Fischer, Joan (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 51, Number 3 (Summer 2005)
Randa's umbrella, pp. 42-47
011111111 don't let her keep it, you naughty boy! You have to give it to her to prove you're no longer in love with your dead wife. Everyone says you are because you visit her every Saturday at Forest Park Cemetery in Indianapolis. You speak to your daughters and grandson on the phone too, even though you're married to me. No one has ever heard of such blind devotion to a dead spouse, and everyone is talking about it." I want to feel triumph at seeing my old enemy brought low. For thirteen years I vowed I'd wear my red silk dress embla- zoned with enormous blue morning glo- ries to her funeral. I'd bring a case of champagne to celebrate. I'd dance on her grave, in plain sight of the elderly Latvians conventionally dressed in black. But here I am, in a soft beige suit, a long silk scarf with birds of paradise under my green raincoat, my large oval amber earrings partially hidden by my hair. Ancient Latvians believed that amber could guard against illness and heal wounds, so the earrings should pro- tect me from Randa as effectively as garlic from vampires. I look respectable, but it's obvious I'm not in mourning. Instead of polite silence or discreet wiping of tears I hear squirming and whispering behind me. Juris and Lita, Randa's grown children, and Papa go up to the open coffin to take leave, but no one else does, not even to make sure she's really dead. They're all afraid of her too. A schmaltzy rendition of Brahms' Lullaby starts up in one of the side alcoves of the funeral home parlor, screeches to a stop, and starts all over again. It's only eleven in the morning, but Victor the Violinist has probably had a drink already. Forty years ago, when he arrived from the Displaced Persons' Camps in Germany, he was a musician accomplished enough to be offered a position with the Indianapolis Symphony even though he didn't speak a word of English. But desperate drink- ing lost him that job as well as others in "continental" bars and restaurants, where low lights and his dark good looks transformed him into the Gypsy Violinist. Now in his seventies, Victor likes funerals. People address him as memnir Artist Victor and there is good food, plenty of wine, and sometimes vodka at the meal afterward. The elderly Latvians sit patiently as Victor stumbles and starts for the third time. He is one of them, they know his past and his weaknesses, but they are just as glad that no Americans, who might judge him differently, are present. None of Randa's acquaintances, neigh- bors, or nursing aides from the hospital where she worked before my father mar- ried her has come to see her off. "What can we learn from this woman's life?" the middle-aged minister who has recently taken over Papa's congregation asks. The question, in his peculiarly accented Latvian acquired during his childhood in Brazil, receives no response from the two dozen or so of us scattered throughout the large room. He does not really expect us to answer because spontaneous verbal exchanges between minister and congregation are unheard of during the formal Lutheran services, but he looks ill at ease. He shuffles his notes, fails to find the answer, picks up his copy of the New Testament by the spine and shakes it until stray pieces of paper float down. "We must live so as to gain a wiser heart," he announces and hops, quick as a grasshopper, to his seat. Randa's son Juris, her only true mourner, wipes his eyes. Grief-stricken and thin, he looks a lot older than when I last saw him three years ago. Her daughter Lita goes up to the coffin for the second time and tugs at her mother. Then she turns around, stage-whispers "I got the rings," and drops something into Papa's hand. Lights flash. Either someone with a camera has chosen to document this moment or another thun- derstorm is arriving. Funeral home functionaries instead of pallbearers slide the coffin into a hearse, and I wonder whether my father is sad instead of only relieved. No longer will Randa paste hairs across the doors before leaving for the grocery store so she can check whether he, an upstand- ing Lutheran minister in his eighties, is sneaking next door to cavort with the head of the Ladies' Committee at church, a ninety-two-year-old widow. WISCONSIN ACADEMY REVIEW SUMMER 2005 43 Nor will she phone him every hour on the hour the minute he arrives for one of his rare visits with me and my sister to announce that she has pneumonia, breast cancer, a slipped disk and a swollen ankle, and that he must catch the next plane to take her to the hospi- tal. I've never believed any of her com- plaints, but here she has up and died and proven me wrong. She had reasons for disliking me too. "Don't marry her, Papa," I said. "She'll make you miserable." She didn't even offer us a cup of coffee the first time I met her because she was too busy berating him for being unfaithful. A young woman in his congregation, whose father's funeral service he had conducted, had kissed him on the cheek when he wished her strength and courage in the coming days. "It doesn't matter to me," Randa said. "I have too many admirers of my own, but the whole congregation is talking about it." Dear, innocent Papa. He thought her jealousy was "feminine" and a sign of love. Nor did he catch on when Randa shoved my sister Beate aside as she tried to hug him on the steps of the church to wish him merry Christmas. (We were, of course, not allowed access to him otherwise on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.) "Get away," she hissed. "He's mine." She pushed Beate again, almost toppling her onto the hard pave- ment below. But Papa must have quoted my warning to Randa in a moment of marital intimacy or, more likely, in the midst of an argument. Flashes of lightning, startling claps of thunder, and a violent downpour almost drown out an elderly member of the congregation who touches my elbow and whispers. "Country people in Latvia used to say that a storm during a funeral meant that the deceased wasn't a good person." "People sent her a lot of flowers though," I point out. "That's because your father asked for flowers instead of donations to the con- gregation or to the Latvian Society. She wouldn't have a wilted dandelion her- self. They're for your father really." "And for her children." They're one reason I didn't wear my red silk dress.
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