• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I’m Trying To Beat Life Cause I Can’t Cheat Death

Dear Readers of this Blog: I couldn’t be happier than to congratulate Sheri Booker on the publication of her first book Nine Years Under (notice I am not saying “debut” because I think it’s pretentious) about her experiences working in an inner city funeral home, coming of age there, amid the corpses, inside the embalming room, and among the mourners who looked to her, a teenager, for comfort and tissues. There was a lot to learn about death; there was even more to learn about life.

I have copies to give away to the top three funeral stories.  I’ll see if I can get Sheri to judge.

And here’s some great early press: NPR: http://www.npr.org/2013/06/01/187086911/nine-years-in-a-baltimore-funeral-home  Baltimore Sun Interview: http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bs-ae-book-funeral-20130601,0,4451923.story  Washington Post:  http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-05-29/entertainment/39591099_1_funeral-business-viewing-west-baltimor   NPR news http://www.wypr.org/podcast/how-working-deadaffects-your-view-living

36 Responses

  1. I’m so proud of my baby.

  2. Congratulations, Sheri. This book looks right up my alley. Looking forward to reading it.

  3. This book is now on my list—actually, it’s bumped a couple others down.

    Congratulations!

  4. Congratulations, Sheri!

    Joey’s funeral was the hardest. Drunk, he crashed head on into a mother and child and the mother had to bury her daughter. Joe never would’ve forgiven himself. Snake’s funeral was hard but for that one I was beyond cocaine numb. Larry’s was the best attended; he was such a great guy. Damn good bartender, too. Just a few weeks ago it was Al’s funeral, a firefighter who died too young (59) and got the hero’s funeral he deserved. Only problem, it was a funeral. Looking back in sadness at the lost brothers I never knew I had.

  5. Wow, this looks fabulous! Congratulations! And watching a mortician do her thing is actually on my list of 52/52 new experiences this year. Sheri: Can you hook me up?

    I have no funeral stories to share, but I do have a related tale.

    When my mother was having her carpets cleaned, she entered her bedroom to see the serviceman attempting to redo a wrong–by frantically vacuuming up the “dirt” he’d spilled after knocking over a ceramic container.

    Which was, of course, my father’s ashes.

    When he heard my mother scream and he turned off the sweeper, she explained between sobs exactly what he’d been sucking into that industrial-sized hose.

    I’m pretty certain the poor guy didn’t get a tip.

  6. I am SO intrigued. Officially added to my summer reading list.

  7. Best to you, Sheri! I look forward to reading it.

    Funeral story? Gosh, I have so many. My cousin and I have a storied and sordid shared history of immature tomfoolery, starting from when we were kids. Throw an emotionally fraught funeral into the mix and we become beyond ridiculous. We are both adults now and should know better, but we use the excuse of it being genetic: we come from a long line of wiseasses and tricksters in our family. Anyway…that’s the back story. Now, gather around the campfire, children…
    Driving to our favorite great-uncle’s military funeral about 5 years ago, this same cousin and I were talking about how we both hated open caskets. I cannot help but snicker when someone shuffles up to it exclaiming, “Oh, looks just like they’re sleeping!”
    Uh…No they don’t! They always look wooden and waxen and I do not want to remember the beloved person in this way. We moved on to the subject of how people kiss the cheek or hold the hand of the dead person. I asked her if she’d ever done that.
    Her answer: Oh Hell No! No way in hell! Not on your life! I don’t care who it is! No! Never! Ever!
    She went on to explain that she was terrified and disgusted at the very thought of touching a dead body, most especially if it is someone she loved.
    When we got to the funeral home, we were dismayed to see the ubiquitous open casket. We weren’t going to go near it, but got bamboozled by a bevy of aunts and uncles who wanted to make sure we got to say a proper goodbye. “Go on!” They said. “We’ll walk you up there.”
    We whispered to each other, “I will if you will,” but it’s not like we had much of a choice.
    When we got in front of the casket, my cousin looked as if she was going to pass out and throw up all at once. She clutched my hand to steady herself.
    And it was at the precise moment that my uncle’s elderly, uniformed Air Force buddy standing guard nearby said, “You can hold his hand if you want,” that the evil idea descended into my evil little head.
    I lifted her hand clutched tightly to mine as if I was going to comfort her, but instead I moved it over toward my uncle’s exposed hand, like I was going to make her touch it. She realized what I was trying to do and started panicking, trying to pull her hand away, but I had it in a vise grip. I started laughing and then she started laughing as we kept up this tug-of-war.
    Seeing our shoulders shake with barely suppressed (and totally mature!) mirth, thinking we were crying, various family members quickly flocked around us to give us comfort in our time of need–patting our shoulders, putting arms around our waists, murmuring soothing sweet nothings.This, of course, only fueled our laughter more. Finally, nearly unable to contain it, both of us turned as one and ran out of the funeral home together, heads bent down to hide our laughter. We got outside and crouched behind her car, cackling like hyenas until we could get control of ourselves and go back in.
    To this day, every single family member who was there recalls so fondly and kindly on how my sweet cousin and I became so distraught with grief at our dear great uncle’s funeral that we just had to leave.
    Note: When I die, I am *so* getting cremated.

  8. Sort of a funeral story, disqualify me if you must, but I had to share.

    My father’s ashes came home in one of those little black boxes the size of a loaf of pumpernickel. My mother, perplexed as to what she was going to do with dad, gave him to me; like she handed over the old family photos and flag which draped my grandfather’s coffin. I put dad in the freezer in the basement, no he was not next to the peas, the freezer hadn’t worked in years so storing him in a Kenmore made sense; he was after all a loyal Sear’s man.

    When my mother died seven months later, on Easter Sunday, God’s last laugh for a lapsed Catholic girl, she went in the freezer too. My husband has a workshop down there; I’d hear him talking to them once in a while. They did not answer back. We had a huge family get together not long after that. My sister-in-law said something about wishing my parents were there.
    “Oh but they are,” I said.
    “You’re not bringing them to the table are you?” My husband said.

    Once I told everybody where mom and dad were, the dining room emptied of all twenty of us and we trudged down the cellar stairs to the Kenmore mausoleum. Throwing open the doors we raised our glasses, wished them well and toasted to their long lives lived. After we emptied our glasses we all scrambled back up the stairs like a fire drill in reverse.

    My late arriving nephew trying to walk down the stairs, as we headed up, shouted above the whoops and hollers, “What’s going on?”
    “We were toasting Bob and Dot, they’re stored in the old freezer,” someone said.
    Turning and heading back up, his voice rose above the rest of us, “This family will toast to just about anything.”

  9. David was late to everything. When he and his brother, Jeff, and I used to walk to middle school together, Jeff and I were always ready on time and David was always two or three minutes late. So we were all three of us always two or three minutes late to school. This went on until one day the truant officer showed up at our houses and threatened to fine our parents. I was grounded for three months and I damn sure made it to school on time. I think I walked alone.

    Ten years later a group of David’s friends–Janet and Kim and Carlos and somebody else and I–threw David a small birthday party. He was late. Very late. This was before cell phones. Finally he showed up, close to midnight. He said, “Sorry I’m late, but I just got out of jail. Could somebody fix me a drink, please?”

    A few years after that he was best man at my wedding. He got to that on time, but he was late to the reception. Flat tire.

    Another few years and he was dead. His corpse was cremated but the ashes didn’t make it to the funeral parlor in time for the memorial service. Yes–he was late to his own funeral. Jeff set the empty urn among the flowers and we carried on.

  10. I met my birth father at my mother’s funeral. I was 36. I was standing by the casket when he walked shyly up and introduced himself. He handed me his business card. Then he took the card back, wrote his home # on the back and said, “Sorry about your mom. Come see us next time you’re in town!”

  11. My best friend’s mother died young. At the wake, I shook her father’s hand and told him I was sorry. He pulled me into an embrace and groped my breast right in front of her casket.

    Excuse me. I need a shower.

  12. My mother’s mother was not an easy woman and her determination was such that she carried on that way well after her death. She was generous, always, but expected to be thanked at every opportunity for her largesse and had apparently decided to provide everyone she’d touched during the last twenty years of her life with one last opportunity to express it.

    Her burial had long been set, literally, in stone; she was to be laid to rest next to her first husband and across the Hillsboro cemetery from her sisters-in-law, who had never approved of her and whom my grandmother, as the lone, lucid survivor of their dysfunctional threesome, had buried well away from the rest of the family.

    Her funeral arrangements, however, were pages long and included viewings in two different towns, two memorial services and the funeral itself, the gazebo she’d had built on the grounds of her Cincinnati retirement village, several rituals by the Order of the Something-or-Other, the church choir for whom she’d provided for new robes a few years earlier, and either my high school or my college marching band accompanying me on the bassoon I hadn’t touched in three years.

    My mother took a long, disbelieving look at the list the funeral director provided, and pared it down to one memorial at the chapel of the retirement village—the gazebo was only big enough for ten extremely friendly people anyway—followed the next day by final services in Hillsboro, which would include one ritual by the Order and one lady singing Rock of Ages to the accompaniment of a single electric organ at the funeral home.

    When I asked, a bit superstitiously, about the disregarding of her mother’s last wishes, Mom bared her teeth in a smile and said, “Funerals are for the living.”

    The memorial service at the retirement home was memorable for me only because the minister turned out to be the most popular partier in my graduating year of high school, someone who was incapable of seeing me at the time, but now offered words of comfort for my loss. At the time, it was surreal to see him in his suit and collar, but in hindsight, who better to understand the temptations and trials of the flesh that someone who had experienced, if rumor was believed, most of them by the time he was a sophomore? I wondered what my grandmother would have thought about him—or about the turnout, which was respectable, though the ladies a row behind leaned forward to ask me who it was who had died.

    “Oh, Mabel,” they said, nodding. “She sure loved that gazebo of hers, didn’t she?”

    The funeral itself had its own distractions. The Order of the Something ritual involved four or five people who wore different colors and held up different items that somehow symbolized qualities that my grandmother had apparently strived to acquire, and Rock of Ages had a bit more coloratura and jazz hands to it than I remembered—but these were no match for the sight of my two-year old nephew, brow furrowed, trying to shove my mother’s cross pendant up her nose as he sat on her lap. And succeeding more than once.

    At times, my sister and I have had the kind of relationship that could easily have had one of us burying the other well away across a cemetery—or state lines under the cover of darkness—but we clung together that afternoon, offering tissues without looking directly at each other—or at our straight-faced mother extracting jewelry from her nostrils—and shaking from the effort of breaking down into the kind of helpless hysterics my grandmother would not have thought an acceptable tribute to her memory.

    Though honestly, all things considered, they would have been.

  13. Reminds me of the memoir “Driving with Dead People.” No story here, but I will check out the book!

  14. Well, once I was at a viewing at the funeral home when the tornado sirens started blaring, so all us mourners went down to the garage/storage room where they keep excess rental caskets or whatever and sat on lawn chairs. It was really nice.

  15. HUGE congratulations to this young talent!

    At my grandfather’s funeral, a sibling “in the business” said he heard I’m a writer (in the interest of keeping this short, I’ll not include all the commentary I could…but remember I said sibling) and said I should let him read something. Which he then quickly qualified with the assurance that he wouldn’t pass it along to any of his contacts, he was only interested in reading it for his own pleasure. As if I’d approached him. But at least I wasn’t trying to mourn my grandfather.

    Sorry. I didn’t promise this story was going to be moving or anything. Just a memory of embarrassment for the sibling’s bad taste and of my own heroism when I didn’t smack him.

  16. First…congratulations Sheri…!

    My funeral story:

    Cousin Annette and I decided we’d do Grandma’s makeup. God forbid we let the funeral home employee do it himself, he’d have her looking like Grandpa Munster from what we’d seen. (no offense Sheri, eh?) Besides, cousin Annette was a beautician, she had skills, she had experience, she had a LICENSE for such things, hair included. I was there for moral support. I would hand her what she needed, Kleenex, Cover Girl liquid makeup, Maybelline eyeshadow, peach colored lipstick and most important, her small flask with tequila. We offered ourselves for this task, an hour alone with Grandma on a table, smoothing out the lines of age with our fingertips, swabbing away the dark circles under her eyes, she, a heavy smoker with all of the signs there for us to cover up and repair to the best of our abilities. We could make her look young, is what we said to each other.

    We got started, and when Annette was almost done, she said, “Hand me the hairspray.” I handed her a tall white can, and she began waving it around with a flourish, liberally spraying Grandma’s hair in place. I stood near Grandma’s head. I sniffed. “Huh. It smells lemony, almost like…” Annette, who was STILL spraying, ’cause at her beauty school, one could NEVER use too much hairspray, stopped spraying. There was a fine mist of the product hanging in the air. She bent down, sniffed. and looked up at me, this wide eyed unblinking stare of horror. She bent down again, sniffed again and whispered, “Oh shit.” I look at her, beginning to understand, and I feel her expression transfer physically to my own face, that same look of horror, both of us frozen in a moment of realization. I whisper “What? What is it??” She said, “It ain’t hairspray, oh my God, oh my God!” I sniffed at Grandma’s hair again, and I said, “Good God, it smells like PLEDGE.”

    Freaked out, she yanks the door open, the can of imposter hairspray shaking in her hand, “Help! Somebody, get in here!” I stood quietly by Grandma. I looked down at her, and I whispered, “Sorry Grandma.” Was it just me? Or did she look like she was smiling? I think she was, at the granddaughters who in a final act of love, polished her up better than if she’d had a spit shine.

    True story.

  17. The Senior Advisor, tall and starched, spoke of his courage and enthusiasm, how cheerful he always was, what a fine soldier he was, how he should inspire us, how we should press on.

    Stinking, sweating, ragged, catching tired glances of tired, tired men, knowing what our friend’s end had been like, we knew the Colonel was full of shit.

  18. I love coming-of-age stories. Congrats, Sheri!

    My mother’s secret love (probably just an affair-of-the-heart, I don’t know) showed up at her funeral with his wife. He discreetly pulled me aside and, with tears in his eyes, told me that she was the finest person he’d ever known. He knew of her horrible marriage. I never saw him again.
    Oftentimes, there are yellow roses left at my mother’s grave. I like to think he still pines for her. I’m glad my mom had a man who adored her. Her life was difficult and she died too young, but at least she had that.

  19. Congratulations Sheri! Will check if your book is available in the UK. It sounds great.

    At my father’s funeral last year, I knew very few in attendance; we had moved away decades earlier when my parents divorced. A woman approached and said, “Did any of the children come, do you know?”

    I pointed out my three siblings, then said, “And I’m his daughter, Downith.”

    She pursed her lips. “I’m sorry, how did you just pronounce your name?”

    “Downith.”

    A shake of her head. “No, that’s wrong. It’s not pronounced like that.”

    Nothing, I had nothing,

  20. Congratulations Sheri. Sounds good. Will check if it’s available in the UK.

    At my father’s funeral last year, I knew very few in attendance; we had moved away decades earlier when my parents divorced. A woman approached and said, “Did any of the children come, do you know?”

    I pointed out my three siblings, then said, “And I’m his daughter, Downith.”

    She pursed her lips. “I’m sorry, how did you just pronounce your name?”

    “Downith.”

    A shake of her head. “No, that’s wrong. It’s not pronounced like that.”

    Nothing, I had nothing,

  21. When my friend Larry’s partner died, he called me to ask me to sing at Ricky’s memorial service. “Ricky always loved to hear you sing,” he said. I agreed, and showed up on the appointed day. The funeral was at the Social Club, a drag hangout mid-town. When I walked in, I realized it wasn’t going to be anything like any funeral I’d ever attended. For one thing, Larry was dressed as Cher. For another, he informed me that the piano player had bailed and I would be singing acappella. So many people came to pay their respects to Ricky. He was a beautiful blonde guy, with a smile that could light up a room. Stunning drag queen after stunning drag queen lip synched to disco favorites, Patsy Cline, and Judy Garland. I felt massively underdressed and distinctly unglamorous -drag queens can make a woman feel like that. I followed friends of mine who sang a duet of Over the Rainbow. Talk about pressure. I stood up, and started to sing Sarah McLachlan’s Angel, which is the song Larry had requested. Slowly, the drag queens began to line up, dropping money at my feet – an honor they usually reserve for each other. They sang along with me. We all cried. Then Larry took the stage, and sang a lovely duet with a puppet – seriously one if the most touching things I’ve ever seen. It was a one of a kind event, and I’m so glad I was a part of it.

    • I enjoyed your story, faeriechilde, and I never knew Sarah McLachlan had so much soul.
      (I read an Associated Press story yesterday about a high school outside of NYC -Carmel – where two male teenagers were voted Cutest Couple. I hope our world is truly changing for the better. Your voice and compassion are part of that change).

      • Aw, thanks, Mike. Being involved in the theatre community has brought me many gay friends, and I am so grateful. Watching them struggle for equality with such grace is humbling. It is wonderful to see things like a gay couple being voted cutest couple in their high school. Maybe one day soon, it won’t be so surprising. My phone was running out of juice so I had to hurry through the post, but the song Larry did (with a puppet) was “After All,” a duet between Cher and Peter Cetera. Sounds cheesy, but there wasn’t a dry eye in the house…

  22. This book sounds so interesting! OMG Sherry, that is crazy!

    There are few things that send a family scrambling during the funeral planning process more than a mad dash to the mall for final resting place clothes for the deceased.

    My grandmother lived in a nursing home prior to her death, so all the clothes she owned were an assortment of casual house dresses. Can one really spend eternity in a pastel cotton, snap-up frock, white socks and sensible white wedges? I think it probably screams D-List for Mr. Blackwell’s after life party.

    Is it tacky to buy something on sale? Would she be comfortable in heels? Will she look outdated in those faux pearl clip-on earrings from the ’50’s, which were the only ones we could find in her jewelry box?

    Who knows if one spends eternity in a white robe, the crazy outfits our loved ones piece together in an emotional fog or our favorite outfits of all time. I just hope her soul is at peace, no matter how she is dressed.

  23. There was no funeral. She didn’t deserve the dignity of one. That’s what happens when you’re a bad person and you do bad things, especially to little children. In the end, you’re all alone.

    I went to the church to id her. I had been told it was protocol before burial. I wanted so desperately to photograph her. I remember reaching for my point and shoot in my purse. I was this close to doing so but I could feel the funeral director’s breath behind my ears, even as I stood peering down at the casket.

    I remember, though.

    She looked like a witch, shrouded in simple muslin, her cheekbones sunken deep. I didn’t feel the need to berate her. She always knew how I felt about her. And I all I really wanted was to get away.

    I nodded. Yup, that’s her.

    I say my thanks every day that she’s not mine anymore.

  24. My mother died as she lived–in her car. I didn’t attend her funeral. Instead I bought her a tombstone. Now I can always find her.

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