A tea caddy, that’s what the first generation Irish called it, about nine inches tall and six wide; a dull black finish with a gold trim on the lid and base of the tin. It sat in our kitchen for decades, on the gas stove next to the stainless steel kettle. My father bought it in Sharon, Connecticut one autumn when we all went leaf peeping. That was back in 1970. My mother was still alive then. They were two very different people, my mother and father.
My mother was concerned with respectability, and my father was concerned with penny pinching. She pursued her notion of what was proper with passion, how we dressed, behaved in church, our manners, our behavior and efforts in school. My father threw nothing away. Everything might be useful at one point in the future. Even a rusty washer and screw might be useful. When the items had found their second life, my father exclaimed, “I always knew that washer and screw would come in useful!”
The garage, although intended for two cars, could accommodate none. Instead, it became useful as a graveyard of sorts, a resting place really, for all the things that he would find uses for in their second, Frankenstein-like life. Muscular Ken’s arms replaced Barbie’s arms when our dog, a stray whom we adopted, chewed Ken’s head and then repeated the offence on Barbie’s arms, earning her the nickname, “Bench press Barbie.” The word “frugal” is too expensive of a word to use to describe my Dad. Frugality pays off. We all got good educations and ended up in decent careers.
The real difference emerged on that drive back from Sharon. The changing leaves always made my mother melancholy. Autumn, beautiful hues aside, was the season before everything died.
“When my time on this earth ends,” she said, “I want you all to promise me not to give me a Potter’s Field burial.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake Sally!” my father roared, “We’ll talk about it when you’re dead. Alright?”
“No! It’s not alright!” Turning to face him directly, she wagged a cautionary finger at him, and then leaned on her seat to face the three of us sitting in the back. My comic book pulled away; I could not pretend to ignore her, indifference was no longer an option.
“I want a decent funeral when it is my time. Don’t let him nickel and dime my funeral.”
Her time came twenty-five years later. By then the black tea caddy no longer stored tealeaves. Instead, it stood on the workbench in the garage; along with the rusty nails, screws, and whatever else my father was saving, “Just in case,” he might need it later.
The tea caddy now stored tulip bulbs. He would plant them in the fall, after the frost. Then in the late spring, after the blooms had withered away to leather-like scraps, he dug the bulbs up and stored them in the tea caddy.
My mother’s fall melancholy, was it premonition? I do not know. She died on November 25 in 1995. We had a hard frost two weeks before she passed away. In a fit of energy, and a need for distraction, my father planted the tulip bulbs the week before she died. The tea caddy was empty.
He took the news of her death hard, but being of a generation of men who refused to cry in public, he busied himself with her funeral arrangements. “An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop,” he said, and went to work calling the funeral parlor and the parish priest.
The four of us, my two sisters, my father and I, went straight from the hospital to the funeral parlor. The showroom, filled with the smell of lilies, displayed caskets stacked three units high on the walls. Oak, veneer, solid bronze or copper, 18 by 20 gauge steel caskets. It was just like buying a car. Made to look pretty, hanging from the walls to display their well-crafted angles, the caskets are already luring my sister Mary.
“She would have wanted the copper casket,” my sister said, stroking it, as if it were a racecar that had just won the Grand Prix.
“A fine choice,” the funeral parlor director assured her. “Many families prefer the copper because of its beauty, durability, and its capability to keep water and air out, in addition to its non-rusting qualities.”
“Who cares?” my father said, throwing his hands out to his sides. He is wearing his blue tweed jacket, with navy blue suede elbow patches that need patching.
“I beg your pardon, sir?” The funeral director did a few quick blinks of disgust and turned to face him.
“The coffin, I mean, really? The fact that air, water and rust can’t damage it? Who cares? Won’t she be buried six feet under?”
“Dad, please, don’t do this.” Mary, is the most like my mother. She looks like her and values appearances like her also.
“Why?” my father asks.
“It is what she wanted, you know that. Come on now,” she pleads.
“How much for that coffin?” my father says, pointing at the Rosetan Satin Premium Velvet Dark Copper casket, the one that Mary claims my mother would want.
“This beautiful casket,” the funeral parlor director opens the lid, revealing the quilted, pinkish-white satin lined interior, “is eight thousand and five hundred dollars before tax, sir.”
My father does an empathic nod in Mary’s direction.
“Just chump change, right?”
She shakes her head, and walks away from him and the tears start flowing.
“What else do you have?” my sister Katherine asks, and shrugs her shoulders at me. We are more like my dad. We are not tight with money, but Katie and I seem to have inherited the “is it really worth it?” gene from him.
“There are the coffins used for cremation,” the man says, closing the lid and the deal on the Rosetan Satin Premium Velvet Dark Copper casket.
“Are they cheaper?” my father asks, and Katie and I shoot each other a quick smile.
“The Jackson Oak/Veneer Rosetan Satin is significantly less expensive, sir,” and the once polished, polite voice is now brassy and tinged with disgust.
“Now you’re talking my language,” my father says, and rubs his hands together. “Let’s have a look at it,” he says.
“It is cheap looking!” Mary is clearly not impressed with the next item on the menu.
My father ignores her comment and continues: “How much for this one?”
The gloves are off, no more “sirs” from the funeral director.
— “Three thousand and seven hundred.”
— “For something that goes up in flames?”
“Come on now, Dad,” I say, “We’ve got to bury mom in something.”
I can tell by the pinched up face of the funeral parlor director that he is losing patience with my dad.
—“That’s just the beginning.” He stands defiantly in front of my father, clasps his hands together, and delivers the news of what else is coming down the pipe with a smear of a smile across his face.
“The embalming, make-up, wake, church, plot, which I do hope you have secured already, hearse, digging of the grave, headstone, the engraving, and of course you’ll want to feed those who travel from out of town to the service, will all cost you, and are taxed,” he says with flourish.
Dad nods a couple of times.
— “How much to cremate her?” The old man never blinks an eye. Neither does the funeral parlor director.
— “No, there’s sixteen percent tax on that.”
He does a quick count on his fingers, “Nine hundred and twenty eight?”
— “I usually get tipped for my services.”
— “Nine hundred and twenty eight it is. That’ll suit me fine.”
— “Then you’ll need to see urns.”
— “I’m all set, thanks.”
My sisters and I watch the staccato like delivery as if we are at a tennis match; our heads swinging back and forth, left to right, right to left.
— “There are state codes and laws.”
— “Glad to hear it,” my father says, “So we bring her here for the cremation?”
— “No, the people at the hospital morgue will.”
— “Is that extra?”
Mary grabs her head in her hands, “Dad! Stop it!”
He raises his hand to silence her. “Hey, wait a minute. This is my wife, my money we’re talking about here.”
“And my mother!”
“Alright then Mary, you pay for the whole kit and caboodle. Soup to nuts, Mary. She’s all yours.”
“What’s the breakdown with the Rosetan Satin Premium Velvet Dark Copper casket and everything else?” Mary asks politely.
“Let’s take a seat in my office mam.” The funeral parlor director leads her down the hallway. Mary disappears behind Venetian wood doors for about ten minutes, then emerges, pale faced and solemn.
“The tea caddy’s beginning to not look so bad after all, huh?” Dad says, and pats her on the shoulder.
“Do you have a burial plot in a graveyard?” The funeral director is seemingly delighted in delivering more bad news.
“Nope. The front yard will do just fine.”
“Make sure you are not breaking any state laws,” he says, and hands my father a pamphlet, Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death. “And you might want to do this discreetly. Even if your wife is cremated, your neighbors might not like the idea of her ashes being buried in their neighborhood.”
“Well, I don’t like the idea of being taxed to death either,” my father says, and takes the pamphlet from him.
“Sorry for your loss,” the man says, and shakes our hands before retreating behind the Venetian wooden doors.
“I always knew that tea caddy would come in useful one day,” my father says, slapping the pamphlet across the palm of his left hand.