I can still hear my mother, “White, I want white flowers. Nothing colorful. This is a good white.” She was pointing to a bouquet of flowers I had brought her. “Memorize this color white.”
I’m not sure when she started telling us what kind of flowers she wanted at her funeral. It was long before she ever got sick. I think she went to a friend’s funeral where the flower arrangements were so tacky she felt visually assaulted. That’s when she started instructing us as to what she wanted at hers. The discussion was partly in jest and partly her way of keeping us cultured. My mother was all about appearances.
Cousin Carol was there for many of the lectures. I remember once Cousin Carol brought a new boyfriend over when the discussion went to my mother’s funeral. She launched into her usual detail about the specific white she wanted. He was noticeably horrified and wasn’t sure how to react. Cousin Carol spent many summers with us and knowing my mother, just laughed through the description.
My mother had wanted us to be close to our cousins. In the summers, we didn’t go to sleep away camp. Instead, we were shipped to each others homes so that we’d bond. The starting age was about 5 when you’d go on “vacation” to various relatives’ homes. She loved her cousins and wanted us to have the same relationships with ours as we aged. She was right, we are close and it was those summers of bonding that sealed it.
One summer Cousin Carol stayed for something like 4 weeks. It might have even been longer than that. At the end of every week, my mother would ask her, “Are you ready to go home?” She was around 8 with a lot of energy and for the longest time her answer was “No.” Many nights she insisted on going to bed in her bathing suit so she’d be ready to swim first thing in the morning. My mother would argue with her about it but in the end Cousin Carol slept in her bathing suit. Morning would come first with the birds singing over the steady hum of the fan in our window. Then the squirrels would have raucous races up and down our roof. We slept under the eaves and the tiny pounding of their feet would wake us. That was our cue to go downstairs for breakfast. We’d have cereal with blueberries picked from our bushes in the yard. While we sat there eating with bed heads and sheet marks still embedded in our faces my mother would sing. Different tunes but many times it was, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” We’d roll our eyes in mock embarrassment.
After my mother’s death we had to put together the wake and funeral. All of us remembered and agreed – white flowers. I didn’t go into desperate detail with the woman at the florist about the EXACT white that was needed. I was in mourning and details such as that had to be let go of for us to move on. I told the funeral director that anyone calling about flowers should be told to purchase white ones.
When I walked into the funeral home nearly every flower was white and it was emotionally suffocating. There was one bouquet in the corner. That one had sunflowers and blue hydrangeas and was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. The card attached read; You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. Love, Cousin Carol. My heart ached with pain I had never known before. Even though it took my mother months of agony to die, the intense loss came as a surprise. She was gone.
My mother was right about a lot of things but all white floral arrangements in a funeral parlor was not one of them. People attending and mourning need color to soften the pain in their hearts. I told Cousin Carol how much I loved the arrangement and I mentioned, “Didn’t you remember my mother’s request for white flowers?”
“Remember?” she said, “Who could forget! I hate white flowers so I just ignored her.”
You’re not supposed to laugh at wakes but there I was with a belly full. My mother would have smiled too. Since then, every summer when the hydrangea are in bloom I make bouquets and include sunflowers. They make me think of my mother, my Cousin Carol and the summers of my childhood and of course, they make me laugh.