Wake Nostalgia: A body in a coffin reveals nothing, but a good story does

The first dead body I ever saw was my uncle’s. I went to his wake when I was in fourth grade. I didn’t want to look at his body but my dad forced me up to the edge of the casket. “Look,” he said. “This is what we do. And this is what you need to do.” And then he clamped his hand on my shoulder and we looked down at my uncle. My heart raced because the entire time I was convinced he would leap out.

I imagined his eyes flying open and this tight-faced, powdered version of him would start talking and asking me how school was going. To be polite I’d have to answer him but I wouldn’t want to look at him in the face because that face would be someone else’s uncle, unnervingly similar but definitely not the same.

Picture a guy that kind of looks like your uncle, walking up to you on the train and telling you stuff about your family. He’s got the same baldness on top and crown of blonde-white hair tufting around the edges. He’s tall like your uncle and lumbers toward you. But as he gets closer you notice his eyes are squintier and his shoulders more rounded and wait a second…you don’t know this dude at all. Yet he’s trying to hug you and ask you how your mom’s been since the divorce. And you’re trying to get the hell out of there because who even is this? But everyone around you is like, “Why are you acting so weird around Uncle Ken?” And you keep pushing, and they keep pulling you closer to the makeshift Uncle Ken.

That’s what it’s felt like every time I’ve looked into a casket at the face of a former friend or family member. This is a rite of passage in the Catholic religion. And though I have been to many more wakes since that one in fourth grade, the event has never sat right with me. As a writer, my preferred way of remembering someone is through stories. A stiff body in a coffin does not reveal anything, but a good story does.

A year ago my last grandparent passed away and I flew home to Connecticut for the services. My grandma was 96-years-old when she died. With each birthday she celebrated after her 90th the preposterous idea that she was immortal began to seem real. So when she died suddenly, of old age, two weeks after I had phone call with her, it shook everyone.

At the wake everyone remarked how great my grandma looked and how good of a job the mortician did. I wasn’t so sure. Because there I was again, in that strange position to judge the aliveness of a dead person. How can you do that?

My grandma cared very much about her appearance. She was a devout catholic her entire life and on Sunday mornings she always dressed for the occasion. I’ve seen photos of her in handmade linen skirt suits and we’ve all heard the stories of the baby seal fur coat her late husband bought her one anniversary.

On her 90th birthday my family threw her a surprise birthday party but to do so we had to trick her into coming over my uncle’s place. When she found out, she was genuinely upset we had invited all these people without giving her a chance to “put her face on” as she called it. In the last 6 months of her life when her physical condition permitted her from leaving the house, a salon stylist made weekly house calls to set her head of white curls. She was regal. Sometimes we even called her The Queen.

In the casket, her hair was curled and she had on her signature sloping glasses, the ones with the lavender tinted lenses that transition into rose on the apples of the cheek. She looked close to the person I knew. But there was a lot missing. My heart ached for all the ways the room could never capture what made her so special.

There was no sly smile, the one you saw whenever you caught her indulging in a slice of cheesecake. The last time I saw her alive, we sat down and ate slices together at her dining room and she told me “this is the best thing in the world.” She savored each bite.

In the air, there was no familiar scent. The flower arrangements masked any subtle smell I might detect. In my grandma’s house, the smell of fresh white bar soap and stale cigarettes mingled. The soap was hers, the cigarettes came from various aunts and uncles who lived with her at different points in their adult lives. When her and my grandpa lived in New Hampshire, one of my uncle’s lived in their spare bedroom. He’d do his smoking down in the garage and that’s where the smells were strongest. Little parts of it would cling to the clothes of people emerging from the basement and you’d carry it with you throughout the house.

Along with the smoke and soap there was a third scent I’ll always tie back to my grandma.

Until I was in middle school, my grandparents lived in a house on a little lake in New Hampshire. In the summers we’d go up for a week and take their canoe out to the center of the lake where there was a tiny, tiny island. The island had nothing on it but trees and bushes, blueberry bushes. So we called it Blueberry Island and each vacation we’d spend a day picking off all the blueberries we could sniff out. Then we’d drop them into emptied cottage cheese containers hanging from around our necks with twine, something my grandpa rigged up for efficiency.

We’d return home at dusk, fingers stained, and present my grandma with all the wild blueberries we had managed not to eat. And my brother and I would jump up and down singing “blueberry dumplings, blueberry dumplings” in an annoying way only kids of a certain age can get away with. My grandma would already have the water boiling for the dumplings. Blueberry dumplings were her specialty. That smell of fresh blueberries, cracked open so that the juices flow on to the hot biscuit, with a spoonful of Cool Whip on top; that is a heavenly scent.

Wakes are prime locations for nostalgia, Grand Central for reminiscing with friends and family about a time you can never get back. At my grandmother’s wake, we poured over photo collages of my grandparents, of the kids and grandkids they raised, the road trips they took in their RV, the matching velour jumpsuits they wore, and all the forced family Christmas photos we were now happy to have taken.

But out of all of this, if I could transport myself back to one specific time and place, I’d be on that lake in New Hampshire, in our canoe, leaving Blueberry Island. On the edges of the mainland I’d see my Grandma waving, welcoming us back to the shore.

Brooklyn-based writer raised in the Connecticut suburbs. Words at Slate, Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency / https://alikelley.com/

Brooklyn-based writer raised in the Connecticut suburbs. Words at Slate, Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency / https://alikelley.com/