Category Archives: Happenings

Shit happens. This is one of life’s eternal verities. Sometimes it’s happy, sometimes it’s heartbreaking, often it’s just random. If one pays attention, quite a lot of the shit is blog fodder.

Totality missed my backyard, but the eclipse was kinda magical anyway

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I’m a sucker for things astronomical. That’s why it made perfect sense for me to drive for nine or 10 hours to a friend’s home in the middle of Oregon, and endure a party with a bunch of strangers (lovely people, I’m sure, but I don’t do parties and I was dreading it), and sleep in a tent despite vowing never to do such a thing again the last time I did it, and then spend a day hanging around because I didn’t want to drive back in traffic, and then the next day drive back home in traffic because I wouldn’t be the only one waiting until the day after the eclipse to hit the highway … in order to spend a little over two minutes experiencing totality. That was the plan. At the last minute I had to cancel, thereby maintaining an unbroken record of celestial events that don’t quite live up to expectations.

Take the Perseids. No, first, take the showers of shooting stars that light up the nights over the South African bushveld. I know about these because my grandparents had a farm in the Northern Transvaal, and every year we visited them and all the adults would sit around after dinner, staring at the sky and going ooh while I sulked and wondered what the heck they were going on about. By the time someone figured out I needed glasses, the old folks had sold the farm.

Okay, so now you can take the Perseids … and do what you want with them. I’m not going to talk about them in this post – I meant to, but I just realized I already did so here, and I have nothing to say about this year’s shower because it was rendered invisible by the smoke sent our way courtesy of forest fires in Alberta, Canada. Turns out I’ve also already discussed comets and harvest moons (speaking of which, the next supermoon is on December 3. Wheeeee! I’ve put it in my planner! I will pack a picnic supper and drag the Hubbit out for a romantic drive in the country!) – so … moving on to the most recent celestial event…

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I could find a picture of the moon or meteors or the Milky Way, but I’d rather stay close to the earth for now. Here’s a picture of sunset over the Columbia, from our veranda. Just another amazing thing the sun can do.

… the Great American Eclipse of 2017. It happened, and I was there.

It started here at 9.09AM. I was busy with an urgent email so I didn’t watch the beginning, but my desk faces a large window overlooking our pastures, and beyond them the Columbia. While I was working I watched the world slowly go dim.

I got the urgent out of the way and focused on the important. I found my magic eclipse glasses and grabbed a sleeping bag and scurried out to the backyard. The light was still bright enough that I thought the sun must be only half covered, but when I lay down and looked up I saw there was only a narrow crescent of sun showing.

The air was chilly, and it was very quiet. I switched my view back and forth between the shrinking sliver of sun and the world around me. The light was strange … not gloomy the way it gets when there are fires and the sun glares through smoke like an angry red eye and the horizon squeezes up too close. It was like normal light, but there was too little of it. It felt alien. I thought that might be what sunlight is like on Mars.

When the eclipse peaked at 10.24AM, the sun was about 98% covered.

I had an almost irresistible urge to sing “How great thou art”, but I did resist because I couldn’t remember the words, and there was no way I was about to take my eyes off the heavens to look them up on my cell phone.

No matter how carefully I watched I couldn’t see the movement of the moon across the sun. I couldn’t see the crescent growing, only that it had become bigger, apparently without going through any process of change.

The Hubbit came wandering up from wherever he’d been puttering around doing farmerly things, and complained that the eclipse had been a non-event because insufficiently dark. I could have got up after that, and got on with the this and that of daily life, and occasionally glanced through windows to see the light return.

But I wanted to watch the bright come back. I lay on my sleeping bag spread out on the grass as the crescent embiggened and the air warmed. I heard birds discussing the return of day. In the veggie garden Mr. Roo crowed, and he and his girls began a conversation about the grapes just ripening in their arbor. I became toasty, then uncomfortably hot. The heat roused the flies and they became annoying, and still I watched. The crescent became fat, became Miss Pacman, became an imperfect disc with one rough edge. And then I missed the actual moment of parturition because I got sweat in my eye. Maybe some things aren’t meant to be seen.

Marmeee waving to train - Hover Park

If you need to see a picture of the eclipse, go find your own. I was looking through my photo album for something of a heavenly nature to illustrate this post, and I found this one of the Marmeee waving at a freight train. Because that’s who she was – someone who waved at trains just because she liked them, and never mind whether anyone waved back.

Later on Facebook I saw a cellphone video a friend had posted some miles south of here, just inside the path of totality. You can’t see anything on the video but a glaring dot, but you can hear the voices of other watchers. They murmur and chat for a few minutes, and then the dot dims suddenly. There are whoops and hollers, and someone nearby – it may have been my friend – says, “Holy crap! Wow! It doesn’t show on video – too bad… oh wow…”

That really pissed me off.

Seriously? What did I miss? What happened while I was looking in the other direction? What?

I’m going to have to stay off Facebook for at least two days to avoid being tormented by all the brags and pictures.

There are two more eclipses in 2019 – a total eclipse across South America in July, and an annular eclipse in December that crosses India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Guam (if it’s still there). The Girl Child was all gung ho to meet me in the Andes, but since both happen in winter it’ll have to be the one near the equator.

If I don’t make that one, a more conveniently located total eclipse will scoot up from Mexico to Maine during April 2024. It’s already promising to be bigger and better than today’s.

I hope we’re still here.

Do you have an eclipse experience to share? And is it just me, or is there something in your life that gets you all wound up, so that your friends just look pitying – and if so how well do you do at fully enjoying it?

 

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Skunked

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The problem with skunk spray is, once you have the smell of it in your nose, everything smells skunked.

Yeah … not so much about flowers.

Take this morning. Around 3.00AM Argos woke me by blowing in my ear. Usually he just stands next to my bed and s.t.a.r.e.s at me while breathing softly on my hand. He’s trained me well; even though I fully expect to sleep through the apocalypse, I faithfully stagger out of bed and let him out to do his thing while I bumble around in the dark until I find someplace appropriate to sit down and do mine. Then I let him back in and we go back to bed and the night continues as usual.

This morning, apparently, the need to go out was urgent, hence the ear treatment. And this time Flurry, the Hubbit’s English setter, went too. A few minutes later I was in mid-bumble when the Smell wafted through the house. No wonder they’d been in a hurry to get out. We had a visitor.

I said something profane (I’m trying not to say fuck in here because it’s tacky and unimaginative, so just apply the profanity of your choice – it’ll work fine) and rushed to open the door. Argos and Flurry rushed into the house and rushed around in circles, Argos shaking his head vigorously. I said another profanity (or maybe it was the same one) and grabbed him, and got some kind of oily substance all over my hand. I kicked him outside and grabbed Flurry. By now my nose was well and truly skunked and I had no idea whether or not she’d been sprayed. I didn’t feel any goop; however, full disclosure, it’s possible that some of the goop on my hand was transferred to her. Or maybe not. I still didn’t have my contact lenses in at that stage, and between skunk spray and three o’clock in the morning my senses may have been blunted.

This is my first actual encounter with a skunk, and I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do. However, I’d heard that tomato juice came into play when one was dealing with a skunked dog. We do have some tomato juice, but what was one to do with it? Pour it over the dog? Throw the can at the skunk? Add vodka and swallow?

Sometimes life demands a bloody Mary.

I woke the Hubbit, because this is what I do in moments of crisis. I didn’t like waking him, mind you – not because it bothers me to disturb his beauty sleep (which doesn’t work, by the way) but because I’m not speaking to him at the moment, owing to the fact that even the best of Hubbits is sometimes an asshole. That’s all I’m going to say about that; I provide the information purely for context – which in this case is that I was sufficiently discombobulated to swallow my pride and ask for help.

The Hubbit started rambling about hydrogen peroxide, so I went off to look for some. More context: about six weeks ago when I was frantically trying to finish my novel before the PNWA writers’ conference I realized that it was imperative that I reorganize all the pharmaceutical, toiletry and random shit supplies in the bathroom, so I emptied about half of them into boxes, which I dumped in the tub. I then realized that I was procrastinating, and went back to the book. So looking for hydrogen peroxide involved tipping out boxes and scrabbling through crap in the tub, while using profanities.

I found an old bottle that had about a half inch of very old (in other words no longer functional) hydrogen peroxide. While searching, it occurred to me that maybe I needed to empty the tub in order to wash Argos, and I was halfway through doing that when it occurred to me that one might not want skunk residue in one’s personal bathroom. So I went to ask the Hubbit, who was still rambling about hydrogen peroxide and was pissy about being interrupted. I explained for the second or third time that we didn’t have any profane hydrogen peroxide and what about tomato juice? He got more pissy and said the tomato juice thing was an old wive’s tail, and started reading from an internet source on his phone that explained scientifically how hydrogen peroxide worked and why tomato juice didn’t.

I headed out into the dark and windy predawn to find hydrogen peroxide. The Hubbit, ever helpful, texted me directions for how to use it when I had it, and went back to bed. I found some hydrogen peroxide at the little gas station store a few miles from our home, and bought up their entire stock. This is a country store; the assistant didn’t even blink … and as I was leaving, with a completely straight face, she wished me a lovely day.

Back home, I set myself up in the only outside place that wasn’t in the throes of a gale – the far side of our workshop. I mixed up the solution as directed and applied it generously to Argos, who explained that he didn’t like that and would prefer me to stop, while yanking my arm out of its socket. The instructions said to let it stand for ten minutes, so I waited for fifteen then dragged him out into the gale and profanely hosed him off. I stuck my nose up close … relief; he no longer smelled skunky.

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I can’t help it … I love this dog so dang much, I’ll forgive him anything!

We went back inside and … oh my word. Gahhh!

Flurry was on the bed, cuddling with her daddy, and – now that my nose had had a chance to recuperate – it was clear that while she didn’t get a direct hit, she definitely qualified as collateral damage. Well, she’s the Hubbit’s dog; he can deal with it. I don’t care any more. My home will forever more smell of skunk, but it doesn’t matter; my nose is now permanently disabled, which means I never again have to invite uninteresting people to dinner. (Interesting people, aka my kind, take the occasional whiff of skunkiness in stride.)

I’m going back to bed. You please have a lovely day on my behalf

Have you, or anyone near and/or dear to you, ever been skunked? Did the smell ever go away or did you happily adapt to life as a social pariah?

A man and a dog, on the road home

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I picked up a hitchhiker on my way home from the writer’s conference a week ago.

The way it happened was, I left the highway to buy gas, and on my way back to the highway I saw a dog lying just off the on-ramp. As my foot shifted to the brake I saw that someone was already there, so I thought, “Okay, not my problem.”

Bubba on the onramp

A dog, a backpack, and a highway.

I was halfway up the ramp before I heard that still, small voice that speaks to all of us, if only we listen. “Go back,” it said.

“What? I can’t reverse down an on-ramp!” I argued indignantly, but I was already braking. I know that voice. I don’t always like what it says, but I’ve learned to pay attention. I reversed down the on-ramp, and I didn’t hit anyone or go off the road or get fined.

When I was close to the dog, I stopped and honked my horn. The man kneeling next to it looked up, and jogged over to my car. In my rear view mirror I saw the dog raise its head, and then move to a more upright position. I realized it wasn’t hurt – it had just been sleeping … but I was there and the man was leaning to peer through my side window so I rolled it down.

“Is that dog with you?” I asked him. “Is it okay?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, and smiled. I glanced at my rear-view mirror. The dog – it looked like a pit bull – was watching us. It looked healthy, well-fed. I looked back at the man. He was dark, and had gray hair in a long braid down his back, and wore a red bandanna. Even with him outside the car I could tell he needed a shower, yet he looked … well, not clean, exactly, but put together, as though he’d taken some trouble. The air billowing in through the open window was hot and heavy, and I turned up the fan on my air conditioner.

That voice wasn’t saying anything. It didn’t need to; I knew what I had to do. I sighed. “You need a ride?” I asked.

His face split in a huge grin. “Yes ma’am!” he replied. “Are you going near Ellensburg?” I was going 100 miles beyond Ellensburg – further than he’d hoped to get that day. We stashed his backpack in the trunk, and the dog, Bubba, jumped into the back seat and settled down with a sigh.

He introduced himself – I’ll call him Cajun. I’ll pick up hitchhikers when the voice says it’s okay, but I don’t feel obligated to entertain them, so I told him I was in the middle of listening to the final book in the “Wayward Pines” trilogy and didn’t want to stop. I brought him up to speed on the story and we listened together, but every now and again he’d drop a comment, and I’d switch off the CD and we’d chat. That’s how I heard his story – in bits and pieces interspersed with the bloody destruction of the last humans on earth – until I decided his story was more interesting than the book.

He told me he was part Cajun, part Mexican, part African, and two parts Native American. He’s been a mechanic for Boeing and a Marine, and a street preacher to the poor. Now, he does construction work and roofing, and picks up odd jobs here and there when he needs to. He’s a musician and songwriter and has supported himself and Bubba more than once by playing on sidewalks and street corners. At the moment his guitar is in Idaho, but he played me one of his songs that he’d recorded on his tablet. The recording wasn’t good, and I really wished it was. That song sounded worth hearing.

His regular-people life fell apart around 2001. The Man kicked him in the ass, so he gave The Man the finger, acquired a backpack, and hit the road. Since then he’s lived on the streets and wandered the highways of the USA, trusting God to provide, which He does mainly through the kindness of strangers. A few years ago he picked up a job in Sedona, Arizona, and within a few weeks he’d saved enough to rent a home. That job was followed by a couple of others. Life was good. He celebrated Valentine’s Day in 2015 by visiting the local animal shelter, where he found Bubba, and since then they’ve been inseparable.

But things fell apart in Sedona too, and soon Cajun and Bubba were back on the road. I was puzzled that he gave up on a place where it seemed he’d been content. This is not a lazy or stupid or unskilled man. He likes a cold beer at each end of a hot day, but he seemed sober to me. I asked him what had happened and he didn’t want to go into detail, but he said, “I don’t define my work as who I am. My purpose is to live in poverty and share God’s love with the discarded people in this earth.”

He has a grown daughter whom he hasn’t seen for years. He had planned to connect with her when he passed through Seattle a couple days before I met him, but something went wrong and a payment he was counting on was delayed. He didn’t want to face her with empty pockets so he canceled, and now Seattle was behind him and she was pissed.

“You think she’d have cared that you were broke?” I asked.

“I wanted to at least take her to lunch,” he replied.

“You’re an idiot,” I informed him. “You should go back, or at least apologize.” (I am so good at telling other people how to run their lives!) I don’t know that he cared much what I thought – why should he? – but a bit later he was texting with her. He didn’t want to go back, though – he was focused on his next destination.

Dream home

When Cajun is surfing the net, imagining his dream home, this is the kind of picture he’s likely to save.

Before Seattle, on their way up the west coast, he and Bubba got a ride with a long-haul trucker, who told him all about the trucking life. So he was on his way to Salt Lake City, where he’s signed up for a training course with a trucking company. Not too far down the road he reckons he’ll be able to buy his own truck – apparently trucking companies contract with drivers and help them do that. He was excited at the prospect of having a real home, but one that wouldn’t involve staying put in the same place.

“Do you think of yourself as homeless?” I asked. I was trying to puzzle him out. He’d told me he could not “live the American life”. Some of the things he says sound as though he’s on the road by choice – a hobo rather than homeless. He says he has no regrets. But then he’ll say something else that aches with hurts and disappointments, both suffered and dealt out, and I wonder what he’d change, if he could.

“I can’t afford a home,” he said, and he sounded sad.

“So you’re not like Reacher – just choosing to live on your own terms?” I asked.

“Jack Reacher? Like in the movie?” He laughed. He liked that idea. He said he personally didn’t want a home, but he thought Bubba would like one, and that’s what mattered most.

Just east of the Cascades he asked for a restroom break, so I pulled over in Cle Elum. While he was taking care of himself and Bubba, I texted the Hubbit to let him know I might be bringing someone home for dinner. The way things work with the Hubbit and me is, we each make our own plans and the other accommodates, but each of us has veto power. So I waited an hour or so, until we were near the Tri-Cities, before I said, “Okay, you have three options. I can take the next exit and drop you in town – there’s a McDonald’s, Walmart, etc. Or I can take the exit after that one and drop you there; there’s nothing there but you say you do better getting rides from country people. Or you can come on home with me, and tomorrow morning I’ll drop you at the truck stop.”

His eyes lit up, then he looked worried. “But won’t your husband mind?” he asked.

“I texted him hours ago and he hasn’t said no. And he’s used to me picking up strays,” I said. Plus, if the Hubbit won’t remember to keep his phone with him and check for texts from his loving wife who is driving along a lonely highway through the barren wastes of Eastern Washington, that’s on him, right? “You’ll be welcome, so it’s up to you. It looks as though you could use a shower and a washing machine,” I added, ever tactful.

So he came home, and the dogs weren’t assholes when I introduced them to Bubba, and the Hubbit was surprised but welcoming. Well, resigned, anyway – and once Cajun had showered and dinner was on the table, the Hubbit discovered for himself that the company was good, as promised.

Cajun's feet

Cajun prefers his tent to a bedroom indoors.

Cajun didn’t want the spare bedroom. He pitched his tent under a tree in the back yard. The next day we offered him the option of staying on for a few days, helping out a little on the farm in return for his keep, and giving himself and Bubba a rest – but he was in a hurry to continue his journey. He repacked his backpack – traded me some cheap dog food that the chickens like for the better stuff we feed our dogs, and left a small blanket and an umbrella on the washing machine. I guess when you have to carry everything you own, you don’t hang onto an umbrella during the dry season.

It turned out that the truck stop near us, that I’d planned to take him to, was on the wrong route, so we drove into Oregon, and he kept studying Google Maps on his tablet and saying, “It’s pretty soon … I think the next turn-off … Or maybe the next one.”

“I’m not taking you all the way to Salt Lake City, you know!” I groused – not because I minded so much as I was worried about running out of gas, and it was nearly the end of the month so I’d already run out of money. The truck stop was at the next turnoff after that, and he put $30 in my tank, because he may be homeless but he’s not a bum.

I texted with him while writing this story. I had to ask his permission to use photographs off his Facebook page, and I wanted to check in with him anyway. He’s in Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, feeling down in the dumps. It seems people there don’t respond to a “Hungry” sign, and no one is stopping to give him a ride. He’s hoping a trucker will come by soon, because they usually stop when they see Bubba. He’s moving on, going to Laramie, Wyoming, where he reckons he has a better chance of finding work. His course is in September and it lasts a month, and he can’t have Bubba with him while he’s training, so he needs to save up for a boarding kennel.

I hope they get a ride soon. I hope they make it home.

Do you pick up hitchhikers? What about hitchhikers with dogs? And … what do you think, when you see a homeless person?

 

The pooping peacock

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I haven’t had a lot of sleep just lately, because I’ve been stressing over my cows. We have three, and until recently they were all pregnant. We now have two cows, two babies … and one cow who still hasn’t bloody popped … so sleep continues to elude.

You have no idea how many things can go wrong during cow childbirth. And the longer I have to wait, the more I google, and the more I google, the more convinced I am that, sooner or later, I’m going to be up to my armpit in a cow’s vagina, wondering what the hell to do next. And then – I know this will happen because I have been present at a few calvings by now – the cow will poop on my head.

When this happens I will tell you all about it, assuming I survive, but for now I want to share something that gave me my first belly laugh of spring: a WhatsApp message from my niece, the intrepid Princess Swan, who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

And so the adventure goes: I am sitting in reception and I get a call from one of our boardrooms. Grace, one of our cleaners, screams, “SWAN! COME HERE!”  I run up the stairs and see, in the passage, a magnificent beast. 

A peacock.

And that peacock had shat everywhere.

How did it get inside? you may ask. It came from the roof, is our only guess. Swaggered down the stairs and into our lives.

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Peacock, looking a little ruffled

I call Free Me, an organization that rescues birds. (I have called them in the past with dying baby birds and they always come get them and make sure they survive.) But a peacock is not an indigenous bird, therefore they can’t help. They tell me to call the bird vet in Bryanston.

The vet is more than willing to take him in until the owner comes looking. Good – problem solved … almost! “How do you catch it?” I ask.

“Oh, simple. You merely put a towel over its head and it will sit down and calm down.”

Oh, if it were only that simple. Reuben, our IT guy, turns out to be not very good at this. He doesn’t want to get too close, and the towel keeps missing the peacock, which starts to get flustered. There is poop. And feathers. Eventually I, being an animal whisperer, intervene. I take the towel from Reuben and gently drop it over the peacock’s head. The peacock promptly panics.

But only for a minute. I guess the vet people know their stuff, because he does calm down, and I pick him up and cradle him like a baby. “Now what?” I ask Dalize, my center manager.

“We take him home,” she responds. But … where is home? We call around and learn he lives at the British International College just down the road. Dalize and I hop into her car. I am still holding the bird. For some reason no one else seems to want to have anything to do with it.

When we arrive, Dalize steps out of the car and walks to the security guards’ booth near the gate. “We have your bird,” she says.

Puzzled look. “You have our bird?”

“Yes, we have your bird.”

“Where is our bird?”

“Your bird is in the car.”

I get out of the car, still cradling this peacock wrapped in a towel like a newborn, and place him on the grass. Immediately about fifty kids run up, screaming, “Gerald! They rescued Gerald!!” Apparently Gerald has been missing for weeks.

Back at the office I run straight for the bathroom, because I have poop aaaallll over me.

So that is what happened to me this morning. What’s new with you?

After reading about Princess Swan’s adventure with the pooping peacock, my tribulations with the popping (and non-popping) cows pale into insignificance. I am left with two questions – and these may be among the Great Questions Of Life:

  1. Why do all true animal stories essentially revolve around poop?
  2. Who the heck names a peacock “Gerald”?

So what do you think? And what’s new with you?

The envelope

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I don’t know why I wanted – no, didn’t want, absolutely did not want, but needed – to see my mother’s body. It’s not as though her death was a surprise. Although it happened sooner than expected, I was not in denial, I didn’t need proof … and I had a gut-deep dread at the thought of looking at her, facing the oozing reality of death doing its work inside her. I couldn’t shake the fear that she might be swollen, or discolored, or just fundamentally dead-looking. Forgive me for saying this … I imagined she might smell.

I knew these fears were irrational and silly – we of the first world are shielded from the obnoxious aspects of death. It has become sad but pretty. We have a supermarket-sized range of choices as to how we hide the evidence of our mortality, from worm-defying embalming, to composting (my preferred option. Marmeee would have chosen it too, but we’d already cremated her by the time I learned it was possible – and I still don’t know whether it’s done in South Africa).

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Things Marmeee loved: Gardens and gardening and South African native plants. She and her brothers sponsored a bench in Kirstenbosch Garden, in Cape Town, in memory of my grandmother, who used to work there. We – my siblings and I – will put one at Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve, outside Johannesburg, for sitting on while remembering her and the Olde Buzzard. This picture is of the Hoya vine that her mother started from a cutting, and that Marmeee cherished for 50 years.

And yet, despite all logic, the thought of looking at my mother’s dead body filled me with cringing dismay. My resistance was just a little less powerful than the compulsion I felt to see it. I remembered all the stories I’d read or heard of near-death or out-of-body experiences, and imagined her disincorporated self hanging around, waiting for me to come and … what? I don’t know. Pay my final respects?

As I write this I can almost hear the derisive hoot of laughter with which she’d have greeted such an idea. “Your respects?” she’d have exclaimed. “You’ve never been respectful in your life. You call me fubsy!” Which is only partly true. I may have been quite good at concealing my respect for her, but she knew very well it was there. As for fubsy … well, she was, and so am I. It’s a Tookish trait!

Well, I digress. I’d have preferred to get The Viewing over and done with right away, but thanks to a missed flight and then a 12-hour delay in Heathrow I didn’t reach Johannesburg until Sunday evening, when the undertaker was closed.

The next day, Monday, I met my father and my sisters, the Egg and the Kat, at the Kat-House, to go through Marmeee’s clothes and choose something pretty for her to wear. The Kat chose a white blouse with embroidered giraffes that she had given her. We added a pair of cotton capris and some underwear. I vetoed shoes – who wears shoes when you’re lying down? – but insisted on socks to keep her toes warm. The Old Buzzard chose her most beautiful shawl – a big, soft, fringed square in her signature shades of grey, blue and lilac.

On Tuesday the Egg, the Kat and I took the clothes to the undertaker. We asked for a simple pine box and a cremation, definitely no embalming, no fuss. No, we didn’t wish to attend the cremation. But … I took a deep breath. “I would like to see her,” I said. They said they would have her ready for me the following day.

On Wednesday morning my bestie, Twiglet, picked me up. I made her promise to come in with me. “I’m scared,” I told her.

“Don’t be. It’ll be okay – you’ll see,” she replied gently.

“I’ve never seen a human dead body before,” I explained. “And this is my mother!”

“My Mom was my first too,” she said.

At the mortuary, the receptionist called a man in a black suit to lead us to the viewing room. His expression was somber, and it bothered me that he seemed sadder than I was. I was too anxious to be sad. I had absolutely no idea what I would do, how I would react. Would I sob hysterically? Fling myself on her coffin? Laugh – as I so hideously did when I was 12 years old and told my classmates my little dog had died, run over by a car, and they all thought I was an awful person because the only expression my face remembered for days after it happened was a ghastly rictal grin? Our escort opened the door to the viewing room, then stepped back to wait in the hallway, head bowed and hands quietly folded.

The room was bright and spacious, with curved rows of empty seats and large windows. Near the front, resting on a dais, was the coffin – pale, unvarnished pine, with rope handles. Although plain it was nicely made – sturdy, with rounded edges and a few simple carved details. Viewed from the doorway you couldn’t see the coffin shape, and it looked like something my mother might have chosen to keep on her back stoep – an attractive box for storing gardening tools that was also a good height for sitting upon with a cup of tea.

I walked about halfway down the aisle between the chairs, then sat down. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked Twiglet. “I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel.” She just hugged me and waited for me to figure it out. “Okay,” I said at last. “Let’s do this.”

Things she loved - OB

Things Marmeee loved: Book stores. Coffee shops. The Olde Buzzard. Earrings, like the ones he gave her just before we took this picture.

I marched up to the coffin and looked down into it.

The woman inside was lying with her head tilted back, so that her chin jutted sharply toward the ceiling. She didn’t look entirely comfortable. I wanted to lift her head, tuck a pillow under it … but I didn’t have a pillow. Also, I was worried that if I lifted her head her whole body might rise, rigid as a plank. I don’t know how long rigor mortis lasts, and it didn’t seem appropriate to google it just then.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips were thin and stern. I wondered whether the mortician had used glue to fix them shut.

I touched her cheek. She was icy. I realized that she had been packed in bags of ice, and yanked my mind away from the reason this was necessary. I stroked her hand. It was cold… cold.

Her beautiful shawl had been tucked around her shoulders, but was a little bunched up. I patted it smooth, snugged it around her. I wondered whether I should kiss her, but I really didn’t want to.

I went back to where Twiglet was sitting and plunked down into a seat. “I don’t feel anything,” I said. “She’s not here. That over there -” I gestured toward the coffin. “It’s just an empty envelope.” Twiglet nodded, and hugged me again.

“So … okay. Let’s go,” I said. I stood to leave, but found myself wandering back to the coffin. I felt restless, vaguely ashamed that I didn’t want to cry or wail, angry that something so momentous could happen and leave me bereft of words or feelings.The shawl still didn’t look quite right. I rearranged it again, positioning it so that one of the embroidered giraffes on her blouse was visible.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “She’d be royally pissed at us for burning this shawl.”

Twiglet gave me the side-eye. “I’m sure they’d give it back if you asked them to.”

“No, I don’t want it – it’s not mine to take. But I hope someone steals it before they cremate her. She’d like that – knowing it was making another woman feel pretty.”

“Well,” Twiglet said. “Who knows? This is Africa. Maybe that’s one of the perks of the job.”

We were chuckling as we walked through the door, down the corridor, and out into the sunlit parking lot. Behind us, I knew, machinery had hummed to life and the dais, the coffin and its chilly, empty contents had sunk to the basement, out of sight. But the thought of it no longer scared me. I felt a sense of release. I was glad I had seen her body. It had served her well for many years, and so had earned our gratitude and respect, but she was no longer in it. She had written the letter of her life, signed it “With love”, and had quite clearly moved on.

valerie1

Things Marmeee loved: Me