My mother died on a Monday in April. I was twelve. The services began on that Thursday; my father had made the arrangements weeks earlier at the doctors’ suggestion. At least that’s what I remember overhearing. My father and Mita, my maternal grandmother, argued over the details late into the evening. My father wanted my mother cremated. Mita wanted her buried in Saint Raymond’s Cemetery. My father wanted a closed casket. Mita wanted it open. No one asked me what I wanted.
My father came into my room that Thursday morning and handed me a shopping bag. “Wear this,” he said.
I took the clothes out of the bag. Before even trying it on I knew the skirt would be too small in the waist and the shirt sleeves too long, but I didn’t object. Still in my pajamas, I looked at myself in the mirror. My small breasts hung pathetically and I wanted to cry.
My mother had promised to take me shopping. We were going to make a day out of it, she had said. First we would have lunch at Tad’s Steakhouse, then head over to Macy’s where I would get fitted for my first bra and pick out a dress for confirmation. But we never got around to it.
My father and I walked to the funeral home hand in hand. The smell of garbage and urine lingered in the air. There was garbage everywhere; in the streets, spilling out of trash cans and dumpsters; puddles of piss seeping into cracks and corners of buildings and sidewalks. Buildings and storefront gates covered in graffiti: fat curvy bubble-like letters, hurried skinny scrawls, names crossed out and written over, trails of paint bleeding down brick. Young women strutted down the streets, their platform heels clopping on the sidewalk like hooves. Young men leaned against buildings, coaxing their girlfriends to ditch school and hang with them. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, men sat on milk crates in front of the bodegas watching the world go by. I clutched my father’s hand tighter. These men had looked at my mother when she passed – whispering under their breath, blowing kisses in the air.
The piragua man was already out. He whipped the towel off the block of ice and began scraping rhythmically as if he was playing a guido. If I were walking with my mother, she would have asked if I wanted one. I waited for my father to ask, but he didn’t. Didn’t even notice the man was there.
We stopped in front of the funeral home. My father looked down at me. I wiped away the tears with my sleeve. He pulled out his handkerchief – monogrammed “JlS” – an engagement gift from my mother. It smelled of detergent.
“Take this Isabel. Are you ready?” He pulled out a small bottle from his breast pocket; eyes shut he clenched the bottle and gulped.
I nodded as my father roughly wiped his mouth.
Inside my stomach churned from the sweet stink of flowers: carnations, roses, tulips, dandelions, and orchids. Didn’t these people know that my mother loved tiger lilies? My mother had believed flowers were a waste of money, but if you were going to buy flowers, I thought, at least get what she liked.
I was surprised that we weren’t the first to arrive. The room was filled with people. It made me feel happy and proud knowing that my mother was so loved. I knew most of the people in the room: my parents’ coworkers, the nurses from the hospital, our neighbors, even Mrs. Kaplan, my teacher, and Mr. Gardner, my principal. The only seats that were empty were in the first row. The room filled with whispers, nervous laughter, choked back tears —friends and family all gave me the same sympathetic look, a tilted shake of the head and weak smile, patting me on the shoulder as I passed.
Mita was surrounded by a few of her neighbors and friends from church. When she saw me and my father, she quickly dabbed at her eyes and slipped on the glasses that hung by a chain around her neck. But even behind Mita’s black-rimmed glasses, I still noticed her eyes were puffy and red. She was wearing a shapeless black dress and black patent leather pumps. Her purse dangled from her wrist. Like a faded beauty queen, she cradled a bouquet of flowers – tiger lilies.