Death turns us into mushrooms.
My great-grandmother Loli resembles the fleshy fungi as she lies atop the baby pink satin lining her casket. A rosary is intertwined among her bloated fingers, though she was never particularly religious. When she did talk to God, it was usually to ask for patience when dealing with her “nimrod kids.”
Yet in death, Loli is more religious with prayer beads in her hands and golden cross upon her chest than she had ever been in life. This breathless body is a stranger to me. Her blue-gray, mad-scientist hair has been tamed into soft curls that frame her powdered face. Her trademark drawn-on eyebrows (one always seemed to be higher than the other) were done by a much steadier hand. And I would say Loli wouldn’t be caught dead in that periwinkle pantsuit, but…
This is an alternate version of Loli, one with a tidier appearance and a rosary between her fingers instead of a cigarette.
“Loli, I wish you wouldn’t smoke those,” my mother said, crinkling her nose as soon as Loli pulled a cigarette from the pocket of her rose-patterned housecoat. “They’re bad for your health.”
The three of us were sitting on Loli’s back porch swing, absorbing the sunset after a long day of making pies for a bake sale Loli’s social group, Ladies Over Eighty, was hosting. The proceeds would go to the local women’s shelter.
Loli sighed, cigarette between her lips as she pulled a lime green lighter out of another pocket. “I’m ninety-one years old, Mary. Let me enjoy however much time I have left, huh?”
“They turn your lungs black, you know,” Mother said.
“Heaven forbid! My pretty pink lungs are my one source of pride.” Loli rolled her eyes as she inhaled.
I faked a coughing fit to hide my laughter, but earned a disapproving glare from my mother all the same.
“Well I’m going back inside to finish washing the dishes. You should come too, Cassie,” Mother said, turning to me, “I don’t want you getting secondhand smoke. That cough of yours sounds pretty awful.”
The porch shuddered as the screen door slammed shut behind her.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve such uptight offspring.” Loli blew a puff of smoke into the fading sunlight, the gossamer wisps slowly dissolving into the red dusk. “She’s right, though. Smoking is a bad habit. Don’t you ever start.”
“Ok, Loli.” The smell of a cigarette, along with the wrath of my mother, was enough of a deterrent for me.
“It’s just that, I’ve been smoking for years. Before they ever decided it was unhealthy. Whoever they are.” Loli took a long drag before snuffing the burning stub into the arm of the porch swing, leaving a charcoal mark. “I find it calming. A cigarette before bed helps me sleep at night.”
“I can’t sleep without Pinky Bear,” I confided. The teddy bear was a gift from Loli the day I was born. Over the years, Pinky Bear had lost most of his plumpness and an eye, but I could never part with him. Everyone has their own sanctuary.
Loli laughed. Despite her age and smoker-lungs, her laugh had a youthful, girlish sound. “The world is a scary place. We need all the comfort we can get.”
Family and friends dressed in morose colors gather in small circles of sympathy throughout the funeral parlor. They talk in hushed voices, patting each other’s shoulders and exchanging phrases such as “She lived a good, long life” and “Heaven’s gained another angel.” I can’t imagine Loli trading her threadbare housecoat for a white robe, a glowing halo atop her wild hair. Earlier I had swiped a partially used pack of cigarettes from Loli’s coffee table. I fish it out of my coat pocket and tuck it into the satin of her casket.
“Sweet dreams, Loli.”
A procession trails Loli’s casket to its final resting place in the ground. I don’t follow it; I’ve said everything I need to say to the empty body resting upon satin. Instead, I wander into the small patch of forest behind the funeral home. Under sunlit leaves runs a stream, flowing over rocks polished smooth by time. I slip out of the black high-heeled shoes my mother insisted that I wear even though they pinch my toes, and free my hair from its tight bun. Stones shift under my bare feet as I step into the brook, the shimmering water splashing against my legs. A second later my black dress is crumpled on the grass and I’m lying on my back in the shallow stream. My body is caressed by the water’s cool touch as currents pull at the curls in my hair. The trees raise their branches to the blue summer sky, where white clouds lazily float past. One of the clouds looks like a bear. They almost look like cigarette smoke.
Regina Solomond is a writer from Wexford, Pennsylvania. Her favorite writings are the kind that show the world through a new lens.