Maria tried to listen to the priest, but she found herself instead transfixed by her grandfather’s casket. The wood was dark and polished so smooth it shone. The lid was open, but from where Maria sat in the pew, she couldn’t see her grandfather - only that the coffin was lined with something that looked like white velvet.
The church was mostly empty and Maria knew no one. It had been many years since she had set foot inside any kind of religious building.
There were a few middle aged couples with politely bowed heads. Maria watched a man remove a hard candy from his wife’s purse and cough to cover the sound as he unwrapped it. As he brought his hand back down from his mouth, he ran his fingers casually over his wife’s knee. The woman’s expression didn’t change as she crossed her legs so her foot was pressed against her husband’s.
Maria tried not to stare. She felt conspicuous and worried someone would approach her and demand to know who she was and what right she had to be there.
No one spoke to Maria.
Of course the real problem was Maria didn’t know why she had come. She had never met her grandfather. Everything she knew about him was contained in a shoebox she kept hidden under her bed.
The email from her mother was curt, but that was in the woman’s nature. Maria’s mother didn’t speak about her parents or her childhood. She certainly never mentioned that her father was in a home in Virginia less than a three hour drive away from Maria’s one-bedroom apartment in D.C.
Maria had tried to convince her brother, Paul, to go, but he brushed her aside. “Why?” he asked. “Mom has everything in order.” Maria pouted, begged, tried to tell him it would be a good bonding experience for them, that she would pay for the ticket, that she hadn’t seen him in a year, but he couldn’t be swayed. He said,”I didn’t know the man.”
After their phone call, Maria had cried. Paul hadn’t even asked her about the recital that she had written him about so enthusiastically a week earlier.
There was no discussion whether their mother would return to the states for the funeral. She would be spending the day traveling from her office in Nairobi to Kisumu to negotiate microloans.
Maria’s father would have come if she had asked him. He would have flown from Jakarta that night, but then he was a diplomat and it was in his nature to attend ceremonies at the behest of other people. He would have taken her out for dinner afterwards and asked,”How are you handling this?” He would have asked about her music and said,”I’m so happy for you. You deserve success.” Then he would give her canned replies when she asked about the embassy and excused himself early to get work done in his hotel room.
Maria didn’t consider contacting her father. She preferred her mother’s brand of earnest neglect to her father’s calculated interest.
The priest’s voice droned. Maria wondered if he viewed this funeral as practice for a more important one. She tried to concentrate, but she could hear only fragments. “…Eugene was many things during life…”
She had only been to one funeral before and that was when she was seventeen and living in Cairo. Her best friend, Maha, had been killed in a car accident. Within hours of hearing, Maria was with Maha’s family as they carried her coffin through narrow streets to the cemetery. She had never seen Egyptian men cry before, but they wept openly then and called out to God. The women screamed and were shoved away from the body. The coffin rocked back and forth as everyone reached to carry it at once. People seemed to appear from all around them. The crowd swelled and Maria bawled until she felt like there was nothing left inside.
“…leaves behind a daughter… two grandchildren… unfortunately, none of them could be here today, but I know they will join with me in…”
Maria’s legs were asleep. She shifted her weight back and forth on the hard seat of the pew. She stamped her feet against the floor.
“…be again with his wife, Mary, who was taken from him by cancer in…”
Maria stood. The priest stopped. They held one another’s gaze. The man had tired, drooping eyes. Maria thought he looked as if he were going to say something directly to her. She turned and hurried down the aisle. Behind her, the priest instructed everyone to open their hymnals and the organist began to play.
When Maria reached the heavy church doors, she looked back and contemplated the body in the coffin.
The next morning, back in D.C. Maria took the worn cardboard shoebox from under her bed. She sat on the floor and counted the faded letters inside the box. They were meticulously arranged by date: “January 11th, 1939, My dearest Mary” through “December 12th, 1961, My poor, sweet, suffering Mary.” When she was content they were all there, she flipped to the last page of the last letter.
“I’ll take the first train home and be by your side before you know it - there to smother you with my lips and hold tight your hand. I long for your touch always.”
Maria returned the letters to the box. She shut the cardboard lid and sealed it with duct tape. Then she went to the narrow strip of yard behind her apartment building, dug a deep hole, and buried her grandfather.