AoM Chpt 34: The Funeral

A small Victorian-style funeral-home chapel in Seaside hosted Jeannie Arthur’s memorial. The chapel stood a few blocks south of the main town concourse, and had an oblique ocean view largely obstructed by houses to the side and front. Atop the waves just beyond the breakers, clouds like kneeling giants spanned the horizon, groping toward the beach, their fingers evanescing under a clear, hot sky. The mist heralded a marine push. Back in the valley a hundred miles east, it had gone to eighty degrees before nine a.m., and the heat drew in the cold ocean air.

Ahead of the fog, outriders of mist patrolled among the gray cedar-shake buildings.

Steve and Rei took the porch steps solemnly, their mothers behind them with flowers and trays of deli finger sandwiches. Steve’s mom had coordinated with Joy Risannen, and Tina Harrison had gratefully accepted their offer to come and help. A small, fiercely openhearted Japanese woman, Rei’s mom had taken charge, even though she knew Tess only secondhand. She’d purchased the flowers and sandwiches on behalf of Steve and Rei (presenting Gale O’Reilly with half the bill) and insisted on doing the driving. Over the course of the ninety-minute trip through the valley and over the coast range, she’d kept up a stream of talk, laying out the eternal puzzles of life, death, funeral arrangements, and orphaned kids while wrestling the stick shift of the fitful VW Bug with a wiry grip. Rei had stayed quiet, and now Steve understood where Rei had absorbed his heedless style of conversation. Only as they took the chapel steps did Rei’s mom finally grow quiet, as if waking to her surroundings.

The funeral home director, an old bald man with a fringe of shaved gray hair, held the screen door open. He directed the women to a table at the side of the foyer where they could place the food and flowers. Across the foyer, Tina stood to one side of the double doors that led into the chapel. She wore a white blouse and black vest with a calf-length black skirt and high-heeled dress shoes, and her lips and nails were painted in burgundy like old blood. Her hair was high and luxurious but stiff. Restrained worry and exhaustion weighted the skin under her eyes.

She smiled as Steve and Rei went up and shook her hand. “You guys look as uncomfortable as I feel,” she said. “Thanks for coming. Nice outfits.” Rei had on black slacks, a white dress shirt, and an overlong electric-blue tie. Steve wore the year-old suit his parents had bought him for an aunt’s wedding: a black satin jacket over black slacks with a white shirt underneath and a black knit tie. The sleeves were now too short, and he kept his fingers curled around the cuffs to hold them down.

Steve didn’t see Tess. On the other side of the chapel doors, an easel had been set up with pictures on a cardboard backdrop. The display was headed, “Jeannie Arthur,” and beneath in calligraphy script: “Scholar, feminist, counselor, Mom.” Steve went to look. Rei started to follow but grew twitchy. “I’ve gotta find a bathroom bad,” he said. Steve shrugged him off.

Polaroid and regular five-by-eight photos had been arranged in an artful scatter around a drawing from Tess’s room, the seated woman under slanting light. Tess’s mom had Tess’s dark hair and sharp features, only slightly rounder. The photographs showed a span of maybe twenty years. In the earliest, she squinted into bright sun against a backdrop of blue water, white-sand beach, and palms. Jeannie Arthur appeared serious and sad a lot, even when she smiled and revealed a wide mouth of large, perfect teeth. At her college graduation, dressed in red cap and gown with a ribbon on her chest, she accepted her diploma solemnly. In an office surrounded by books, facing the camera over a typewriter, she seemed put out. Toward the bottom of the arrangement, she held a black-haired girl of three or four and kissed her on the cheek with such absorption that she might have been kissing her goodbye forever. The girl was distracted by the camera and had a worried smile.

It was Tess.

While he studied the pictures, other people gathered around, and he realized he was in the way. Tess had slipped in beside him. She wore her denim punk outfit, her eyes mascaraed to the point of self-parody, her face powdered white. The whites of her eyes were red-shot, but she held herself straight.

Steve turned back to the pictures. Tess’s clothing unnerved him, because he didn’t know what it meant. Was she feeling angry as well as sad? One photograph held his attention. Jeannie stood on the Ecola Beach headland, just a few miles south. Behind her, the forested hills marched down to the ocean and ended in broken chunks of a further headland. Beyond that Haystack Rock waded amid the far breakers. Her hair blew across her face. Her eyes shone out from half-shadowed brows, her skin gleamed. Though the strong line of her jaw projected self-assurance, the tilt of her head seemed vulnerable. Steve wanted to comfort and draw strength from her at the same time. “Your mom was gorgeous,” Steve said.

“Thanks.” Tess’s voice was quiet and tremulous. “Some people say I look like her.”

“Almost exactly like her.”

When she didn’t answer, he turned to see her crying, the mascara running down the sides of her face. He patted her shoulder, and she sobbed, then threw her arms around him and buried her face in his neck.

He looked up to see everyone had turned away to give them privacy, everyone but Rei, who stood by, rubbing his hands together fretfully. At length, Tess pulled back and wiped her eyes. Tina brought up a box of tissues, and Tess pulled one out and gave Rei a perfunctory hug. She dabbed at her eyes, smiled in apology, and blew her nose with a rueful laugh.

The director approached, hands behind his back, and leaned in. “We’re about to get started,” he whispered.

* * *

Steve and Rei sat with their moms and the Harrisons in the front row. Jacob and Adam sat on the far outside, eating M&Ms. They’d been led in and were supervised by a middle-aged woman who identified herself as a friend of Jeannie’s from graduate school. A handful of other people had spaced themselves amid the dozen or so chapel pews. Tina leaned over and explained that they were Jeannie’s coworkers, along with some patients who’d gotten to know her at the hospital. Tess went off to the bathroom to get fixed up. After several minutes, Steve looked back and saw her lounging against the chapel doors all alone. He started to rise, but Tina reached over and held his shoulder.

The funeral director took the podium on the dais up front. On a small table beside him sat an urn, between gladiolas branching from ornate metal vases.

He thanked them for coming. He said a few words about Jeannie’s philosophy of a great universal spirit that we express, and that lives on. He called up a man who’d worked with Jeannie at a soup kitchen when she had just gotten sick. The man talked about her dry humor and her deep compassion. Next, the woman minding the Harrisons’ boys took the podium. She said that Jeannie had keen, “almost superwoman” intelligence, and broke down saying that Jeannie Karras, later Arthur, had been the most beautiful person she’d ever known.

Then the director called Tess.

She marched smartly up to the podium and swept everyone with her gaze, pausing to smile sadly at the Harrisons, Steve, and Rei. Her makeup was restored.

“First, I need to explain the way I’m dressed. You probably think this isn’t reverent, and you’d be right. That’s what mom wanted. She said last year that if I had to talk at her funeral…” Here Tess paused. Her eyes gleamed wet, and her throat worked. Then she regained control. “If I had to talk at her funeral, she wanted me to be dressed like I was going to a wild party. She said, ‘Baby, you have a party, because I’d like to think I’m having one too.’ ” Tears leaked out, and her mascara ran again, but her voice held steady. “Mom apologizes for dragging you all to the coast, but she didn’t want to be anywhere else. She always loved the ocean. We all came from the ocean; it’s full of dreams and nightmares and takes ships on adventure, and after this, we’re going to Ecola to see Mom off. When I was a little kid, she read me the myths of monsters, gods, and heroes, and later, she read me fantasy books like The Lord of the Rings, and in those stories, the Undying Lands are always over the water, so here we are at the edge of the ocean, and we need to stay, but Mom gets to go. We don’t know where, but I hope it’ll be an exciting place with punk music and cool books and the best food, because she deserves it. I’m proud to be her daughter. Everything good that I am she had something to do with, and the ways I’m not good aren’t her fault. You were a great mom, Jeannie. I love you. Forever.”

* * *

The Ecola State Park headland was reached by a sinuous road through wind-twisted fir and sitka spruce. Mist whipped among the trees through beds of sword fern and caught the procession headlights. At one point, the cars in front got backed up and then continued at a slower pace. The reason soon came clear. Rei pointed to a herd of Roosevelt elk picking its way along the shoulder with dull unconcern. As big as a horse, the bull had a regal spread of antlers, at least three feet on a side. Strips of velvet dangled like the ragged waste of some enemy. The bull watched the cars bemused and wary, then leapt upslope, with his cows in perfect tow, drawn by his magical summons.

“Cool,” said Rei, “it’s like The Land that Time Forgot. You could see a dragon out here crawling through the bushes.”

“Son,” Rei’s mom said, “you talk too much.”

A wind had come up when they parked the car, bearing a salt tang that sharpened and sweetened the air, and they kept their heads down as they rushed to the base of the grassy slope that rose to the bluff. The other attendees had gathered in a knot at the beach trailhead, backs to the ocean, which was concealed by fog. Tess stood in the middle, clutching the urn that held her mother’s ashes. Steve and Rei got close to shield her from the wind. Her teeth chattered.

“Thanks, guys,” she said. “Get a load of the view.”

Looking southward, Steve felt a cold transport of awe that stopped his breath. He’d been here many times before, but never like this. They were poised at the junction of cataclysmic powers. Below them, contained by the nearby cliffs and stopping at a line along the distant beaches, the sea mist filled all the oceanward space in a heavy, tumbling gray mass that leaked white ghosts. Shreds of fog blew up over the bluff to their right and across the face of the blue sky. To the east, cliffs still gleamed defiant under the broad noon sun within a shimmer of heat.

“We’re going down into that,” Tess said and nodded where fog swallowed the trail a few feet away. As the last of the cars pulled up, Tess started off, not waiting for everyone to get out. The temperature seemed to fall a degree every few steps, and colors faded around them. The ubiquitous dandelions grew butter pale on the left-hand slopes; the grass darkened to slate. Even Rei’s tie became an appropriately neutral blue-gray. Moisture beaded their clothes, and hung up in Steve’s eyebrows. He wiped a finger over one, and a drop like a cold tear fell onto his cheek.

Gulls called unseen overhead as they reached the last steep ramp to the shore, which was not sand but rounded pebbles. The surf rushed up with a dismayed sigh and the pebbles chattered anxiously behind it. Tess unscrewed the urn and poured the ashes out. When the surf swirled over them, she paused, indecisive, but then waded in to scoop water into the emptied urn, soaking her black-leather shoes and her knit leggings to mid-calf. She carried the water upslope through the dozen or so onlookers and found Adam and Jacob pressed against Tina.

“There’s some special water here,” she said. “You can see little shrimp and other animals in there. You guys see ’em?”

The boys peered in. Adam nodded. Jacob started to stick his hand in, and his older brother grabbed it and jerked it back.

“You two pour this water out for us in the sea. Then we can all go back.”

The little boys reverently took sides and balanced the urn together and knelt and emptied the water in a thin trickle. Jacob stumbled, but Adam steadied the urn patiently until his brother got his footing and could put his hands on it again. Finally, they turned it over. The tide rushed up, and they had to hurry out of the way to avoid a soaking. Tess tousled their hair, accepted and recapped the urn, and handed it to Alex nearby.

“Well,” she said to Steve, in a matter-of-fact way, “that’s that. Let’s get back to the sun.”

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