After the confrontation with Aunt Alicia, Hailey was forced to sit beside the old shrew.
Here she was, at her own mother’s funeral, stifling bitter feelings and seething with anger.
There was a brief litany at the church door; a sprinkling of holy water and a short procession in which the coffin was wheeled to the front.
Once again prayers followed accompanied by muffled responses. Hailey’s eyes scanned the congregation.
The featureless oval faces were white petals against a dark background, except for one that stood out from the rest. Trish.
Even across the church her smile radiated encouragement.
The smile reminded Hailey of all the good things that had come into her life.
In fact, Trish’s mere presence had a calming effect, pushing Alicia’s remarks into the background, freeing her to focus on the vicar who had gone up to the pulpit to deliver his eulogy.
Archibald Leech was in his element—white hair slicked down and swept back—eyes gleaming and cheeks rosy.
He spent a few minutes reminiscing about Beatrice’s husband, the late vicar, and sharing a few anecdotes that served to illustrate Godfrey’s Ainsworth’s devotion to the local church.
Then, he launched into a set homily on the theme of ‘the scandal of death’, never actually referring to Beatrice personally, even once.
As the vicar droned on, it became apparent that the eulogy was more of a generic lecture, a sort of one-size–fits-all homily brought out for those occasions when some words are expected, whether the speaker knows the deceased or not.
An indignant anger began building inside Hailey and as the vicar began to bring his remarks to a close and made ready to step down from the pulpit, she found herself simultaneously rising from her pew.
Her words echoed hollowly like a voice in a mausoleum.
The vicar stopped, between pulpit and altar, mouth agape, struggling to frame words to exorcise such an unheard of intrusion.
She ignored him and continued speaking from where she stood.
“Obviously you did not know my mother, Vicar, and I would like to say a few words to honor her memory.”
Whether unable to cope with the effrontery or succumbing to apoplectic shock, the vicar merely gave a slight wave of his right hand, signifying a papal gesture of non-objection.
Hailey regarded it as permission to proceed.
“I apologize if I have stepped beyond the limits of traditional protocols, but I could not refrain from saying just a few words in memory of my mother.”
Aunt Alicia squirmed uncomfortably in her seat, knuckles white from gripping her prayer book.
“Yes, Beatrice was the wife of Godfrey Ainsworth, former vicar of this parish, but she was also my mother. As much as she honored my father and sought to please him, she valued her own role as wife and mother and committed herself totally to that. I think it significant that Mother resumed using her maiden name after Father’s death—not as a slight to his memory, but more a statement of where her heart was and her true duties lay.”
She paused and looked at the congregation most of whom regarded her with expressions of mingled pity and awe.
“I don’t know many of the relatives here. I have a box of photographs filled with snapshots of nameless strangers—why that is, I have no idea. Mother preferred it that way, I suppose, and I am left with the consequences. People sometimes thought Mother to be odd or eccentric, but one thing I will say in her defense—she always tried to do what she thought best for me. We didn’t always agree, but we respected each other. Today I feel lost in grief and it’s mostly because of the little things I will miss—the weekly visits, the sound of her voice and the steady presence of her in my life. These things can never be replaced.”
She sat down, feeling as if the whole building—the weight of church and people, had suddenly turned upside down and was now suspended precariously on the point of the steeple, hovering just above her head.
For a few long moments, the silence grew heavy and ominous, like a gathering storm, threatening to erupt with fury.
Shadowy flies of fear swirled about her, clouding her vision, increasing in number, but as the buzzing inside her built to a crescendo, the motes before her eyes suddenly dissolved and she saw the Vicar in his clerical robes hesitate, then open the book of prayer to continue.
He cleared his throat and resumed in singsong voice, intoning the litany for the dead. Aunt Alicia closed her eyes, moved her lips and rocked slightly on the bench.
They followed the casket in solemn procession to the rear, then out the doors to where it was placed in the hearse.
The funeral attendants handed out purple flags to be placed on car antennas and encouraged those coming to the cemetery to exit the parking lot and line up behind the three idling limousines.
Aunt Alicia gestured for Hailey and Nan to enter the second sedan and when they were seated, she sat opposite them on the bench facing the rear.
An attendant closed the door encasing them in silence. Gone were the friendly street sounds and in their place a suffocating hush of depressurized air.
Outside the tinted windows, the vibrant oranges and yellows of the autumn trees were restrained, reduced to tones of dark and gray.
It felt like rain. Sad rain.
The curious bystanders, behind the roped off sidewalk, were mute participants, standing aloof as a gray tree line, indifferent to Hailey’s grief.
Nan grabbed her hand as Alicia opened her mouth to speak.
“Do you really believe your mother placed family allegiance above devotion to God and church?” Her dark eyes were probing for a response.
“I do,” Hailey sighed, surrendering to the expected incision.
“I see.” But the cut did not come. Aunt Alicia remained inscrutable. “A very interesting observation.”
Hailey’s eyes opened wide. She saw the slightest hint of a self-satisfied smile curling at the corners of Alicia’s mouth.
Unable to suppress her curiosity, she blurted out, “This pleases you?”
“It does. Of course, you’re right, Child. Your mother was a McAdam first. Godfrey had married beyond his sphere and it was only natural to expect your mother to revert to her maiden name.”
The limo pulled slowly away from the curb allowing Hailey the opportunity to pretend to stare out the window.
She gazed vacantly at the passing scenery, while inwardly attempting to puzzle out what had become for her the McAdam riddle.
Of the five sisters, three had married, but all still maintained a strong allegiance to the family name.
Why? What was the tie that bound them all together and made her feel the outsider?
© 2017, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.