|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets a Life.||Rowena Moves Closer, Part 10|
Rowena looked out the window at the cars in the next lane. “It just seems to be a strange way for me to meet your relatives,” she said. “I mean, going to a funeral.”
Sammy shrugged. “Yeah, but we won't get this many of them together for a while. And they do want to meet you.”
“But a funeral. Isn't that kind of private? I mean, I never met her. If we were married, or engaged, maybe, but—I'm an outsider.”
“Not to me,” said Sammy. “Or to my mom.” He pulled the car onto the street on which his mother lived. “If you were telling me you didn't want to go because you don't like funerals, that would be one thing. But don't be thinking you won't be welcome.”
Rowena smoothed her skirt, a long one with understated blue irises on a black background. Normally with this skirt and her black blouse she would have worn a blue necklace, but not today.
Sammy pulled up in front of his mother's house and parked. Rosemary had wanted him to pick her up; this Rowena could understand. They got out of the car and went up to Rosemary's door.
“Come in; come in; thank you both. Glad you decided to come, Rowena; my, what a pretty skirt.” Rosemary, remarkably flustered, stopped a moment. “May would have liked it,” she said. May had been her aunt. Sammy had told Rowena that he himself had only met May a few times, but that Rosemary had known her fairly well, years ago.
Now Sammy gave his mother a peck on the cheek. “Take it easy, Mom,” he said. “We'll take care of you.”
“Silly boy.” She shook her head, smiling. “It's been an absolutely hectic morning; everything's gone wrong. I burned breakfast—can you believe that, Sammy?—ripped two pairs of nylons and had to run out and buy more . . .”
“You look fine now,” Rowena said. “You look great.”
“Bless you,” Rosemary said. She was wearing a black dress with light-tan willow leaves printed on it. She turned to address her son. “You don't suppose it's some weird psychological thing, do you, that I have to turn into May?”
“Of course not.”
“All day,” Rosemary said, “I've been almost as disorganized as she was. Not to speak ill of her; she was a dear soul.”
“She was a little careless, that's all,” Sammy said. “A little forgetful, maybe.” He looked around. “Are you ready to go?”
“I'm ready.” She picked her purse off the hall table and they trooped out to the car. “Do forgive us,” she said to Rowena. “I'm afraid you may be in for a tedious day.”
“Don't worry,” Rowena said. “If you can put up with me, I can put up with you.”
Rosemary laughed and took her arm. “It's a shame you never met her, though,” she said.
“She wasn't that bad,” said Sammy's cousin Jean. Rowena had met her at Christmas and was glad to see her again. “Just compared to Sammy's mom.”
“She could be kind of scattered,” Sammy said. “But she wasn't really ditzy or anything.” Rowena looked across the room to where Rosemary stood with Jean's mother, Frances, and a man who'd been introduced to Rowena as Uncle Peter, and somebody she didn't know at all. She wondered which would be worse; this period before the funeral, or the service itself. There was something about the wait . . .
“I bet,” Jean was saying, “you haven't introduced Rowena to Dave.”
“Dave? Where?” Sammy turned to look, but Jean clutched at his arm.
“Guess who just walked in,” she said, but gave him no time to speak. “Aunt Lula.”
“Aunt Lula,” Sammy said. He looked at Rowena and smiled. “Ready?” he asked.
Rowena had tried to prepare herself, on the drive over, for the possibility of meeting Sammy's infamous Aunt Lula. “I think so.”
Jean grinned. “Go get 'em,” she said.
But Rowena was taken first to Uncle Dave, who was talking with (it turned out) Sammy's Aunt Louise and Cousin Shirley.
“So we finally get to meet you,” said Louise.
Dave, when he was introduced, scowled at her. “Is this young fellow good to you?” he asked.
It was very much a joking-uncle scowl. Rowena smiled. “Pretty good,” she said.
“Pretty good, huh?” He scowled a moment at Sammy, then looked back at Rowena. “He ought to be very good.”
“Dave!” said Louise. “Behave yourself. Poor Rowena; she'll never want to see us again.”
“Don't mind him,” said Shirley to Rowena. “He's terrible.”
“Kumquats!” Rowena jumped. She turned to see a short, very round woman whose stiff grey hair was escaping from an untidy bun. “If he'd eat more kumquats he'd be a changed man.”
“If I ate kumquats I'd change in a way you might not like.”
“I would hate to see your vitamin profile, that's all.”
“Aunt Lula,” Sammy said, “I'd like you to meet my girlfriend, Rowena.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Rowena said. Aunt Lula eyed her.
“Beets,” she announced. “Beets and cucumbers.”
“Lula—” Dave began.
“May would never listen to me,” Lula said. “I told her and I told her; not so many peaches, I said; give them up. But she would never listen to me. Now look.”
“Lula, she was 84 years old.”
“And she could have lived to 94 if only—”
“If you can show me one piece of evidence linking peaches to stroke, I'll be willing to listen. Until then, just let May rest in peace.”
“Just look at me,” Lula said. “Between my specially-balanced ten servings of lightly-sweetened fruits and vegetables every day, and my rye bread with honey, and my special anise cookies—”
“Oh, God, those anise cookies.” Dave pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped at his face.
“Dave,” Louise said. “Please.”
“I remember,” Shirley said; a little nervously, Rowena thought, “going to Aunt May's house when I was a kid. You ever go there, Sammy?”
“No,” said Sammy. “I never did.”
“Peaches,” Lula sniffed. “For her, of all people.”
“I only went once, I think. But she really did have a white picket fence, and all those old-fashioned flowers—roses, lilacs, sweet peas—and I thought she was a million years old, of course; you know how kids are—”
“Excuse me.” It was Rosemary. “They're about to open the doors. Hello, Shirley; I didn't see you come in.”
“Hello, Aunt Rosemary. Is it time?”
It was time. They began filing in, suddenly quiet. “Don't mind Lula,” Rosemary whispered to Rowena, her eye on Lula's broad back. “Funerals set her off.”
“I expect they would,” Rowena murmured. Rosemary patted her arm; they were both silent, going in.
Rowena followed right after Sammy; she sat down next to him, and Shirley sat on her other side. She looked around. The church Rosemary's Aunt May had belonged to was nondenominational; the building was not elaborate, but did boast some small stained-glass windows and some nicely-polished wood. And, of course, there were the flowers, masses of white with green fronds. A great wreath and several bouquets of flowers—lilies and white gladiolus. Gladiolus. Rowena's Aunt Glad was the same age as May; eighty-four, to the year. She took Sammy's hand. People filed in; the music continued. Rowena looked at the flowers, at the casket, and away.
More music; Rowena recognized “Afternoon of a Faun” and wondered who had selected it as funeral music. She looked at the folded paper she'd been given; it was cream-colored, with a red rose on the front and, under that, May's full name and the dates of her birth and death. Inside, opposite the 23rd Psalm, was a program for the funeral. The minister would speak first and also last, and in between there would be eulogies from a nephew and from a longtime friend. Rowena closed the program and waited. The music stopped and the minister approached the pulpit.
The minister, a thin grey man, spoke briefly of Faith, of Heaven, of a long life well lived. “You all know how devoted she was to her late husband,” he continued, “and to all her family members and friends.” Rosemary had told Rowena that May had not had children. Rowena spread her hands out in her lap; her own Aunt Glad had not had children. Rowena knew Glad had wanted some; she wondered whether May had, too. “All this caring brought joy to her, and our memories now should bring comfort to us.” When the minister stepped down, the next speaker, the nephew, took his place. His name was Charles; Rowena had not yet been introduced to him but he was presumably another uncle of Sammy's. He put his hands rather heavily on top of the pulpit and looked out at them all.
“Where to begin?” he asked, and launched right in. He told about the train set his Aunt May had given him when he was little, and how she'd helped him play with it. He told how he'd overheard a “secret” conversation between his parents once, concerning some medical bills May had paid for them. “Aunt May took my father's appendix out,” he said. “Despite the fact that everyone knew she couldn't stand the sight of blood.” A small ripple of amusement flitted across the church. Charles appeared to be a man accustomed to public speaking, but he also seemed genuinely fond of his late aunt. Rowena thought him a good choice for a eulogist. Shirley evidently agreed; as Charles stepped down she leaned over to whisper, “Wasn't he good?”
As Charles returned to his seat, Addie Marsh, friend of the deceased for seventy-six years, walked up with slow dignity and faced the gathering. She held some scribbled papers, but did not consult them.
“May was a quiet person; kind of timid with people she didn't know. And she would never ask for a favor if she could avoid it. It didn't matter how glad you were to help; she'd be embarrassed to ask. Plain embarrassed.
“But she had a sense of humor. You probably all remember some of her jokes, remember the way she laughed . . .” Addie paused and pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. Rowena, feeling like an intruder, shifted her gaze and found herself staring at some of the white gladiolus. She could just see Shirley, beside her, putting a handkerchief to her eyes.
“Nothing nasty,” Addie went on, “nothing mean-spirited. She wasn't like that at all.” She paused again. “But she liked a good joke now and then, just like she liked her saltwater taffy. Oh, May and her taffy.”
Saltwater taffy! Aunt Glad's favorite, back when she could still eat it. “Of course, it's been a while since she was able to eat any,” Addie went on. “But she always looked on the bright side. I made some comment to her about what a shame it was she couldn't eat it any more, and she said, ‘There's still plenty of other things to eat.’”
“Plenty of other things to eat,” Aunt Glad had said. “Many of which don't make as much of a mess.”
Rowena sucked in her lower lip. She found herself looking again at the gladiolus, and her eyes began to fill. She found her purse, located a handkerchief. A stroke—they said May was gone “just like that.” At Aunt Glad's age, Aunt Glad going just a bit vague sometimes, sometimes more than a bit—
“But we all lose things we love,” Addie was saying, a little unsteadily. “May lost her taffy, and now we've lost May.”
Rowena bent her head, the tears coming faster. Sammy squeezed her hand; she managed to squeeze back but not to stop crying. She sat there and cried along with Shirley, and with Rosemary on Sammy's other side. She sat there among them and cried for somebody they didn't know, any more than Rowena had known May.
“Those are Aunt Lula's famous anise cookies,” Shirley whispered. “She always brings them. Just so you know.”
“Thanks,” Rowena said. She looked around at the buffet, which was not elaborate; it could almost have been a potluck. Perhaps any food would look like that in a church cafeteria.
“Hello, there; you must be—”
“This is Rowena, Aunt Judy. She's Sammy's girlfriend.”
“Usurping my job, Shirley?” Sammy asked.
“I was just being helpful.”
“Hello,” Rowena said. “Nice to meet you.” Aunt Judy put out her hand and Rowena took it.
“Aunt Judy's come three hundred miles,” Shirley said.
“Uncle Peter and Aunt Louise came five hundred,” Sammy offered.
“Now, you two stop that,” said Judy. “Heavens.”
“Where's Michael?” Shirley asked. “I see Adam and Peggy.”
“He had to work today,” Judy said. She turned to Rowena. “My son Michael is a pharmacist,” she explained.
“Forgive me,” Rowena said. “I expect I'm out of line, but—what does Aunt Lula think of that?”
Judy burst out laughing. She patted Rowena on the shoulder. “Oh, my,” she said. “Lula is livid. She calls him a pill-pusher. She—well, I guess you can imagine. Poor Michael.”
Rowena, Sammy, and Rosemary ended up at a table with, among other people, Sammy's cousins Shirley, Jean, and Grant, and Aunt Frances and Uncle Charles. Grant, Jean's younger brother, said very little, but not so his Uncle Charles. Rowena had learned that Charles' public-speaking technique had been developed not at his job but in “the depths,” as he put it, of his local Kiwanis Club. “Well,” Charles said now, “not much left of the Old Guard any more.”
“It does seem strange,” said Frances. Her husband, George, shook his head.
“It only gets worse from here on out, kiddo,” he told her.
“At least she wasn't sick for months or years,” Rosemary said. “She'd have hated that.” Around the table, heads nodded.
“That was a nice tribute you gave her,” Jean said to Charles. “I think she'd have liked it.”
“She'd have liked it,” said Frances.
“Thank you,” said Charles. He turned to Rowena. “Did you know her?” he asked.
“Me?” asked Rowena, surprised. “No.”
“It must have been pretty tedious for you, then.”
“No,” said Rowena. She looked down at the table. “Not really.”
She raised her eyes. He was looking at her kindly. And next to him was Shirley, who must have noticed Rowena's tears, even though she had politely not mentioned them. And Sammy's hand now lightly on her arm. Rowena took a breath.
“There were some things that people said that reminded me of my great-aunt, who's . . . not all that well. And . . . I guess I'm not really terribly prepared.”
“One never is,” Charles said. “I don't think it's really possible.” He was still watching her, seriously but with sympathy. She looked back down at her food, trying to stay calm this time and waiting for someone to change the subject.
“I would think,” said Shirley hesitantly, “that if the person is sick or something, it would be less of a shock than losing somebody who seemed healthy.”
“If you expect somebody to visit,” Charles said, “aren't you still startled when the doorbell rings?”
“It's a little different, Shirley,” said Frances, “at first. But after that your grief has more to do with what that person meant to you than with how long you thought she'd live.”
Jean poked her fork thoughtfully into her macaroni and cheese. “I don't think you can really prepare for anything in life,” she said.
“No,” said Charles. “All we can do is enjoy each other while we can.” And he included Rowena in his glance.
“I told you everyone would like you,” Sammy said, in the car.
“I wasn't really afraid they wouldn't like me,” Rowena told him.
“Do you agree now that you belong with the rest of us?”
She smiled at him. “I guess I have to.”
“I'm sorry the service upset you, though, dear,” said Rosemary. “If I'd known—”
“I didn't know,” Rowena said. “I just—I started thinking about my Aunt Glad—she's the same age May was and . . .” Rosemary knew about Aunt Glad.
“I'm sorry,” Rosemary said.
“It's more my fault than yours, Mom,” Sammy said.
“Stop apologizing,” Rowena said, and she suddenly felt she was going to cry again—and to laugh at the same time. “If you can turn into May,” she told Rosemary, “maybe I could turn into Aunt Glad. She could never stand having people apologize for this kind of thing, either.”
“I think you're a lot like her already,” Sammy said; and Rowena felt she was going to cry.
“I suppose,” Rosemary said, behind her, “that's one way to keep somebody alive.”
“I suppose,” Rowena said. She picked her purse off the floor.
She would have Sammy take her to Aunt Glad; she would bring her aunt red gladiolus this time, vivid and extravagantly alive. She watched the buildings go by.
Sammy pulled into Rosemary's driveway, and Rosemary invited them in. “I won't keep you long,” she said, looking at Rowena. “I expect you have somewhere to go.”
“Am I that transparent?” Rowena asked. Rosemary laughed and patted her arm.
“Wait right here,” she said. And when she returned she gave Rowena a paper bag.
“Does your aunt like banana bread?” she asked. “I found myself with too many bananas last night, and . . . well, you and your aunt are welcome to them.”
“Oh, Rosemary.” Rowena stepped forward and hugged her.
“I put a plastic knife in and some little paper plates so you can share it, if you like,” Rosemary said. “And some napkins . . .”
“Thank you,” Rowena said.
“You're welcome.” Rosemary looked at her. “Thank you for joining us today.”
Rowena waved until Rosemary was out of sight. “So,” she asked Sammy, “when do I get to see everybody again?”
Sammy turned off his mother's street. “As I said, we don't get together very often,” he told her.
Rowena looked out the window. Sammy said casually, “Aunt Frances has invited us over for dinner weekend after next. Jean'll be there.”
He pulled up to a stoplight, took her hand and kissed it. “What did I tell you?” he asked.
Rowena leaned up against him. “Do you think Aunt May and Aunt Glad would have liked each other?” she asked, a bit wistfully.
“I think so.” Sammy eased the car forward, and Rowena straightened up again.
“I think so, too,” Rowena said. She looked through the windshield, as far as she could see, to where everything converged. “I think they would have,” she said again.
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