Never Arrive at the Funeral Home Late
A broken rule and a lesson on love and understanding
By Katherine Snow Smith
I watched from the second-to-last basement stair, which was covered in the original short-pile marigold carpet from 1959. My mother ironed my sister Melinda’s tea-length dress. It was the color of orange sherbet, lace overlaying silk. Melinda had worn it to our cousin Melanie’s wedding several years earlier. It would be the last dress she would ever wear, because she was to be buried in it the next day.
We had to be at Brown-Wynne Funeral Home to plan my sister’s funeral in just about an hour. My mother, who painstakingly pressed every tuck and every pleat, was moving in slow motion. Then she stopped ironing to talk.
“First thing this morning, we heard a lawnmower and looked out the dining room window and that sweet Grady Cooper was mowing the lawn. He did the front and back in all this heat,” she told me, referring to my dad’s good friend since sixth grade. Grady knew we’d have people coming over and wanted the house to look good, but more so, he just wanted to do something to help when there really was nothing anyone could do.
“And then that wonderful Glenn Keever insisted on going with your father and Alean to the funeral home this morning,” she said as she placed a tulip sleeve over the tip of the ironing board.
Alean was the housekeeper who had stayed with Melinda and me while our parents worked. She was still coming once a week when Melinda died at age 31 in a car crash. After my father told her the funeral would be closed casket, Alean asked if she could see Melinda once more. He complied immediately, later telling me he wouldn’t have done that for anyone but her.
Glenn was one of my father’s closest friends. He had identified my sister’s body for the authorities after she was killed by a drunk driver. My parents were out of town, and I was living in Florida. This all happened more than 20 years ago, and as every well-wisher promised me at the time, the pain has lessened. The gaping hole will never be refilled.
I still remember how the basement smelled that day with the stiff, clean fragrance of Niagara Spray Starch as my mom ironed. It was a familiar scent because the ironing board was always in our basement, where Melinda and I had spent hours, thousands of hours, playing.
To my right was the big brick fireplace, devoid of ashes in June. I pictured it two decades before, lined with produce boxes my mom procured from Winn-Dixie so Melinda and I could stack them three high and eight long to build empires for our Barbies.
Finally, my mother was done ironing Melinda’s dress. She carefully hung it on a padded coat hanger. Now if she could just change clothes quickly we could leave in 10 minutes and get to the funeral home almost on time. But then she placed a pair of white cotton underwear over the ironing board and gingerly touched the steaming iron to the fabric, an inch at a time.
Nobody, I mean nobody, was even going to see the underwear. What was she doing? And then I got it. I was only four months pregnant with my first child, but I got it. She wanted to be Melinda’s mother for five more minutes. She wanted to keep ironing, caring, teaching, defending, celebrating, helping, consoling, praising. This was the last thing she would ever do for her daughter.
“I love you so, so much and so did Melinda,” I said as I rushed to my mother and hugged her.
“Thank you, Katherine. I love you more than you will ever know,” she said through tears.
We were a good half hour late to the funeral home. Nobody complained. OH
Katherine Snow Smith is a North Carolina native who has worked as a journalist throughout the Carolinas. She currently lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., where she is a freelance editor and writer, but visits her parents and friends in the Tar Heel state every month. This essay was excerpted from her first book, Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps and Lessons Learned, which was published by She Writes Press in 2020.