Growing up, I didn’t really feel connected to the human race. I always felt a bit different. I guess it is because I was adopted. Not only was I adopted, but I was adopted by a funeral director and a nurse. Not only was I adopted by a funeral director and a nurse, but we lived above the funeral home. I thought I must have been dropped from outer space as I had no birth story, and I was surrounded by death and the knowledge of sickness. You can only imagine what conversations around the dinner table were like. My parents were pretty much done with each other by the time I was 8, so all they really had to talk about was their work. They were both workaholics. I don’t mean that as a “catch phrase” or a “label” they seriously worked all the time. They both loved what they did and hated their home life. Which left me either alone or with my grandparents, who fortunately lived a few blocks away.
At a very early age I learned how to walk without making any noise. Just like the Native Americans do when hunting. This was no easy task as our house was a 100 yea old Victorian with all hardwoods that creaked. Until I mastered this skill, I was made to stay in one room whenever there was calling hours or a funeral downstairs. I also learned to lip read cartoons and infer plot by body language because I was not allowed to turn on the volume on the Grieving people did not need to hear little feet running around above their heads or God forbid Tom and Jerry. I didn’t question this. I just figured out ways around these rules.
Many times both my parents would stand calling hours. I remember being at the top of the stairs once and whispering very loudly “mom!! mom!! the cat is throwing up on the rug!! mom!! mom!!” and some stranger opening the sliding divider and laughing hysterically at little me in my pj’s. Mom was not at all amused, to say the least. Not sure if it was because the cat puked or because I thought she needed to know right then and there.
Another unique thing about being the funeral director’s kid is that I believed “body” was a bad word. Because around my house “body” was always whispered. “Make sure you don’t go into the basement. There’s a ‘body’ here.” ‘When is the ‘body’ arriving?” “I have to go prepare the ‘body’ so I won’t be up for dinner” Really put a cramp in my bike riding because I kept my bike in the basement. And I know all of you who knew me when are curious. Yes, I did see a ‘body’ once. It was our 99 year old next-door neighbor Rose. I accidentally walked in on one of my dad’s men doing an embalming. Not pleasant. More because it was the first time I had seen a 99 year old lady naked rather than because she was dead. 99 years dead or alive is scary. My dad’s man about had a heart attack. I scared the bejeezus out of him!!
That didn’t scar me. It was just what happened. I felt worse because I knew I would get in trouble than I did for disturbing the sanctity of the embalming process. It was a total accident, but still, a punishable offense. It was a good life though. My dad was almost always around and there was almost always a party happening downstairs. Dad would play music that the guest of honor would have loved and there was always a lot of laughter and everyone was always dressed in their best, smoking cigarettes. Some nights I would sit at the top of the stairs and just listen to all the adults chatting and laughing and sometimes sobbing. My dad was an expert at what he did and was very successful. And when we didn’t have a funeral, I would go exploring.
Our funeral home was beautiful. My parents were antique collectors. My dad was all about Victorian and my mom was all about Early American. So, the upstairs where we lived was all Early American and the downstairs was all Victorian. So when I would go downstairs it was like entering a different world. Velvet couches and gold ornate wall paper and oriental rugs. Really a great place to pretend I was a princess. I wasn’t really allowed to play downstairs, but you know how kids are. My friends and I would go down and have seances and try to bring about the spirits. My house was the hot spot on Halloween.
We also had The Funeral Home Phone. The Funeral Home Phone would ring at all hours. The prank calls at 3am were always amusing. Ring Ring ” George Washington just died! We need a hearse!!” snicker snicker. hang up. Well, that’s clever. I wasn’t supposed to answer The Funeral Home Phone. But when dad wasn’t home and mom was in the tub, the opportunity presented itself. I was 5 and I answered it just like my dad, mom and grandma did, or so I thought… “My daddy isn’t here but my mommy is in the tub. Hold on plwease! MOM!!! SOMEONE DIED!!!!!” Lucky for me that it was just one of dad’s men calling to check on a “body” that was being dropped off and he thought I was hysterical.
My dad had a few men who came and helped out every so often. They would come upstairs between calling hours (calling hours were traditionally 3-5 and 7-9) and drink coffee, smoke like fiends and talk and laugh. I was always around when the men came upstairs. They thought I was great. I would entertain them with dance solos and they would tell me dirty jokes. Other times, dad and I and the men would meet out for coffee and donuts and cigarettes. It was the late 70’s early 80’s, everyone smoked. But these men were a throw back to the early 60’s. The suits, the hair, the attitude. Really fun guys.
There were so many rules to living above the funeral home. Besides not walking loudly or watching tv with the sound on, I wasn’t allowed to play in the front yard. Gives a bad impression to have a little girl playing under the funeral home sign. We couldn’t have a dog. I wasn’t allowed to talk about who came and went to our house. If my parents were on The Funeral Home Phone do NOT interrupt them to tell them the toilet is overflowing. That was apparently rule #1….who knew?
I still have a hard time saying “body” normally. I think it was 7th grade health class when our teacher was saying “body” this and “body’ that without whispering or any hesitation that I began to understand that the rest of the world said body and meant body. I said body and thought “dead person in the basement” .
Being a funeral director’s kid is pretty tough. Other kids were always asking me if I slept in a coffin. Didn’t I wish!!! Or if I saw dead bodies or ghosts. Well, duh, I lived over a funeral home. The only kid who was really kind of mean about it was the grave digger’s kid. How’s that for ironic? Overall it was a good childhood to have. I was part of our family business. I was always in charge of dusting the legs of the tables and chairs before calling hours and checking all the supplies in the bathroom. I did eventually learn how to answer the phone and take messages and how to stand calling hours. I still use my silent walking skills to my advantage and I can get the jist of any program on tv without hearing a word. Body puddy and embalming fluid aside, it was a good life.