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The Funeral Tie
I had a solid 52 hours in California before I turned around and got back on a plane over my winter break, December 2018. My girlfriend and I had flown home from school together, from the crisp (albeit yes, freezing) North Dakota air to the car exhaust choking, pollution packed smoking terminals of LAX. The car honking, yelling, smoggy haze that hung over L.A. like a curtain seemed to draw back and welcome Melanie and I as we lugged our bags to my mom’s parked car, who’d flown out that day to Pennsylvania. Top heavy and jet lagged we pushed through, dipping and ducking around car fumes and plunging along through the throng of buses and Ubers to the parking structure.
“Jesus Christ Jodi,” I muttered, seeing the Rudolf-adorned, eye-lashed mascara-ed Honda CRV come into view, front and center.
“Welcome home!” Mel giggled manically, knowing how much I loathed driving mom’s car around with all of her-tasteful- embellishments. Our feet slapped the pavement in an unfamiliar way. There wasn’t snow crunching underneath? My ankles weren’t cold?
I fumbled around the tire well before finding the key, and then Mel and I were off, throwing bags in the back and getting ready for the hours long drive home. Without FastTrack.
In case you’re unaware, getting back to Corona from L.A. at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon was the definition of a ‘b****.’ Webster’s may as well list a picture of the 405 and 91 freeways in their dictionary under ‘shitty.’ That being said, we had to choose between the lesser of two evils. We could get food and let the commute stretch to more like three and a half or four hours, or we could skip food and spend three hours hangry and bickering.
Opting for the former, we made an obligatory stop at In-n-Out, having not had the amazing burgers in close to five months, and in true Californian fashion chose comfort over functionality.
It wasn’t long after sitting down in a too-cold, white plastic booth that Mel reached over and put our phones down and took my hands and told me she loved me. Her freckles shined on her skin, a million little spotlights and kisses I’d yet to administer to them, all seemed to blink at me. Her eyes I swore were green and she never agreed, but hazel sounded over dramatic and they were far from the dark brown on my own, I guess you could call them an earth tone as a compromise, but they were off in those moments. I’d just spent nine and a half hours traveling with her, five months living together, and God knows how much time total in a car together. I knew her eyes, and these weren’t right.
“He died didn’t he?” I asked. I never seemed to have the compassion to use euphemisms like ‘passed away’ or even ‘expired.’ ‘Died’ was harsh, and it is harsh. He didn’t die in a horrible car accident or natural disaster, but to die is still harsh. He’s still gone.
She didn’t answer me, but her eyes watered more and that was all the confirmation I needed.
There was this rock at my grandparents, a huge boulder that we swore got smaller every time we visited. It was weathered by the Pennsylvania winters, pelting rain and snow that seeped into each of the cracks and then refroze, expanding the pressures inside before bit by bit, the rock slowly lost crumbles of its granite. The boulder was seated atop a flat piece of slate, keeping the top perfectly level and creating an optimal king-of-the-hill play space.
Sloping south of it was a sweeping green lawn that never seemed to die. My sister and family and I had, of course, the perpetuated idea of longevity, of Harveys Lake’s eternal youth-ness, as we only ever visited in the summer. Before the winter of 2018, I’d never seen it a different way. Pennsylvania was my green hideaway, as though an enormous blanket of moss layered the state. So unlike my Southern California home, the forests that ran up to the two lane turnpikes (more like, the turnpikes that cut through the forests) always seemed to wave when we were driving in from the Philly airport. Almost instantly, from the moment we got off the plane, we were greeted by the very not Californian-ness of it all.
My grandparents lived just off of the most beautiful lake you’ve ever laid eyes on. From an aerial view, it seems to form a capital ‘J’, the penmanship kind with a long top like an uppercase ‘T’. Though they’d never been able to afford property right on the lake, which nowadays has skyrocketed astronomically, they don’t live more than a mile from it. The road that hugs the lake all the way around is a two-laner, barely wide enough in some parts to let two cars pass, and has a max speed of 30 miles per hour. Though there’s plenty sharp curves and hairpin like turns, my ultimate driving test came when I was 19 that winter and my mom had me set the cruise at exactly 30, and I was not to break going around any of the turns. Not for the faint of heart and not to be outdone, I excelled at my mom’s test.
If at the first intersection past the Grotto (a legendary pizza place) you were to make a left instead of follow the lake, you’d pass the Lakeside Skillet on your right (an equally legendary breakfast place) and follow the road for a quarter mile before bearing left onto a gravel drive. Of course, it wouldn’t be summer if my grandfather wasn’t out there complaining about all the modified that the rain had washed out of the drive way and now sat at the bottom of Taylor Lane.
My grandparents, Charlie and Barbara, were the first to plant their double-wide trailer down at the top of that hilly road, which is why the street is named what it is. The filthy, rust red sign was barely visible most of the time from the road, and many a great day I spent out ankle deep in gravel wondering what tools I needed to get it down for my taking.
When you try to find my grandparent’s home on Google Maps, you can’t. They apparently have never had one of their special cars with what seems like a spaceship on top rattle up the half mile long drive way to check it out, and even off of street view the little red home is blocked by the forest that surrounds them. Though, this is the allure of Harveys Lake to many. My grandparents were neighbors to the rock band Breaking Benjamin, and while their own double wide trailer was mostly obscured, the mini-mansion next to them couldn’t been seen at all. Starting into that driveway seemed like starting a trip back in time.
With as much precision as I could muster, I meticulously pulled and folded and twisted the tie I had brought with me to wear to the funeral. My grandfather (we called him Poppy) was the first major death in I’d ever experienced in my life. Beyond that, it was only the second funeral I’d been too as well, and apparently East coast funerals are made to be as horribly long and arduous and knife-twistingly saddening as possible.
I pinched the bottom of the knot on the white tie and finished it out, adjusting the length some. I buttoned up my vest over it and stepped back from the mirror.
The thing with wearing a suit as a girl, with the full tie and vest and polished shoes, is that if you don’t get it totally right you’ll look like an idiot. You’d already be a spectacle, dressed like that, so it had to be perfect. It was.
I wore all black, so much black that the tie looked florescent against me. It was dotted with these bright blue flowers and their green stems, in no discernable pattern I could make out. It was exactly the kind of thing a funeral needed.
While I’m sure that so much has change from my mother and her siblings, and my grandparents (though now only my grandma), in my twenty years 15 Taylor Lane has been exactly the same. Out just twenty feet from my grandparent’s front door is the same dilapidated ski shack, easily 75 or 100 years old, that’s been slowly, slowly, being consumed by the brush and new fall leaves every year. When I was 7, I could make out the upper third of the house, its wooden panels and tar-stamped roof. When I was 11, it was mostly the roof, kneeled over and slanted to one side, that was holding out against the decay. When I went back that winter, when my grandfather died, was the only time I had ever acknowledge that time did indeed pass in Harveys Lake. I attended his funeral, and by then the house was all but gone.