A snow covered week in mid March. My entire extended family descends upon Reno for grandma Virginia’s funeral and her great-grandchild’s fourth birthday. We assemble to grieve together. To clean out grandma’s house. A process which may take a year. Every day upon returning from her brown shingled house I load black plastic trash bags of antiques into my home.
By the time everyone leaves, my House of the Rising Sun is bedecked with doilies. Our Italian great-grandmother Nonni hand-tatted them. I just couldn’t let then go to Goodwill. So I become a grandma once again without children of my own. Hook real fur collars about my neck. Resolve to bring 1940s hats back as everyday fashion.
An insomniac night between gatherings. I arrange the black, blush pink, red, and blue hats on a gold wire rack in my bedroom. A hat for every occasion except looking sane in public. Performative okay-ness may be going out the window. YOLO. I wear them as often as I can. In a Lyft? To the weed store? In veiled hats, furs, and my widowed wedding ring I become the matron lady grandma’s passing creates. I seek to cannibalistically reincarnate Virginia in her youth.
Day before the funeral. In aunt Ruthie’s kitchen, we nosh on crudités and artichoke dip. Salted cashews. Cousin Lauren says to me, “My Dad likes your essays about the family. His one complaint was, ‘We don’t drink Merlot.’” I tweet that quip, Anonymous strangers find it as funny as I do.
Warm glow of familial togetherness as I snap a group table shot for Facebook. We feast on hot grass fed beef and vegetable chili made by Lauren. Sprinkled with cheddar and sour cream that melts savory into the bean-less meat. Green salad with goji berries and balsamic vinegar. Pumpkin muffins.
I remark to my uncle as I am out the door, “I’ll write Cab next time.” Lauren laughs heartily while everyone else titters. Only she knows the private joke I reference.
March 17, 2018. The day of grandma’s funeral. I put on grandma’s long black chiffon dress, edged at the neck with sequins. Her black Victorian mourning jewelry necklace. Her black veiled hat. Red lipstick. My own American Apparel black leggings under the translucent chiffon for warmth in the snow. Flat-heeled black leather boots. Long black leather gloves with white embroidery asterisks.
Aunt Ruthie remarks as we walk to grandpa’s gravesite, “Well done,” about my outfit. I feel warm. Someone has to be the family peacock. It might as well be me. Widow’s weeds out of Charles Dickens. I’m the decorative yet useless one of the family. Like the orange antique carnival glass bowl I take from grandma’s house and arrange my earrings on.
Assisted by two cemetery personnel, we place grandma’s ashes in their wooden box inside a larger, archival box. Uncle Jim lines the inside with grandma’s grey hair transitioning wigs. Her feminine secret is buried with her. Virginia’s whole life no one in the family knew she was handling her tradition to grey hair with these three hairpieces. Until aunt Carol dug them out of her closet after her death.
Women have always been taught to perform their elaborate beauty embellishments in secret. Even now it is no different. I daub on more whore-bright Smashbox lipstick behind my hand.
Mountain View Cemetery pre-dug the hole below. Grandpa’s gravestone reads, “Roy G. Garaventa, T Sergeant US Army, World War II, May 28, 1919 – Dec 5, 2002.” Grandma’s ashes and the grey real hair wigs will rest for eternity above grandpa’s bones. They are united forever. They were so in love.
We return to grandma’s old house for the wake. Aunt Ruthie puts what sounds like a Pink Martini record. Actually the real deal cocktail bebop of yore. My mother and aunt Carol set out plastic topped store bought trays of salmon-provolone rounds. Parsley and Tomato Couscous. Shrimp Cocktail.
I eat shrimp after shrimp dipped in tart red sauce as if the husks of dead shrimps will atone for all I am taking from grandma’s house. Whisper of guilt for my greedy covetousness of grandma’s vintage. Pearl necklaces passed down by aunties in my Sephora makeup bag.
Uncle Jim and cousin Eric raid grandma’s liquor cabinet. They find a full bottle of Wild Turkey Whiskey to drink. I sip cup after cup of hot black coffee. Sober till the end.
I tug fragile leather gloves off with my teeth finger by finger. My phase of grief transitions. From acceptance to desolate depression. I sit on a beige striped armchair choking back tears behind my black veil. Reapply red lipstick with the fatalistic fervor of the doomed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We will all be as grandma one day. Possessions picked clean by relatives like Harvester ants.
I grab my sister Darcy. Take her downstairs to the basement. My sister, cousin Lauren and I have all spent our care taking grandma stints in this basement bedroom. We weed through the piles of grandma’s art. Sixties How-To Paint magazines. Framed prints. I had resolved not to take anything further. Darcy insists I take a black velvet still life. A black and white oil painting by grandma of great-aunt Clementine on a donkey. My grief phase transitions back to acceptance. Darcy and I morbidly hug. Survive another day without crumbling into dust.
Grandma Virginia’s sister Clementine bore the Schizophrenia that scores me. Our bloodline’s curse. Was similarly taken care of by her family. Lived in a house alone with a bird. We never met. Yet I feel Clementine’s ghost madness in my blood. She is one of my spirit guides. My mother hands me a daguerrotype of Clementine for my altar. A beautiful young Mexican woman with tightly curled hair.
We are grim at the funeral dinner. The warm glow of the previous evening gone. Dim with grief, I pick at Uncle Jim’s rare Tri-tip daubed with bright green Chimichurri. Parsley and basil blended fine with olive oil and garlic. I chew the tender, bloody beef resolute with my bloodline’s filial piety. Flesh dissolves into ashes in my mouth.
I scoop sides to my pink flowered paper plate. Broccoli and raisin salad greased with mayonnaise. Two kinds of potato salad. One made with egg and one without for Lauren’s new husband, vegan Finn. I scoop only one, the egg sprinkled with garishly red Paprika. For dessert there is cheesecake. So rich and decadent I seek to melt my entire self into it as if I could disappear.
Ginger haired, mustachioed Finn. Latest addition to the family. Sports grandpa’s old hats and navy blue bathrobes to family dinners like Major Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H. He works milking cows on Vashon island while Lauren carves up lambs as a butcher. She is opening a restaurant on the island soon that will be outfitted with our grandmother’s old entertaining silver.
Cousin Lauren and her husband Finn drop me off at home. I sleep on the green velvet couch in grandma’s black slip and thigh high wooly black socks for sixteen hours. Grandma’s yellow flowered white afghan preternaturally warm like a ghost hug. Keeping me toasty as snow falls outside.
I awake at five pm to multiple texts about Edwin’s birthday. Immediately snap into action. Had planned another outfit of grandma’s vintage. Go all in. Aqua taffeta sheath with sequins at neck. Pearl choker. Green and Pink spring flower scarf tied at neck. Bright pink marabou hat. My own nude fishnets and blush flats. Grandma’s pearl-white coat with a hook-on white ocelot collar.
Cousin Matt picks me up. Drives me to aunt Ruthie and uncle Jim’s house for Edwin’s forth birthday. The toddler’s polka-dot Christmas paper wrapped gift in my purse.
Appetizers are salami, crackers and pickles. We attempt to temper Edwin’s wild excitement over his birthday. It seems futile. The aunts and cousins drink Cabernet Sauvignon and gin and tonics. I have a coke. Edwin gulps from a sippy cup of milk.
We slurp chicken bone broth with hunks of CostCo chicken. Zucchini, broccoli and carrot Vegetti swirls crunch with egg noodles. I eat spinach balsamic salad with goji berries at the long table with my family. Leftover potato salad from a Tupperware.
Jim carries out a Costco Tuxedo slab cake with four candles. Edwin blows them out enthusiastically. Tears into his gifts. My blue plastic Amazon Walkie-Talkie’s are a big hit with both child and adults. Two-mile radius. Edwin can talk into one in grandma’s back house where he and his family live. Lauren will chat into the other in grandma’s old house up front. I am pleased to have made them happy. My knowledge of children is still so unsure.
Meeting little Edwin when I first arrived in Reno was the first time in my life I understood why people even had children in the first place. Kids previously seemed annoying as fuck to me. Edwin is a little miracle. He is blood. Treats me, his second cousin, like a beloved auntie once removed.
We savor chocolate and vanilla mousse with milk chocolate curl topping. Scoops of vanilla ice cream off blue boy patterned paper plates. The great-grandchild ages another year as we lay the matriarch to rest.
Ostara. The spring equinox. All my relatives are gone. I am home alone at night. I dress in grandma’s pale blue lace slip and cami. Bird of Paradise kimono that was my mother’s gift from her trip to Cambodia. The white ocelot fur hooked around my neck. My own red fishnet thigh highs. I sit on the green velvet couch lighting tea lights to a gilt framed wedding photo of grandma Virginia and grandma Roy.
The snow melts in spring rain outside. Icy crone Hecate that was Virginia in my lifetime melts to spring maiden Begninia as I see grandma fully as the women she once was. I imagine grandma in the years before she married grandpa. When she wore this lingerie. These furs. Danced with countless soldiers at USO dances as the beauty of El Cajon. I imagine her WWII vixen life force flowing into me. Her spirit floating around me as I wear her pearls.
The cycle of life wheels on. Inexorable as ever.