Guilt haunted me all the way back to my dad’s. I so wanted to talk to Mere and tell her that I let her down last night when I ignored her shuffling in the kitchen. She would understand
much music meant to me and how I secretly dreamed of songwriting. So why didn’t I open the door to my grandmother’s apartment filled with alarming sounds?
Fear stopped me from connecting with my grandmother. Was I afraid of Mere or afraid of what she was going to tell me? Maybe I was simply in denial even now that Mere was dead. Today was her wake where I would see her in a coffin. Would I believe Mere was dead then?
My dad drove to the funeral home. I looked out the window wishing I didn’t have to live through this. Outside Fox’s Funeral Home, the reporters with camera crew were set up. Dad and I were now adept at finding back doors and side entrances to avoid the media.
As soon as I got in the lobby I started choking because of the sickening, sweet smell inside funeral homes. I had only been to one wake, when my friend’s father died. That was pretty horrible and I didn’t even know the man. When I saw Gwendolyn Donovan’s name printed on the sign in the lobby, my legs started to shake.
As dad and I stood silently side by side looking down at Mere, I thought this lifeless body is not the Mere I knew. Most painful was seeing the murderer’s marks slightly visible through the nylon long sleeve dress. Black and blue bruises on her arms signaled how she fought for her life. Through makeup and hair style the mortician had tried to camouflage the bruises to the side of her head but dark marks gave evidence of the blunt force that took Mere’s life.
“Maybe we should close the coffin?” I said.
“I don’t know. It’s too late now. People are coming into the lobby,” my dad replied.
I couldn’t stand here looking at Mere like this any longer.
“Come, Dad, I want to show you the pictures I found. Some great ones of you as a kid with Mere in Coney Island.”
He smiled and said, “We would go there every summer and ride the Cyclone.” Next to that picture I had placed a professional photo of Mere in an elegant black gown at a dinner at the Forty-Second Street Library. In the corner was my favorite picture where I’m about three years old sitting on Mere’s lap reading Where the Wild Things Are. Even recently when my grandmother and I headed off on some city adventure sometimes we would yell out,
“Let the rumpus begin.”
“Daddy, you know when I was looking through Mere’s things, she didn’t have many pictures. Actually there were pictures of you and me. Not many of her as a kid with family. How come?”
“I don’t know. What you got up there looks fine.”
For a minute I wanted to tell him about the love letters that I found when I was going through the pictures. Then I decided not to go there.
Together we moved around the room looking at the floral arrangements that lined the walls and read the sentiments on the cards. In the corner a magnificent spray of red roses stood with a card that contained only the signature Edwin. I immediately thought of the note Madeline gave me and wondered about the old love letter I found in Mere’s apartment.
“Dad, who is Edwin Spencer?”
“Damned if I know. I hardly know what day it is.”
Before the mourners visited, my mother fashionably dressed in a silk black and white sheath arrived. She barely kissed my dad on the cheek but did seem sincere when she said, “Dennis, I am very sorry.” Then she gave me a strong hug and said, “I’ll be sitting in the back until services end, if you need me.” I knew my mom meant well but strangely even now I felt her silent critical stare. The black skirt I was wearing was slightly too tight. I could hear Mom say, “Remember your posture.” She definitely wouldn’t approve that I hadn’t blown out my long curly hair or wore only lip gloss. More importantly, I knew my grandmother would not care less.
Slowly the friends and colleagues started to trickle in like pieces of a puzzle that together make up Mere’s life - colleagues from the library, neighbors from her building, and parishioners from St. Francis, and other volunteers who helped run the bread line at the church. All of them uttering refrains such as, “How terrible. Have the police come up with anything yet?”
I tried to tune it out. I found myself interested in one woman who just reminded me of my grandmother. She was plainly dressed and her face was lined and hard. The way she tilted her head, the sound of her voice, something in her expression mirrored Mere. I couldn’t quite figure out exactly what.
“Dad, that woman looks a little like Mere.”
“Oh that’s Aunt Claire, your grandmother’s sister. Come, she will enjoy seeing you after all these years.”
“Aunt Claire, how good of you to come,” Dad said bending over and politely kissing her cheek.
“I’m her sister. Have you forgotten that? Of course, I’d come.”
Obviously, she was a lot coarser and much more direct than Mere.
“Dennis, like everybody else, I have been watching the news. I don’t know what to say. It’s so horrible.”
Dad was uncomfortable with the way the conversation was going and gently nudged me forward saying, “I bet you wouldn’t recognize Zoe, all grown up now. I guess the last time you saw her was at Pop’s funeral. Zoe was just a baby.”
Claire looked directly into my eyes, and said, “I can see Gwen in your strong chin.”
I smiled thinking about the word strong. Yes, that word described everyone in my family except me. I often heard my mother comment to my dad, “Where did Zoe come from?” My mother had the right to wonder. For years I was certain I was adopted, even after mom produced my birth certificate. It wasn’t just that I didn’t even look like anybody in my family. I was definitely the weak link in a strong family chain. Soon I would have to face that Mere who gave me strength was gone forever.
The following morning on the way to the funeral, I got another mysterious photo from Mere on my camera roll. The picture was of the interior of St. Francis Church where the funeral mass was about to begin. Strangely, the picture focused on the Confessional Box where Catholics confess their sins. Maybe Mere was involved in the robbery of the Gutenberg. What other grievous secrets could Mere be hiding?
A bagpiper on the church steps played Amazing Grace while Dad and I slowly followed Mere’s casket down the center aisle of St. Francis of Assisi. Father Peter put his heart and soul into each prayer. The church was packed. In the last pew Ruiz stood carefully watching the mourners file out. Outside of the church, hidden under an awning of a store, I saw a gaunt grimy homeless man wearing bronze high top sneakers. His small sunken eyes watching. From where I was standing it was difficult to tell but it looked like he was crying. He held up a cardboard sign. In big black magic marker appeared the message: RIP.
A few cars followed the hearse to St. Mary’s cemetery in Flushing, Queens. The final car was a shiny black Jaguar. I could not see who was driving. Upon reaching the cemetery, a tall silver haired man wearing wire framed sunglasses and a finely tailored black suit with a red tie and handkerchief emerged. Was he Edwin? He stood at a distance while the priest prayed, “May Gwendolyn’s soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.”
I then remembered in Wuthering Heights, one of my grandmother’s favorite books, the character Heathcliff screaming at his lover’s death bed “May she never rest in peace.” Could that be Mere’s fate? Would she rest if her killer was caught? Would I?
As I walked alongside the mourners and headed back to the car, I suddenly turned back to take one last look at the casket all alone at the gravesite. How could we just walk away from Mere like that? I was going to lose it. Not here , not now. I kept telling myself. Don’t make a scene. Mere always held it together . She would want me to do the same. I just kept pushing the pain down inside me.
I took a deep breath when I clearly heard Aunt Claire call, “Dennis, Dennis.” Aunt Claire took both his hands in hers and said, “I just want you to know I never thought it was right what happened between your mother and me. Dennis, how about one round for old times’ sake?” Dad’s eyes met mine. He wasn’t one for lingering. “Sure,” he said.
While savoring a couple of Cosmos at a local restaurant she boldly looked at Dad.
“As I started to tell you in the cemetery, I want to clear the air about some things. Not
to be disrespectful of your mother, especially today, but it was your mother who pushed the family away. She always had to be so independent, to prove herself or whatever. She chose a lonely life for herself, but that’s what she wanted. Considering where we came from and what happened when you were born, it is amazing that your mother built a life in Manhattan.”
“What did happen?” I quickly asked. At last someone was willing to tell me.
Aunt Claire shifted in her seat, as she began, “Well we grew up poor in Woodside, but Gwen was always the smart one. That eventually led her to an education at Columbia University and a city lifestyle very different from ours. We didn’t see her that much. Our family did slightly get involved with one of Gwen’s more serious romances. Gwen dated and almost married a wealthy lawyer, who took her out of the loop of Sunday pot roast dinners while she traveled on weekends to Bermuda and to Europe one summer. My parents didn’t feel comfortable with him.”
I immediately thought of the mysterious silver haired man at the cemetery. Was he the mysterious E? I wondered.
I asked, “What’s wrong with a wealthy boyfriend?” Aunt Claire took a sip of her drink. “Our parents were distrustful of the wealthy. Felt they made their money illegally on the backs of the poor.”
“That’s why they broke up?”
“I don’t know for sure. Something about his unethical business practices, fraud of some kind. You know how honest your grandmother was.” Claire rolled her eyes. “Her morals - a pain in the ass, if you ask me. I wouldn’t have any trouble leaving a three room apartment for some rich guy who wined and dined me.” Aunt Claire continued, “Well in her third year at Columbia, Gwen became pregnant.”
“Pregnant with the wealthy lawyer’s child?” I asked.
“Gwen never told who the father was. Not even me.”
“That wealthy lawyer who she was engaged to - did his name begin with E?’
“That’s right. Something like Eddie. I don’t remember anymore. It was so long ago. She broke up with him around the time she got pregnant.”
“Dad, this is a crazy story. Do you know about this?”
“Not really,” my Dad said.
Aunt Claire continued. “It was an entirely different world back then. People didn’t look at single mothers the way they do now. Our parents were strict Catholics to the bone. Well you can imagine. When your mom told us at one Sunday dinner, a terrible silence filled the room. Finally, our mother said, “Oh let’s just call the church and get the first available Saturday for the wedding. Dennis, right from the start, your mother clearly knew she didn’t want to marry your father. That‘s when Pop, furious with Gwen, finally, said, ’Fine. Have it your way, but you brought that child into the world. Now it’s up to you to support it.”
“And she did. She left Columbia and got a secretarial job in the city and finished her library science degree at City University. You and her world of books became her whole life. She managed to save enough to rent an apartment on the Upper West Side. Well I have to hand it to her. She built a life of her own and she never asked any of us for a penny. Zoe, you look so taken aback by all of this. Your dad and grandmother never told you any of this?”
I shook my head no.
“Well, well,” said Aunt Claire, “I’m not that surprised. Hiding our mistakes, our feelings, and our ambitions, that’s all part of your heritage. It all had something to do with an outdated Donovan code of honor. Doesn’t make a bit of sense, but based on what you told me it is clear that the archaic Donovan code of secrecy is still alive and well.”
When we were driving home I begged my dad to tell me about Mere’s past and his missing father,
Clearing his throat Dad said, “Zoe, in today’s world, it’s hard to believe. He’s not listed on my birth certificate. Whenever I asked about him, Mere avoided the issue. She would say, “He’s gone; we’re okay on our own. We don’t need him. We never needed him.”
“I figured he was dead. Even told my friends he was a war hero. It was too painful to talk about it.”
“Yea, Dad. It’s just too painful to keep to ourselves. We never seem to be able to talk about anything,” I said.
“Zoe, I take care of you. Provide money for your food and clothes, just in case your mother didn’t tell you. Isn’t that enough?”
I just lost it and yelled, “Talking about feelings between dads and their kids is important. Then again, what do you know about being a dad, if you never had a dad of your own?”
My father said nothing. His face said all the hurt I had inflicted. That began the deep freeze between us. That weekend after the funeral, we ate, slept and walked in a numb state. I talked to my mom every day, but don’t remember what either of us said. No matter how much I searched my phone or strummed my guitar, I felt empty. I found my chest tightening. Finally on Sunday I went over to Mere’s apartment. Maybe she was still there. Was I brave enough to face her this time?
Today there was no smell of coffee or sound of slippers shuffling - only an empty apartment, a lonely place.
As I sat feeling vacant inside like a giant aluminum garbage can ready to be trashed,
I heard classical piano music coming from upstairs. Noah said he barely played. His instrument was guitar. I walked up the stairs and put my ear to the door. Definitely someone, a virtuoso, a master communicator on the keys was playing. No conversation, no movement indicated that the pianist was alone in the apartment. But who? I raised my fist to knock on the door, but stopped midair.
When I went back to my grandmother’s, I wandered into her bedroom and sat down in a spot Mere had named Zoe’s Corner. It was filled with my childhood books in the small bookcases. I pulled a few books from the tightly packed shelves. Each one unique in its shape and size and weight and design. Picture books bound the most inviting art, whether created on glossy paper with bright water colors or pen and ink or dramatic photographs. These small books through their poetic language transported me to magical worlds.
I continued to page through the picture books. With my finger I rhythmically traced the dramatic illustrations of Harold and the Purple Crayon. If I only had a crayon that created a world with Mere still in it. Suddenly a draft filled the room. The window was shut tight. On the bedroom floor lay my copy of Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes. Suddenly the pages of the book quickly turned and stopped. When I picked up the book, the page was opened to “Little Miss Muffet.” My eyes were riveted to the ink sketch of the black spider “who sat down beside her.” I had to force the book to close.
Then I opened my grandmother’s clothes closet. Next to her beige raincoat was the big maroon cable knit sweater that Mere put on when she came home from work. Sipping her coffee, she would sit in her chair with Percy curled up on her lap. It made me happy to think about those times when Mere would say, “And Zoe, how was your day?” Miraculously I would just open up and share with Merek the stories of my day - the good and the bad. Unlike my parents, she never judged me.
I carefully took out the sweater and held it close. It still held Mere’s scent. I wrapped myself in it and sat crying and crying on the floor. Clinging to her sweater, I fell asleep. I dreamt I saw Mere dressed in her sweater going into the library with a trail of spiders following her.