her when she first got sick? Or maybe she wore nothing at all. Where’d it all go? I wondered how well they clean out those cremation things. Did my Nana get all mixed up with someone else’s Nana?

When it comes time to kneel before Uncle Chris, I stare him down. I know I’m supposed to be praying, but all I can think is that I see his eyelids move. He needs a shave; red hairs are popping out on his chin. Off to the side, I see Grandpa Joe fixing his tie, asking cousin Jed if he is with the band.

When the minister-lady begins to talk about Nana and Uncle Chris like she knows them, the mood of the room switches from laughter to tears, like the old ladies have been doing since they got here. I wonder how people can get all weepy that fast. The room is quiet now except for the scrunching sound of men helping their wives search for Kleenex in their pocketbooks, ignoring the 200 boxes of tissue scattered about the room.

As the minister-lady continues, the room gets even quieter, the only sound sniffling noises and Grandpa Joe asking someone if there’s going to be a toast.

The minister-lady is saying more of the same:

“They are with the angels…in heaven…no longer in pain.”

People seem to be listening intently. I look down at the minister-lady’s pocketbook leaning up against her leg and wonder what she keeps in there.

” … You can talk to Chris and Nana now. We must always keep them in our hearts. Forever.” She looks up and smiles, as if this last statement is gold.

Just then, I hear a loud noise that can only be one thing. It is loud and forever, and it seems to not want to quit. I look over my shoulder and see Grandpa Joe grinning. The lady to his right is covering her nose. The lady to his left is moving her seat. Now other people are stirring and covering their noses. The frizzy-haired lady is off to the side shaking her head, hands on her bony hips, eyeing up Grandpa Joe.

The minister-lady looks flustered, but continues. As I was saying, they are listening, and you can talk to them now.”

As she finishes up, Grandpa Joe spots my Uncle Chris and shouts out, “Hey! I know that guy!!”

Aunt Maddie takes Grandpa Joe by the arm and walks him outside. From where I sit I hear him ask Aunt Maddie, “When’s the band gonna start anyway?”

Dad moans to mom, Should of left him home. I told you this would happen.”

Mom waves her hand at Dad. “He was her husband. And Chris’s father. He deserves to be here!”

“But he has no idea where he is. He thinks he’s at a wedding!”

“It was the right thing to do!”

As we gather our belongings to head to the cemetery, we are startled by a big bang. Everyone jumps. We freeze and wait. Someone has dropped something. Something heavy and metal. Something that was by the casket. Or on the casket?

The bang is followed by a ta-ting, ta-ting, ta-ting, which sounds like the lid of the thing that fell. I do not have to turn around. I can see my father’s face and hear the gasps and the bony screech of the purple-haired lady.

“NOOOOO! I told you to get him out of here. How did he get back in? Oh my God!! How are we ever gonna get all that up?”

I still do not turn around. I want to remember Nana the way she was. Not scattered about the carpet like dirt to later get caught up in someone’s Nikes. I can’t bear the thought of Nana’s last seconds on this earth, being sucked into a vacuum cleaner.

I follow Dad out, dragging Grandpa Joe, still protesting, “But I was thirsty!”

On the way to the cemetery, we are riding in what they call a procession, one car after the other, lights on, other cars stopping to let us go. I see Grandpa Joe riding in the back of Uncle Derek’s car. He looks sad and lost. I remember what the minister lady said about cherishing the people we still have. When Grandpa Joe’s car passes our car, he looks out the back window, smiles right at me, and gives me the finger.

At the cemetery, everyone looks to the ground where they just placed Uncle Chris’s casket. The minister-lady is looking up at the sky towards heaven, yet telling us that Nana and Uncle Chris are both with us right now. Then she starts in on more of that spirit talk.

But I want to ask: Where? Where are they? Up? Down? Right in front of my face? Which is it?

I look over to a tree in a corner of the cemetery and spot Uncle Derek lighting up a cigarette. A skinny shriveled brown cigarette squished tightly between his thumb and forefinger. He brings it to his mouth and sucks hard. Leaning his head back against the tree, he closes his eyes, allowing the smoke to slowly escape through his teeth.

Aunt Maddie is standing only five feet in front of where they just put Uncle Chris, surrounded by blue-haired ladies and polyester dresses. She is in the midst of blowing a bubble that’s slowly growing in size.

Even though she is practically my parent’s age, Aunt Maddie still gets on the ground with me and plays with Ken and Barbie. I don’t mind so much that she insists on being Barbie all the time, or that she always accuses Ken of cheating on Barbie. I think this has something to do with Aunt Maddie once being jilted at the altar. I think jilted means that some guy up and left her flat. There is nothing worse than a “flat-leaver.”

This makes me think about Nana and Uncle Chris. I don’t want to think of them as “flat-leavers,” but it sure feels that way. Just like that, they up and left us. No warning. No good-bye. Gone, just like that.

Aunt Maddie’s bubble doesn’t quite make it, and is now wallpapering her face. Mom is mumbling something under her breath and shaking her head, eyes to the ground. Dad rolls his eyes so hard he might have damaged something. It is all lost on Aunt Maddie because she is busy picking gum out of her hair, which will most likely end in an ugly scissors scene.

Grandpa Joe stomps his foot hard and screams out, Can we leave now?!? I’m hungry! What kind of place doesn’t serve food? And how can you be out of Scotch? It just ain’t right. I bet we paid good money too!”

Mom catches Dad eyeing up some lady in a tight green sweater. It looks like she has two huge bowling balls stuffed under there pretty good, so I can see why Dad is staring. Mom is squinting hard at Dad, and I know he is in trouble, which might end with him sleeping on the couch.

The minister-lady continues to carry on and on, even though it sure seems like people have stopped listening. “Blah blah blah, in spirit … Blah-blah-blah, in spirit … ”

Sometimes I feel I don’t know about this spirit stuff. Like maybe someone made it all up just to make us feel better about people dying; as if Nana and Uncle Chris are invisible ghosts hanging out just to spy on us.

What I haven’t told anyone is that ever since Nana and Uncle Chris left, the lamp in my bedroom keeps going on and off. I want so bad to tell someone about it; to ask if maybe that’s Nana or Uncle Chris’s way of letting me know that they are here. I read something about how the dead can come through the electricity and make it do funny stuff. It’s just a flickering light bulb, nothing more. If they were really here, why can’t they do something more, like throw a book at me, or just plain ole’ talk to me already?

I wonder if the minister-lady believes in the spirits coming through light bulbs. After all, she’s the one who keeps bringing up the subject of spirits, and that seems to be every bit as crazy as flickering lamps. Dad would probably just tell me that the light bulb needs to be changed is all. Always putting his spin on things to crush any sign of hope.

All I know is that I sure do miss them, so bad my heart feels like it’s bleeding. And I know that I’m not the only one who misses them. Just this morning, I saw Uncle Derek crying when he thought no one was looking, so I think we must all have broken hearts.

Maybe one day I will know more about this spirit stuff. For now, I suppose I will talk to them, just in case they can hear. And I suppose what’s left behind is every bit as important as what’s gone:

Aunt Maddie, gum in her hair and a bottle of the crazy medicine rattling around in her pocket.

Uncle Derek, still under the tree, snoring and surrounded by empty potato chip bags.

Smelly old blue-haired ladies, blowing their noses and heaving their sagging chests up and down.

The green-sweatered lady, arching her back so that the bowling balls stick out even more.

Dad, smiling back at the bowling balls, and Mom, drilling a hole into the back of Dad’s head with her eyes.

Grandpa Joe, lying on his back on a dirt mound, pointing to an oddly shaped cloud, mumbling, “That looks like a frog. I’m hungry. Why can’t I eat now?”

One Response to “What They Leave Behind”

  1. Shirley says:

    Fascinating! Such a clear word picture! Loved the story.

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