At the Funeral Home

My mother, behind me,
pushes open the door
to the funeral parlor.
“Go in,” she says,
“and sign the book.
Pay your respects
to your grandmother.”

Not sure what that means
except in movies, I enter
the dim vestibule: a slanted table,
a large book opened
to “Olive Rutherford.”
I sign. Tall men in suits
and women I’ve never seen before
move in and out of another room.

I follow. I am drawn,
though I do not wish to be
to the casket. My steps
become protracted, smaller,
as though infinitesimal
inchings would never get there.

I look around for uncles and aunts:
there are ten of them, a horde
of cousins I’ve never met.
My father, who never spoke
to his mother, is absent;
gone since the double-divorce
and scandal.
No sign of his sister, Margie.
No sign of Uncle Bill, the newsstand owner.
The others I have never met.
These are all strangers. If Rutherfords,
they ignore this adolescent Rutherford
as I approach the dread casket.
There, gaunt as ever, hair black
as a raven’s quills, her Indian nose
and high cheekbones, hands crossed,
some rose and lily petals tossed
hazardly here and there around her,
there, is Olive Rutherford.
I don’t remember make-up:
they have made her phosphorescent.
Her pursed lips preserve their secrets,
the things I should have known
when I was old enough. What interval
passes as I stand there, I do not know.
I have never seen a dead person before.
Like this, I think, beneath the ground
and forever.

I feel like a chimneysweep
among these dressed-up people.
Snatches of talk pass over me:
“I don’t suppose she left you
anything.” “She owned two buildings.”
“We’ll not be staying for the funeral.”
“Her late husband, the old Burgess,
a wonderful man. We all miss him.”

No one speaks to me. No one comes forward
to ask who I am. I tip-toe backwards,
back to the dark vestibule, out
to the winter sunlight, to the car,
where my mother, no longer Rutherford,
waits with eyes turned downward.
Our car, the right rear door held on
with rope, slinks out of Scottdale.
Except for last respects we have
no business being here.


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