Birthday Funeral

All of my stories are a bit personal, in one way or another, and all of them have at least a kernel of truth or two. This one is special, because it’s extra personal, and because there’s a lot more than just a crumb or two of real life. I couldn’t think of anything else to write for this month. This is the only story that wanted telling.

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“You really don’t have to do that, you know.”

Sara stood in front of the sink, peeling a peach. Sticky juice dripped down her fingers and into the basin. If she’d been smart, she’d have thought to get a bowl and collect it. Wasted juice made for a dry cobbler, and she would not be taking a dry cobbler to the funeral dinner. She’d rather turn up empty-handed than risk her reputation on dry cobbler.

“Sure, I do,” she said.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” said her mother, from her perch at the breakfast bar.

Really, Sara shouldn’t be cooking anything. As family of the deceased, Sara’s obligations consisted of weeping quietly, accepting condolences and awkward hugs, and finding a place in her grandfather’s tiny kitchen for the massive collection of casserole dishes and KFC buckets friends and neighbors had been dropping off for the last three days.

“It’s what I can do,” she replied. “And it’s what I want to do. Can you grab me a bowl?”

“You’re just like him,” her mother said, and passed a green plastic bowl over from the pantry. “You always have to be busy.”

“So, you’re saying it’s genetic?”

Sara could practically hear her mother’s eyes roll. She looked over and winked.

“Just like him,” her mother said.

“I’ll miss him.”

Sara’d been living in California for the last three years. She hadn’t gotten home as often as she wanted to, and when she heard her grandfather had died, it’d felt like a punch to the gut. When she moved, he’d been as hearty as ever. He’d refused to slow down. He’d laid floor tile and worked on old trucks and split firewood, and even now, she just couldn’t imagine him as a frail old man. He’d never even lost his hair, until cancer treatments took it from him. Sara dreaded old age.

“Let’s go outside once this is ready to bake,” she told her mother. “I’d like to enjoy the view for a little while before we head to the funeral home. It might be the last time I’ll see it.” She tried her best to hide it, wiped it away as fast as she could, but a single tear trickled halfway down her cheek. “I don’t think I ever realized how special it was.”

“Your grandpa used to say this was God’s country,” her mother said. Sara heard a sniffle and the rustling of a tissue. “He was proud of you. He wanted you to come home, though.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry this is happening on your birthday. He’d hate that.”

Sara was grateful the cobbler was ready to bake. She shoved it in the oven and went straight to the door. She just needed a minute, just a second, to pull herself together. Outside, August heat radiated off every surface, and the humidity settled around her shoulders like a weighted blanket, close and heavy. Sara sat down in the porch swing and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, and another. She heard the screen door open and close, and then felt her mother sit beside her.

“I’m glad I get to share today with him,” Sara said, and opened her eyes, squinting against the bright morning sunlight. “I just wish none of this was even happening.”

“I know,” her mother said. “Me, too.” She took Sara’s hand and held it.

They sat like that, hand in hand, in silence, just looking out at the mountains in front of them, the fields and pastures, and the little church down in the valley.

“Do you remember when you locked your grandma out of the house?” Sara’s mother asked, and giggled.

“I don’t! I don’t think I ever did that. I wasn’t that mean when I was little.”

“Oh, you did,” her mother said. “And you told her she was old and you were new.”

“Oh, God, I did not!”

“You most definitely did, Miss Meanness,” her mother replied.

“I was a terrible child,” Sara admitted. “Do you remember the little girl who used to stay in the old house down the hill?”

“Who?”

“I used to go down and play with her. I can’t remember her name.” Sara thought about it, and couldn’t remember much, except, “the bats! There were bats in the attic and she used to talk about how she’d hear them in the middle of the night. They kept her awake.”

Sara’s mother didn’t reply.

“She had long dark hair and freckles,” Sara added.

“Sara,” her mother said, “no one’s lived in that house since I was in school.”

“Well, she didn’t live there all the time. She just visited family.”

“That house has been empty for years.”

“No,” Sara insisted. “No, I remember playing with her.”

“You must be thinking of something else,” her mother said.

“No,” Sara said. She thought of it again, the little girl and her pink bedroom, her tattered white curtains, how she laughed when Sara didn’t know how to braid. “No, I remember.”

The oven timer buzzed, pulling Sara out of the moment. She went inside. She had things to do. No matter what else might happen today, no matter how faulty her memory might or might not be, she would not let that beautiful biscuit crust burn.

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After the funeral and the dinner that followed, Sara went back to her grandfather’s house with the rest of her family. The sun hung low on the horizon now, almost invisible behind the ridge line. She sat on the porch swing alone, rocking gently back and forth. The high heat of the day had broken, but she could still feel the dewy, warm air through her itchy funeral clothes.

She hated funerals. She hated everything about them. She hoped no one would ever plan a funeral for her.

“Just put me in the ground and drink some wine,” she said, out loud for no particular reason.

“You know this family doesn’t drink, right?”

Sara’s uncle walked out onto the porch and sat beside her.

“Sure they do,” she answered. “Just not in public.”

“Like all good Baptists,” her uncle added. “I’m sorry about your birthday.”

“Everyone’s said that,” Sara said. “It’s fine. I’m actually kind of honored to share the day with him.”

“When are you heading back?”

“A couple of days, I think.” Sara hadn’t checked her work phone since coming home. She didn’t know what kind of mess she’d walk back into. “I’m not sure.”

“We’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss y’all, too.”

“You can always come back. They’ve got newspapers here.”

Sara wouldn’t be coming back here to live, not ever. But she said, “I know. Maybe someday.”

Her uncle nodded and stood up.

“Hey,” she said, “before you go, can I ask you something weird?”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Do you remember the family that used to live down the hill?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“There was a little girl, right? About my age?”

Her uncle thought for a moment. “Yeah, they had a little girl.”

“Oh, thank God. I thought I was crazy.”

Her uncle nodded. “I’m surprised you know that, though.”

“Why?” Sara felt a pang in her stomach, doubt or fear or something deeper.

“You never met her. They were gone before you were born.”

“What?”

“Yeah, they lost her. She died in a car accident. They moved not long after it happened. Not sure where they went.”

Her uncle went inside, leaving Sara alone again, in the deepening dark. She looked down the hill, at the white steeple and the gray ruin of a house just visible in the last light of the day. And she remembered being down in the pasture, playing with a dark-haired little girl, spinning in dizzying circles and giggling so hard she got hiccups. She remembered her grandfather calling down to her, his gruff voice beckoning her back home.

“Sara,” he’d said, “get back up here! It’s not safe down there by yourself.”

Now he was gone, and Sara knew her family would sell the house.

“If we keep it, every time we walk in, we’ll just be expecting to see them and they won’t be there,” her mother had said.

Sara wouldn’t be back here again. This view, the porch swing, the mystery girl. None of it would belong to her anymore. She’d only have the memories. She supposed death was always like that, leaving you with questions and no one to answer them, with memories and no place to ground them. What a birthday present.

Sara stood up and stretched her arms. After one last, long look, she walked inside.

Found Friday #1: Fruit Trees and Fragments

It’s ended up being a rainy day today. Here’s the view out of my back window:

Normally, there’s a mountain back there. Today, just clouds and downpours. I think we’re getting what’s left of Hurricane Laura.

I’ve spent the day procrastinating writing a short story for August. I made cacio e pepe for lunch and banana and oatmeal cookies for breakfast tomorrow. I watched Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and I gave myself a manicure. I’ve already had two Diet Cokes.

All of this not working got me thinking, and I think it would be fun to write some short posts featuring the various odds, ends, and interesting items my husband and I find in and around our 200-year-old farmhouse. Trust me, it’s a lot. Like, right after we moved in, we found a machete hidden above an air duct in our basement. Not sure what that was about, or how long it was there before we found it.

Anyway, I’ll try to make this a weekly thing, and we’ll call it “Found Friday.”

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Back in the spring, we planted some apple trees in our back garden, to accompany some cherry trees we’d planted the year before. One of these days, I’ll make all the pies, if I can manage to keep the trees alive long enough to produce fruit.

As we were digging, we started to find fragments of pottery and bone china. The bone china seems to have grown legs and walked off, but I’ve still got a pretty sizable chunk of the pottery (which I found, again, when I was doing some cleaning over the weekend).

I wonder what this looked like, when it was whole. And I wonder how old it is. It’s interesting, living in a house that so many people have called home before us. I’m sure we’ll leave something behind, too.

Birthday lessons, and 34 fun facts about me! (Or, it’s my birthday, but there’s a pandemic.)

Today is my birthday. I’m 34.

Normally, I would be spending time with my parents – my dad’s birthday is on the 17th and we like to celebrate together – but today I’m home, eating cake and being lazy.

When I was 10, 13, 16, 20, etc., 34 seemed very far away, and women in their thirties seemed so wise and sophisticated and put together.

Most days, I can’t remember if I’ve brushed my teeth. I think I may have been wrong about women in their thirties. I think we’re all just trying to figure out how to do this adulting thing.

But I do think I’ve learned a few good lessons, so I’ll share, because why not? And because I have very little else to do, given the pandemic and that it’s a Tuesday. And at the end, I’ll share 34 fun facts about me and a picture that will probably make you laugh, because…I can, I guess.

It doesn’t matter what other people think.

It’s old advice, sure, but it’s true, and I wish I’d understood it years ago. The only person responsible for my happiness is me, and so I’m the only one who gets an opinion.

When I left a full-time, well-paid office job to pursue writing, lots of people had nothing but kind and encouraging words. But lots of people also told me I was crazy and that I was throwing away opportunities I’d never be able to get back. A few people actually suggested I was lying, and that I just didn’t want to say what I’d actually be doing.

Whatever.

When I was younger and I wanted to be an opera singer, people made fun of me. I guess no one’s allowed to like opera before the age of 50.

Whatever.

When my husband and I bought a 200-year-old house, several people wondered, out loud, why we would take on that kind of burden, and if we would regret it, because old houses have old house problems and old house problems take time and money. And wouldn’t it be more convenient to just buy a new house in the suburbs and decorate it like an old farmhouse?

So. Much. Whatever.

I get to decide what makes me happy. No one else gets to do that. It’s like my own personal superpower.

And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

No one is as hard on me as…me.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to live up to expectations. I was always so worried about how other people thought of me, and what they saw in me, and if I was making a good impression.

I realize now that other people don’t think much about me at all. They’ve got their own stuff going on.

Now, when I do something stupid or say the wrong thing or trip and fall in public (which happens a lot), I remember that no one judges me as harshly as I judge myself. And I remind myself to be kind to me, because…

“Perfection doesn’t exist in this universe.”

Neil Gaiman said that once, in a MasterClass I took. I like it.

It doesn’t do any good to hold yourself to perfection, because it just doesn’t exist. Mistakes are part of living. We can contextualize them, learn from them, and put them where they belong – in the past, behind us – or we can dwell on them, and let them rule what we do in the future.

Don’t do that. Perfect isn’t real. Everyone screws up. Be kind, to yourself and to others.

I know nothing.

Yep, John Snow and me.

The older I get, the less I know. I keep learning, every single day. I read, I write, I try to pick up new skills, I take a voice lesson every week, and I talk to people, because there is always more to learn. But every time I learn something new, I feel like it opens the door to 1,000 other new things I should also learn. I like this, because I get bored easily and I was always good at studying anyway.

Learning is beautiful, and it’s fun, and it’s valuable.

I am enough.

Just as I am.

And you are, too.

And because I said I would:

34 Fun Facts About Me

  1. I drink too much Diet Coke.
  2. I read at least one book per week. Usually more. Any genre.
  3. My favorite cake is Red Velvet.
  4. I forgot the words to the National Anthem while I was performing it once. It was embarrassing.
  5. I like winter better than summer.
  6. My favorite place I’ve ever traveled to is Wales (specifically, North Wales).
  7. Iceland is a pretty close second.
  8. I hate flying.
  9. But I love airports. The best people watching ever. And usually there’s wine.
  10. I am listed as “Katie Wineries” in the contacts list of one of my best friends.
  11. I have always wanted to learn to paint.
  12. I think ketchup is trash.
  13. I love mayonnaise, though. (Everyone tells me this is gross.)
  14. I am afraid of snakes, ticks, and ladybugs. (Don’t look at me like that. I don’t know, either.)
  15. My favorite gemstone is a ruby.
  16. I am a cat person.
  17. I don’t hold my pencil correctly, and I never have.
  18. I used to get pulled out of class in elementary school so they could teach me how to hold a pencil. Priorities, I guess.
  19. I will not wear shorts.
  20. I read palms for fun.
  21. I majored in English.
  22. I am a coloratura. Or, I was, when I was training to sing opera a lifetime ago.
  23. My favorite opera is Don Giovanni.
  24. My favorite composer changes every day. So does my favorite writer. (That’s two things, I know.)
  25. I played Shelby in a production of Steel Magnolias once. It’s been my favorite role to date.
  26. I love Mitch Hedberg.
  27. My go-to karaoke song is Gives You Hell by The All-American Rejects. It has been for years.
  28. Sometimes I’ll sing Desperado instead.
  29. I cannot play an instrument. (It makes me sad. I should learn.)
  30. I like pie.
  31. I prefer the mountains to the beach, but both are lovely.
  32. I bought tap shoes on Amazon once when I was drunk.
  33. I have OCD and anxiety.
  34. I love trivia, and I’m super competitive about it.

And the picture. I don’t know what possessed my mom to place that little bow where she did, but it was genius.

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