© Sarah Parro 2011
All Rights Reserved
The funeral was at eleven o’clock the next morning. I had slept in my childhood bedroom, which now doubled as extra storage. Dark shapes loomed around me as I slept: an old bicycle, boxes of clothing and paperwork. On the dresser was an assortment of the kinds of odds and ends that are collected throughout a lifetime: pens and rubber bands, a jar of bottle caps, a manila folder labeled “Equipment Records”, a pair of rusting candlesticks, some old jewelry, and a photo in a broken frame of a woman I didn’t recognize.
When we got to the funeral home, people had already started to arrive. Henry had taken a taxi straight from the airport and met us all at the door. I didn’t recognize most of the other people I saw, aside from a few relatives. I received hugs from various aunts and uncles that I hadn’t seen in years. Everyone milled about quietly, offering us handshakes or hugs or brief, sad smiles. We took our seats at the front of the parlor, and when the rest of the guests were settled – no more than about 100 people – the service began. My father provided the opening remarks.
“Tamara was a strong woman. She was loyal, dependable, and made many sacrifices for her family. She wanted her daughters to have a better life than she did. She loved everyone, and was loved by everyone.” As my father spoke, Grace began to cry next to me. David and George were already fidgeting in their seats. Cara held Henry’s hand and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief.
I wasn’t crying. I loved my mother, to be sure, but it was hard for me to feel any sense of loss when it had felt like we’d been losing her for years and years. The distance, the fights, the drinking and smoking, and the final descent into cancer – to me, this day had been a long time coming, and her behavior hadn’t been as self-sacrificial as my father made it sound.
After we had endured the sad looks and weak smiles of our guests and extended family members, my father, siblings and I gathered in the cemetery as they lowered my mother into the ground. The characteristically bright New Mexican sun shone harshly down on us as we squinted into the rectangular chasm cut into the earth. Cara and the boys tossed carnations that had been decoration at the service into the grave. The wind started to pick up, whipping our hair and dust into our faces. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
I had planned on leaving two days after the funeral, thinking I would want to stay with my family to recuperate. It seemed everyone had gotten over the initial shock of my father’s news about selling the house, or maybe we were just thankful to have an activity to keep us busy and away from more uncomfortable conversations, but the next day we all set to work individually to help my father pack things up. My father had joined me in my old bedroom, since there were so many boxes and miscellaneous things being stored in there.
“I want to get that room cleared out. I have a feeling most of it will be junk to get rid of,” he had explained as he followed me up the stairs after breakfast.
He seemed to be mostly right – childhood clothing, books that hadn’t been read in years, various odds and ends; the boxes of paperwork seemed important, and my father began sifting through them. As I piled items on the old dresser into a box, I picked up the photograph of the unknown woman. She seemed familiar, like an old friend I hadn’t talked to in years.
“Dad, do you know who this is?” I held up the broken frame, and he looked up from his papers. He squinted for a moment, and then recognition spread over his face.
“My God,” he said, softly. “I didn’t know we had that. Where’d you find it?”
“Right here on the dresser,” I said, my curiosity building. “Why, is it important?”
“It’s your mother.” I looked back at the black and white photo, and realized that my father was right. My mother looked younger and healthier than I had seen her in a long time. In this photograph, she was posing in front of some of our old tractors, looking serene and strong and confident. Her hair was loosely swept over one shoulder, some of it gently falling in her face. She wasn’t particularly done up, wearing a sleeveless Nike shirt tucked into jeans. But she looked completely at ease and incredibly beautiful. I could not remember ever seeing my mother look so happy.
“Wow,” I said, still captivated by the photo. “When was this taken?” My father had moved to my side to get a better look.
“Must have been…right after you were born, I suppose. Not long before Grandpa passed. We were still living in our first little apartment, and your mom was still teaching, but they were already talking about us taking over the farm. In fact…” he trailed off for a moment, and took the photo from my hand. “I remember this day. Your Grandfather had wanted to take some photos of the farm and equipment, for record-keeping. The black and white was just his preference. ‘Makes the photos look timeless,’ he would say.” He paused, and then said, almost under his breath, “God, doesn’t she look just perfect standing there? She really loved this place.”
We stood for a few moments in silence, until my father looked up, directly into my eyes. There were tears in his. “You look more and more like your mother every time I see you.” I was taken aback by this sudden display of emotion, and I didn’t like it. Even as an adult, seeing weakness in my parents made me feel like a helpless child. Maybe that was partly why I had dreaded coming out for the funeral. Nothing but tears and brokenness in an already broken family.
I didn’t know how to respond to my father’s comment. All I could do was look at him, the silence between us growing heavier.
“Well,” he said, straightening up and handing me back the photo. “That was a long, long time ago. She was never herself again after the drinking and smoking started. A lot has changed since then.” He returned to his box of papers, and that seemed to be the end of the conversation.
The light coming in through the window had turned gray. Maybe it was going to rain. I supposed Cara or Grace would be getting lunch started, and the boys would be playing by the big tree behind the house, swinging from the tire swing like my sisters and I used to, so long ago. I realized that this house did hold some fond memories for me; it was just that all of the recent, ugly ones had crowded them out of my mind. But standing there in my old bedroom, looking toward the window through which the soft, gray light was streaming, holding a photograph of my mother before she lost herself to addiction and disease, I remembered that once, this old house had held a family that loved each other.
“You’re just like her, you know, in so many ways,” my father spoke almost to himself, without looking at me. I returned from my brief reverie and looked again at the photo I was still holding. “I think she really hoped you’d take over the farm, in spite of everything. The thought really brought her joy.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. “She wanted me to take it?”
“Sure,” my father said, still talking to his papers. “But it became clear that it wasn’t a good idea. I didn’t want to pressure you into anything, and she finally came around. We both could tell that you probably wouldn’t want to just pick up your life and come here to take care of things.” I couldn’t argue with that.
“Why didn’t you ever talk to me about it?” I asked.
“We sensed early on that this life wasn’t for you, or Cara or Grace,” My father said. “I think your mother was mostly sad at the thought of everything finally being gone, and this place not being in the family anymore. She had been the oldest in her family, so I suppose she wanted to keep that going by giving it all to you. She would have loved to have you girls all back here together. I know she didn’t show it a lot, especially recently, but she loved you all even more than she loved this farm. That’s the only reason she was able to part with it the way we did. I know selling the house would break her heart, but I think she’d understand that it’s the right thing for all of us now.” He smiled sadly, and set his papers on top of the box to carry them out of the room. “Still,” he said, pausing at the door, “I miss the way things used to be.”
“Me too,” I said as he left, and I was surprised to find that I meant it. Maybe that’s why my mother had hidden behind anger and addiction; maybe she didn’t want us to know how sad she was to let go of the farm. But was anger really better than sadness? I looked at my hands, realizing I was tightly clutching the photograph out of which the ghost of my mother stared serenely back.