At my tiny suburban Catholic school, I suddenly stood out because everyone knew my mother had died. Kids would come up to me and say, “I heard about your mom.”
“So?” I would reply. And that would be it. It may have been a lousy answer but it ended the conversation. What was there to say?
My father had to leave for work early each day. So with mom no longer there to help us get ready in the morning, my brother and I fended for ourselves. “Get up!” Nick would scream down the hall. “You gotta get ready for school!” But a powerful depression I had never known before took me in its grip. I would just burrow further under the blankets.
“Get up, Nancy!” I had never liked my name, and now it became a label I hated to wear. At the last second I would spring out of my bed, put on anything that came to hand, and race to the bus stop cursing the fact I had a first name I hated and a life I suddenly hated even more.
At school, I’d hear it again: “Nancy!” one of the sisters would call out at lunchtime. “It looks like you had quite a morning,” she might say, taking in the ratted mop on top of my head and my mismatched clothes. “Did you bring lunch?” Invariably, the answer was no. “Let’s go over to the convent,” Sister Ann Francis would say, “I’ll make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
I knew I was pathetic. As soon as I finished my sandwich I would run to the playground. I wanted to crawl in a tire swing and die.
Why couldn’t I die and go be with Mom? Then I could be like one of the angels from the paintings in the convent–I had the long blonde hair. I practiced looking ethereal. Sometimes I imagined I was Christ–suffering with wise repose, misunderstood, beloved, and divine.
I delayed my return home from school as long as possible. Fortunately, there were a ton of kids in our neighborhood. We rode bikes and played until the street lights came on, which was the universal signal for suburban children of our era to go home. On rainy days, the girls would hole up in somebody’s bedroom and pour through issues of Tiger Beat. Leif Garrett was beating out Shawn Cassidy for heartthrob of the moment, but I was steadfast in my loyalty to my hunka hunk burnin’ love, Erik Estrada.
“He’s alright,” my friends would say dismissively, “But Leif is way better looking.”
“Whatever.” I refused to let on that stung. Did it matter if other girls didn’t approve of your choice of boyfriend?
“You’re so weird sometimes.”
“You’re not so cool yourself!”
“At least I don’t play with dolls that are always dying, dork.” God, I hardly even did that anymore!
“I’m not a dork, you’re a dork!”
“See ya later, alligator.”
“I didn’t want to hang out with you guys anyway!”
If only Frank Poncherello would knock on the door that very minute looking for me. Who would be the dork then? I know my mother would approve.
When I didn’t want to go home and couldn’t go back to a friend’s house, I rode my bike to a cemetery a ways down the road without anyone knowing. It was quiet there. The dead make few demands and the living tend to leave you alone in a cemetery, under the assumption you are there on solemn business with the dearly departed.
Sometimes, I would seek out quaint markers–one with a carved lamb or angels, preferably. I’d make up elaborate stories of grief, starring me in an invisible black veil. I carried a linen handkerchief that once belonged to my mother so I could dab the tears from my eyes. I practiced looking picturesque in grief.
Or I would pretend to be a private investigator, hot on the trail of a murderer, sussing out clues amongst the tombs. I dearly wanted to gain entry to an actual mausoleum.
Once in a while I would try talking to the dead. Since we didn’t live close enough to where my mother was buried for me to visit on after-school forays, I reached out to someone who might be able to carry a message to her. When I came upon that grave, the person who seemed like he or she might be sympathetic to the concerns of a motherless daughter, I respectfully asked them to tell Mom to try to reach me. “She could just send me a sign,” I suggested. “Any sign will do.” For days afterward I’d watch for anything that might be a message from beyond the grave, but like Bess Houdini, I eventually gave up waiting for my dead love to speak to me.
I watched burial scenes on TV with great interest and played Funeral with my dolls in the sand box. It didn’t strike me as weird at all. I simply developed an interest in funeral play, the same way a boy might become obsessed with building a fort in the back yard.
“This is the dead one,” I explained to my friend Kelley one afternoon. “Line up the cars for the procession while I dig the grave.”
Kelley conscientiously lined up half a dozen toy cars. She was a good little worker.
“Ok, but we need more,” I instructed.
“So the other dolls can see how many people came to pay their respects to her. Six is not very many.”
This would turn out to be good practice for when I was called upon to officiate at real funerals, although at the time it didn’t seem like preparation for the future. It was merely my attempt to cope with the dreadful reality of the present.
A neighbor my age, Denice, had a tiny cat named Pinky that she carried with her everywhere. One day, her father started his truck and realized, too late, that Pinky had been sleeping in the engine compartment. Denice placed what was left of Pinky in a box on the kitchen table and sent her brother to get me.
“I’m watching CHiPs,” I said, by way of refusal.
“She needs you to give the cat a funeral.”
Okay, that was different. I still hated to leave Officer Poncherello, but duty called. I got off the couch, grabbed a shovel from the garage, and headed to the neighbor’s. When I got there, my friend Denice looked like her soul had been pulled out, stomped on, and replaced with a retread version.
Peeking into the cardboard coffin, I announced, “We need to find a proper burial space.”
I scouted the grounds, and then directed Denice’s brother to dig a hole right in the middle of their mother’s garden. “This is a pretty place to lay Pinky to rest,” I said, suddenly an authority. Denice agreed.
Pinky was lowered reverently into her shallow grave. I said a prayer or two of contrition and turned toward home, hoping to catch the end of CHiPs.