My spring classes have begun at Santiago Canyon College, and once again I am posting noteworthy student stories on my blog. This week’s story comes from Linda Missouri, who has attended my classes for several years. (Pictured, left, in photo). I admire this story for the creative way she reveals her mother’s character and relationship with her family through a variety of literary techniques: scene, flashback, dialogue, and more. Note how well Linda anchors this story in the era it occurred, reflecting attitudes of the day about women and religion. Read on, and see for yourself…
Don’t Show My Body
by Linda Lacey Missouri
“Don’t let anyone see my body when I’m gone.” Mom’s frail but insistent words seared me with her authoritative command. I took Dad’s arm and we stepped away from Mom’s hospital bed. I repeated Mom’s edict so Dad could hear her words. “Mom said, ‘DO NOT, under any circumstances, have a public viewing after I’m gone.’ What do you make of that, Dad?”
Dad shook his head in the negative. “Well, I never….” Yet, his smile confused me. “If that’s what Willie wants, that’s what she’ll get.” At this desperate time, Dad would say anything to agree with his beloved. He had a history of placating his wife. He wasn’t about to create a fuss now, just days before their 58th anniversary.
Mom’s request surprised me. How about all the times Mom wanted to show her face—those perfect eyebrows that I never saw her pluck. Did nature alone give each brow such a precise domed curvature? Starting before I could remember, Mom took weekly trips to Rosie’s beauty parlor, getting free advice from movie magazines and from Rosie. While they gabbed, Rosie put a stylish curl in Mom’s black sturdy hair and on occasion, dyed the grey. Rosie and Mom discussed the news of the day. They debated Dr. Spock’s modern message that picking up infants when they cried would not spoil them. They grieved at the headlines of Charles Lindbergh’s stolen baby.
Mom had agreed to marry my dad on two conditions—first, she could hire a maid each week. Clara from Sweden kept the downstairs in perfect order in case neighbors rang the doorbell without phoning. Second, Mom could visit the beauty parlor once a week where Rosie kept Mom’s hair (and maybe her eyebrows, too) in perfect order.
The voice from Mary, the ICU nurse, shocked me out of my reverie.
“Mrs. Lacey has a visitor. May I show her in?”
Mom quickly jerked her oxygen mask to speak. “Who is it?”
“The minister from your church.”
“It’s a lady.” Mom’s eyes narrowed as she shook her head. “Go away. I didn’t invite her. She can’t come in.”
“Why not, Mama,” I interceded. I knew how much the church meant to Mom, and I wanted a miracle recovery for her. I didn’t want a minister to turn against my mom at this critical stage. Though I was embarrassed, I tried to stay calm. “Why don’t you want to see her? She’s from your church, St. Mark’s Methodist. ”
“I just don’t.” When Mom squinted her eyes at me, I knew her side of this conversation was over. But I needed to continue.
“Mom, she came all this way just to see you. I don’t want to send her away.”
“I don’t want her to see me,” she yelled. I felt my face flush, yet I kept going.
“Why, Mom?” I pleaded. “She just wants to pray with you. She cares for you.”
“If she sees me, she’ll go back and tell others at church how awful I look lying here in the hospital bed. I can’t let that happen.”
And so, the nameless reverend woman who ministers to the dying got turned away by my mother’s vanity.
I had a mixed reaction. In one sense, I felt proud of Mom for knowing her own mind and for not letting a stranger invade her inner sanctum when she was hooked up to every drip and tube. Mom’s pride, much like a mother lion protecting her cubs, was now protecting herself. I understood her need for privacy. But, I also knew how much Mom’s physical body needed healing and I wished she’d let the minister meet with her. I prayed for clarity of this confusing situation. I wanted a miracle.
I probed further. “The church means so much to you. Don’t you want this minister to pray with you?”
“I hardly know her,” Mom struggled through her quivering voice. “She’s not the real minister. Dr. Shelby is the one I care about. He should have come, not her.” Mom paused, motioned for me to lean closer, out of range of the nurse. “And she’s a woman,” Mom whispered. “How could she really help me?”
I jerked involuntarily when I heard Mom’s stunning announcement. Her faucet of core beliefs was dripping into my ear. Mom was telling me a woman doesn’t have the same status as a man, at least in her religious world and maybe elsewhere. And someone she doesn’t trust can’t just make an appearance now and expect to see her caught lying down, helpless, without her daily cold cream and puff of rouge, without her flashy smile and carefully crafted outfits, without her daily dose of her favorite perfume, Windsong, and without her ability to greet a guest properly.
I took Mom’s fragile hand. Mom had not yet told me to go away. I breathed a sigh of relief. She was letting me see her this way, humbled and scared, without her props and properness. She let me be close to her now, even if a lifetime as mother and daughter had often left me afraid to speak my mind. I certainly didn’t want her to send me away from her bedside, now. I took a deep breath to hold back my tears. Mom thought tears were messy and lacked a certain control and discipline.
Three days later, on September 20, 1985, my mother died. She waited until Dad and I were away from her bedside. I like to think she needed her privacy in order to leave us behind.
When we had Mom’s funeral, we had a closed casket, honoring Mom’s wish not to show her body.