court of the myrtles

Court of the Myrtles

Lois Cahall

For Rebecca & Maxine

My beautiful, brave, and resilient daughters…

You have endured so much loss with such grace and dignity

I love you, Mom

And for my “Aunt Alice” Garvey, my hero

R.I.P.

Contents

Author's Note

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

A Note on the Author

Author's Note

Go online or to a bookstore and you'll find shelves of advice on how to cope with bereavement, from losing a spouse, child, friend or even a pet. But what of a book that gives us hope? Will we ever see that loved one again? And why is everything so serious? Can't there be humor in our pain?

I wrote this book for those left living – afraid to be on the other side, afraid to be left alone on
this
side. I hope my story can offer you hope that you'll see that loved one again. This is a book for mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and sisters. This is a story about survival – for those who have loved and lost. So I suppose this is a book for all of us. Godspeed.

Prologue

Muffled voices outside my bedroom door make their way to my failing ears: “It's nearly time…”

They're talking about me, you know. Me: Marla.

A calm descends over me as I lie immobile in my bed, clouds of grey hair floating on a feather pillow. There was a time I wrapped that hair tightly. Too tightly. Not anymore. Slowly, I move my head. I see vitamins on the tray, medicine bottles with childproof caps, a finger-smudged water glass that catches the last sunlight I might ever glimpse. My hand struggles for the glass but I give up. My parched lips licking intention. I stare instead at my palm with its completed lifeline. A hand no longer needed for shaking, no longer needed for giving back-rubs or for burping babies, no longer needed to run through the safety of my husband's chest hair.

The sheer white curtains move in the breeze. I hear someone calling, my grandchildren playing tag in the yard. They're yelling, “You're it!” Yes, they're it. And I'm it, too. My number's just about up.

So this is what it feels like to go. To
let
go…

All these years I prayed to God. But will He really be there? I'm not as frightened as I thought I would be but, ridiculous as it sounds, there's still pride in me at the thought of meeting my maker looking like this. We don't need make-up in heaven… you don't have to tell me that. But I'm an old-fashioned woman and first impressions matter.

Every morning I would sneak into the bathroom before my husband was awake, pinch my cheekbones in the mirror, slap water on my face and brush my teeth before applying my “lippy,” as I'd call it.
Smack
—a pucker in the mirror. I've seen my mouth change from the solid, dramatic reds of the '80s, to the softer sheers of the '90s, to my most recent color… parchment.

I've become an old woman with creepy bird-scrawny features, basset-hound jowls, sad eyes, and breasts as heavy and long as my memory. The memories of our love making from breasts solid, buoyant. The only part of my body that remains strong now is my mind, my memories. The thought of dying falls over me now, a quilt of loneliness. We come into this world alone and we go out alone. So we're told. But I wonder. What would Alice have said?

Alice. Had it not been for Alice, bless her heart, I'd never have survived the past, never have found a future, and wouldn't be lying here now wondering where all the years have gone. Could I grab them back?

My hands clutch the side of the mattress, gnarled knuckles suddenly white, and then it's all there again…

Chapter One
1988
R. I. P.
NUMBNESS

I close the car door carefully, with a click not a slam. Don't want to disturb them. How silly, I think to myself.
Them?
C'mon, Marla, don't be ridiculous. The dead in this graveyard can't hear the sound of my car door or the sound of
anything
for that matter. And I'm twenty-eight, I'm way too wise and clever to be spooked, aren't I? I've known this cemetery for years, I remind myself, pushing my auburn bangs from my brow hanging loosely from my ballerina-style bun.

But how can I feel spooked anyway? I've already been through the waves of shock and disbelief. Today I'm just plain numb.

Years ago my mom, Rosie, would plant flowers at her father's grave just a few stones over while I sat next to her, plucking blades of grass, bored as a postal worker at 4 p.m. She'd try to amuse me with one of her trick questions: “How many people are dead in this cemetery?”

My eyes darted around the neatly lined headstones, a tiny finger wiggling quickly to count them.

Mom would nudge me and ask again, “How many people are dead in this cemetery?”

I'd shrug.

“All of them,” she'd say.

Now I'm standing at my mom's gravestone where
she's
one of them.

My watch reads eleven minutes before 11 a.m. But it doesn't matter. Time stands still when your mother is dead. I run my fingers across the freshly carved letters of her name, “Rosie.” The stone was erected this week, mid-March. She died early in the New Year, but it took one month to decide on an epitaph, five weeks for the stone cutter to carve it, and one more for the thermometer to rise above freezing, just warm enough to pour a footer to mount her stone. Now there it is, her name, date of birth and her date of passing staring back at me.

“Hi Mom, it's me, Marla,” I say, the wind sucking the words from my mouth, its cold highlighting my cheeks better than any rouge. “Hint of early spring”—a game I always play in my head, as if all of life was on the cosmetic counter at Macy's. A new season for everything, a new shade. But for my mom, death is death. Every season. Every year. Every new shade of blusher.

There's a sense of being watched when you stand alone in a graveyard and speak to somebody who isn't there. Of course there's nobody to hear me but still… should I talk to the stone? To a nearby tree? To the sky? To my mother who art in heaven?

Is she?

They say, whoever “they” are, that touching a gravestone provides more power than just thinking about the deceased. There's certainly something healing, almost primal, about touching this monument cemented to the earth. Like the lepers that touched Jesus for a cure. Does touching her stone cure me? Not really. But it helps the memories come.
Memories of my mom's kind eyes, the happy lines formed by her soft smile, her Grecian-shaped nose, her delicate hands, the time I was barely seven…

“Beat ya!” I yelled breathlessly, tagging the big barnacle-covered rock next to the beach grasses, the very rock my mom and I fell on every Sunday after our barefoot trudge through the swampy conservation land behind our cottage. Then, as Mom rested, I'd start tickling two lime-striped pieces of blade grass over her cheek. Her eyes remained resolutely closed as she took in the sensation.

“Mommy?”

Nothing.

“Mommy?”

Still nothing, her face tipped to the sun.

And then in a piercing whine, “Rosie!”

“Yes, Marla?” she said, finally, face still to the sun.

“What will I do when you die?”

Mom smiled, her lids sealed shut, her face now rising to the delicate touch of my fingers. “If I died, I'd still be with you, honey.”

“But wouldn't you go to heaven?” I asked, longing for the safety of that answer.

“I hope so,” she said.

“Mommy, where's heaven?”

“Up in the sky. Beyond the sun, beyond the moon and the stars, so far away you can't see it.”

“Is that where God lives?”

“God is everywhere.”

“Is his house a pretty house?”

“I'm sure it is. Probably pink.”

I knew she'd said that just to please me. It was the color of my Barbie dolls' house and my Barbie dolls were everything to me.

“There's no sadness in God's house,” she said. “It's where you get to be an angel.”

“Is Grandpa an angel?” I asked, as my hand grew bored, dropping the piece of sea grass to the rock below. I watched it fight the water's foamy edge until it was swallowed and dragged away.

“Yes, honey, I'm sure that Grandpa is an angel.”

“How do you get to heaven to be an angel?” I asked. The filtering sunlight at that moment carved through my mother's profile as though
she
were an angel.

“Somebody from your lifetime escorts you,” she said, her tone telling me she's losing interest in this conversation.

“C'mon, Mommy. Like who?”

“Maybe someday when I die, Grandpa will come to escort me. Then I'll get my wings and be an angel just like him.” Her answer had turned snappy. Summing it all up. Ready to move on.

“But if you're an angel, I'll never see you again,” I persisted.

“Yes, you will. When you die, I'll come to get you.” And then my mother flung her eyes open very matter-of-factly. “But in the meantime, I'll be in here.” She tapped her fist gently against my chest. “Now, enough.”

Now we were both annoyed, but I couldn't let it go. “Like in the trees? In the sky? Where, Mommy?”

She pulled me into her side. “Look, how about I give you a special sign so you'll know I'm with you when I die. Will that make you happy?” I didn't know what she meant by “a sign” but something told me not to ask another question. “Well,” she explained, “you know how we love the sea, Marla?”

“Yes.”

“And we love digging for periwinkles, and we love the seagulls,” she said, watching them nose-dive a few feet away, breaking oyster shells on the jetty. Her gaze travelled to the horizon and she squinted. “Remember that whale-watch with Grandpa?”

I nodded.

“Maybe I'll come back as a big, fat, whale, like the ones we saw whale-watching in Provincetown.”

“A whale?” I squiggled up my nose and knitted my brow. “Why would you want to be a whale?”

“Why not?” she said. “It's better than a jellyfish.” She poked her big toe at the mottled, sci-fi creature squiggling its way around the rock.

“Careful, Mommy!”

She ignored me and carried on. “And you'll remember a whale because it's so big and silly.”

“How will I know which whale
you
are?”

“You'll know because we'll make it a special day—not a sunny one, but a rainy day. You'll go on a whale watch and I'll do something magnificent.”

“Really? Like what?” Now I had her interest again.

“Um, let's see… how about I make the showers stop, the sun come out and form a magnificent rainbow. And at that moment, my whale will jump up high in the sky, splashing its tail through the waves. Then you'll know that it's me and that I made it to heaven. Ta da!” She tickled me.

“That's silly, Mommy.” I said, defeated, falling back against the rock. “Just forget about it.”

The tears running down my cheeks are whipped dry by the wind. My memory is interrupted by the sound of metal hitting the ground. Ordinarily it wouldn't be such a bad thing, but this
is
a cemetery after all and I'm not in the mood for the gravedigger. Not today.

I try to ignore it, but the sound overtakes my ability to focus. Meditation was never my strongest point even when I attempted those irritating breathing and relaxation classes at the local community college. Now I'm annoyed.

Glancing up, I see an older woman just a few feet away. Memory wrecker! I try to go back to my silence but I can't resist looking her way. Now I'm more interested in her. I watch her kneeling over a gravestone, carefully poking a row of seedlings into freshly dug holes. She's even whistling. Who whistles these days? And in a graveyard, too! She must have felt my gaze because she glances up and smiles. I look away, focus on my mother, her grave.

And when I look in her direction again, the woman has cast her eyes down. Out of respect, I suppose. An unspoken understanding that comes out of sharing the same sort of experience: when somebody is at the grave of a loved one we give them privacy.

But it doesn't last for long. I look again and this time our eyes meet and she's smiling at me. And, hell, why not, I guess? There is no guide to graveyard etiquette that states: “Rule 1: Never converse with another mourner.” So I smile back. Which is a mistake.

“Pansies!” she hollers out. “Only thing I can plant this early in the season that can stand the frostbite.”

“Oh!” I try not to holler back.

I go back to the business of missing my mother, leaving pansy-woman to tend to hers.

The tears were once a numbing full-force earlier today, but at least now my eyes have stopped stinging. Some days I can't think straight, Can't function. Can't do something as simple as separate the darks from the whites in front of the washing machine.

And then she's there. Pansy woman. Right at my side. Why I never… Have you heard of boundaries, lady?

“Hello again. You all right?” says the voice of pansy woman.

“I guess,” I say, falling back on my heels from where I was kneeling. It takes guts to interrupt a person crying over their mother's grave. Isn't it obvious I'm crying for a reason?

“Someone special?” she asks.

So she's a nosy pansy-planting woman. “My mom,” I say, running my hand across my permanently tear-stained cheek.

She reads the name “Rosie” and the date. “Lost her recently. I'm so sorry.” She reaches a hand out to squeeze my wrist.

I shrug. I don't need that reminder. Get me out of here.

“Got a dad?”

I shake my head.

“Siblings?”

I shake it again.

“An only child. That's a shame,” she says glancing off. “You must have good days and bad ones. Being alone doesn't help. Nobody to talk about her to, nobody to keep her memory alive the way other kids can with siblings.”

“Yes,” I say, wiping the back of my wet hand across my thigh, and deliberately looking in another direction, hoping pansy-planting chatterbox gets the hint. She doesn't.

“May I?” she asks, brushing the dirt from her jeans and plopping down next to me before I've even said it's okay. She extends her hand for a formal introduction. “Alice,” she says. I reluctantly take her hand, noticing fingernails embedded with black soil. Hasn't she ever heard of gloves? “I lost my daughter a couple years back.”

“Oh no,” I say, withdrawing my hand as though she has leprosy. “I'm so sorry.” My eyes search her face wondering if she can read my thoughts. The thoughts that say I'm feeling like a complete little selfish bitch. “Was she young?”

“Twenty-eight,” says Alice. “But always my baby.”

“I'm twenty-eight,” I say. “I can't even imagine.” Suddenly my dead mother seems insignificant. I'm not sure what to say next so I decide on my name. “Um, Marla,” I say, extending my hand again, my fingers strong, this time with sincerity. “And I'm pleased to meet you, Alice.”

“Likewise.” Her grip is strong, steadfast. “I meet lots of people here telling their stories of loved ones lost. I never knew there was so much
life
in a cemetery,” she says. “It's like a little live community of mourners.”

“Great,” I smirk. “How pathetic.”

“How'd you lose her?” asks Alice. “Rosie?” she prompts, reading my mom's stone again.

No stopping this one, I think. “Oh, it was from… an accident,” I say, reluctant to divulge more to this stranger.

“Accidents are the worst,” says Alice. “Here one moment and gone the next.”

“Never got to say goodbye. That hurts the most. Leaves me up nights tortured.”

There's a lingering silence, and then I think, why not? Give it back to the nosy old lady. “And you?” realizing the minute the words are out of my mouth that no matter what Alice's answer is—car crash, breast cancer, drowning—losing a child is the biggest tragedy on earth compared to mine.

“She died of…” and then picking her word carefully, “…an illness,” she says, surprising me with her reticence.

I suddenly feel awful. My hand goes to her wrist. “Oh, Alice, I don't know what to say…”

“Nothing to say. Different kinds of loss. Different kinds of hell. You never get over it. You just learn to live with it.” Alice stares straight ahead, as she's seeing her memories right in front of her. “Her name was Joy.”

We're silent, allowing the name Joy to float in our space. I wish Alice would continue but she doesn't. I change the subject. “I'm not worried about me. I just want to know that they got there okay, your Joy and my mom Rosie. I was just thinking of this time when I was a little girl and asked my mother the question ‘What will I do when you die?' And now that day has come and gone. Sooner than I expected, but it's here.”

“And what did your mother say?”

“Oh it's silly, really.”

“Does that mean you don't want to tell me?”

“No, I'll tell you. She told me—” I stop. This is too ridiculous. But then this woman in front of me looks as if she'd appreciate the ridiculous. “She told me she'd come back as a whale.”

A burst of laughter entirely out of keeping with graveyard etiquette. And I find myself laughing too. “You've got a problem with whales?” she asks, as though coming back to this earth as a whale is funny but makes perfect sense. For some reason, this woman has just worked some magic. I feel compelled to say more. “You know, Alice, we did everything my mom and I. Except die. She did that without me.”

“No, she didn't,” she snaps, all humor gone. “Somebody was there on the other side. She wasn't alone.”

“I hope so. That's a nice sentiment. It's exactly what she used to say.”

Alice squeezes my arm for support before rising to stand. And then I find myself steadying my hand on her, too. “In the meantime,” says Alice, “we have a life to live. Self-cultivating. Like those pansies. Always growing and learning. Like you.” She looks me straight in the eye. “Your mother lives in
here.
” Alice places her fist onto my chest and taps. The same words my mother said. The same action. Now I
am
spooked.

“Well, I'd better go,” is all I can say, suddenly feeling at a loss for words.

Alice shakes her fingers at her pant legs to even out the wrinkles.

I look around but don't see another car. And then on impulse, “May I offer you a lift home?”

“Oh no. I use this time to walk.”

Good, I think to myself. I was just being polite anyway. And I don't really want to stand here any longer figuring out what I actually feel about this odd woman.

“Walk the two miles every day. Keeps my ticker in shape,” she says self-righteously.

“Oh?” I say.

“It's my daily meditation for the thing I look forward to most. My daughter's grave.”

That's a ridiculous explanation, if I've ever heard one. “Okay, then, nice to meet you again, Alice. And I'm so sorry about Joy.” But Alice only nods. And with that, I head for my parked car just off the dirt road. I try damn hard not to glance back. But I can feel her watching me, studying my every move.

Moments later I'm safely in my seat, turn the ignition over and begin to drive away. In my rearview mirror I glance back at Alice waving goodbye a little too effusively
with her hole-digger. “Self-cultivation? Hmm….” I think to myself. Maybe she meant self-
preservation
. Oh, who knows… who cares? My mom is dead and nothing can change that. I head up the hill pressing harder on the gas pedal.

Chapter Two
1960

My mom, Rosie knew little of the world beyond her own mother who was a seamstress by day and a complete annoyance by night. Rosie's parents were Armenian immigrants off the boat so they had no understanding of all the modern conveniences an American girl might long for when she was cooking in the kitchen. Like an electric can opener. Her father, my grandfather, repaired clocks. All kinds of clocks, but mainly big cuckoo clocks you'd find in some grand old foyer of a Victorian home.

Rosie's best friend was a violin, though at age seventeen she was ready to move on to a friend that might actually
breathe
. She had come to despise the melodramatic squeak of the bow across the strings, longing instead for laughter and sleepovers. Though Rosie's mother vetoed that, saying to her daughter, “You can never have a sleepover because boys will sneak in.”

So one Saturday morning, Rosie slammed the violin down on the card table and just plain quit. And there was nothing anybody could say about it. So this is what it felt like to rebel: powerful.

Father Zakarian's Friday Armenian lessons went next. Then, the ill-fitting smock that covered her knees at church, until church succumbed, too. The final childhood rebellion led her across the boundary of her driveway to the promised land… the street corner two blocks away.

“Roselyn Marie!” her mother would scream over the hum of her sewing machine, “Don't you leave this house without a girdle! You hear me?”

Her mother waddled to the front door, but Rosie was already blowing through the white sheets on the neighbors' clothesline and cutting through the garden trellis to the safety of the sidewalk. Here she could stop, roll the hem of her dress up to miniskirt length, pull her shoulders back to stick out her breasts and parade past the pizza parlor on the corner where Bernie, the older man soliciting town councilman votes had installed himself. He already had Rosie's vote, and he was about to have something else, too…

Six months later, Rosie's sleek figure went from strutting her stuff to strutting her duck-waddling pregnancy. After spending the first three months with her head hung over a toilet bowl from morning sickness, Rosie gave up trying to conceal her secret. Soon everybody from the postman to the butcher knew. In fact, the only person who didn't seem to know was standing next to newly elected councilor Bernie on the town hall podium. Mrs. Bernie. His wife.

But I was not alone. I had my grandmother and a collection of babushka-wearing aunts streaming in from an Armenian mountainside, all happy to pace the hospital hallways as Uncle Zaven handed out pink-ribbon cigars.

And at precisely 8:02 p.m. weighing in at the same numbers—8 pounds 2 ounces on August 14, I, Marla, was born. The day Mom brought me home, even Grandma stopped the pedal of her sewing machine to rise up and examine me, all wrapped up in a pink bunny blanket.

My mother named me Marla because it sounded like the most luxurious item my grandmother had ever possessed: a jar of marmalade.

I may have been illegitimate, but I was wanted in every way a child could be wanted.

While in a nearby town, in another family, Alice's child Joy, was
un
wanted…

Alice, as she was to tell me, was the only redhead in a family of Black Irish, from a big brood outside of Boston. The only thing that Alice and my mom, Rosie, had in common was that they both had babies in the year 1960. Alice was the awkward middle child, number six in a line of ten kids. When she was eighteen, her parents—a schoolteacher and a butcher—were anxious to have her marry the young rookie cop from up the street. The sooner she said “I do” the sooner there would be more corned beef and cabbage for the rest of the poor family. Alice and the cop were married in a small civil wedding on the icy steps of the town hall with Alice's two siblings as witnesses. The next day, with a borrowed dump truck and a few pieces of used furniture, they rented the top floor of a duplex just one picket fence-yard away from her parents.

Alice had two dreams. One was to own a florist shop. This she imagined with one hand flicking through the pages of
House and Garden
and the other burping her baby son on her shoulder. The other dream was taking the newly hyped birth control pill that her not-so-Catholic friends were raving about. But Alice was a good Catholic girl who didn't particularly fancy burning in hell, so just like Rosie, she too, spent her mornings hanging over the toilet bowl. And in 1960, Alice was pregnant with her fifth child in little over seven years.

Alice's two-bedroom duplex was already bursting with four sons, one collie and two black cats. “But we can't afford another kid!” was all her husband could say as he
admired his reflection in the mirror, belted in his handcuffs and placed his gun in its holster.

Dodging the pull toys and missing puzzle pieces strewn on the living-room floor, Alice stormed from the hallway into her cluttered room, slammed the door and flopped on the bed in tears.

The only way to escape the chaos of kids, and that stack of unpaid bills sitting next to the wall phone, was to take a cleaning job for a wealthy woman in a Tudor mansion on Belmont Hill. There she found peace in the motion of her dust cloth swirling over a fresh mist of lemon furniture polish as it glided across the mahogany dining room table.

Alice was allowed to sip a cup of Lipton tea on the veranda during her lunch break. She would spy on the gardener working his magic around the kidney-shaped pool, watch him stand back to admire his work before planting a row of red and white impatience, preparing for a pop of summer color. This is how Alice learned.

On Tuesday and Saturday evenings, she covered after-hours duty at the Laundromat, mopping the floors, and taking great care to see that every drier's lint screen was fuzzy-free. When the clock hit midnight, she collapsed into a plastic chair bolted to the wall next to the detergent dispenser. She elevated her swollen ankles while fingering through the coffee-stained pages of a
Boston Globe
left on the folding table next to somebody's left-behind wool sock. There was comfort in propping up the news on her swollen belly, comfort in the deep rumble of the last load of clothes in the nearby dryer.

The night Alice's water broke, her husband was in the middle of a breaking-and-entering arrest down at Paulie's Pizzeria and couldn't be at the hospital. Neither could
Alice's mother, babysitting Alice's four
other
kids. So on that rainy night, when Alice pushed her fifth child into this world, she decided that if it were a girl, no matter how alone she felt, if nothing else, her daughter was going to get a joyful name.

And she did. Eight pounds and nine ounces of bouncing baby “Joy” was born.

Chapter Three
R. I. P.
Helplessness & Denial

It was the third Friday of the third week in March that I got to thinking: “The month of March—it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb…” just like my mom, Rosie, used to say when the wind whipped outside our window, while we sipped hot cocoa on the inside, watching Jerry Lewis on the
Movie Loft. Cinderfella
was my favorite. Mom would iron, Grandma would fold, and I'd stretch my tongue as long as it could go, licking the marshmallow from the tip of my nose timed to the laugh track of the movie.

I snap back to reality. To denial. To feeling helpless. What I'd give for just five minutes to do that again. Mom was right. Today is 65 degrees, truly a ‘lamb' day. And I'm feeling like a lost one.

My hand-held hoe hangs idly from my fingers as I stand over the damp soil from last night's rain. What shall I plant? The sun struggles through the folds of an overcast sky. April is only a week away, though I feel I ought to plant my mother's flowers on her grave now, since everything else on the list has been done. Obituary written: check. Black dress bought: check. Casket: check. Wake, funeral: double check. Stop by cemetery every week and linger: check. But a desire, a desperate longing to do something more… the box is unchecked.

Not much left to tend to aside from this two-by-four-foot patch of soil around her grave. Wonder how she'd feel about a nice hydrangea? Though she was more a yellow rose kind of gal. Wonder if she's even noticed the little stone whale I put in the muddy soil? Wonder if the cemetery caretaker would let me plant a couple cherry trees around the outskirts of her stone? Maybe put in a bench for people to sit and meditate?

“You don't happen to have a watering can in your trunk, do you?” a voice hollers.

It's Alice. I should have known. Four rows over at her daughter Joy's grave, waving at me, all smiles, like a clown with her cropped red hair. Reluctantly I wave back. Man, I think to myself, that woman needs to get a life. If it just rained last night, what the hell does she need a watering can for, anyway?

“Oh, hello, Alice,” I say. “No, I don't have a watering can. Sorry.”

I pretend to busy myself, move the dirt around between my fingers. Anything so Alice will think I'm occupied. I mean, look, I can't help but feel sorry for her, but still, this isn't about her and
her
daughter. It's about
me
and
my
mother.

Since I didn't have a father or siblings, my mom was everything. I was an only child, used to being loved, heard, and cared for, exclusively and unconditionally. Now that unconditional love was gone forever.

There's a shadow standing over my left shoulder. God, this woman doesn't know when to quit.

“Why do you suppose people write ‘Beloved Wife, Mother and Grandmother' on the person's stone?” asks Alice.

I don't know, why don't you ask them? I think to myself.

“I mean, what if that woman wanted to be remembered for her opera singing or her painting skills?” explains Alice. “Maybe she wanted to be an individual. Not somebody's
beloved
mother.”

“I suppose…” I say, still refusing to engage her and busying myself with nothing.

“Know what is the stupidest thing people say at funerals?”

“Ummm…. She's in a better place?” I say sarcastically, digging harder.

“Exactly. She's in a better place. Well, how the
fuck
do they know?”

I'm snicker, startled by her outburst. Okay, I might not like her, but this woman is funny.

“Pardon my French. I'm fluent,” she says, and then bows.

“I was just thinking,” I say, unconsciously tapping the ground next to me.

“Oh yeah?” says Alice, sitting down without a second thought.

I'm surprised to find I don't mind. Her words have suddenly made my self-pity dissipate. For the moment, anyway.

“When people ‘she's in a better place', at funerals, I want to say ‘she's in a better place, huh? Well, then maybe
your
mother should die tomorrow so
she
can be in a better place, too,” I say. “If heaven is an eternity, couldn't it have just waited ten or twenty years more?”

“People are always amazed when they see how strong we are at the wake or how in control we look at the funeral,” says Alice. “The big secret—that you and I and anyone who has ever lost anyone share—is that the funeral is your last moment to do something right for them. Like you, Marla. I bet right now, right this very minute, you're wondering what you can do for your mother now that everything else is done.”

She's figured me out, I admit to myself, not entirely pleased at the realization.

“Oh and I like the whale ornament,” Alice adds, tapping the top of its spout. “Can you make it spit water?”

“Would have to leave a hose hooked up to its spout,” I say, pointing my hand digger at the nearby community water spigot with the rusted iron handle. “But, thanks for noticing. Got it at the garden center.” I say. And I launch into full-speed thoughts: “You know, Alice, the guilt is a killer. Especially when it could have been avoided.”

“You mean the ‘Maybe if I was there. Maybe if I could've, would've, or should've, she'd still be here?'”

“Exactly.”

Alice looks away, face into the wind. Abruptly, she changes her tune. “Hey, what do you mean ‘alone'? Haven't you any siblings?”

“No, only child, remember. And apparently that makes me an orphan.”

“No father either?”

“Never knew him.”

“No children of your own?”

“Not yet. I'm not sure I ever will want them. I don't want a life controlled by the needs of others.”

“Hmmm. That's a bold statement,” says Alice. She seems to be hit hard by my words.

“Although with a dead mother, I feel like my life is controlled by an outside force anyway.” She looks at me as if I've more to say. And I have. “Like when I make arrangements to meet somebody for the first time—even yesterday when I had to meet
this guy in the bank about a loan—I want to say, ‘I'll be the attractive one with long brown hair who just lost her mother.' Or when I run into somebody at the drycleaners and they say, ‘How are you today?' What am I supposed to say? ‘Oh, I'm crappy. My mom just died.' It's as if her death is a part of me, some extended limb, an attachment I can't get rid of. Don't even
want
to get rid of. There's before mom's death and after: the line that divides the Marla that I was and the Marla that I am now.”

“Do you ever talk to heaven?” Direct as ever.

“All the time,” I say. “But nobody answers.”

“She will. When the time is right.”

“Sure. I hear all these stories about how a loved one will find peace in the hereafter and talk to the living in our dreams when we sleep, to tell us they're okay. Well, what's she waiting for?”

“Maybe she's—”

“Mom was always singing. She‘d sing this old Fred Astaire song and do a silly tap dance around our kitchen floor. You know the one. It's famous: ‘Heaven, I'm in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak…' Well shit, Alice, I hope it's like that. I hope she's dancing on a cloud. She was the happiest person I know—but so afraid of death. And to die the way she did…” I muster up the courage to add, “It should have been me.” And now I glance to heaven.

“Don't say that. I lost a child. There's nothing worse. She'd have wanted it to be her.
I
wish it had been
me
instead of Joy.”

Here come the tears. I should have taken out stock in Kleenex. I reach for my pocket to find a crunched-up tissue.

“Look, when you're ready to tell me, I'm all ears,” says Alice.

“Maybe we fear what we don't know? What's on the other side,” I say, changing the subject.

“Maybe we're more afraid of the choices and decisions we have to make now while we're alive.”

“Maybe…” I gather my shovel and garden gloves and rise up. It's time to make my way to the car. “Looks like the clouds are moving in. Wanna ride?”

“No, I'm fine. Gonna stay a while longer.”

“Okay, then.”

“See you next Friday? Same time, same place?” says Alice.

I'm reluctant to commit but then suddenly find myself spinning around. “Hey, Alice?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for today. The things you said, I mean. Sometimes I feel like nobody understands what it's like. You're the first person I can talk to who seems to just…” and after searching for a better word, I say, “gets it.”

“Maybe we can help each other to get it. You with a lost mother, me with a lost daughter.”

“Maybe. Next week, then?”

“You betcha,” says Alice, giving me a thumbs-up through her muddy garden glove.

“And Alice?”

“Yeah?”

“I'm truly sorry about Joy.”

“I know.”

And then it's as if our minds synchronize.

“But she's in a better place!” we say together.

She shakes her head and I smile for the first time in weeks.

Chapter Four

Julia and I met on the very first day of first grade. Swinging our lunch buckets we stood in a lazy line awaiting the sound of the copper bell. Recess was only moments away as Julia stared at me with that vague white-bread-girl look that I'd grown accustomed to whenever I did something that didn't fit conventional life, like chomping on a chewy piece of rosewater-flavored Turkish delight, its powdered sugar falling onto my navy plaid skirt.

I knew Julia was about to ask me why I was eating
that
instead of a Snickers bar, but before she could, I held my sticky hand to her face. “My grandma makes it, okay?”

“Your grandma
makes
candy?” Julia made a googley-eyed expression. “I wish
my
grandma made candy. I wish I
had
a grandma.”

Not what I expected to hear. I even stopped chewing. How do you compete with that?

“Can I try some?” she asked.

“I suppose,” I said, half willing to share, and then rethinking it. ‘Half a piece.” And so I bit into a fresh candy and handed her the smaller half, our fingers sticking together in between, instant sugar-sisters.

“It's good,” was all she could say.

And just like that, we were best friends.

Midway through second grade, and several pounds of Turkish delights later, my mother Rosie decided to break free from grandmother.

“I'm leaving,” she announced to Grandma, who wiped her hands on the dish towel before snapping back, “Leaving? For
what
? Are you crazy? You have everything here. A television, card games Tuesday nights, bingo at the church hall, every comfort you could want…”

Nobody mentioned the comforts
I
had, entertaining Uncle Zaven with my dance routines—the ones I'd perform off-beat to Mario Lanza's albums blaring from the old turntable in the parlor. Grandma would stand in the doorway while I invented Irish jigs after running out of jitterbug moves. Her eyes would narrow, her shoulders slump, fists clenched at her sides, a stance that only an Armenian grandma could make. “You're just like your mother!” she'd holler. It was never clear to me whether she intended this as a compliment or criticism.

All our belongings were stuffed into a couple old plaid-maroon suitcases. This was it. We were leaving.

Then, Mom dragged a small wooden stepladder to the attic door. Up on the shelf, tucked in a hiding place I'd never have noticed, sat a metal container, an old turquoise-colored candy tin that depicted Peter Rabbit on parade. Mom blew dust from its top then put her finger to her lips. It was just a
candy tin
, for gosh sake! What could possibly be inside? Candy!

Our new apartment was smaller than Grandma's house. So small that our orange, velvet divan had to serve as a sofa by day and a bed by night. For the both of us. That sofa was
the centerpiece of our tiny domain, surrounded by five Casey & Hayes moving boxes of books, an avocado folding tube chair, a half-dead spider plant and the poster of a curly haired blond woman in a blue sailor suit that read, “Go Navy.”

The radiator spit cold air instead of heat, but the air-conditioning came cheap and naturally, just by raising the window. Stick your head out and you were sucked into a vortex of Boston noise pollution, bus fumes and Motown. Tip your head down to the courtyard below and you could spy a trio of Afro-haired brothers pulling their Cadillac up for a polish, their radios pumping out Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye. Mom wasn't a “Tracks of My Tears” kind of gal, so she'd position herself in the middle of our living room on an imaginary center-stage and await the next song—“I Second that Emotion”—moving slowly at first, her unsteady hand dripping martini onto the gold shag carpet. She'd sip, move and spill, sip, move, and spill, until eventually handing me the near-empty glass so she could strip down to her lace bra and panties for the finale. I know, I know… but I loved her lack of inhibitions.

Grandma would have vetoed this behavior in a heartbeat, of course, and that's why we were here. The apartment lease had Mom's name on it and Mom would proudly proclaim, “I only answer to the person who pays the rent!” And then she'd point to her chest and tip her head back in mad laughter.