Nanny is dead. It is Karen who calls to tell me this. It is Thursday, and I hear the phone and know, ducking out of class in what I hope is a discreet manner. "Nanny passed away today," Karen says with heaviness in her voice. A kid passes by, hip-hop blaring tinny from headphones he wears hiked up above his ears. But the hall is quiet; the building is quiet. Karen pauses, sighs. To me, everything is quiet except for her.
In five minutes, I am back in class, watching a 3-D rendering demo play on the screen. I wonder if I should be feeling something, thinking a certain way. I'm no stranger to death but am unversed in the passing of someone as disliked as Henrietta was. I call her face to mind, the frog-lipped, sneering sourpuss, then cast it away.
In four days, I am on a plane, touching down in Philly International after a bumpy landing. I am dizzy and starved and nauseous. The cab, driven by a woman not ten years my senior, takes me to the hotel, where the concierge gives me the go-ahead.
Karen, face lit with freshened makeup, answers the door. It takes her 40 minutes to "do her face"; I've seen her do it, crouching in front of the closet mirror, sisters beside her. She is the oldest of my aunt's four girls, the only redhead, the only one with a female child. "Hi," she says, giving me a hug, a smile, "we're just getting ready."
Celia and Andrea wave from the bathroom, brushing past to embrace me. Their faces are bleached in the fluorescent light, collars perfect, pearls peeking out from the open necks of their shirts, every bit the glamorous older cousins I remember from my childhood. Andi applies eyeliner as CeeCee brushes her blonde hair back, giving herself the once over. They, as usual, look great.
"Everyone thought we were flight attendants," Karen tells me as she dons her long, woolen coat, adjusting the cuffs in front of the mirror. I laugh, because it makes sense; the coat is navy blue, broad-shouldered, and, unbuttoned, flies out behind her like a cape. Her hair, a neat, shoulder-length soft bob, is blow-dried into submission. Her features are attentive, sharp, pretty under her seamless makeup. She looks ready.
So does CeeCee, appearing behind her. CeeCee is the tall one, taller still in heeled shoes, the second child. She is well postured and elegant, the tough-cookie mom of a skateboarder and karate black belt. There are times that I catch a glimpse of her face and she looks so much like my mother in her youth that I can't help but stare.
Andi brings up the rear, pulling on a hat and scarf, complaining about the cold and not being able to find her right glove. She's the third girl, a self-proclaimed "snot," inasmuch as she can't stand settling for anything less than she's used to. Later that night, we switch rooms twice, hauling our stuff up and down the hallway until the perfect room is found. The woman simply won't quit, and I admire her for that, her refusal to be left discontented. It's the mark of a strange kind of bravery, one I sorely lack. She finds the glove and we're off.
We end up at a diner, a real diner-diner, complete with fading-faced waitresses, extra charges for dry rye toast, and lack of skim milk. The girls order egg-white omelets all around; stomach still uneasy, I stick to a bagel. Elbow to elbow in a tiny booth, we look at each other.
"What's this going to be like?" I ask.
"Truthfully, I have no idea," Karen replies.
CeeCee shrugs in agreement.
"It's a funeral," she says.
"It's like a movie," murmurs Andi, "all of us sitting here."
The food comes, plates on the arm of our manly waitress. We eat without much enthusiasm, as good as the food is. We're stalling a bit, I know, gathering ourselves before the big moment. We are the granddaughters, as we are addressed in Nanny's DVD will-companion, one she made for reasons that I will never quite understand. She faces the camera after an hour-and-a-half tour of her house -- complete with history and price of every item purchased and some suggestions as to whom which item should go to -- telling us we are to host her friends and "dress very much the same" for her memorial service. We are to be on display.
"This is so fucked, guys," I say, watching as they turn to me, nodding, "This is just...so fucked."
Lunch is over and we wait outside in the cold for Laney to pick us up. She's the youngest, the shortest, and the blondest. Serious but sporty, she's a social worker at a children's hospital, omnipresent pager clipped to her belt loop. As a joke, I call her the doctor.
We chitchat during the ride, speculating, gossiping, but fall silent as we round the corner to the synagogue. There it is, the hearse, a strange beige color. It's like something out of the '50s, a prop, a discarded set piece in the nearly empty parking lot.
"Oh god," CeeCee says, horrified, "is she in there?"
"She was," I reply.
We stare at it warily, standing together a moment. I sneak a look at my cousins, wind blowing their hair, eyes behind dark shades, shoulders straight and even. They're not flight attendants , I think to myself, they're something else. A tribe of some sort . I watch as they stand, unflinching, in the cold sun. Warriors , I decide. They are warriors . And, for a time, I suppose I am one too.
CeeCee sighs, her breath a plume in the cold air.
"Let's go," she says, turning away from us. "Let's do this."
And we follow, falling in step.