Of Mystery and Regret
January 27, 2009 § 3 Comments
From Laura Sewell Matter:
Just a few weeks after I submitted “The Crab in the Stars” to Brevity and a few weeks before I received the editor’s response accepting it for inclusion in Issue 29, I got a call from my mother to tell me that my grandmother, about whom I had written in this essay, was dead.
I made my arrangements to attend the funeral, held in the same church where my grandfather’s had been held almost twenty years earlier. I sat in a pew while my cousin (the one who had been most wracked with hilarity at the minister’s misapplied lipstick, last time around) calmly delivered a eulogy extolling my grandmother’s selflessness and love of family, “practical” gifts (dickeys anyone?) and stocked cookie jars. It started out exactly the way a grandmother’s funeral should be. But when we got to the cemetery and crowded under a small tent over the open grave, while rain fell around us, a veritable plague of mosquitoes laid siege. I think my mother might have landed the first blow on my father’s head to kill one that had lighted upon his temple. Pretty soon we were all slapping them off each other and ourselves, swatting and scratching while the ceremony went on around us, trying to minimize profane utterances in light of the occasion. Not even the minister (a man, this time) could keep from smacking a mosquito on his forehead while intoning the bit about ashes and dust, leaving a smear of blood over his eye.
What struck me as troubling when I was twelve—the fact that life goes on, in all of its absurdity, even when something awful happens that ought to require us take a solemn and reflective pause—now seems like reason for delight.
I suppose there are two reasons why I wrote “The Crab in the Stars” in the first place: 1) A mystery: I was haunted for years by the image of the man in the bike helmet who came to our door, to the extent that I could not think of my grandfather’s death without thinking of this stranger as well, and it was curious to me that he should remain so persistently in my memory, even though I don’t now believe that his presence meant anything at all. 2) A regret: I did not stay with my grandmother to wait for the coroner and other family members (those more capable of consoling her, perhaps) instead of retreating into my own mind after learning of my grandfather’s death. I don’t entirely blame my twelve-year-old self, and I’m pretty sure my grandmother never held it against me either, but I do regret it all the same. Writing a vaguely self-implicating essay seemed like the only way to atone.
I wonder what she would have said if I could have showed her the essay—whether she would have been able to affirm or contradict my recollections of these events, and how she would have felt about it now. In the end, she outlived the habits of gentleness and propriety that had characterized her for most of her life; she spent her final days in nursing homes where she occasionally made inappropriate references to sex and dumped glasses of orange juice on other old ladies. Her memory had been failing for years. Part of me just wants to feel bad about it, but another part of me thinks that being able to see all of this as an interesting (and, frankly, hilarious) story is a better way to get by.