Dressing The Dead
 

Paula Gramlich
 

© Copyright 2004 by Paula Gramlich
 

 

Photo of women's black dress shoes.  Copyright (c) 2004 by Richard Loller.

Mildred called me long distance in the middle of a Saturday morning. Her voice didn’t sound like the woman I knew. Her words did not skip and run like a child at play; they sank like huge stones thrown off a bridge into a river. I was ready to ask her if everything was okay when she cut me off to tell me she had bought a new pair of shoes. Just as quickly she asked to speak to her son and grandchildren.

“Your mother didn’t sound right. I think something is wrong,” I told my husband later.

“Nah,” he told me. “She’s always a little ditsy. You know Mom. She just wanted to hear all our voices.”

Early Monday morning before the sun rose in the barren North Dallas horizon outside our home, we received a call. Mildred Mary Weimholt Gramlich had gotten up to go to work as a server in a cafeteria line as she did every morning. Once dressed, she sat in her favorite chair and died. Her husband, Clarence, found her in a crisp white uniform, a flowered hanky in her pocket, and a cup of coffee beside her.

By five we were on our way to Kansas City—on our way home. It wasn’t an easy drive. We ran out of gas once, and later drove an hour and a half out of our way after missing an exit.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” my husband asked.

“I didn’t even notice,” I answered.

That was the truth. During the ride I replayed the sound of Mildred’s voice on the phone. I should have asked her what was wrong. I should have kept her on the phone. Perhaps if I had done this, she’d be alive.

We had cried no tears in the car. There were no tears when we arrived at her house except in the eyes of her husband, Clarence. We were adults, my husband and I. We had an infant and toddler in tow. Neither of us knew much about death—especially the death of a mother—our mother. She was as much mine as his, although I never told him this.

It was Mildred who showed me how to wash clothes in her ancient wringer washer, unfolding and straightening the knotted socks I spilled into the machine. She taught me how to pick out the best bedding plants, how to fix roasts that melted in your mouth, how to make Happy Salad. I should have asked her. How could I have let her down?

I lay awake all night long tossing and turning in bed, listening to the silence, waiting for the sound of her laughter and her annoying way of answering my questions.

“Well, now, I’m not trying to tell you what to do or nothing but you could put the sofa over on that wall so it won’t be in the way, or you could angle it in the corner, or put it in front of the window,” she’d say. “Of course, I don’t like a couch in front of the window because I have plants. Though it might work for you.”

There was only one way to do things in the house I was brought up in—that was my mom’s way. I struggled with Mildred’s ability to see all sides of an issue. Her way of showcasing options was bewildering to me. She knew it.

“Or you could just move it right out on the front porch, or better yet put it in the middle of the yard,” she’d laugh.

I waited in bed to hear her laughter now.

I waited for the sound of her feet shuffling in open toed clogs from one room to the next. I listened but the sounds never came.

The undertaker did.

Mr. Myeroff ran a small funeral home that, like everything else in the hog-farming, German Catholic town, had been passed down from generation to generation. Mr. Myeroff had known Mildred since she was a kid. They’d grown up together. He had come to take her body back to be buried in a family cemetery next to the Catholic Church and school they had both attended. Now he stood in the front parlor as my husband ushered me into the back bedroom.

“Dad wants to know if you will dress Mom,” he whispered, taking our baby from my arms and laying her down on the double bed. That done, my husband hoisted our toddler onto his back and went out into the yard to play chase. From the bedroom window I saw her—her baby fine blonde curls set like a halo as she ran through the yard lush with white mums, pink roses, and purple daylilies.

The undertaker, now sitting in the dining room with my brother-in-law, Frankie, looked up when I entered.

“No hurry,” he told me. “You just take whatever time you need.”

I climbed the stairs to Mildred’s bedroom and closed the door behind me. I picked out a pink pant suit because I knew pink was her favorite color. The color itself suggested something delicate. Even when Mildred smoked her one cigarette a week on a Saturday night, letting it hang from her mouth as she washed the dishes, she had this ladylike quality about her. I picked up the little cameo earrings I had bought her for Christmas and put them in the brown paper sack.

What about shoes? She told me about that new pair when she telephoned so I searched for them. In my mind I pictured her buying a pair of dress shoes, some little black pumps because these would be the type of shoes I’d buy. I searched her closet, the one that went way back into the dormers of the attic. No shoes. Maybe she hadn’t even taken them upstairs. I searched the closets of the bedrooms downstairs.

No shoes. No new shoes.

The undertaker, now sitting at the kitchen table with my father-in-law and brother-in-law, recited the farm news with a CB squawking in the background. The ups and downs of cattle and hog prices, of government subsidies for land laid fallow, reminded me of the farm news I used to hear in the wee hours of the morning when I was a kid. With these male voices as a backdrop, I rattled my way from room to room looking for Mildred’s new shoes. I searched every place I knew to search.

“I can’t find the new shoes she told me she bought,” I said, handing the undertaker the bag with the clothing. The men around the kitchen table sprang to their feet except for Clarence who sat with his head down on the table.

“Don’t worry about that,” said Mr. Myeroff, taking the sack from me without looking into my eyes.

Don’t worry about it! I’m not sending my mother-in-law off without shoes.

“Let me take one more look around,” I told him.

“You take whatever time you need.”

My first job of dressing the dead, and I was about to muff it with no shoes. On an outside chance, I looked underneath Mildred’s bed; I found a simple pair of old black pumps that were in good shape. I cleaned them, shined them, and put them in a bag. Where in the hell are the shoes she bought? Now those shoes would have been perfect.

“The cedar chest, maybe?” I said aloud.

On top of all the quilts, pictures of her children, holy cards, and old rosaries was a picture of Mildred’s stern-faced mother. I did a doubletake. This was the meanest looking woman I’d ever seen. I flipped through the pictures underneath until I found a picture of Mildred. The high cheekbones, delicately chiseled nose, and flawless porcelain skin were the giveaways. Her bottom lip dropped into a pout as if she were about to kiss someone. I recalled Mildred standing beside me in my kitchen in Dallas one Christmas, but I pushed it out as quickly as it came. I didn’t have time to linger on images. The undertaker was waiting. With picture in one hand and the shoes in the other, I took the last trip downstairs.

“I couldn’t find the new shoes,” I told Mr. Myeroff. “I’ve looked everywhere,” I handed him the brown paper bag with the black pumps. “Here’s what I found.”

“These will do just fine.”

I watched him walk to the hearse with the big brown bags flapping in the wind. It was obvious to me that I had let her down once again. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. The children needed lunch. The funeral mass would be early Wednesday. I had to pick out our clothes for it. Although it was only a two-hour drive to Pilot Grove, my father-in-law, Clarence wanted to spend the night after the funeral and church dinner at the Gherkin farm as he and Mildred had done every time they visited their hometown.

The next morning we got up at four, bundled the sleeping children in the car, waved to Clarence and Frankie’s car and drove to Pilot Grove for the funeral mass. Hundred of people packed the little church. I remember looking back at the vestibule where my husband walked back and forth like a tiger in a cage. I remember seeing Clarence supported by Frankie and still barely able to walk down the aisle to take a seat. Then it was over, and we stood in a cemetery surrounded by ancient oaks and weathered hickory trees on a hill overlooking the valleys of Mildred’s youth. It was so quiet—the wind satisfied with making a mess of everyone’s hair, went into hiding when the first hand full of dirt hit the coffin. While the others coughed and blew their noses, I looked out over the peaceful horizon of a gentle land with its rolling hills and deep valleys. Yes, this was her home.

Afterwards we walked through the serving line at the parish hall. Ham, chicken, beef—all homegrown and home fed. Deserts so numerous there were no plates or stomachs big enough to sample a small piece of each. Home grown and canned vegetables, deviled eggs, rolls, biscuits and bread were foods all provided by the farmers of the parish. It reminded me of one giant cafeteria. It reminded me of Mildred. In her youth she stood like these church ladies, offering her condolences to grieving family members with a magnificent array of food. It was a life she had taken with her to the big city, skills she used to make a living.

After the parish dinner, we drove to the Gherkin farm and took a tour of the hog stalls; my oldest daughter held a piglet in her hands that wriggled loose, fell to the floor and squealed its horror at being separated from big Momma. Momma hog took a running charge and tried to break down the pen to get at her baby. “Otto says,” the farmer’s wife said, pausing to look at her husband to see if he had finished what he wanted to say, “Hain’t nothing stronger than the bond between a mother and her daughter.” Otto smiled at me in his no no-nonsense way and returned the piglet to the pen.

While sitting in the living room of a Gerken farm, my head bobbing from the farmer to his wife as she interpreted his speech- impaired words into an English I could understand, I learned things about Mildred I didn’t know. I learned that her mother disowned her for marrying Clarence. Many years ago, she sat where I sat now, crying out her frustrations of never being able to please her mother. When her mother died, she was denied even the smallest memento. Mildred’s story made a familiar imprint upon my soul.

“I couldn’t find the new shoes she bought,” I told my mother when we arrived back home. “I polished a pair of black pumps and gave those to the undertaker.”

“You can’t get shoes on a corpse’s feet,” my mother shouted with a horrified look.

The undertaker took them from me,” I said in my defense.

“In order to put shoes on a corpse, they would have to break the feet,” Mother countered.

“No,” I said, taking a huge breath. “Break her feet.” I could feel my face burning. “If I thought they would break her feet, I couldn’t stand it.” I cried, pressing my infant to my breast.

“No,” my toddler shouted, waving her finger at her grandmother. “Don’t hurt Mommy!”

My mother’s mouth flew open. The sight of me—face rubbed raw and eyes swollen with tears, horrified her. She had no idea I loved Mildred, the Mildred who would rather flop around in her yard all day than dust the furniture in her house, the Mildred who worked on a cafeteria line, the Mildred whose house I chose to eat Sunday dinner at as a newlywed.

“He wouldn’t have taken the shoes, Mom,” I said, choking on my own words. “Not if he had to do that.”

“Well, now you know,” she said.

Like Mildred’s mother, she was too stern to understand what I meant. Mom had never been comfortable enough in her own skin to be able to read the kindness and concern I saw in Mr. Myeroff’s face when he took the shoes from me. He knew, but he couldn’t tell me. Not when I was already hurting inside. It didn’t seem right.

The image of Mildred standing in my kitchen in Dallas resurfaced.

“What you getting me for Christmas?” I asked her.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she said, clapping both hands and cawing like a crow.

“Well, it better be good. That’s all I got to say.”

As I swung by Mildred grabbed me and kissed my forehead between the arch of my brow and my hairline.

I no longer worried about the shoes I couldn’t find. The little black pumps I had found were the obligatory Sunday shoes every workingwoman such as Mildred allowed herself. Her new shoes were the shoes she had on when she died—little casual shoes for women who stood on their feet all day. She must have been wearing them when the ambulance came for her body.

Years later my husband and I divorced, and he refused to let me have the picture of her I had found in the cedar chest. Nothing ever hurt so much. It seemed only fitting that the picture should be mine.

“She was my mother,” he said.

And mine, too.

Mildred and I connected with each other with a kiss, in a joy-filled moment of time. And in that moment, we felt the real power of love between a mother and daughter—something neither of us had ever known.
 
 

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