An actual clown conducted my mama’s funeral. He didn’t wear clown clothes, or greasepaint, but I’d read his biography on the Andro Funeral Home website, which had included his hobby along with the facts that he’d been married for thirteen years and had a son named Angus.
Mama had been especially tickled. “They ought to change their tagline to We Put the ‘Fun’ in Funerals!
“Sounds like your funeral will be a real three-ring circus,” I said.
“Write it down, Wavie,” she’d answered. “I want my pallbearers to ride in on unicycles.” When she laughed, I giggled along with her even though I didn’t find planning the funeral one bit funny. But when your mama is practically face-to-face with the Grim Reaper, you do what you can.
It had been Mama’s idea, fueled by our long hours waiting in hospital rooms and the need to find something else to think about: to take words and see how many new ones we could make out of the letters. “Doesn’t cost but two cents’ of graphite, Wavie. Try it!”
There are all sorts of words to make out of F-U-N-E-R-A-L. FUN, of course, and LUNAR, LEAF and EARFUL. There were ninety-six if you counted words that people use for Scrabble but aren’t really words, like NU and ER. My favorite was UNREAL. That’s a perfect word to describe the day you lay your mama to rest.
In the end, there hadn’t been any unicycles, or even pallbearers for that matter. Mama had left instructions to be cremated with only a small graveside service for the burial of her ashes, conducted by the part-time clown.
I slipped my hand into the pocket of my dress and felt the corner of the Andro Hospital stationery with the list Mama had made for me. I’d memorized it, but I liked being able to look at her handwriting.
It was seven final instructions.
1. Use Andro’s. A man that moonlights as a clown and names his son after a steak sounds like someone I’d like to know.
2. I left a cutting from our peony bush in a pot by the front door. Peonies are fickle, so don’t plant it until you’re sure you’re staying put somewhere. It was from my mama’s plant and she grew the prettiest peonies in Kentucky. You can look at it and know I’m with you in spirit.
3. The chaplain said since I’m a believer, you and I would meet in heaven if you act right. I told him if it depended on how we acted, it’d be a right lonely place. Just ’cause someone’s in charge don’t mean they’re smart. Think for yourself. Also, be good. It doesn’t hurt to cover all your bases.
4. No dropping out of school! I’m banking on you being the first Conley to ever go to college. U-N-I-V-E-R-S-I-T-Y even has some fine words in it like NURSE and VET!
5. Cry when you need to but don’t dwell. It won’t bring me back and you’ve got to get on with living.
6. Be brave, Wavie B.! You got as much right to a good life as anybody, so find it!
7. Never, ever forget that I loved being your mama more than anything in this big, wide world.
She’d signed it xoxo, Mama
I’d already heard most everything on the list, except the part about my grandmother’s peonies. Mama hardly ever talked about her family and she hadn’t gone back to her hometown since my grandmother died. I parted ways with the rest of them right after you were born and as far as I’m concerned it was a good trade. It’s just you and me, Wavie, against the world. Sounds like a fair fight to me!
My eyes stung and the cemetery blurred. Now it was just me. Wavie against the world didn’t have the same ring to it. I blinked twice, willing the tears back into my eyeballs. If I started crying now, I was afraid I’d never stop, and making a scene at Mama’s graveside service would really have the neighbors at Castle Fields Mobile Home Park talking.
I focused on the weather instead. The man on TV had said to expect spring showers, but so far the rain had held off. The wind was starting to pick up, though, and had blown a fistful of dirt from the mound by Mama’s urn across the scuffed dress shoes of my best friend, Hannah, and the black slip-ons of her granny Mrs. Watkins.
There was only a small cluster of folks attending, mostly neighbors from our mobile home park, but I spotted a few other faces in the back—Mrs. Leslie, Mama’s old boss from Walmart; a nurse from the oncology floor; my math teacher, Mr. Stephens; and a few classmates. Everyone wore black, and we stood there hunched against the cold breeze like crows on a wire trying to decide where to fly next.
A beat-up sedan drove through the gates and parked down the hill, its brakes squeaking. Two people sat inside watching us, but they didn’t get out. It wasn’t a friendly-looking car. Mama said you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I think sometimes you can. I mean, one look at Harry Potter
and I knew it was going to be about magic. That B-U-I-C-K (BUCK, ICK) car was dented and banged up like it was mad at the world and ready to run down whatever got in its way.
My caseworker, Mrs. Chipman, patted my shoulder as the funeral director placed the biodegradable urn into a small hole in front of a plaque that read simply, Ronelda May Conley, Beloved Mother
. A few people came up and hugged me, muttering things like, “She was a fine woman,” and “She’ll be missed,” until Mrs. Chipman nodded that I could go and sit in her car.
I could feel the stares of the people as they walked by, and could imagine their conversations as they got into their cars. Poor kid. Orphaned at eleven, how pitiful.
I leaned my head forward until it hit my knees, and closed my eyes.
Someone tapped softly on the glass. “Wavie, are you all right?”
I sat back up and rolled down the window.
“Hey, Hannah.” I put my hand out the window and laced my fingers through hers.
She wiped her eyes with her free hand. “I am so, so sorry.”
Hannah dug an envelope out of her pocket and handed it through the window. “The trailer park took up a collection. It’s not much, but hopefully it’ll help.”
The envelope was heavy and I could feel an abundance of change. It was all I could do to choke out an answer. “Tell everybody I said thanks.”
Hannah gave me a final sad smile and turned to leave.
The driver's side door opened and Mrs. Chipman settled into the front seat. Then she reached back and rubbed my shoulder. “You ready?”
I looked once more toward the grave site. “Yes.”
Everyone was gone except for the old car I’d noticed earlier. As we moved to pass it, the driver held up a hand for us to stop. We watched as a woman with long, frizzy blond hair got out and walked toward us. A grumpy-looking teenager stayed in the car, slumped against the window.
“Why is that woman dressed like a cat?” I asked.
“That’s called leopard print,” Mrs. Chipman said.
Leopard Lady was top-heavy, with broad shoulders and skinny legs. She wore leopard-print leggings under a leopard-print sweater.
When she got to the car, she motioned for Mrs. Chipman to open the window, then bent down and stared into the backseat.
“Wavie? Wavie Conley? Is that you?”
I leaned back against the seat. “Yes?”
“Why, I’m your aunt, Samantha Rose! I’ve come to take care of you.”
Copyright © 2018 by Lisa Lewis Tyre. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.