How to Bury a Mother

(Conventional Homes and Gardens)

When your mother said she wants her body buried at ​home​, she does not mean the suburbs you learned how to ride your bike around, nor the city streets she loved to wander, nor the ranch house her and your father grew even older in until they couldn’t find space for all those years anymore. No, she didn’t even mean her childhood home, the one you’ve never seen and never will see, somewhere out in the poor neighborhoods of Rio, the place where your mother learned to fear for her life and the place she taught you to forget about.

So, when you hop off that plane and check into your hotel and deal with the body and all the people and your own overwhelming emotion, you finally step into the convent of Saint Teresa, and you finally see what she meant. The church out front might have been beautiful if it weren’t for the rain and for the crying, and probably most of all, for the years of abandoned girls being dropped at its doorstep. In that threshold, you can feel them there, all of them, feel your mother there, watching tearfully as her father says he’ll back, only to leave and never return. You can almost see her, small and thin, with those knobby-knees and that frizzy hair (well, maybe you’re picturing yourself), standing and turning into the arm of a nun with leathery hands and little patience.

You follow her inside and then again through the back and then stop. In the courtyard behind the sacristy, abutted by the currently full schoolhouse, there is no grass—you can imagine there hasn’t been grass for a longtime, too, just dust and dirt, infertile, dampened into mud by rain and by tears. Your guide, the woman who apparently takes care of this place, who clicked her tongue when you shamefully told her Eu nao falo portugues,​ brings you to the window overlooking the graveyard, where your mother’s headstone was set up before the rain. Hers is almost laughably the newest, but that was your mother. Always getting the last laugh. As you look through the cracked stained glass, at the wet corners of the ceiling, between old, ugly pews and falling-apart hymnals, where is she? You cannot see her anymore, but then your guide, waving a hand, leads you to the dorms where your mother slept and gossiped and was bullied, the bed frames lining the room, and you wonder which rusty frame was hers.

And then there she is, fifteen now, looking fresh out of a photograph you keep forgotten on your dresser. Yes, there she is, thin and freckled, sitting with her books and her silence, plotting away in her head, plans of New York City and escape. You can’t bring yourself to disturb her, so you wander back and there’s that courtyard, all mud and memories, flooded by the weather. Soon the sky opens up like the sun has something to say, and you can see a little girl in the window of the schoolhouse, eyes brightened by the prospect before her. Suddenly a dozen other girls join her by the glass, peeking out at the muddy, empty-of-rain courtyard, and for a moment they are gone, only then to reappear in a hurry—pulling off shoes and socks by the steps and diving barefoot into the makeshift mire. ​Ah,​ you think to yourself, watching as they laugh and sigh and touch hands and dance, ​there she is again​.

Selfishly, you wish for a moment that you were small, wish you were out there with them and with her, singing that nursery rhyme you can’t understand, like you could take away everything she sacrificed for you to join her here. But you know your place, after finally understanding hers, and you scold yourself for thinking the pews were ugly and old, and for commenting on the courtyard’s infertility and the rust on the bed-frames, because despite the tragedy and pain and the plotting for something else, despite the appearance of carelessness and age and ugliness, despite it all, this is where she is. And you know this once was a home.