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"Make Sure They Get Your Good Side Because Someday You’ll be Dead" by Margo Griffin

I paid close attention to those who barely paused and those who honored my mother and took their time and pointed, laughed, or even cried as they inspected and studied each picture. The easel under the archway of the viewing room held up a giant collage of snapshots that captured different moments of Mama's life as dozens of family members, friends, and coworkers moved through the receiving line, exchanging memories, hugs, and tears. Along with personal photos we brought to Mama's house, my sister and I, and Hugh, Mama's longtime partner, spent the previous forty-eight hours sifting through troves of albums Mama kept in the antique hope chest that once belonged to her mother. I tasked each of us with selecting the perfect photographs that genuinely captured the essence of Mama and her relationships with her family and friends. Mama's life meant something, but precisely what that something might be to an individual is like a whisper you could only hear in your heart.

Between greeting mourners, I caught someone admiring the picture I had taped to the bottom of the collage. Did they spot Mama in her best Sunday housecoat twirling my once coal-black curls with her fingers? She pressed me tight against her soft, doughy belly on that summer day while we sat at the picnic table in our yard. She smelled of Crisco, flour, and her favorite Avon roll-on deodorant. That very picture, like me, was Mama’s favorite.

Earlier that morning, my sister Kathy had taped up a photo of Mama smiling, holding up the carrots she pulled up from her treasured vegetable garden in one hand, the other hand closed into a tight fist that hung by her side, making it hard to discern whether Mama truly felt happy or frustrated. And like a trail of clues, a crushed soda can and crumpled paper napkin lay on the ground behind her as some trash overflowed from a nearby barrel. Despite her pride in growing the sweetest and largest carrots that season, those tiny but visible details on the ground probably drove Mama crazy that day. Mama hated a mess, and most of all, she couldn’t tolerate carelessness. Not such an ideal photograph to represent Mama in her garden, I thought as I grew annoyed at my grieving sister standing next to me.

Aunt Martha, a childless eighty-five-year-old and Mama's last living sister drove down from Maine all by herself and arrived at Mama's house with only an hour to spare before the wake. She breezed into her late sister's house wearing a fitted black sheath and pumps,looking remarkably fit for a woman her age. Aunt Martha was ten years older than Mama, but cosmetic surgery ensured Martha looked much younger than her baby sister, a fact my aunt often pointed out to Mama, only to be rebuffed with one of Mama's snorts. Once settled in the living room, Aunt Martha pulled about ten photos from her purse and studied each closely as she shuffled through them three or four times until she finally stood up and placed one of her pictures inside the top right of the frame. She selected a photo of the four sisters all dressed alike, lined up like the tiny wooden yellow ducks in a carnival shooting gallery, wearing matching bobby sox, button-down cardigans, and plaid skirts. Mama, the youngest, had been positioned on the far right with her face tilted slightly to the left. Mama looked annoyed. She hated this pose among the dozen or so others the professional photographer had taken that day in her family's living room, much preferring the photo where she sat on the floor in front of her sisters, staring straight ahead with a full smile, ready for the flash. And although Aunt Martha knew how her sister felt about these pictures, she selected Mama's least favorite photo for the collage. I thought about taking it down in protest, but instead, I rolled my eyes and let Aunt Martha leave up her choice as a true reflection of her relationship with Mama.

A moment later, my eyes drew to a picture of the four of us, before the divorce, standing together in front of the doorway of our old house with my sister Kathy’s arms wrapped around Daddy’s leg and Daddy’s hand at Mama’s waist while she cradled me like a loaf of bread. Mama’s proud chin jutted out, but she didn’t smile. When she got sick late last year, Mama confided in me that an old neighbor had taken this picture on the first day we moved into our new house, on the very same day Mama found Daddy in the back of our old Chevy earlier that morning, thanking their realtor, Kitty, who later become Daddy’s second wife. Who added THAT picture, and when? I silently screamed and glared over at Kitty, who sat with my ashen-faced father in the back corner of the funeral home.

I scanned the collage again and focused on a picture of Mama looking beautiful in blue. She and her best friend Donna had hunted dress shops for months to find the perfect shade and fit for Mama's mother-of-the-bride dress. Donna made sure she placed THIS picture of Mama, radiant in this particular hue of blue, near the middle, just left of center, so that everyone at McVoy's Funeral Home would be sure to see it. Mama looked especially satisfied and happy in this picture, practically glowing, standing proudly beside Hugh at my sister's wedding. There was a slight glint in Mama's eyes as if she had shared a secret with the photographer, or perhaps, she knew she'd sent a message for all that would look back at this moment, her moment, later. And who should be sitting in the picture's background just over Hugh's left shoulder but Kitty! Boy, she looked miserable that day. Kitty had been seated with my father at a table directly behind my Mama and Hugh, wearing her familiar scowl, an extra twenty pounds, and a noticeable au jus stain from the Prime Rib on the top left corner of her breast where a heart might have been. I laughed so loud that my sister elbowed me in the ribs while a few mourners looked me up and down curiously. I collected myself, then my eyes danced toward Kitty and then back to Donna. I smiled.

Like Mama always said, make sure they get your good side.

Margo has worked in public education for over thirty years and is the mother of two daughters and the best rescue dog ever, Harley. Her work has appeared in places such as Maudlin House, The Dillydoun Review, MER, HAD, and Roi Fainéant Press. You can find her on Twitter @67MGriffin.

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