My long time friend Carolyn’s father passed away a few weeks ago and while I was telling him my final, tearful goodbye, I couldn’t help but notice what a nice casket he was in.
I snapped out of it and got back to saying my goodbye to Mr. Riley, who always kindly made time for me and respected my family. And, I have to say, his casket was a nice dark wood, with what looked like brass accents. I notice things like this now because my mom taught me to appreciate a good casket.
Usually you’re stuck choosing a casket once someone is gone and it’s no fun at all. But my mom had a different approach.
I was visiting my parents in Pennsylvania, newly pregnant with my son. Since I’d put off childbirth as long as humanly possible, at 36, I was considered high risk, so I wanted to stay fit. It was a beautiful spring day, so I asked my dad to go for a walk with me at the track.
We got no further than the garage when my mom suspiciously asked, “Where yunz a goin a?”
“We’re going to the track to walk,” I said.
“Den I’mma commin!” she snapped with a firm nod of her head.
“Will you walk with us? It’d be really good if you started exercising.” I said.
“How far I gadda walk a?” she asked warily.
“Well, not too far today, you need better shoes, those aren’t good for your feet.” I explained.
She was wearing a pair of white vinyl sandals with sling backs, nylon stockings and a sleeveless summer dress.
“Oh, deese are comfordable shoes, Frenzy.”
“I’m sure they are Ma, but not to exercise in.”
“Oh Frenzy, I don’d a geeve a damn, I just wanna go for da ride!” she blurted out.
“Okay, but you’ll have to wait for us,” I warned.
“At’s okay, come onna lettsa go.”
She perched her purse stuffed with lottery tickets and papers on her lap, propped herself in the front seat of the car because she said she couldn’t breathe in the back seat, and promised to wait while we walked.
We got about ten minutes into our walk when we saw her get out of the car and heard her yell from the parking lot, “Ain’d youns a done a yet?”
Then looking up at the sky she asked, “Jesus, how damn a far dey gadda walk?”
When she saw we weren’t stopping, she slowly climbed the small hill toward the track. We watched as she slowly made her way, checking the fresh spring grass on the ground for four leaf clovers. If she found one, which she often did, she’d pick it and put it in her bra with her seven holy medals for good luck.
She finally made her way to the track, and as my father and I looked up, she was walking around the opposite side. We were cautiously optimistic until she got halfway around the track, looked at us in disgust and said, “Dis issa shit for da birds, Robert, a lettsa go.”
We knew she’d reached her limit, so we finished and walked back to the car. Since it was such a nice day, we went for one of my mother’s much needed rides.
My dad always took us on the same route, past our house toward Sylvania Hills Cemetery. As we were driving, I asked about the place where my oldest brother is buried and my mother immediately said, “Robert, lettsa stop.”
We stopped at his roadside grave with the lamb on the small tombstone and pulled weeds. (He was my parents first child and died in infancy.) We sat there, said some prayers then wandered to see our friends and relatives.
As we got back in the car my mother brightly said “Hey Robert, let’s a take a Frenzy and show her where we gonna be buried — da mausoleum!” My father looked at me with a sour expression and said, “Aw you don’t wanna see that, do you Frances?”
I was not crazy about this little death tour we were on, but said, “Well, if you want to show me, sure I’ll go.” So Dad drove to Sylvania Hills Mausoleum, parked the Chrysler and we went inside. The air had the same orange scent as an air freshener that came with my parents vacuum cleaner. I didn’t like it.
We met a cheerful employee named Debbie who said she’d help us locate their crypts. We walked up and down the red carpet looking in silence for the spots my parents had picked. Debbie got out papers and led us there.
My mothers face darkened. She didn’t like the spot that Debbie told her was theirs. “Butta honey,” she said, “I don’d lige it here, ittsa too dark.”
My dad shot back with, “Well, what are you gonna do, read in there? What difference does it make?” She stomped her foot and said, “I don’d care Robert, eef I don’d lige it I don’d lige it,” and that was that.
The building had been enlarged and a section was added,which took away the bright window facing their crypts. I asked Debbie if we could move them to the other side of the wall where there was more light,”so my mother could breathe, and or read.” Debbie said yes, so Mom was thrilled.
Happy about the change, Mom walked along the cool marbled corridors saying, “Whatta you ting a Frenzy, dis place is a pooty nize a huh?”
I answered, “Yeah Ma, it’s okay, but I don’t want to spend too much time here.”
“Hey, hey, me eeder, honey,” she said, “but when you kick off, you kick off!” Then she shrugged, kicked her white sandaled foot against the red carpet and laughed.
Debbie was enjoying my mother and sensing an unbelievably easy sale, so she asked if my parents wanted to look at caskets because buying ahead of time meant a big discount.
My dad whispered loudly to my mother, “What the hell do I wanna go look at caskets for?” But she ignored him saying, “Oh come onna Frenzy, lets a go take a look.”
So I found myself, pregnant, walking among caskets with my mother — my dad slowly following.
“OOOhh Frenzy, dis izza a nize a one, huh? You lige a dissa one? I don’d lige dat one, eettsa a datta silver, I don’d lige it. What about dissa one Robert, you ting I make a good appearance in dissa one?” She was excited, looking at caskets like they were prom dresses. My dad, clearly frustrated at the situation, spat out, “How good do you think you’re gonna look? You’re gonna be dead!”
Never one to let logic get in the way, she responded, “Well Robert, I know datta, but you can just a geeve a me your opinion.” Defeated, my dad finally said, “I don’t care Mary, they’re all the same to me.”
Mom decided she liked the one called Tiger’s Eye the best, and second best was poplar. I wrote them down on a paper I kept at the bottom of a dresser drawer, for a day I didn’t want to think about — a day that came less than a year later. But at least I was ready.
She had it absolutely right when it came to death. You really don’t have much choice but to smile, kick your foot in the air, shrug and say, “When you kick off, you kick off!” Then get busy looking for a casket you’ll look great in.
Mr. Riley, yours was awesome.