Being Human

What We Do for the Dead

Reblogged for those touched not just by suicide, but by death and loss.  In honor of those left behind, searching their own (literal or metaphorical) attics.
By Meg
At my mother’s funeral, an older man, goateed and wearing a beret (the sight of which made me turn away just long enough to roll my eyes), asked me what she was like, really like. “She watched a lot of Murder, She Wrote,” I said, and the man frowned. So I added, “She was very generous.” He nodded and smiled, satisfied.


She was generous: I am the sole heir to a 1920s bungalow on the coast. The living room, kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, and bathrooms are spotless. Beds made, clothes folded, dishes cleaned. I don’t remember her being a neat freak but I do remember her not wanting to burden anyone. It makes perfect sense to me that she made the effort to clean the house before she killed herself.

 It is the attic that brings me to the cottage today. I finally figured out how to access it, pulling down and unfolding the ladder. Spider webs and dust and heat belch from the hatch as I climb up. I think of all her sorrow stored in the eaves. What makes us banish objects to such spaces? What makes it so hard for us to let them go? Are we hoping that someday we will sufficiently recover from our dread of those yearbooks, that wedding dress?

My mother’s attic seems fixed in time – everything is at least forty years old. I find a box of books and check the publishing dates; each was published before 1980. Life stopped for her after the 1970s. Her faith, her marriage, her children: gone.

In 1984, while I was playing in a punk band, sporting a bi-level haircut, a leather jacket and short black skirt, my mom was literally painting herself into a corner. It was an installation at a small gallery. She painted the floors and walls over several hours while gallery-goers watched through the storefront window outside. She started in the northwest corner of the space, near the front door, with a bright yellow house paint, walls to floor and floor to walls. As she moved to the southeast corner, her destination, the colors became darker so that by the time she had painted herself into the corner she covered the walls, floor and herself in black. I know this from the photographs she once showed me. They are in an album somewhere up here, I’m sure of it. I can picture her standing against the wall, in the corner, fingers splayed, drenched in black paint, very nearly disappearing before the camera. Some dismissed her work as clichéd and others clung to her as if she had discovered some secret about the universe that no one else possessed. It was the beginning of her long decline.


In this attic, I find toe shoes, a clarinet, maps, dozens of maps. I find costume jewelry and charm bracelets, a box of silverware, a mink wrap. Up here, I find a few empty vodka bottles and cigarette butts, which makes me think she had not abandoned all memory, that she came up here to reminisce at least a few times.

Up here, I find costumes she made for Halloween: my princess gown, my brother’s Batman cape. I find broken pottery and dozens of tiny baskets. I am excavating. This is an archaeological dig. Down through the layers. I find the Bible that my grandmother kept and the names of ancestors on the frontispiece that I memorized as a child: Violet Watkins and Samuel Plankton, Jane Wister and Nathaniel Watkins, Hilda Abraham and Wildman Plankton. Wildman Plankton. I wanted so badly to know who he was.

Out of the Bible falls a letter and the letter is addressed to me, sealed still. My heart races. I don’t want to open it, fearful still of alcohol-fueled condemnation from the grave. But my curiosity compels me and the glue separates easily after all these years. At the top, she typed “August 14, 1989.”

Dear Cicely, my Ceecee,
I’m not sure where you are living now but I will take a chance on the last address I have for you. I heard from your brother yesterday that you have made some success for yourself, musically. This makes me so happy. I think about you two dancing to records when you were younger. You loved Al Green and the Stylistics.
Today, I turn 45. You are somewhere, age 25. I hope you’re not lost. I’ve had dreams of you in a box in the ocean, floating and floating, and I can’t reach you.
Do you know what you mean to me? I don’t think you do. How could you know? I never told you. I let your father do all the talking. I’m sorry for my selfishness. I’m sorry for not being there, not being here. I love, love, love you.

I look at the envelope again. No postmark, no return to sender. She had put it in the Bible and forgot, some 35 years ago.

I don’t cry. I know I was never lost. She had been projecting her own lost state. I’ve been to enough therapists over the years to figure that out. But I am sad. These things we do for the dead—all this witnessing of objects and memory, all the listening we do for clues as to who our loved ones really were — we would have done for them when they were living, if allowed.


She died of an overdose, took a handful of Xanax at the age of 83. I found her in a club chair that was placed in front of the bay window. I look out that window now and wonder what was the last thing she saw – the lake, seagulls and sandpipers, a tourist walking along the beach, the sun setting in the west, melting into the lake like gold paint onto black?

Source: What We Do for the Dead