As some of you may know, for more than twelve years, I worked in funeral service. I met exceptional people who taught me many things.
Stories like this are why I loved working in funeral service.
And stories like this are why I hated it.
* * *
Walter Pitman sits across from me, his hands clamped around a mug of coffee. He stares down at the table, though I’m sure he doesn’t really see the hand-polished mahogany. Thin wisps of white hair are carefully combed back. His plaid shirt is buttoned at the collar.
He looks so lost, is all I can think.
I open the white folder labelled with his wife’s name.
“Mr. Pitman?” I keep my voice soft, soothing.
He looks up at me, almost seems surprised to see me sitting there. I curve my lips—not a smile, but rather an expression of encouragement. It would, after all, be inappropriate to smile.
“I have a few questions to ask you, so that I can fill out the necessary government forms.”
He nods, rotates his coffee cup.
“Did your wife have a middle name?”
He looks up at the ceiling. “Ruth. Martha Ruth.”
I write Mrs. Pitman’s name on the file and ask a few more questions: What was her maiden name? What was her birth date? Where was she born?
“Did she work outside of the home?” I ask him.
Mr. Pitman surprises me by nodding. His wife was eighty-seven. Hers was a generation of proud homemakers. I wait, my pen poised above the folder.
“She looked after me.” His eyes glisten but he manages a smile. “She took very good care of me.”
“I can see that she did.” I put down my pen, link my hands together. This isn’t the time to write. It is the time to listen.
“It’s just the two of us. We don’t have children.” He shrugs. “Some things are not meant to be.”
I say nothing, simply nod my understanding.
“We have many nieces and nephews.” He grins. “We spoil them.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“We travelled quite a bit.” Somewhat at ease now, he sips his coffee. “Martha loved to travel. She always had to buy something, some little knick knack, to prove that we were there.”
“What kind of things did she like to buy?”
Mr. Pitman sits back in his chair. “Oh, you know, ceramic bowls, figurines…” His voice trails off.
“Figurines?” I prompt.
He sits up again, shakes his head. “She collected those figurines from the tea boxes. You know the ones?”
I nod. “The Red Rose figurines. My mother collects them, too.”
He snorts. “I hate those damned things. Dust collectors is what they are.”
I bite back a smile. How many times had I heard my father grumble the same thing?
“She lined them up across the window ledge above the kitchen sink.” He waves his hands back and forth to demonstrate. “I got fed up one day and swept them all into a drawer. I didn’t say a word, mind you. Just went about my business. She didn’t say anything either.” He sips his coffee. “But the next morning, they were all lined up across the window ledge.”
I smile now.
“Before I went to bed that night, I put them all in the drawer.” Mr. Pitman thumps the table with his fist. “Next morning, they’re back.”
This time, I laugh. I can’t help myself. He laughs, too.
“This went on for years,” he says. “Every night I would stash them in the drawer and every bloody morning I’d wake up and they’d be lined up across the window ledge, as if they’d been there forever.”
His smile fades then and the back of my neck tingles. He cups his mug with both hands.
“When she became sick,” he looks up at me, “I mean really sick, and I could no longer take care of her, she moved into the home.” His gaze shifts, and he stares over my shoulder at some distant memory. “For the last two weeks, every night before going to bed, I've put those damned figurines into the drawer. And every bloody morning, I've taken them out and lined them up on the window ledge.”
He clears his throat. His moist, gray eyes shift to mine. “She would have wanted that,” he says.
I nod. “Yes she would.”