February 2, 2014
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The knob on the door is dull and gold. I reach for it but a man at the doorway beats me to it, ghostly hand turning and opening the door for me.

“Welcome” he says to us.

“Thank you.” I murmur as I nod to him. Crossing the threshold I know immediately where I am and that I have been here before. The stench of the overused musk of elderly women swirling combining with the careless application of cologne by senile men. My eyes find a grandfather clock at the top of a short set of stairs. Its pearly face frowning—golden hands at five and seven; its dark wood frame was carved in a system of intricate swirls. In my mind’s eye I saw myself sitting in one of the lumpy, pink upholstered chairs at its base, transfixed by the ceaseless motion of the enormous golden cogs, perfecting connected. Mystified by the rhythmic swing of its golden arm behind a barrier of dusty glass. Tic-tic-tic. That was another time. A different life ended. Back when I still had the curiosity to watch the movements of a clock.

We turn left into a warm room that was trying desperately to hold all of my distant relatives within. All of my cousins and their cousins and their cousins trapped in one tiny space. And her, nestled in her casket like a porcelain doll.

I am hugged and kissed by many people who knew me when I was “this small”. Most of whom I don’t remember at all, but I smile politely and squeeze their shoulders and kiss their cheeks. Fake that look of recognition that says I remember you. My dad introduces them all to me again.

“Anthony, your great uncle. My cousin, Stephanie. My uncle Joe. Your second-cousin, Mary Beth…” I don’t try too hard to hold onto the names; there are too many. All the faces recite the same phrases to me.

“My look how tall you’ve gotten. Oh you’ve become so beautiful. Enjoy your youth.” I blush and tell them Thank You. Tell them it was nice to see them again.
Truthfully, I have gotten taller. And grown up. These people only notice because we haven’t had a reason or excuse to reconnect until today. As we will again soon after this day. As the wakes and funerals become more frequent they’ll stop noticing how much I’ve grown. There won’t be the shock of years between our meetings.

I wade in and out of the sea of faces, keeping an eye trained on the back of my dad’s navy blue suit at all times. He’s steering the two of us toward a cluster of his brothers and sisters in the opposite corner. Over by the line leading up to the casket.

So many fragile framed, whisper voiced people all packed into one small space. Reaching for me. I feel self-conscious as we weave through the labyrinth of chairs. I am growing progressively more aware of the hungry eyes that cling to me as I walk past. Hungry for youth. Life. I wrap my sweater tighter around my shoulders as we finally reach our destination.

They are a flock of birds: all with the same beak nose and squinty eyes. The familiarity of them eases the dull throb that has bloomed behind my eyes. These are names I don’t have to pretend to know; faces I have no trouble recognizing. They don’t remind me of how much I’ve grown. I try not to notice how much older they are getting. Or think about how soon enough it will be these faces who own the haggard bodies, limply tossed into chairs.

My dad takes my hand and leads me away from the squawks and hoots of his siblings until we reach the small kneeling bench in front of the casket. The old wood protests as we kneel on its thinly padded surface. I interlace my fingers, place my elbows on the crooked forearm rest and bow my head.

“I’m sorry I don’t remember you. I wish I remembered.” I think this over and over, eyes closed tightly. It is the truth. I peak to my left at my father; head still down, eyes closed and lips moving in silent prayer.

I look at her. Alice. Aunt Alice. Great aunt Alice as she was to me. Next to her head, someone has placed a pair of colossal, round lensed glasses which shine in the shadow of her caramel hair. Someone else has looped a set of blue rosary beads through her stiff fingers like a cat’s cradle. The cross itself hangs lightly against the fabric of her pastel pink dress—floating on its surface. Polished silver winks under the fluorescent light. The skin of her arms is thinner than a wedding veil and hangs crudely from her bones. She’s been painted over to give off a warm glow and to cover the distinct blue-green cables of elderly veins.

Looking at her I am reminded of a time when I was a child and liked to explore the woods behind my house. Once, I stumbled upon a fawn in the underbrush, its hindquarters speckled white with its youth. It was so small, its teeny chin rested peacefully on the ankles of his back legs. So peaceful. Perfect. It let me get so close—I was amazed. But it was dead. As though it had gone to sleep in the grass and just never thought to wake back up. And that was her. Alice. Gone to bed and simply forgot to wake up again.

I feel my father rising beside me and do the same.

“The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. Amen.”

My father points toward a small couch positioned closest to the casket and my eyes follow his finger until find him, cane between his crooked legs, collapsed in on himself. His brown eyes are bleary with tears as he laboriously lifts a withered hand to shoo mourners away from the casket. They were blocking his view of her. He is just staring at her, and letting silent tears drip ceaselessly from his chin and onto his suit.

“Hey Uncle Pete,” my father says leaning down to scoop the old man up into a hug.

“Jimmy boy, you came,” he chokes, as they lock in an embrace. He peers around my father’s torso at me and his eyes crinkle in a smile, “Hey there sweet pea.” My dad releases him allowing me to bend down and embrace him.

“Hey there Uncle Pete. It’s nice to see you.” But it isn’t. Not like this: sad and crumpled. My dad sits down on the couch, leaving enough room for me to sit between the two of them. I take a seat, positioning myself a bit closer to my Great Uncle and he takes my hand in his awkward sideways grip of mangled fingers, squeezing hard.

“It means a lot to the both of us,” nodding at his resting wife.

We sit there like this for a while until my dad heaves himself off the couch and motions for me to come with him. I hesitate a moment and lean over and to kiss the grieving man lightly on a withered cheek before I untangle my hand from his and rise from my seat. He gives me a tired smile and nods a goodbye.

“Goodbye Uncle Pete,” I whisper.

As we make our way around the perimeter of the room I notice that there are pictures hanging in her memory. Places she’d been and family events she had attended. I make my way down the row trying to conjure up some memory of this woman. I want to so badly, I can’t bring myself to admit that after all her life and all of mine I had no memories with or of her. My eyes flick from picture to picture, not really taking in any of the images—all of them meaningless. That is until I catch a glimpse of a small girl with a wild mop of golden hair. It was me. In a little red Christmas dress with shiny black shoes dancing with an older woman with owl eye glasses and a face that I had seen in every picture. She was holding my chubby toddler hands and we were frozen in time, mid twirl. I do not remember this woman. I do not remember this picture or that place or that dance. But we had been together and she knew me. And she’d held my hands.

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