An Incident at the Funeral – Part Six

“I remember Mom’s face when I told them,” she continued, a certain heaviness in her voice, her eyes grown, dark, deep. She bit her lip slightly. “I don’t know how Dad looked… That’s funny, isn’t it? I didn’t even notice. I think he was probably just mad, mad at Cory. He was probably red as a lobster!” she laughed softly, shaking her head, but sorrowfully somehow. “But Mom… Mom just had this look like with a single word I’d emptied her out of everything — everything but fear. Isn’t that strange? I mean, what was she afraid of? I’ve been trying to work that out. At the time I didn’t really think about it… I didn’t think at all in those days, it seems. I just reacted, just one foot in front of the other, without thinking. That’s what’s really horrible, Uncle, how automatic it all was, how… mechanical. But since… well, since coming back… I’ve had a lot of time to think about it all. Everyone at first was really kind with me, you know. Afterwards, I mean. They gave me a lot of room, and I had a lot to try to work out. And in all this time, this is one of the things that really keeps nagging at me, that look of fear on her face.

“What’s that? Have I talked to her about it…? No. I guess I probably will one day. I’m sure I will. But I have to get things straight for myself, first. Does that make sense? I guess I’ve found out how impressionable I am, and I want to try to stiffen up a little. It’s difficult to explain. Anyway, she just sat there, with this expression of fear on her face. I think she was afraid for me. Maybe also for herself, but I know Mom. It was me she was afraid of, first of all.” She paused, and smiled with a delicate irony. “Her ‘precious little girl’ you know… She and Dad, but her most of all, she always had such hopes for me. Ambitions, I guess you could say. What I’d do with my life, what I’d ‘make of myself.’ My ‘promise’ and all that. ‘Such a clever girl!’ ‘Our bright little girl!’ And this thing that had happened —” she broke off, and seemed to be struggling with something. Her countenance, so fine, so sensitive, was changing rapidly from one moment to another, like a still surface of water troubled by the first heavy drops of rain. Her face was now suddenly taut with pain, with tears she had cried and would cry — but not now, not now. “My child —” she managed to utter at last, wrenching the word from herself violently, “that threw a wrench into everything. An eighteen-year-old mother won’t amount to much. That’s the idea, isn’t it? And as for Cory — well, who knows if we could really count on him! I know it’s terrible to say, but I know my parents were thinking it, and I’m not sure they were all wrong. I guess it crossed my mind, too. I like to think he would have listened to his better angels and stuck around, but honestly I don’t know. Oh, he wouldn’t have run off altogether, or anything like that — I don’t think, at least — and anyway, it’s hard for a man to do that nowadays, though not impossible, I guess.” She laughed ruefully. “He probably wouldn’t have the guts to really run away. That’s awful to say, isn’t it? But that’s how it is. I just don’t know if we would have made it. I think our relationship was petering out even before this; would… that… have been enough to hold us together? I don’t know, Uncle. Maybe. I have this sense though that he would have left, sooner or later, probably sooner. He has his ambitions too, you know. And then where would I be? A divorced girl, a single mother, with all these responsibilities on her shoulders… I think that’s what Mom had in front of her, too. I imagine it unfolding in front of her all at once, like a story unwrapping in a split second… It’s really wild how we let ourselves be persuaded by things that haven’t happened yet, even things that will probably never happen — just our guess about how things are going to go. And it has such a weight with us. But that’s just human nature, isn’t it?

“There was also this. Lately, Mom’d been so caught up in all these new ideas. She was always arguing with Dad about it. Oh, nice arguments, nothing mean or nasty, just two people expressing different views. Dad was always so polite about it, but she would get really heated sometimes. Even angry, almost, like she resented him for not being mad. I think she had this idea she wanted to assert herself for the first time in our family, or something like that. Her rights and all that. I mean, I don’t want any of this to sound like I’m demeaning her or her ideas, because I’m not. I know she thought she was doing the right thing, and maybe she was. I mean, I’m just a girl, who am I to talk about all these grand notions? My friends like to get into it, they all want to ‘take a stand,’ but what do we know about the world? It just seems strange, Uncle, like everything has changed so fast and now everyone’s expected to know everything and to be an expert about everything, and everyone has to have an opinion — even young and inexperienced people… I don’t think it used to be that way, and I don’t think it should be that way. I don’t know what I think about women’s rights and all that. I mean, I like the idea of equality, of course, who doesn’t? It’s just that men and women are different, you know? We’re not exactly the same — and isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that what makes love so wonderful? I wouldn’t want Cory to be girlish, I wouldn’t like that. I always liked that he was strong and assertive and manly. Is that wrong? It doesn’t feel wrong…” She sighed, and looked at her Uncle for the first time in some minutes. He muttered some vague words of encouragement, and she nodded, almost as if she wasn’t listening at all, evidently lost in some inner revelrie.

“All this is beside the point, I guess,” she continued after a moment, “but I’m trying to explain where Mom was coming from. She’d been talking so much about equality and women’s rights and the importance of women emerging in their careers to show men that they could do it… I mean, I really can’t see the point of all that, because if men and women really are different, then why should we expect them to do the same things, to fill the same roles? If they’re different, isn’t it normal that there shouldn’t be the same number of men teachers as women teachers, or businesswomen as businessmen? I don’t know. I don’t want to see more women cleaning sewers or being bouncers or plumbers… Is there any woman who thinks that’s a good idea? A woman doing something like that, wouldn’t she be so masculine that she wouldn’t even be a woman any more? So why should there necessarily be more women in politics or medicine, then? It’s like we want all the good things, but none of the bad things — that’s our idea of ‘equality’…

“Oh, I don’t know how to say it, Uncle. And I’ve gotten off track again. I’ve just been thinking about all this so much. But the point is, Mom thought differently. Maybe she still thinks differently, I don’t know. She wanted to see a woman president, more women CEOs and women surgeons and women lawyers — all that jazz. And I think that Mom had somehow caught me up in all these ideas. She wanted to prove her point, maybe even prove it to Dad, through me.

“That makes it sound petty, somehow, and I don’t mean it that way. These were all really… how can I say it? Well, it sounds old-fashioned, but these were noble ideas, I guess. At least, from her point of view. That is, she was just trying to do good in the world. She really believed that all this was good. She wanted the best for me — and also for herself. But what’s the best, Uncle? Is it having a well-paying job, being a career woman? Is it making a lot of money, or having people look up to you, or playing an important role in society, or having people listen when you speak? I mean, sure, all of that’s fine… if you’re that kind of woman. I’m not. I don’t want to tell people what to do, I don’t want to be that person whose opinion changes minds. I’m not up to that, Uncle. I know that now. Maybe before I didn’t know — maybe I never even really thought about it — but now

“It just seems to me like there are so much more important things to do. For a woman. Sure, it depends on the person, but I’m talking about most women. I mean, Mom couldn’t even have hoped for all these things from her daughter, if she hadn’t first had a daughter, do you know what I mean? It’s not like she waited so very long. She was only twenty or twenty-one when I was born. She used to say she was ‘just a girl’ when it happened, like maybe she should have waited; but isn’t it better the way she did it? If family’s the most important thing, as she’s always saying, then wouldn’t you want to have one in your life for as long as possible? And wouldn’t all that other stuff — careers and money and influence — wouldn’t they just get in the way of being a mom? Anyway, I have this sense that she always had this idea that she could have done something important with her life, if she hadn’t been saddled with a family, with a daughter. She’d never say it, of course! She loves us too much to saddle us with that. But I think that’s what she thinks. Or maybe it’s so deep in her that she hasn’t even said it to herself, I don’t know. We’re like that, you know? We humans. There’s so much I didn’t used to tell myself about myself, about my life… There’s surely so much that I still don’t know how to say to myself. We have to grow into ourselves, I guess. Maybe it’s like that with Mom, too: that she just has this deep feeling about it, and she acts on that basis of that, without knowing what it is. And she wanted to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake she thought she made. Do you see, Uncle? She was really trying to do her best by me…

“And I mean, just look at the world we live in! We’re bombarded with it every day. I’ve been paying a lot of attention, a lot more than I used to. It’s everywhere around us. It’s on the television, it’s in the news, it’s in the advertisements we see for candybars and kitchen soap, it’s in the cartoons we watch from the time we’re children. I was babysitting the other day, and Curtis, the little boy, was watching this silly cartoon, a kind of digitized Playmobile story or something, and it was right there in the cartoon. One of the characters just started blathering about overthrowing the patriarchy. To a seven year old, Uncle! It’s like it’s in the air we breathe, so it’s just natural for us to take it all on. But that doesn’t mean it’s right… Just because it’s everywhere, doesn’t mean it’s right…”

She stopped speaking, and seemed lost in thought for a moment. A slight breeze was speaking in the undergrowth, and caressed her golden hair. The light trembled about her in the noontide, and it seemed to her Uncle that she was very beautiful there, sitting there on the swing in that spring-green backdrop, framed by the bole of the great tree — beautiful with a kind of tragic beauty. He had always thought of her as his little girl, but she was a girl no longer — despite the girlishness of her form, the girlishness of her face, of her gestures, of her voice, she was a girl no longer.

“‘You’re just a girl,’” she suddenly said, as if echoing the very words he had been thinking, causing him to start in shock and to stare at her in amazement. “That’s the first thing she said to me.” She looked at her Uncle with a sad wistfulness, searchingly somehow. “‘You’re just a girl.’ I think I knew everything that would happen, already from those first few words. I knew how everything would unfold, like it had already been written… It hadn’t yet, of course, but it was like I just gave myself over to it. Does that make sense? It’s like you just let your will go, you just listen and do as you’re told…

“Mom stood up, I remember that, and started pacing around. She seemed like a crazy person, Uncle. It might have been funny, if it had been about something else… She was moving in this jerky, robotic kind of way. I don’t remember half of what she said. It was like this endless lecture, but it was all fragmentary and mashed up, like she didn’t even have a clear idea about the ideas she was saying. But it was clear, Uncle. It was clear what she wanted me to do. As for Dad, he didn’t even put up a fight. He just sat there, like he was resigned to it all. Like he didn’t have anything to say about it. Gosh, isn’t that strange? But it’s like they say, a man shouldn’t be able to tell a woman what to do with her body… But what does that even mean? Shouldn’t a husband have his say in all this, a father? Don’t their voices matter? And shouldn’t anyone be able to talk about these things, about something so important, about what’s right or wrong here? Everyone should be able to say what they think is right or wrong, shouldn’t they? What does it mean that a man shouldn’t speak here?

“Oh, Uncle! They say so many things that don’t make sense, that are just words… I’ve noticed that so much lately… Just these empty words, and everyone hears them and acts like they mean something… I mean, our civics class last year did this mock trial of Roe v. Wade. The two ‘lawyers’ spent the whole case arguing about ‘privacy.’ But what does privacy have to do with any of this? I still can’t figure it out… Everyone was talking about it, in and out of class, ‘privacy’ this and ‘privacy’ that, and the ‘right to privacy’… And everyone just goes along, like it all means something… And Dad, too, he just went along. Oh God… I don’t want to judge him. How he just sat there and let it all happen, despite all the things he used to say. Despite that argument with Mr. Danielson. But it’s harder for me with Dad, do you know that? He hasn’t ever even talked about it all. Mom will say something every now and then about it. Nothing serious, nothing deep, but just kind of to quietly remind us all that it happened, that she knows, that she remembers. But Dad… Why’s he so quiet about it all? Why won’t he say something? Oh, why didn’t he say anything?

And suddenly, in the midst of the summer stillness, Victoria began to cry. The tears came to her and began to flood from her freely, her sobs echoing in the spaces of that wide lawn, burrowing into the hedges, bouncing from the wooden fence in a dull and dispirited echo. And for the first time, her Uncle rose, with a small cry of pain, and went to her, and held her in his arms, firm against him, protectively, as though to defend her from it all, to shield her from these horrors that she knew more intimately than he — and held her there until her body had ceased to jerk from her weeping, and the last of her tears had fallen, glimmering, from her dark lashes.

Part Seven of “An Incident at the Funeral” can be read here. Part Five can be read here.

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