Our mother died the week before Easter and we buried her on Good Friday.
We held the funeral at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Hollywood Hills in the Old North Church. The small chapel was almost full. Mom had many friends in her church and in the several community organizations where she volunteered. As for family, two of her three husbands were present to mourn her, a son-in-law, and her only grandchild, Julianna. A second grandchild was present too, but he was still wrapped warmly in his mother’s womb.
And of course we three sisters were there, sitting close together on the front row bench, grieving and in shock, like someone whose home has been burglarized and their most cherished possessions stolen.
Mom’s death had been sudden. There was no terrible, lingering illness to decimate her body and destroy her dignity. We were grateful for that. But the suddenness also left us in a state of unbelief.
She’d been planning a big Easter dinner as always. The ten pound Honey Baked ham was in the refrigerator, as well as two dozen colored eggs for the traditional Easter egg hunt. A Saran-wrapped Easter basket full of chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and yellow Chick Peeps sat on our living room coffee table, waiting for Julianna’s eager hands.
Dad said he could put the ham in the oven and hide the eggs, but we didn’t felt like celebrating. And besides, by the time the funereal reception was over, we had foil wrapped casseroles and pies filling the freezer, as well as platters of left-over deli meats, cheeses, salads, and desserts crammed into the refrigerator. The women’s group at church had organized it all, remembering the kind woman who had so often done the same thing when they had lost loved ones.
And now, in honor of Mom, we made the effort to attend the Easter Sunrise Service at the same hillside cemetery. Easter was early this year, so Daylight Saving Time hadn’t kicked in yet, and it was dark as midnight as we wound our way through the cemetery to the Hall of Liberty where the service was held.
Bundled in coats and gloves and clutching donuts and Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate and coffee – supplied free by a local service club – we made our way across the wet grass to the rows of folding chairs. Other volunteers had set them up in front of the giant American History mosaic on the north wall of the Hall of Liberty They overlooked the city of Burbank at the east end of the San Fernando valley.
“Is this where Grandma lives now?” Julianna’s sweet young voice rose above the soft murmur of adult conversation.
Patrick O’Conner, her father and my brother-in-law, nodded and pointed across the road to the spot where we’d all stood two days before. “Over there, Honey, by those tall pine trees.”
Julianna’s arms went around her father’s neck and she tucked her face into his collar. He leaned his head on top of hers and closed his eyes.
We laid the blankets we’d brought across the dew dampened chairs in triple folds and sat down. We spread other blankets across our laps against the morning chill. We hunched up coats and sweaters around our necks and huddled close, savoring the warmth from our steaming cups, and looked out across the dark Valley.
A few lights twinkled in patterns, marking main streets and businesses. A few others hovered in the air – jets awaiting landing instructions at Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport.
Julianna – nestled now between Helena and me – paused in her donut eating and asked, “Why is everyone whispering, Mommie?”
“Because, Julianna,” Helena said softly, “we’re in church. We are in an outside church.”
As if to confirm her words, organ music began, sounding muted in the open air. A group of maroon robed men and women filed onto the risers, then turned to face us, looking expectantly at their director.
On my right, Dad began humming along with the organ, his face lifted skyward and his eyes closed.
“Aunt Jelly,” Julianna whispered in my direction, “Grandma’s gone away, but I still have a Grandpa, don’t I?” I nodded and smiled, but I couldn’t speak.
A minister called us to order with the traditional greeting.
“He is risen!”
“He is risen indeed,” we proclaimed.
We sang the familiar songs of resurrection and hope, and listened to a deep voiced African American soloist singing the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
The minister spoke of despair and sorrow, then of promise and joy, while warm tears rolled down my cheeks. The hope of life after death had new meaning for me this year. Mom. I’d see her again, I knew, but for now, I missed her so much.
While he spoke, the eastern sky lightened and turned pink and gold, but it wasn’t until the choir stood to sing the final Alleluia Chorus that the first brilliant edge of the sun appeared at the rim of the foothills. All eyes turned to watch its now rapid rise into the sky. On our left, a bevy of white doves were released and flew heavenward banking and turning as one flashing unit.
I heard Dad join the choir’s final “Hal-le-lu-ia!” under his breath. When his voice broke with emotion, I squeezed his hand and leaned against his shoulder.
The final prayer was said and people rose and began milling about, voices now at normal volume. Celeste, Helena and I came together as if pulled by a magnet and hugged long and hard.
Patrick took Julianna and told Helena he would get the car. I felt her head nod against mine. Then I heard Dad speak to Celeste’s father, “Come to the house, Martin, we have plenty of food for breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner.”
Martin Hauer murmured apologies and his thanks, then shook Dad’s hand. He came to our circle and touched Celeste’s shoulder and kissed her cheek.
“I’ll be in touch soon,” he said softly. Then he turned and angled up the hill toward the parking lot.
Catherine, Celeste’s secretary and close friend eyed us, and then moved to an open area of grass. She reached into her purse for her cigarettes. She lit up, inhaled, and continued to gaze in our direction.
Without consciously deciding to do so, my sisters and I began moving together through the crowd and across the road. Celeste and I linked arms with Helena and helped her – off balance in the last months of pregnancy – up the hillside to our mother’s grave.
The new mound was covered with flowers, still fresh and dewy. Helena reached down and picked up a bright red carnation. She closed her eyes, breathed in its pungent fragrance, and then held it against her chest.
“She was our connection – the one thing we have in common,” she whispered. “I hope we won’t drift apart now that she’s gone.” She looked at each of us, her eyes brimming. “I need you guys! I love you and I need you!”
We came together in another hard hug and vowed we would not drift apart.
“We’ll get together a lot,” I offered, but it was Celeste who came up with the concrete idea that would keep us bound together in the coming months and years.
“Let’s make an appointment right now,” she said, “an appointment to meet every month for an afternoon, or at least for a lunch. We all can do that, can’t we? I’ll have Cat write it on my calendar as a permanent engagement. And you could schedule it too, Van, couldn’t you?”
I nodded, thinking how slowly my photo business was starting out. I had only a few names written in my new appointment book for the next several weeks. E.T.C. Photography was not doing as well as I’d hoped. I’d have to think of something fast, if I wanted to keep the lease on the studio, and start repaying the humongous loan I’d gotten from Dad.
“I can meet anytime,” said Helena. “Patrick’s mother is coming next week to stay with us until after the baby is born. She could watch Julianna. And Jordan,” she added with a smile. Her hand caressed her bulging belly. “Oh, when shall we start?” she asked with excitement, sounding more like a little girl of five, than a woman of thirty two.
Celeste considered a minute, then said, “How about we start in three weeks? That would give us time to adjust our schedules and decide on a place. And how about Thursdays? That’s the lightest day for me at the office. Yes, we’ll meet every third Thursday of each month. How about it, girls?”
Helena and I looked at each other. “It’d be easy to remember,” she said.
“Sure,” I said. There would be no conflict in my schedule.
That settled, we turned to look at Mom’s grave again. The sun was well up now and shining brightly on the floral sprays and bouquets.
“I think she’s smiling,” Helena said sweetly. “I think she was worried about us – her three eclectic daughters. But now she’ll be able to rest in peace.”
A horn sounded and we turned to see Patrick’s BMW pull to the curb. Helena waved and we started down the hill. Patrick helped her into the car, looking curiously at each of our smiling faces.
“See you at the house,” he said as he closed the door.
Behind Patrick, Dad was waiting at the wheel of his decrepit old Honda. I got in the passenger side and watched as he tenderly coaxed the car into gear. He looked over at me and winked.
“She’ll be a classic one day.”
I smiled and shook my head.
Beyond Dad, I saw Celeste join Catherine by the Hall of Liberty. She began to talk and I knew she was explaining our plans to her secretary, instructing her even now to block out that day each month. It struck me that Cat didn’t look especially pleased.
But Dad smiled and nodded as I told him about our proposed “Third Thursday” lunches.
“You’re Mom would’ve liked that. She said you girls needed each other, even though you’d never admit it.”
I looked at him skeptically.
“I agree with her, Evangeline. Besides, don’t girls…okay, okay…women. Don’t women enjoy talking about “girl” things with each other? You know, sharing secrets about makeup, and recipes, and clothing sales and boys? Er…I mean, men.
“Well, how about politics and social issues? Celeste should like that. And business ethics? You and Helena could help each other in your new endeavors.”
“Herbal products and photography?” I said with raised eyebrows. “Anyway, I think Helena is pretty much focused on baby stuff and child rearing right now.”
“And you take wonderful photos of children.”
“And maybe you could work with her, photographing her product line for advertising, or even a catalogue.”
“Maybe… Yeah! That’s a good idea, Dad.”
Already I was laying out advertisements in my mind for Helena’s herbal teas and baths, and culinary condiments.”
“Celeste and Helena have things in common too.” Dad went on. “They both work with women and children. Maybe the three of you together could brainstorm ideas for Celeste’s halfway house and Helena’s work at Patrick’s clinic.”
“Dad, you are awesome!” I said, and automatically put a hand on the dash to steady myself as he popped the clutch to kill the Honda’s stubborn engine.
We were stopped in front of our house now, behind Patrick’s BMW. Catherine’s Jaguar eased to a stop across the street and the doors opened. Celeste got out, clipped a leash on Jewel, her silver-gray Weimeraner, and watched as Catherine armed the expensive car’s alarm.
“Celeste!” I called and slammed the Honda’s door. “Dad has some great ideas about our lunch meetings. I can’t wait to get started. C’mon, let’s get Helena and decide where our first one will be?”
This was turning out to be a day of joy and promise after all. Hope for a growing sisterly relationship sprang from the sorrow of our mother’s death. We would do it. We would do it for her.
I glanced at Catherine. Her face was dark with a tight lipped frown.
“Oh, deal with it, Cat,” I murmured and ran up the steps to our front door. “I won’t let your jealousy ruin our Resurrection Sunday.”