Side Effects of Having a Mother This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

November 24, 2016
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The first funeral I attended was for Sofia my cat. I was four. We buried her under the tree that gave us the figs my mother made jam out of. My mother held my soft cheeks in her hands and kissed my forehead and wiped my tears. When her soothing touch wasn’t enough, she bought me strawberry ice-cream and then a dress with crisp lace trim and then a new cat. Cat #2 (whom I’d named after her predecessor) had a loving disposition like every other being that grew up in that house. It was like goodness dribbled from the leaking kitchen ceiling, drops of it splashing on the cracked tiles, infecting us all with compassion.

Time went by and it was hot again in my poorly air conditioned home. I barely touched Cat #2 that summer because of the way her soft long hair on top of me felt like swaddling myself in in three unnecessary layers, the top being an overcoat, meant for blizzard days.   

Cat #2 died when I was six. The tree was larger now, the figs sweeter and we dug her hole near the first grave. I strung lights from the branches and prayed many prayers. I wore the black dress with the lace trim even though it was too small for me after years of washing and drying. But it was black and you must wear black to funerals, as I’d told my brother repeatedly that morning when he tried to wear a green shirt. My mother bought us ice-cream and we ate and wept. But the funeral wasn’t good enough and the ice-cream wasn’t cold enough to give me brain freeze I so badly wanted, to distract from the crying.

I was eight when my mother told me my grandfather died. She walked in with lightness to her step, the way you walk when you wake up too early and stumble in the dark, trying not to wake up the baby asleep in the next room. She sat on my bed first, because I was the oldest. I had to tell the rest of them. I had to tell the boys why we had to be gentle today.
“Will there be a funeral?” was the first thing I asked her, with the childlike excitement of wondering what real life human funerals were like. She nodded and I strained my neck to look into the reflection of my eyes in hers. I would do this often when I was nervous. Her eyes were warm like the smell of coffee being brewed on Sunday without the bitter taste. Looking at them made me believe, if only for a second, that I could be brave like her. I didn’t want to ask, but the questions were bubbling over, making me lose my mature persona. What would he look like? I expected a gruesome body, a zombie-like figure half covered by a golden casket. Would my mother cry? Was I supposed to cry? When the words finally formed, my mother sighed and held my soft cheeks.
“Your grandfather was not a cat,” she said simply.
“He was not a soft man. He liked to hurt people.” And she told me tears would be wasted on a man like that.

Before the funeral my mother took me out to buy a new dress without ripped lace or overused stretches. My new dress was beautiful and dark and she taught me how to pull my ringlet hair into a bun. It was darker now, almost her shade of brown like the bookcase she kept in her room. I smiled. I felt beautiful like her.

I wasn’t allowed to wear my new dress before the funeral, because cat #3’s white, white hair would take forever to clean. So I starred at the pretty dress that made me look like my mother and longed for the day I could wear it again.

I was disappointed with the lack of effort put into the funeral. To me, it didn’t matter how not a cat he was. He was dead now and there were no lights. The casket was closed with no way of seeing if a zombie lied under. There were no sobs. My aunt cried a little, wiping at a red nose rubbed raw with her grey sleeve. I whispered that only black should be worn at funerals and my mother shushed me and apologized and apologized again. But when she turned away I could see the ghost of a fragmented smirk she was withholding. A grin meant only for the eyes that reflected hers.

After the funeral, I took mints out of the trey propped up near the picture of my grandfather. I was surprised to see him. He was not beautiful like my mother. The mints were stale and hard to swallow. I imagined they tasted like his voice.

When my classmate died of cancer, my mother taught me how to use the eyeliner that wouldn’t melt away when you cried. The dress she bought me was tighter and it hugged my hips, but not in the way that it made it hard to walk. That’s what makes it a perfect fit, she told me. I borrowed her funeral shoes, the ones that made you feel like a woman and look like a woman. I perfected the way her bun had no loose strands but was also loose enough to make it look like you didn’t try too hard. I looked in the mirror and I was beautiful like her.

When I attended my 5th funeral, my grandmother did not buy me a new dress. I borrowed one from my mother’s closet because mine had long since been covered in cat #3’s hair. They served me hot chocolate because the snow was falling outside. It burned the taste buds and the roof of my mouth. It made it hard to taste the sweetness of the donuts my grandmother bought my brothers and I when she’d taken a break from the sobbing. It was strange because I’d never seen her cry. Not even when her husband died.

That funeral was maybe the worst I’d ever seen. Everyone was hollow. There were no lights or zombies or move-like scenes. No magical resurgences of life, no matter how hard I prayed.

And when the put my mother in the ground I swore the hole wasn’t big enough. Her heart was too big for a box, her soul too pure for the mud they threw over

I go to see her often. I visit and bring tubs of strawberry ice-cream even on the coldest of days. I especially like to see her after the funerals that I never seem to stop receiving invitations from. I tell her about how four people didn’t wear black and ask why the mints are always stale, but it doesn’t really matter now. I tell her how cat #3 is going to outlive me probably, until he dies and then I’m planning the service. Because somewhere I am still a four year old girl and she is still mother and my hands feel like hers when I wipe my soft cheeks.

Then one day I bring along my little girl who wears dresses with crisp lace trims. She leaves flowers by the tombstone and we eat strawberry ice-cream under the tree that still bears figs. I see my mother in my daughter and my daughter so much in me. And she cries with eyes that reflect mine and I hold my hands on her soft cheeks.

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