"The Mortician's Daughter
The Mortician's Daughter
It's complicated when you're a girl. It's even more so when you're the only girl in an Italian family with three brothers. (Italian men baptize their sons in a Reserve Barolo wine, their daughters in tap water). My father was a second-generation funeral director, and we (well, I) maintained a tacit understanding that all of his children would be the third generation. As the oldest, I would be the first to join the business.
As a precocious, erudite 4 year old, I learned to read by sounding out words from the obituaries in the local newspaper. Sitting on my father's lap during breakfast, I would beg him to read them aloud as I studied the pictures. Most times I felt cheated because the information was so brief. I often asked, "Daddy, How could Claire Jones, age 94, only have one paragraph to describe her entire life?" I was often frustrated as well; they never disclosed the cause of death. So we changed venues and began reading the New York Times, where the obituaries were lengthy and full. They did not disclose the cause of death either, but offered clues. "Sam Wiley, age 83, died peacefully at home, surrounded by his loving wife and children. Donations in Sam's name should be made to Hospice." Cancer. "Abigail Hargraves, age 64, was found dead in her home. Donations may be made to the Diabetes Association." No guessing there. I began to fill in the blanks, recalling Einstein, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."
By age 7, I advanced from obituaries to corpses. My mom, the hairdresser for the funeral home, saved babysitting money by taking us along when she had to "do a head". My brothers were not quite interested; I was fascinated. I always stood on the kneeler so I could get the best vantage point. So this is Jeremy Brown, age 54, who died suddenly at home. Heart Attack or Aneurism.
When my middle schools science curriculum required a science fail project, I embalmed cow hearts. Year after year I submitted my embalmed cow's heart to the fair. Sure, parents rolled their eyes and everyone complained about the smell, but I stood tall and proud. After all, I am the mortician's daughter.
My father was magical to me. I remember a Christmas party where he left me alone and scared, but when I sat on Santa's lap, it was my father's mischievous, blue eyes that winked at me. He had such happy eyes. I also thought my father was famous; after all every Italian family chose my father to bury their loved ones. As an adult traveling in Rome, I chose to have an engraved gift for my father blessed by the pope. When I gave the sales girl at the Vatican gift shop his name, her hands immediately flew over her mouth as tears came to her eyes. "Ah, yes, he buried my sister. Please send him my gratitude. I will never forget him."
One of my most memorable moments occurred at age 12, when I received permission to observe the embalming process. No more cows' hearts for me! I graduated to the big time. I sat on a folding chair in the doorframe of the morgue (OSHA regulations prevented me from actually entering). I imagined this was my father's final exam; if I passed this, I would be the first to work side by side with my father.
The body that lay on the slab was a well -known Mafia figure that was gunned down in Providence. Surprisingly, his body had been sent to the state morgue for an autopsy. His death seemed apparent to me; his body was riddled with bullet holes. An autopsied body was a real treasure for me; the familiar Y incision was clearly visible, and the thick, yellow, fat -flaps from either side of his belly hung over the sides of the slab. As the embalmer moved on in the process, he would simply throw the organs into the body cavity. At one point, he opened the man's head from the incision in the back. It was like a rubbery Halloween mask. He took out the brain and asked if I wanted to hold it. As far as I was concerned, this was the ultimate test. I responded with an emphatic "yes" very quickly. I turned the brain over and over in my hands, amazed at the texture, size, and the significance. It reminded me of my mother's famous tripe dish; spongy, slippery, and wet.
That evening at the dinner table, I expected my father to congratulate me and admit it was a test. He didn't say anything. We shared the obituaries in silence until I couldn't wait any longer. "Dad, did you hear what I did today?" He responded: "yes, good job," in a very staccato voice. "Doesn't it mean I am ready to be a mortician now?" I felt like my own organs were being thrown into a body cavity when I heard his response: "No." My excitement was cut short. "No, No!? What do you mean no?" He put the paper down, took off his reading glasses and calmly stated: Because you are a girl," as if I should have been aware all along that my gender was a detriment. His logic escaped and devastated me. I would never be allowed to follow in my father's footsteps. Freud's penis envy reared its ugly head. I was so angry! I was mislead by a Potemkin dream.
I was driven to make my mark. Still aiming to please my dad, I pursued an alternate dream. I knew my father respected knowledge and education above all. I went on to study English and Psychology (with memories of the mobster's brain held gently in my hands so many years ago). When I began to pursue my doctorate, I got my father's attention. Finally, he was proud. On the phone with my father in Florida, we discussed the dissertation and my impending defense. He couldn't wait until he could refer to me as "My daughter the doctor".
My dissertation defense was scheduled for a Monday. On the Wednesday prior, I received a phone call from my mom. My father had choked on a piece of calf's liver while dining with a group of his friends at a favorite Floridian restaurant. He suffered a heart attack due to a loss of oxygen and was on life support. Despite his living will, we begged my mom to keep him on life support until we could join mom. February school vacation combined a driving New England snow make all flights impossible. It was three days before my brothers and me arrived in Florida. My dad died while on life support and had already been embalmed at a local funeral home.
For the second time in my life, I found myself in the morgue; this time I was old enough to enter, and the man on the slab was my father. He was so cold. We dressed him. I slowly and carefully put his socks and scapula on him. I combed his hair and kissed his cheek. We flew home accompanied by my father in his casket, his funeral scheduled for the following Monday at 10am. My doctoral defense was scheduled for 1pm. I attended the funeral mass, said prayers at the cemetery and delivered his eulogy. Immediately following the funeral, the limousine drove me to a doctoral defense I don't remember. When finished, my committee members asked me to leave the room. When I returned, they each took a turn shaking my hand, saying "Congratulations Doctor", and then offered their condolences. I returned to the collation.
Robert N, age 73 died suddenly in Boca Raton, Florida. Donations may be made to the Parkinson's disease Foundation.
A hundred others, victims of the Station Night Club fire, obscured my father’s obituary. As I stared at his mischievous eyes looking back at me from the page, I felt sadness and a selfish disappointment that my father's obituary did not stand alone, allowing me to concentrate on filling in the blanks.