The choice of songs comes as a surprise. Only, in truth, it shouldn’t. The song at the top of the list is one that evokes special memories. Memories that cause my ears to wince, although I can’t resist a smile at what I read either.
‘Meatloaf, cool,’ I say, keeping my voice light, bright, as though I’m in no way fazed. Mum was always tunelessly telling the world she’d be gone when the morning came at the top of her voice while washing up in a river, driving, wherever. We’d join in when encouraged to do so, but only reluctantly. And quietly, hoping no-one could hear. That wasn’t likely, mind, it was rare for us to be around people when we were kids.
What I’m especially taken aback about is the fact Mum, or Carly as she always insisted we call her, had written so much down, gone to the trouble of lodging it with a funeral director local to where I live. Prepaying, even.
Mum? Prepaying? Who’d have thought?
And with what?
We’d been bargain hunters extraordinaire way back when. Most of what we bought to eat was covered in yellow ‘reduced’ labels. Battered fruit and veg, almost out of date milk and cheese, packets with the corners torn off, leaving trails of oats behind us.
‘Like Hansel and Gretel,’ she’d smile, various baked goods tucked in her capacious coat pockets, long velvet skirt wrapping around her calves. ‘And I’m a wicked witch,’ she’d say, holding our hands as we crossed the road to our camper van.
I think she stayed within the law, just, but we worried about it, Mark and I, from time to time. The last thing back then that we wanted was for us to end up in care, surrounded by four giant walls, the kind Mum railed against. But we stayed quiet. We may have been wrong, and the irony of our potential situation would have been lost on her had we mentioned it. Even as kids we knew that.
She’d lived her life off grid, and we had too, until we finally left the comfort of the camper van and joined society as adults, as best we could, leaving our old lives behind. Mum, of course, never left.
We didn’t get a great grounding in how to blend in, how to follow social rules and etiquette.
Quite the opposite.
We were taught to stand out, to speak up, to protest.
What does my brother Mark think about all this, I wonder? He’s never said, and he says nothing now. He’s always been a quiet man, kept his own counsel.
He’s sitting next to me, staring out of the window – into the middle distance – as though the red saloon in the car park is of special interest to him.
A man who never learnt to drive.
Mark isn’t his given name, any more than Laura is mine, but given names are for another time. Let’s not go there right now.
The funeral director, a woman in her 50s looking the very parody of a business woman from the mid 80s in a wide-shouldered dark suit and a blouse with a pussy bow, holds my gaze, her lips a tight pencil-like line, her head tilted slightly to the right. I think she’s trying her best to show empathy. How does she keep it up? Day in day out.
She shuffles through paperwork.
‘There’s a small outstanding bill,’ she tells us. ‘But very little. Your mother has been paying in instalments over the last year or two.’
As she sold a painting to a gallery, or jewellery at a craft stall, no doubt. Mum’s outgoings had always been low.
Is the funeral director surprised too, I wonder, at mum’s unconventional requests? Surely not. She must have pre-programmed responses for the distressed, the shocked and, on occasion, the relieved. She’s not new to this game, you can tell. It’s a business, her job.
I’m somewhere between distressed and shocked, I guess. I hate being here, but that’s normal? To be expected? I shuffle around in my chair. There’s a surprising amount to go through, forms to be filled out, boxes to be ticked, lines to be crossed through.
It’s interminable. I pick up the crumbs of a shortbread biscuit with my fingertips, licking them, then regretting it. Poor manners, I’m sure.
Mum’s is the first funeral I’ve had to arrange. We knew it was coming, Mum had been ill a good while, and had refused conventional treatment – of course.
‘Happy for nature to take its toll,’ she’d told me when I visited a few months ago. ‘Can’t carry on camping forever, you know,’ she’d said. I’d held her hand, and it had been my turn to look out of the window into the middle distance. No cars to see, of course, just the lake, and the winter trees, stripped bare of their foliage, naked and exposed.
My brother and I accepted Mum’s wishes, though I was less sure than she was about nature taking it’s toll. I’d have liked some pharmaceutical intervention. I’d have liked Mum around for longer. There was still stuff for us to say, questions to be asked and answered. History to be brought to the surface.
Lots and lots of stuff.
I’ve no idea what my brother thought. He never said.
It was surprising how little Mum and I managed to say, too, beyond the daily minutiae.
Turns out caring for the sick is time consuming; you get bogged down in routine, in ritual.
I stayed there with Mum for the last two weeks of her life; took unpaid leave. Mark dipped in and out. Much of the time Mum slept, so we’d sit together in silence, her hand in mine, cool to the touch, skin papery and thin.
There was so much to say. So much.
So much left unsaid.
Something we never spoke of was her funeral. I did once broach the subject, in a roundabout what kind of thing would you like kind of way, but Mum had pulled her hand from mine and waved it dismissively.
We’re not going there, her hand told me.
So finding the letter addressed to myself and Mark in her backpack had been a surprise. It named the funeral director and said goodbye to us both.
The last few weeks had also been goodbyes.
‘Your mother chose poetry, too,’ the woman tells me, sliding across a sheet of cream paper, most likely handmade by Mum, tiny flecks of petals adding colour underneath wording in black ink.
Mum will have made the paper. Papermaking was one of her many creative endeavours. She sold to craft shops and galleries on our travels – quilts, knitwear, handmade paper – whatever she wished to turn her hand to she swiftly became expert at.
She made things of pure beauty and attempted to imbue us both with the love of making, of hand carving or weaving, but we never got it.
‘Maths is creative, Mum,’ I’d say working through problems in my book as we twisted and turned down roads in the Scottish Highlands, looking for somewhere beautiful and free to camp for days, weeks, months. We never knew when we arrived how long we’d stay.
She’d shake her head.
‘Maybe your fathers were mathematicians,’ she’d say, trying to hide her disappointment when our attempts at sewing ended with mass unpicking. ‘Who knows?’
We were rebels, in a manner of speaking. Though not in a manner Mum approved of. I chose maths over hand carving, my brother chose science over quilting.
Needless to say we were home-schooled, after a fashion.
‘I’m teaching you survival skills,’ she’d say as we foraged for mushrooms. We were certainly able to pick the poisonous from the edible.
‘Will you read a poem each? At the graveside?’
The funeral director pulls me back to the present.
Mum loved poetry. I glance down at her choices. Both are familiar from childhood. Rhythmic pieces she’d share with us at bedtime, the words then having little meaning to me, but the sounds enveloping, cosy and comforting, lullabies for sleep.
‘Your mother wrote these poems.’
The funeral director’s voice is soft. I hadn’t known this, though the fact Mum wrote poetry was no surprise. I knew she kept journals, tucked them away in a cupboard under multi-coloured clothes. She’d write them as we slept. As my eyes drifted shut she’d reach for the book and a pen, sit cross-legged on her bed and write. I’d hear the pen scratch across the paper. Sometimes she’d bite her lip, sometimes stick her tongue out in concentration.
I loved that.
I reach for Mark’s hand, not a usual move between us, but one that felt necessary. He doesn’t turn to look at me, but neither does he pull his hand away. Instead he squeezes mine.
‘Which one would you like to read, Mark?’
He takes the paper from me, glances over it.
‘The second, I think,’ he says. ‘You?’
I’m happy with the first, and say so.
‘That’s the way round your Mum wished it to be, but she requested I ask you both first, to give you the choice.’
I think about the function of funerals as the funeral director fills in more forms. They say they are for the living, don’t they? People do. That they’re a time to say goodbye, to reflect, to kickstart the grieving process once the initial shock is over, a celebration of life.
I sip from what is now a cold cup of tea, feeling a moment of irrational irritation. Mum’s written her wishes down to the letter, allowing for no freedom on our part, no input, very little choice.
That should be ok, shouldn’t it? We should follow her wishes. We shouldn’t protest like she’d so often encouraged us to do in life. And, anyway, what was there to protest about? The fact she hasn’t trusted us to make decisions for her funeral?
The fact her funeral was planned out, plotted to the nth degree?
I feel unease. It’s so unlike her, this attempt at control, even from beyond the grave. I can’t fathom why she’s done it. All my life she resisted attempts to control her, fought the system as she viewed it. She was a self defined free spirit, a radical. A child of the 60s.
Not a child in the 60s, but one who embraced all the decade stood for. Freedom, peace, love, all that jazz.
I’m restless, feel the need to get up, move around.
‘May I see her?’ I ask.
The funeral director looks up, startled for the first time. No doubt there’s an order, an etiquette to this. A time and a place.
‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Follow me.’
My brother stays behind.
Mum’s dressed in her favourite skirt and blouse, both of which she made. Her hair is like a halo, soft and curly on the white pillow. I reach for her hand for one last time. Cold to the touch, of course, but still her hand. The hand that comforted my forehead in a fever, held me back from stepping into the road – even free spirits need to learn about traffic. The hand that led us in dances in fields under the summer sun. The hand that reached for mine towards the end when the pain was intense, that held mine tight until the spasm had subsided.
The hand that pushed us forward into the world when she considered we were ready.
‘Make the most of life, my mathematician daughter,’ she’d smiled at my eventual graduation, drawing glances from the other parents in her patchwork ankle length skirt and orange hat decorated with feathers. ‘Be what you want to be. Don’t look back.’
And I hadn’t. I’d left my childhood, the unfettered freedom behind and become an adult with all the constraints that came with that role.
I kiss her forehead and let go of her hand for the last time.
Finally I understand.
The day dawns.
The ceremony, if that’s what you would call it - is to take place at the graveside, no celebrant, just us – her children and numerous friends, some we know, others strangers to us. Her friends dress like Mum did – brightly coloured cotton and velvet, nothing subdued, nothing downbeat. Those we know are society’s outcasts, having created their own communities, trailing around the edges, steering clear of conformity. But warm people, happy with their lot, it appears. Just like Mum. Whether we know them or not they greets us as long lost friends.
I’m sorry for your loss
She will be missed
She loved you both so
She spoke of you so fondly
The words spoken are platitudes but, still, truths.
We both know she loved us. As we loved her.
This funeral, this celebration is for both the living, and the dead. It connects us to Mum, Mum to the earth she loved so much. It takes us back into our pasts, stirring memories like sand on a seabed, bringing them to the surface knowing they will settle again in time.
That was what Mum wanted, and what she’s achieved. All along she made plans. Planned to live life on the road, planned to be free, planned to protest when protest was necessary.
And in planning her own funeral she’s shed light on our childhood, a light that has dimmed as we make our own decisions, live our own lives, flatten the grass on the paths we take. She’d reminded us of the poetry, the music and the good, the rich and wonderful things we shared together.
This funeral, her wishes, they have to be carried out, for these reasons if no others.
Mum has chosen a woodland burial, a cardboard coffin wrapped in one of her quilts. She added scraps of fabric to each of them over the years. They are things of absolute beauty, fiery, earthy and neutral colours blending into a comfort of memories.
There are two more quilts in the camper van – one for each of us, love sewn into every stitch.
My brother and I are the last to leave the graveside. We will catch up with the others at a local pub shortly. There’s no rush. Who’s to say we should be there first? Meeting and greeting, whatever. That’s not what matters.
Tradition can wait while we say goodbye.
‘Love and peace, Mum,’ I whisper. ‘Love and peace.’
Now was the time to finally let go of her hand. To set her free.
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I really got a feel for the family dynamics here. You did a great job evoking the poignancy of the situation. Although a funeral is never a happy day your lovely writing made it touching and bittersweet.
Aw, thank you. My mum died earlier this year and she was very proscriptive in her funeral instructions, which really helped the family. She wasn't a free spirit though - therein lies the fiction :-)