Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.175] Janny’s poem:
That clocks should go on ticking,
That bees should hum into honeysuckle pollen,
That people should walk,
That ocean waves should swell and surge for shore,
That sparrows should fly—
These are the heresies of nature.
There should have been one moment
When the world froze
When even water was stunned past motion,
And sparrows’ wings
Merry’s daughters dressed her for burial after the mortician had done his job, which included returning her bleached hair to “honey cinnamon.” They chose to have her wear her wedding gown even though it was two sizes too big. There were other ritual clothes, symbols of eternal life, that they put on her, one of them holding her hand or supporting her body as the others dressed her.
[p.176] Voices muted, they talked only a little as they did this— about memories, about how different it was to dress her this last time, her body so still, than it had been to dress her when she was alive. It was a task they were used to. They were not merely doing a duty now but performing a devotion, dressing her with love, consecrating her body wherever they touched it, blessing her, performing their own, intimate last rites.
Ben joined them when they had finished. Merry’s body lay still, unchallenged, whole. They had, none of them, realized how hard she had strained against her limitations.
“Look how peaceful,” Penny said.
A strong, bittersweet love was eddying between them, around them, and through them. It was all there: the weddings, divorces, children, sex, sickness, hope, God, and church; everything that made them, shaved away their excesses, ossified them into their essence, fired them into form, burnt gems into their cores.
For years afterwards, when Merry’s daughters remembered the funeral, they would recall the naked ladies that Grandma Boswell brought. Both grandmas hugged and said how sorry they were for everything. A lot of strangers were there—people from Merry’s past who had not known her in her decline and neighbors saying how sorry they were, but really wasn’t this a blessing, etc. They would remember Joe’s Beatles tie, worn as a tribute to Merry, and the in-church solo “Yesterday” by a distant cousin. A talk by a great uncle on Merry’s childhood portrayed her as a whirlwind of mischief and laughter, always up for adventures, always rushing into life. A talk by Bishop Hank Simpson was about heaven.
Which the Morgan family believed in. They believed that Merry was up there, tap dancing to angelic choruses, diving passionately into the mists beyond this world, consorting with the ghosts of dolphins, learning the intricacies of their nonverbal communication.
[p.177] Though they arrived late that night in Santa Barbara, where Merry was to be buried, Grandma Boswell was waiting for them. She had prepared swordfish and rice pudding and in the morning guided Elizabeth and Jan on a tour of the house where Merry had grown up and the garden she had loved. They took in the palm trees, inspected the flowers: “Angel’s trumpet,” “pot of gold,” “bougainvillaea,” and of course “naked lady.”
Jan, beginning to show her pregnancy, said she had never seen such a concentration of beauty. “It’s paradise,” she said. “It’s Eden!”
Elaine Boswell—still without false lashes—answered, “Easy to take it for granted, you know. Little bits of paradise everywhere, thriving in your backyard. You hardly appreciate it.” They had not known her to be so nice or so relaxed.
After breakfast, she showed Merry’s daughters their mother’s possessions to see what each wanted. There were boxes of dresses none had ever seen Merry wear: a black lace cocktail gown; a full-length, red taffeta formal; a peach brocade skirt with sequins around silky leaves. There were two cross-stitched samplers, one that said, “What you are is God’s gift to you, What you do with it is your gift to God,” and the other: “We’d love to help you out! Which way did you come in?” Merry had made these herself. The stitches, yellow and red, were perfect, tiny, even. And there were photographs.
Each daughter took a dress. Pen got the religious sampler, Elizabeth and Janny shared the naughty one. The photos and other miscellanies were divided among them.
The burial was the following day. First, though, they wanted to spend the morning at the ocean which, since they had arrived after dark, they had not seen during this trip. As they left for the beach, Elaine said to Ben, “I guess you’ll want the tape.”
“Is that Mom’s secret?” Pen asked.
[p.178] He winked again.
They put it on the van’s cassette player, and Ben turned the key. There was no sound until they had backed out of the driveway. Then a familiar voice, slow, struggling, soft, said, “Hello, kids.”
Merry’s daughters gasped.
“I thought I’d make you a tape since I don’t know how much longer I’ll have my speech left. And I thought I’d say some ooey gooey, sentimental stuff so you have a record of it after I’m gone. Just some stuff I wanted you to hear me say, you know.
“Penelope, I don’t know what your life will be like when you hear this. Right now, you’re a beautiful cheerleader with long blonde hair and dangerously big eyes—much prettier than I ever was, really popular with boys. That’s scary to know you’re so popular. Maybe by the time you hear this, you’ll have a daughter of your own so you can understand what I mean by that.
“Now Penny, I want you to remember something with me. I want you to remember when you were twelve, okay? You were scheduled to go to church camp in the morning. It was late at night, and I heard you crying in your room. So I came in and you said you didn’t want to go to camp because you didn’t have any friends. I remember hugging you—I still had my arms in those days—and saying you had me for a friend, and I’d never abandon my girl. It wasn’t much comfort to you at the time, but I hope that as the years have gone by you understand more what I meant. No matter what you do, no matter what happens, you will always be my daughter. That’s a bond nothing can break. Not time, not disability, not bad stuff. Nothing can cut through that love. It’s constant as air. Even though I can’t hug you anymore, and apparently it’s not going to be a whole heckuva long time before I won’t even be able to make my mouth form these nice gooey words, I want you to hear them now and know they’re eternal: I am your friend; you are my first-born daughter. I will always be your friend and always love you. I want you to [p.179] know something else: I know you love me. Whatever may happen between now and when you hear this, I know you love me. I believe love is stronger than anything in this world.
“Now, to my second born, my little gymnast, Elizabeth. Right now, you’re just starting your adolescence. You’re a rather confused, almost thirteen-year-old on the threshold of wonderful stuff. You’re very smart, and you’ve just started to realize it. But you don’t realize yet you’re so beautiful. (I’m scaring myself again.) You’re deeply sensitive and always have been. You feel things more deeply than other people, and because of that, you’ve been turning inward lately—maybe as a sort of self-protection. Your nature, as I observed it in your infancy, isn’t as shy as you’re becoming now. This is a difficult time you’re entering, with lots of insecurities and pitfalls. Your feelings are easily hurt and you don’t see yourself as a beautiful, sweet, creative, great kid. I hope by the time you hear this, you’ll see yourself more like I see you. If not, well then, just play this tape over and over and over.
“Elizabeth, I want to give you a memory, too, when we visited Santa Barbara years ago and I took you to the ocean. You would have been about eight, maybe nine. I recall how you stared at the water with the most beautiful awe I’ve ever seen— just the awe I’ve always felt for it. You said, ‘Wowee! It goes on and on,’ and I said, ‘Yup, it appears that way.’ And you said, ‘So where are the sharks?’ I told you they were far away in deeper waters. But you were still scared to go into the ocean very far, although eventually you did enjoy yourself—until you got caught in an undertow, and you cried in my arms for a long time and didn’t want to go back in unless I carried you. So, I did carry you. I wish I’d been stronger so I could have carried you farther. Even so, you clung on and we let the waves come up around us and we laughed. My land, you shrieked with joy.
“So, let me turn that experience into a schmaltzy symbol: the ocean is like life and like love and all the important things of the universe, okay? It includes mystery and it includes [p.180] sharks and other critters, you betcha. But it is beautiful, and it is endless.
“By the time you hear this, I will have kicked the bucket— and I’ll probably feel real proud of myself for being able to kick any damn thing. Sorry about my stupid humor. Did I just swear? Sorry! I’ll erase it later. Anyway, what I want to tell you isn’t funny at all. I want you to know that I really believe that when my body is buried in some cold, spooky plot, the real me is going on and on and on—wowee!—just like the ocean.
“My sickness is hard to handle. Believe me, I understand that. Whatever happens, forgive me for turning sick on you, and I forgive you for having a hard time dealing with my uncooperative body. We love each other, forever and always.
“Now let me talk to little toe-headed, blue-eyed Janny, who just celebrated her eleventh birthday and who loves to write poetry and say pretty things. I can’t quite tell what you’re going to become, sweetheart, but I know, at this time, you’re really eager to please. You’re obedient and good-natured, as well as adorable. To you, let me give a memory I know you don’t share: the memory of your birth. I’ll confess, my pregnancy was hard and I wanted so desperately to be healed, and I was real disappointed at the m.s. that just kept on chugging through the whole nine months. But the instant the doctor put you into my arms, you and I were connected. Boom! I felt a very special relationship with you, as though we’d already known each other for millennia. I won’t say I heard God’s voice, but I did feel that you were given to me as a comfort and a joy, not a burden. Undoubtedly, I’ve been much more a burden to you than you ever were to me. We’ve always been close, and I hope we always will be, even after I’m gone. Keep the faith, sweetheart. There will be moments when you’ll feel I’m very near. Bye bye.”
At that moment, there it was—the ocean, rolling, winking, its thundering waves cresting into soapy foam and spreading [p.181] over the shore, the immensity spreading out like a boundless span of grey-green light. The sound was like the Ocean Room, though infinitely more powerful. This was Merry’s ocean: the real, eternal, moving water.
Ben parked the van, and Merry’s daughters took off their shoes. Clouds and sunlight were reflected where the water was smooth, far beyond the shore, out in the deep parts. The sea was a scattered puzzle of the sky. Within it, they knew, were all the varieties of fish Merry’s aquarium held: blue damsels, royal grammas, heniochus butterflies, neons, angels. This was their eternity.
Penny ran towards the water. “I’m going in there!” she shouted. “Right now, this very second!”
“With your clothes on?” Jan called after her.
“Yes!” she yelled to the sea. “Yes! Yes!” She was leaping into the water, her face a scream of wonder, with Jan and Elizabeth just behind, their arms flung open like wings.