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I GO TO A FUNERAL - And Come Home With a Date

“…And yet, to learn of kindness after so much unkindness, to understand that a little girl with more courage than she knew, would find her prayers were answered…can that not be called happiness?”

~ Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden



In the two decades I’ve been writing about my life, in all the varied renditions of my adolescent tales that I’ve scrapped or kept, in the various ways I’ve attempted to untangle the threads that have woven the tapestry of who I am, I have only ever written a few brief paragraphs about Jonathan, sandwiched between other seemingly bigger tales.


It’s taken me thirty-three years to understand why.


--


Winter 1987

14 years old


I had never met her. She was my cousins’ grandma, the mother-in-law of my dad’s oldest sister. Dad goes hunting every year on their family’s land. They call it The Shack, and he took me up there a couple times when I was little, but my uncle’s relatives and my dad’s don’t often mix, so I’m here because Dad is here, and to support the people in my family who lost her.


Although I don’t really know what I’ll say after the standard funeral condolences. I rarely know what to say at these things. It’ll probably wind up being a normal big gathering where I barely know anybody and it eventually gets too loud in the middle of the prop wash, so I slink off to the outskirts when I can't find anybody to talk to.


And I mean converse, not chitchat.


That rarely happens.


“Will Uncle Charlie be there?” I ask from the back seat of our Tercel as we drive between the double lines of towering pines on the freeway.

“I wouldn’t think so,” Mom answers.

I hunch in dejection. Technically, Charlie is not my uncle. He’s my dad’s cousin and he doesn’t go to The Shack. He has his own land for hunting, so it makes sense that the cousins I’m closest to won’t be there. When we’re all together we never shut up about anything.

I doubt my dad’s brother will come, as he is not a hunter, but I ask anyway. Nope. That means that the two youngest cousins won't be there either.


Which means I’ll be alone.


We three always get shoved off to the Kids’ Table for holidays, along with Missy. Although she’s my age, she’s the baby of the eldest branch, so at events like this she sometimes hangs out with her siblings more than with me, and I am way too young for them. I fully anticipate that’s what will happen today, considering the reason we’re all gathering. The funeral is for Missy’s other grandma.


The California cousins for sure won’t be there, but most of them are older anyway.

Dad will be off schmoozing with everyone he rarely gets to see; Mom will be glued to his side, unavailable. Not like she and I talk much these days anyway. (1)


Maybe a few well-meaning adults will ask me questions they don't actually want the answers to. They're just being nice, so when they ask me, "How is school going?" I’ll be nice back. I'll tell them that I’m still getting straight-As, I’ll list off my boatload of activities, and I will zip my lips about the war zone I navigate in the halls.


I also won’t tell anybody about the novel I’ve started writing. It's become my new obsession. It’s all about the greater and lesser enemies, allies, and love interests that a fourteen-year-old girl much cooler than I am tends to acquire throughout her days. Not a topic for a family gathering, especially a funeral.


I prepare to stand on the outskirts of adult circles, admiring the backs of suit coats and sweater-dresses for several hours, shivering in my dress clothes with my wide feet pinched into pumps. At best, I'll get to watch dust collect on horizontal surfaces and keep chairs pinned to the ground with my numb butt all afternoon as my numb mind wanders away from the discussions of sports stats. But this is family, and that's what you do.


As we exit the freeway and head up into the hills above Lake Superior, I start practicing.


Lips: mashed in against each other.

Mouth corners: upturned.

Choke-chain: locked.

Eyes: large and bright.

Personality: vacuumed.

Mind: vacuous.


Okay, not vacuous, per say. Just…confined to the shallows where everything is safe and happy. Or in the case of a funeral for someone I didn’t know, limited to the subjects of A) condolence, B) appropriate remembrance, and C) small talk. Since I don't have any remembrances to offer, I hope maybe someone will want to share their own. Just in case, I survey the pale gray sky, and glance out to see that the dark gray waters of Lake Superior are not as choppy as they might be, considering how deeply the brownish-gray branches are bowed in the breeze.

Excuse me. Wind.


Okay, fine. Bitter, icy, breath-stealer. It’s actually not too bad today.


Even so, when we pull into the parking lot, I tug my turtleneck higher up under my chin and button my coat all the way up. Except in the case of digging out the emergency winter wear from the trunk, I will not be caught dead in a hat—not for the twenty-eight seconds we’ll be outside, and not with how long it took to curl my hair.

I wait until the last second to crack open the car door. The wind direction is wrong to yank it from my grasp and slam it into the neighboring car, so I release my death-grip and carefully slide my black shoes onto the slick-packed snow of the lot. My pumps have low heels, so I try to “walk like a lady” while ice-picking my way toward the funeral home entrance as quickly as safety will let me. Once we’re in, I share a shiver-grin with my parents and take my place behind them in the line that’s formed through the lobby in front of the sign-in stand.

Dad’s customary “mooooooooooo” rolls through my mind as we start the inching shuffle. He always makes that sound when we get held up by a crowd or get stuck in a slow moving line. That would be inappropriate today, so I moo it in my head. I then quickly duck my face, smash the amused smile off it, and act like I am solemn and subdued.


It doesn’t take much to get back there, as I am sad for everybody who lost her. I hear she was super nice. Since this is actually a grave occasion—


Dang it.


Now Mom’s punniness takes over and I have to squash myself again. That’s okay. Soon enough, getting to hug my family and sitting down for the official stuff will turn my mind completely serious in a way that grief can’t do because I haven’t lost someone I knew, much less loved.


It's really just the reception after the ceremony that I'm dreading.

Alas, I had to leave The Chocolate War behind. (2) It would not be appropriate to curl up in a far off corner and read about violence and rebellion, once I’ve run out of weather comments and have rattled off my latest school stats enough times to assure everybody that it’s okay to ignore me now that the obligatory questions have been asked.

Dave’s Weird Daughter: Check.


I know, I know.


In fact, I know exactly which questions to ask if I want to keep the conversations going. Kids, grandkids, pets, relatives who live elsewhere, weather, the reception food, how-‘bout-them-Bulldogs/Gophers/Red Wings/Twins/Vikings, oh-you’re-a-Packers-fan-are-ya, Gretzky, fishing, hunting, restaurants. I also know the sorts of noises and body movements that are appropriate to reply in order to indicate engagement until the prescribed length of time has passed where their awkward smiles descend. Their eyes will shift. The search will begin.


Moving on to someone else…


Someone who's actually good at this.

Check.

I know how to do it. It’s just exhausting and it’s one of my least favorite things to do, so I usually go for polite-and-shy instead. I’m actually not shy. Not at all. But it goes over better than bored, lonely, freezing, irritated, and ansy.


Letting any of that show tends to get me in trouble.


Don’t get me wrong. I don’t dislike anybody that I’m bound to find here. (Well, not much, anyway. Occasionally, I dislike a few of my cousins for a few hours, but that’s only when they slam my hand into doors, call me names, make fun of my clothes or what Californians call an “accent”--Minnesotans do NOT have an accent, they do!--or when they lock me out on the patio in the middle of the San Jose summer while jeering “nah-nah-nah-boo-boo” with their tongues sticking out.)

(Okay, that last one was totally me. What? I was six, and enough was enough, man.)


(Naturally, I was the one who got in trouble that day.)


Anyway, I really do love my family. A lot. As families go, mine is the best one I’ve ever seen. We do a lot of fun stuff when we get together, and Grandma’s food is the best. We don’t fight and brawl and backstab. We don’t get drunk and crash our trucks into each other’s cars. We don’t call each other truly hateful things, either behind each other’s backs or to each other’s faces. In fact, we always have each other’s backs when it counts, and we are genuinely loving.

I just…don’t fit in during the socializing.


Now, when there is water skiing, fishing, frogging, skating, swimming, sand castle building, sight-seeing, hiking, eating, bug collecting, shell hunting, cribbage playing, card warring, sauna-ing, hide-n-seeking, ABC around-the-worlding, snowmobiling, sledding, or fort building to be done? I’m all over that. And during those times, my older cousins even teach me cool stuff like how to ride a bike without training wheels, how to dive off the dock and waterski slalom. I love learning stuff from them.


But this schmoozing and chitty-chatty stuff?

I’d love to do that, too, since I actually prefer to talk with adults and older kids most of the time, but they don’t tend to want to talk about what I like to talk about. When I accidentally venture past small-talk, they mostly look at me like I’m speaking Jawaese. Utinni! (3)

So I tend to quietly slip off by myself once I’ve put in enough face-time and I’m exhausted from keeping my mouth propped up in that pleasant smile with my voice pitched high and volume set to low. Like we do.

It wears me out faster than cheering at a double-overtime game.



At long last, we shuffle up to the sign-in book. Dad fills everything out for our family. We skirt the pedestal and clear the inside entryway where I’ll finally be able to stop shivering and unbutton my coat. Maybe even take it off. But then my parents slow down. They’ve spied my dad’s sister and her husband. The crowd is super bottlenecked around any of the deceased woman’s kids, so “mooooo” echoes through my head once—

It screeches to a halt like a record player needle scraped over vinyl.


All sound ceases.

Sunbeams shine down through the crack that suddenly parts the North Shore clouds.

Sitting beneath those rays on a folding chair with burgundy vinyl cushioning is the most handsome boy I have ever seen, and he’s staring back at me like I’m doused in my own angelic rays. Oh, he is more glorious than Bo Brady. He puts Tom Cruise to shame. Even the first time I saw Steven Carlson pales in comparison, and we all know how I felt about Steve. (4-6)

It truly is the classic scene out of a movie.


Girl shuffles in, dreading numb brains and butt.

Boy holds down chair with already numb butt.

Eyes meet.

Symphonies soar.

Fireworks explode overhead.

Girl needs neck-brace the next day due to whiplash from craning head backwards to stare at boy.


I try to wrangle my gaze front and center. This is a thousand times more inappropriate than mooing in my head or entertaining myself in line with punny quips. I can NOT be ogling boys at a funeral!


But our eyes are locked. His are brown, darker than his hair. It’s cut in shades of Nikki Sixx, but classier and lighter with hints of gold. Appropriately, he’s dressed all in black--long sleeve button-up, slacks, shoes--except for a thin burgundy tie that matches the chair he’s eased back on. His posture radiates patient boredom, the sitting version of my stance. His face radiates everything I’m battling not to show.


To not even feel.


When the corners of my mouth turn upward this time, it’s 100% real. I have to bite them to keep from bursting into a full-blown smile.


The crowd ahead of my parents parts. I have to move on. But I hold his gaze for one last second. His eyes lower first, but his grin goes huge and he doesn’t bother trying to hide it one bit.




SOME LINKS, IN CASE YOU DON'T KNOW THESE REFERENCES:

1) Why my mom and I weren't speaking much those days

2) The Chocolate War

3) Star Wars alien languages: a quick bit of geekery

4) Bo Brady

5) Tom Cruise

6) My first crush-n-burn, Steven Carlson


CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE:

--COMING UP: WHAT HAPPENED WITH THAT BOY I SAW

--OR if you missed MY HSP SERIES, it'll give you a better idea of why I am so often aMulan in the face-paint and constricting dress at public functions.

--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS

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