July 21, 2016
Maria Schreiner-Vermeer Diets, born February 8, 1921
Last night, while we were gathered around my dead mother’s bed waiting for the morticians to arrive, my eight-year old niece, Grace, was insistent that she wanted us to write our names on a piece of paper that she passed around. As her great grandfather, grandfather, mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins signed their name, we all jokingly tried to guess what this was about. She had a mysterious smile on her face but refused to give a hint. Her grandfather speculated that maybe Grace wanted our names for her special phonebook.
After she looked the list over, and was satisfied that everyone in the room had signed, she carefully folded the piece of paper several times. Then she walked over to her great grandmother’s body, still resting on the bed twelve hours after her death, with her husband sitting comfortably near the corpse of his wife like it was the most normal thing in the world.
Grace slowly pulled back the covers and searched for the small pocket she must have noticed in my mother’s sundress. She smiled, and quietly tucked the paper with our names into this pocket.
I cry as I write this. This was Grace’s first experience seeing a corpse, and later her mother and the other granddaughters told me they’d never seen a corpse before either.
Knowing that the morticians were scheduled to come up 9 p.m., I first stopped by briefly before walking Honey in the river bottom. I was amazed how at peace my mother looked. At that point, or maybe it was the light in the room, her skin did not seem to have the deathly grey white pallor that I noticed just before the morticians came. People were laughing and socializing around her bed. The room was filled with the sweet smell of flowers that visitors had brought during the day.
It did me good to see my mom looking so peaceful—much more so then when I’d left earlier after we first arranged her corpse on the bed—at that point we were trying to figure out a way to make her mouth stay closed. (We never did succeed in putting her dentures back in —the dentures went into her sundress pocket along with Grace’s list of names.)
For this special occasion, my father finally allowed my Aussie, Honey, to rest respectfully in the doorway of the bedroom, after his usual, “What’s that dirty dog doing here?” Honey quietly eyed everyone in the room as my father said a last long prayer for my mother. My faithful dog, with her ancient animal instinct intact, could sense this was a momentous moment.
Then we heard the doorbell ring. The two morticians in their black Sunday suits, one older and quite rotund, one younger and slimmer, both very shiny like they’d just had a shower, entered solemly and respectfully—just as described in that mortician’s memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.
As they assessed the situation, we wanted assurance that my mother would not be immediately cremated. Had the weather been colder, we would have kept her overnight. “No,” they assured us, “First we have to get a permit . . . probably nothing will be done with her body till Friday . . . ”
I’d been worried that they might put my mother’s corpse in some kind of a body bag but, after they rolled the gurney down the hallway, they scooped her up, bedding and all, her pillow still under her head . . . wrapped in her own sheets, only her head, the necklace around her neck, poking out, looking somewhat like a very dignified mummy . . .We made sure my dad was in the other part of the house for this part of the final exit.
Outside the full moon was rising high in the sky, casting her bright light on the landscape below. All was deathly quiet . . . all was well.
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A photo of my parents taken a few years ago on their back porch in Ojai, California
This photo was taken at a wedding when we lived in Den Haag, Holland, before my youngest sister, Paula Francisca Klein Kee, (seven years younger) was born, probably in 1954. We emigrated to Ojai, California, in 1957.