When my Uncle Jay was six years old, his beloved grandmother Edith died. She was laid out in the front room of the house on Shady Avenue in Pittsburgh. It is curious that this ceremony took place at all, given the strong Jewish preference for burying the dead before sundown. But I receive this story from my uncle, who retrieves it from memory, and if I have learned one thing in composing this history, it is that we are creatures of feeling. We form our memories from emotion, which inhabits every corner of the mind. Sometimes it’s hard to find the actual, literal truth.
My grandfather Sam and my great-uncles Sam, Harry, and Meyer would have carried Edith into the house. I imagine a ceremony of great solemnity, the men in their dark suits, my grandmother and her sisters clutching their handkerchiefs and weeping. Perhaps there was some undignified maneuvering as my elders struggled to bring the broad, heavy coffin through the narrow door. At length they placed the casket on sawhorses before the piano. Edith lay with unearthly stillness in her bed of tufted satin. Her pallor was waxy white. Her small hands lay primly upon her chest. A few hairs strayed from her temple. The adults went in first for the viewing, murmuring condolences to one another as they paused by the casket and placed a hand on its edge. Poor Edith! Such a kind, gentle woman, and a beauty too. All those years in the slaughterhouse, up to her elbows in feathers and blood, and never a word of complaint.
When the adults withdrew, the children entered the room to make their acquaintance of death. Uncle Jay lingered by the door, mute with fear and grief. His sister Phyllis strode directly to the casket and stood on her toes, looking down at her grandmother. Edith was white and utterly still, like a figure carved out of tallow. The planes of her face had softened imperceptibly. Her eyelids were papery and laced with purple veins. A certain grimness had set in around her mouth.
Phyllis suppressed her shock at this sight with an inner exertion of will. She was nine years old. She would not be daunted by death. Her face drained of feeling. Her fingers gripped the coffin edge. A malign imp cavorted inside her. She cocked her head to one side, then turned to face her brother. “Come and see.”
“No,” said my uncle, in a tremulous voice. “I don’t want to.”
“Why not? Are you scared?”
“Are so.” Phyllis turned and looked once more into the coffin. Then she turned back towards her brother. “I think you should kiss her.”
“No!” Jay took one step back.
“Yes!” Phyllis turned and seized her brother around the middle, bearing him towards the coffin. “Kiss her! Kiss her!” Her arms encircled him; he thrashed in her grasp; she bore him ever closer; he writhed and flailed; she brought him face to face with death; his tiny feet struck glancing blows against the coffin, which rocked atop the sawhorses; and as a horrified boy struggled to be free, a lifelong enmity was born.
After the funeral, my grandmother placed a photograph of Edith on top of the piano. Wherever Jay went in that room, its eyes seemed to follow him.
About the Author: Andy Kubrin has published essays and reviews in The Florida Review, Fourth Genre, and The Journal of African Travel-Writing. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, where he blogs occasionally at www.andykubrin.com.