My mother was a character, a cross between Carol Channing and Phyllis Diller, who in her day, looked like Marilyn Monroe. She drew the spotlight wherever she went. After a full and, in many ways untraditional life, she passed away peacefully July 26th at the age of 91. She’d been under excellent care at The Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging and while Parkinson’s took it’s toll on her, she hung in there, and we would continue to see glimpses of the oversized personality that we loved right ‘til the end.
Most of the arrangements had been made at the mortuary; all but one. Her epitaph.
My sister, April, and I remembered what she’d wanted, but I needed to make sure, hunting down an essay I’d written in 2010 when she’d mentioned it on a visit to Dougie’s niche on the fifth anniversary of his passing. I jotted the epitaph down on a slip of paper then reread an essay I’d written in 2005 the day after Mom and Dougie had purchased their cremation niche.
“The Gated Community”
Mom had called me early the morning after she and Dougie had purchased their cremation niches.
“I’ve finally made it into showbiz!” she’d said.
In my morning haze, I couldn’t figure out what on earth show business had to
do with cremation niches.
“Fannie Brice is buried close to ours. She has all her group reserved there, and we’ll be in the same area as Carol Burnett’s family. But, guess who’s right across the lawn from us?”
“Who, Mom?” Now, I was fully awake.
“Marilyn Monroe! You know, people used to say that we look alike. Do you realize that she’d be the same age as me if she’d lived?”
I pushed back the pillows and sat up in the bed. “It’s hard for me to talk about this with you, Mom. It scares me.”
“Relax, I’ll take you there next week,” she’d offered. “Then, you can see it for yourself.
“What a way to start the morning,” I said to my mother, as we drove past the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevard, supposedly, the busiest intersection in the world. “What street do I turn on?”
“Let me see…Glendon! That’s it!” She pointed her index finger at the next street sign on the right. Her acrylic nail looked ridiculously long and was painted metallic gold.
I made a right and reduced my speed to a crawl.
“Turn in here!” Mom said suddenly.
“This leads to the cemetery?” I asked. “The sign says ‘Theatre Parking.’”
“That’s if you go left. See, there’s an arrow on the right.” She pointed the gold talon again. A little diamond ornament on the end of her nail caught the sunlight. “Plain as day,” she said. “Westwood Village Memorial Park.”
“This place isn’t easy to find.” I steered my Volvo wagon into the narrow driveway behind a bank. “I can’t believe your cemetery shares an alley with a multi-plex theatre in the middle of Westwood Village.”
“Been here for years,” Mom said. “Westwood’s a great location. I’ll be so happy here in the middle of all these tall buildings. And, it’s just a stone’s throw from Beverly Hills.”
The grounds were peaceful and manicured. A variety of shade trees created a natural setting among the tombstones that were embedded in the lawn. Impatiens, azaleas, and begonias in cheery pink colors were in full bloom.
In the distance, at the far end of the cemetery, a small crowd of people gathered in a circle. Everyone was dressed in black, except for one tall man in tan slacks and a dark blue shirt. I looked away, to give them their privacy.
My mother, who was Dougie’s fourth wife, is a youthful seventy-seven. And, my stepfather, Dougie, Mom’s third husband, is eighty-six. They were a pair. He’d just recovered from heart surgery and hired a “low key” personal trainer at the gym. I was glad that Mom was so enthusiastic about their “final resting place,” but the whole idea of their dying made me uneasy.
I parked the car by a path just outside the small chapel adjacent to the offices of the mortuary. While Mom walked slowly, enjoying the beauty of the grounds, I stepped up my pace and looked straight ahead past the open door of the chapel for fear of seeing something morbid, like a coffin.
Once we entered the office, a bland-looking gentleman, somewhere in his thirties, standing behind a high desk on the phone, motioned for us to take a seat in the foyer. “I’ll be right with you,” he mouthed.
“Let’s just stand,” I said to Mom, not missing the boxes of Kleenex discreetly placed on every tabletop.
“Mrs. MacDougall?” the man asked my mother after he hung up the phone. His hair matched the color of his beige dress shirt; his skin, a shade lighter. He directed us to another room and he told us to wait for Enid, the sales rep, who’d helped Mom and Dougie secure their final resting place. “She’ll only be a minute,” he said. “Make yourself at home.”
Home? I thought, as we made our way past a large television that was playing a documentary tribute on the life of Ronald Reagan to an empty room.
My mother plopped down at the table and instantly took out a small spiral notebook, she refers to as her “Tablet,” and crossed off “Cemetery-Heather.”
I continued to stand, way too uptight to sit. “Mom, those casket molding things,” I nodded in the direction of the far wall displaying various casts of partial caskets. “It’s like shopping for carpet, you know, with samples and all? Weird.”
“Don’t be silly,” she laughed, “People are dying to get in here.”
I walked over to the urns on display at the opposite corner of the room. Little white tiles with prices were placed at the base of each urn.
“Look,” Mom said, pointing to a cylindrical copper urn on the end of the bottom shelf. “That’s ours!”
“This one?” I tapped it as if it were sizzling hot. “The price says $450. Mom, it’s the cheapest one.” I suggested that maybe she should have gone with the cloisonné one, or maybe the porcelain one with the roses.
“Did Dougie talk you into the plain one?” I asked. She’d mentioned earlier how Dougie had unsuccssefully tried to bargain with Enid to get a discount on their plots. He’d already purchased two for himself and his third wife, Marion. “Look,” he’d told Enid, “I don’t want to be next to her anymore. That leaves an empty spot that you can sell again.”
“No, I wanted the plain urn. But, wait ‘till you see our actual niche,” she said, enthusiastically. “Dougie went all out for that one.”
Enid appeared at the doorway, smiling wide. “Good Morning, Mrs. MacDougall. And, this must be your daughter.” Her fixed smile fixed dripped down just a hair. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
I could tell that she adored my lively mother. Mom greeted her with a wave of her pen, causing the red and white sequins spelling out “chic” on her blue t-shirt to shimmer under the bright ceiling light.
“I’m still looking,” she said to Enid, referring to her efforts to find a man for her. Mom was always setting people up and offering relationship advice. “I just don’t know any single guys anymore, and with your kind of work, the timing’s all wrong for you to meet somebody.”
Enid was dressed in an appropriate somber blue skirt and blazer with a lacey white camisole peeking out from the top of her jacket. She was prim and professional, but the camisole signaled that she had a little flair. Leave it to Mom to find out that Enid was single and would love to find a mate.
“How do you deal with all the families and their grief?” I asked Enid.
“With compassion,” she answered in a soothing voice. “There’s no real training for compassion. You just have to have it in you.”
“You’ll just love where we are,” Mom interrupted, too thrilled with their purchase to think of much else. “It’s very exclusive,” she added, fiddling with her frosted bobbed hairdo. “We’re in the Garden Gated Estates!”
“Then, shall we?” Enid swept her hand toward the door.
As we headed down the path to Mom’s “gated community,” I was constantly aware of the internment at the other end of the park.
Enid led us to a granite column about seven feet high. “This is where your parents will be,” she told me.
I fingered the blank gold leaf plaque at the top of the monument.
“See, we have top billing!” Mom said.
I looked around at the bright yellow and orange marigolds and the elegant row of topiary rose bushes nearby.
“Not bad, eh?”
“Everything’s done,” Enid said, “Except your parent’s have to pick an epitaph.”
“She’s doing it,” Mom said, pointing to me.
“You’ll know the right thing to say.”
“How about ‘Together Forever,’” I offered, remembering one of the epitaphs on display in the offices.
“No,” Mom said. “You never know what happens in the afterlife and I don’t want to be tied down.”
Mom chatted with Enid, but I fazed out of the conversation. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the far end of the lawn. Two gardeners had arrived on the scene, and there were some gaps in the tightly knit group now. I hadn’t seen the casket before. The gardeners, in their Village Memorial Park uniforms, gently lowered the casket into the ground. Couples and threesomes embraced.
On the way out, I drove slowly around the perimeter of the park and Mom proudly pointed out Marilyn Monroe’s grave with the ever-present fresh flower.
“I can’t deal with all of this. I don’t want to think about your dying, Mom.”
“Look, sweetheart,” she said. “When I wake up each morning, if there are no candles burning, and if I don’t see any flowers or hear music, I get up.”
“But, how can you be so at ease with this?”
“Listen, darling, I love life. You know I do,” she explained. “But, frankly, Heather, this is reality.”
As soon as we turned out of the gate, Mom pulled the visor down and started to paint her lips with her favorite, Revlon’s “Crystal Cut Coral.” She swept the tube round and round her lips. Smacking them, she flipped the visor back up.
“So, how about going to The Cheesecake Factory?” she asked, tossing the lipstick back in her oversized white purse. “I love the bread there.”
I looked down at the slip of paper and called the mortuary.
While on hold for Enid’s replacement, Kathleen, I thought about what Mom’s nurse, Roxy, had said to me about the day before Mom passed away. “I’ve got to go,” Mom’d told her. She’d had her hair done and her glittery clutch bag was at her side. “My husband is calling for me.”
“Which one?” Roxy’d asked.
“The last one.”
Feeling the grief over her passing – expected, but never fully prepared for –I smiled to myself. Someone said to me that Heaven would never be the same. I can hear her now. “Hats and horns!”
“This is Kathleen.”
“Hi Kathleen, it’s Heather Haldeman. Ok, it’s what we thought.”
“Go ahead, I’m ready.”
“Ciao Bello,” she said. “Got it.”