It was a lovely funeral, as funerals go.
Everything looked to be just right – enough floral tributes to fill a cathedral, glistening black limos (grandson Ted had his own dealership) and a decent throng of neighbours. There were parishioners and sundry nosey-parkers - all displaying doleful expressions and clutching soggy hankies but really just there not wanting to miss this send-off for someone who had been a stalwart churchgoer and parishioner for over sixty years. That would be my mother.
Even the English weather had obliged – perfect funeral weather even though it was mid-July. It was miserable, cold and drizzling and it set the scene just perfectly. Mum would have been pleased! In fact, I remember at dad’s funeral nearly thirty years before, when the weather was equally obliging, her saying as we entered the chapel, “Happy is the corpse the rain falls on.” I thought it rather a strange comment to make but she said it in a rather dreamy, hypnotic voice so maybe she was still trying to process the fact that her husband of forty-eight years was finally gone. She did confide in me some time later, on one of my rare return visits to the place of my childhood, that it had taken her months to stop setting the table for two.
Sister Polly, three years my senior, had done a grand job of organising everything which I was deeply grateful for, being the prodigal son who hadn’t lived in England ‘since Adam was a lad’, as mum would have said. I always got on well with my family – the two brothers and one sister - but the thought struck me that maybe that was because I had lived on the other side of the world for all of my adult life. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ didn’t seem to work with me. And now, here I was, back in the family fold for one of the two types of events that brought me back on only rare occasion – marriages and funerals.
I have absolutely no recollection of what had happened after dad’s funeral. I mean, I don’t recall there being a tea or whatever they call it but I’m sure there was. I just don’t remember. What I do remember are little incidents that have remained with me like faded snapshots: the choir soloist who sounded like she was singing at her own funeral, the altar boy with freckled nose, and Uncle Albert reaching out and touching dad’s coffin as it was carried up the aisle after the service for the drive to the cemetery. The last thing that stuck with me was the sound of the damp earth hitting the coffin as we threw handfuls down into that miserable black hole.
It was all so final.
Now we were doing it all over again. Dad had waited twenty nine years for his wife and here she was at last, joining him for eternity. Unlike dad’s departure, mum’s was going to be quite unforgettable. The reception, tea, or whatever it’s called – you can’t really call it a wake as I think that’s something that happens before the burial – was held in the church hall, hardly any surprises there, and turned out to be quite a jolly affair. Auntie Gertrude, who at 89 was mum’s younger sister by 7 years, got stuck into the sherry and became quite vocal as the afternoon wore on, much to the embarrassment of her only son, cousin Pete. I tried to do the chicken mayo sandwiches justice but just didn’t have the heart for it. Younger brother Ken, the black sheep of the family, was not so reticent and demolished huge stacks of them along with countless sausage rolls and all washed down with copious pints of bitter – no surprises there either!
Gradually, things wound down and people started taking their leave in ones and twos. Distant cousins and great nephews and nieces twice removed and their siblings and children came to once again offer their condolences and excuse themselves from the proceedings. Polly drew me to one side and said she needed to get some fresh air and would I care to take a stroll along the church walk under the pergola with her? The rain had eased and a watery sun was filtering through the clouds so I agreed to escape the hall and accompany her.
“I wanted to ask you about mum’s stuff,’ she began as we walked beneath the climbing roses which covered the pergola walk.
“There are boxes full of papers and what-not which we found in the attic. I think there are things even she didn’t know were there.”
“Well,” I reasoned, “If it’s that old it can’t be very important. I assume you got the will. Oh my god, she did leave a will, didn’t she?!”
I suddenly had visions of her having died intestate and leaving a mess for someone else, namely us, to clean up.
“Oh, yes, don’t worry. She left everything to be divided up equally between the four of us.”
“Well, I’m telling you now, I don’t want anything. You guys have looked after her all these years and I know it’s been a big commitment, not to mention the financial side of things. I know you all chipped in and installed central heating for her some years ago and things like that. I’ve just sat on my backside in Australia and not had to do anything so I reckon it’s only fair that whatever she’s left should be split between the three of you here who have had the responsibility of making sure she was comfortable in her final years.”
“Don’t be silly, she wanted it split equally between all of us. Anyway, we can sort that out later but I’ve had a quick look through the stuff from the attic and I think you’d be interested in some of it seeing as you’re into researching family history.”
This spiked my interest right away. Of course - there could be a treasure trove of information hidden away among mum’s forgotten memorabilia, little gems that might explain many things I’d thought of as ‘loose ends,’ questions that needed answers, faces that needed names and names that were missing faces. Dates that didn’t feel quite right, relatives that just seemed to disappear without explanation. There were so many things I had wanted to talk to mum about, ask her about, when she still had her marbles. Not that she wasn’t with it to the very end, she was. She’d escaped the ravages of Alzheimer’s but at 96 you had to make some allowances for a certain vagueness of demeanour and a faltering memory.
“There’s a biscuit tin from Christmas 1952 chock full of old photos.”
“Really?” This was getting very interesting.
Then, almost casually, with a sideways glance,
“There’s a diary too.”
“Ha, I thought that would get you going.”
“I don’t believe it, mum wasn’t the diary type.”
“My thoughts exactly,” said Polly “But it’s there. I only glanced at it as I’ve been flat out organising things and have had to be very strict with allocating my time.”
“What dates are we talking about?” I asked with all sorts of ideas racing through my head.
“I think she started it in her teens, when she was courting dad so that would have been the late ‘30s.”
Four days after the funeral and less than a week before my scheduled return to Australia, I sat down with Sally in her spare room. She had organised one of her boys to help with stacking boxes full of stuff from mum’s attic and now was the day we were to go through it to determine what went into the garbage and what was to be salvaged. I looked at the boxes and the thought occurred to me how much we collect in life - just by our very existence!
“I’ll be honest with you, Polly; I’m not looking forward to going through all this.”
“Well, you’re the eldest son so I think you should at least make the effort. As I said before, I think most of it is just boring old papers – insurance policies and the like -but we may find something of interest.”
Big sister was pulling rank so I knuckled down and started by emptying one carton onto the floor and picking through the pile of papers. Anything needing further investigation was placed back in the box, the rest into the ‘junk’ pile for later disposal.
It was going to be a long afternoon…
After sorting through three boxes and finding little of interest I looked up at Polly who sat in an armchair enjoying the latest episode of ‘Days of Our Lives.’
“Sorry to interrupt your TV viewing, old girl, but what about the photos and diary-I don’t see them anywhere?”
“Oh, I put them somewhere safe; now let me see…” she said, hand to forehead in a display of vagueness which I could swear was her way of playing me along and keeping me in suspense. My grunt of exasperation did not go unnoticed and she stood up and shuffled over to a buffet. Opening a drawer, she reached inside and produced a metal cake tin.
“Here it is,” she announced and held it out to me in her outstretched hand. I heaved myself up from where I’d been sprawled on the floor, plonked in a chair or and took it from her.
“And the diary?”
“It’s inside; with the photos.”
I could hardly contain my excitement.
I prised the lid off the tin and fumbled as a number of old photos cascaded into my lap. But it was the diary that I wanted to see. I fished it out and held it gingerly. Was I ready for this? Were the private thoughts of a nineteen- year-old girl written almost eighty years ago going to change my idea of what ‘Family’ meant? Was this little book going to be my window into my past? Was it going to tell me all those things, those secret things, things my mother never told me?
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I just found and learn new techniques in writhing, Thank you for this Sir!
I’m happy if my story has helped and inspired you! Now - it’s time for you to submit your story! I look forward to reading it soon.
This story has excellent pacing throughout and never gets bogged down with excess description. You establish characters well in a short amount of time, and I felt engaged by the narrative throughout. I think ending the narrative where you did was the perfect time to leave the reader in suspense. "it had taken her months to stop setting the table for two" was my favourite line. Thank you for sharing :)
Thank you for taking time to comment. Your mention of leaving the reader in suspense at the end was particularly interesting as I have had a lot of negative feedback about that very point in another forum where this story appeared. Many readers felt they'd been 'cheated' out of a revelation!
Well I respect their opinion but I would have to disagree!
Thanks - so do I! 😁
I enjoyed this story very much! Many readers will relate to the anticipation of uncovering family "secrets" and getting a window into the past. I had to re-read some of your sentences because they linked together so many phrases in a row and I wanted to catch everything. It did feel like I was inside the character's head (which I loved) but I wonder if a few of the longer sentences could be separated into two or three sentences for easier readability. I'm also a fan of using "said" with dialogue rather than "explained" "reasoned" and "an...
I appreciate your taking time to read and comment - thank you. Your feedback regarding over-long sentences is noted and I shall keep this point in mind for future works. Glad you enjoyed the story though and thanks again.
This story is very poetic. Even in death there are things for us to discover about the people we loved. Great read!
Thanks for commenting, Sam.
I liked this one a lot, sir. And it was interesting how you used the italics and ended with the questions. Well done!
Thanks, Kendall Always good to get feedback. Glad you liked my little story.