Morning by Jane Van Cantfort

Alison attends her mother's funeral, and reflects on her past and her present; by Jane Van Cantfort.

Alison stood in the alcove of the church, waiting for the funeral procession to begin. She studied the floor; every other tile was decorated with a tiny swastika, a benign symbol when the church was built in the 1700s. Alison's Doc Martens with leather laces looked completely wrong with her borrowed light-blue flowered dress.

Only Alison and her dad were alone, everyone else was paired with someone for the walk down the aisle. The pastor handed Dad a heavy square box draped with a deep blue velvet cloth, and the organ music swelled. Alison felt dizzy, and briefly touched the wall to steady herself. The ushers pulled open the heavy, intricately paneled oak doors, and Alison could see the sea of heads in the pews. Dad went first, carrying his box before him, headed for the altar.

It was just a blur of faces, few that Alison knew; she had been gone so long. This was the church of her childhood, and her mother had always led the family proudly to one of the front pews. Alison and Dad and her brother and sister filed into the front row, and all the spouses and children and Mom's brothers and sisters sat behind them. The church's four pastors were assembled on the benches by the altar; each of them would deliver a eulogy. Mom was a community icon, and forty years of good works had its perks.

Alison had spent many a bored Sunday morning in this place. She used to look at the huge floating Jesus that was painted on the ceiling when her head lolled back during one of the endless sermons. One of Jesus' feet peeked from his white flowing robes, clearly visible in his rope sandal, as he ascended to heaven with a beatific expression on his face. Alison used to fantasize about painting those nails red.

Alison heard her sister blow her nose, and came out of her reverie. She stared numbly at the massive flower arrangements, and felt the pew creak when Dad leaned forward to get his white linen handkerchief from his front pocket to dab his eyes. She saw the pastor's lips moving, but there was a faint roar in her ears, so that his words were muddied and unclear. She shouldn't have taken that weed hit.

They stood, they sat, they sang, they pulled out the kneeling benches and pushed them back again. Her mom had wanted communion at the service, and that process seemed to take hours, with people filing up and filing back. The wafer caught in Alison's throat, and she prayed she wouldn't choke and cough.

Somehow, the service was over, and they all went out to the churchyard to place Mom's ashes from the box into the crypt. Alison and her immediate family gathered in front of the new mausoleum. Mom's were only the second set of ashes to be placed inside the concrete drawers. The earth looked scraped and new near the site, and the early daffodils seemed to shiver in the February cold under the bruised sky. More words, more quiet sobbing, and then Alison saw Richie at the edge of the group.

Richie was tall, and wore an unzipped motorcycle jacket and jeans. His long-sleeved tee shirt was too short for his long gangly arms, so the leopard skin tattoo on his left arm could be glimpsed, even at twenty paces. His shades were pushed up on his head, and he looked aged and edgy. His hair probably would have had some gray, but he dyed it black. She hadn't seen him for years. He smiled faintly at her, and fluttered his fingers by his side. She did the same, hoping they would talk when this was all over.

The next ordeal to get through was going into the church hall to eat. Alison felt sick, even a glass of water seemed too much. The room seemed stuffy and the heat was blasting. She couldn't believe the way everyone was loading their plates, even her dad. Everything was either meat, white, or had mayonnaise. She looked for Richie, hoping he had decided to stay for this part; had he escaped already? There he was, standing alone at the edge of the hall by the leaded glass windows. Alison walked over.

They hugged briefly. Richie smelled like leather and cigarettes and some kind of men's cologne. She stood back to get a better look at him.

"Richie, how are you! You are so nice to come. How did you hear about it?"

"It was in the paper. Sorry to hear about your mom. I guess I should say something to your dad, huh?"

They both turned to look for her dad, but his back was to them.

"Umm, maybe not. He never liked you much." Alison grimaced and Richie smiled.

"Maybe you can talk to him later, he's pretty wrapped up right now. What happened to your front tooth?"

Richie covered his mouth with his hand for a second, and then flipped his hair out of his eyes to answer. He had done that since eighth grade.

"Fell on my face drunk in a parking lot outside of the Gold Dust Inn. You look the same, Ali, you've hardly changed. You never got your nose fixed after the accident, though, did you?"

"No, I decided that it gave my face character ha ha. So are you working? How are your parents? You still live here in town?"

"Yeah, I'm in my parent's basement for now, the old party room remember? I was working at the cabinet shop again for a while."

Alison peeked nervously over her shoulder at her assembled relatives and family friends. Everyone seemed to be deliberately not looking at them. Did she see her sister faintly shake her head?

"Ali, come outside with me for a second. I got to have a smoke." Richie pulled on her arm.

"I better not..." She looked back at her Dad.

"Just for a second. " he said.

She hesitated a moment and then hastily grabbed her thin coat from the cloakroom. The icy air here really got under the skin. They walked quickly by the place they had put her mother, and found a stone bench that faced the parsonage. The church was in the center of Prince William. It was a colonial town, and it had cobblestone streets and classic architecture and was known for its clustered spires. It had a minor league baseball team and a huge autumn fair and two high schools. It was a place that she couldn't wait to leave. She shivered slightly, and Richie lit up. His hands were shaking. He was still smoking the same brand.

"So, you are still on your California vacation?" Richie asked.

"Yeah, for years now, right? Did you ever get your band together? What ever happened to Mary Alice?'

Alison couldn't believe how deep the lines around Richie's mouth were etched. His teeth were bad, and his skin looked yellow. His dyed black hair looked so stark, still cut in spikes and long in back.

"Oh, I haven't done much, I went to D.C. for a while, but mostly I've been working and bumming around. Mary went up to Maine, haven't seen her either. I have an eight-year-old, a boy, but his mother doesn't want me to see him very much."

"And you work at the cabinet shop, that job you got when we graduated? What's your son's name?"

"Yeah, still at the shop. His name is Harley. Hey, do you want to go to my car and smoke one? It could help you get through all this."

"Oh no... too much for today. But thanks, Richie, really."

"Your hair looks nice that way, I like how you stuck the chopsticks in. Never saw you in a dress before."

Alison looked down at herself, and saw that a run had started in her black pantyhose. She leaned on Richie and he took her elbow, being careful to blow smoke away from her. Alison was pulling and plucking on her hose until the run was on the side of her knee, and didn't notice when her brother came up behind them.

Andrew nodded curtly at Richie, that faint chin up that men do to each other.

"Ali, Dad is wondering where you went, you better come back in." Andrew didn't look at her when he spoke, and he quickly turned and left.

"Whoa, I see he is just the same. At least he can't shove me into the lockers anymore."

"I better get back to it Richie, let me get your number." Alison rooted around in her purse but she didn't have a pen or paper and couldn't find her phone. So they just hugged, and she watched Richie walk off, with the same old saunter.

"Thanks for coming!" she shouted at his departing back. He gave her a one-handed wave. She stood alone in the cold churchyard for a minute among the headstones from 1789.

Back in the church hall, she was hit by a blast of warm, stale air and that meaty smell. They had brought the coffee out, and she got a cup. It was weak yet bitter. Alison went to sit with her aunts and uncles. She sat next to Aunt Betty, who looked the most like Mom. Her brother-in-law was there, and he was reminiscing about Mom. Alison took a cautious sip of the hot coffee.

"Boy, did we have some arguments about politics! I'm a Democrat, and she was a Republican, and we could really go at it."

Alison spoke up, surprised that words were coming out of her mouth.

"But Mom was a liberal Republican, she was against Viet Nam and pro-choice. She fought with her bridge club all the time. So it wasn't as though . . ."

Her brother-in-law just looked at her. Her aunts and uncles looked at their laps. Alison stopped talking.

There was more eating and more talking, and slowly everyone began to drift away. Her sister, Ann, tapped on a glass with a fork and told everyone to drop by the house for a celebration of Mom's life at 6pm.

Alison didn't have a car so she went with her dad in the Mercedes. They didn't talk. As soon as they reached the house, her dad went upstairs to lie down for a while. He had a half hour before the people would arrive. It was late afternoon, and it had begun to drizzle. People were expected at six. The food would be catered, and all the booze had already been purchased. The dishwasher was unloaded, lots of extra glasses were ready, and the maid had thoroughly vacuumed and dusted. Everyone just sort of floated around the house.

Alison's sixteen-year-old niece sat next to her on the couch and flipped idly through an old pack of Tarot cards Alison must have left in the house. It was the third time Alison had met her niece in all these years.

"I can't believe how much you look like my mom." Her niece said.

"I know, its weird, isn't it? When your mom was getting married, and we had the rehearsal dinner, your dad's mom kept thinking I was Ann!"

"I mean, you guys look exactly alike! Except you are just totally different."

"Well, I'm a little taller."

"And I'm smarter." said Ann, coming into the room with a cup of tea. Alison's brother laughed.

"The really amazing thing is how different our personalities are," Alison said, and got up and headed upstairs. Her sister snorted behind her.

She passed the framed sampler that hung on the first landing, with its embroidered saying: "Sweet are the thoughts that savor of content, the quiet mind is richer than a crown." She walked by the framed Andrew Wyeth prints, up the Oriental rug runner, turned by the marble-topped washstand with the pewter candlesticks that held heavy, thick, cream-colored candles, and made it to the third landing.

She went into her old room. The bed and dresser were still in the same place, and some of her clothes still hung in the closet. Her print of American Gothic still hung on the wall. The room was navy blue, chosen because her parents wouldn't let her paint it black. The glass animals she had collected still stood on top of the dresser, and her old desk still had pencils ready for homework. She had spent hours in here, sometimes standing on her head, sometimes reading late into the night, and sometimes trying to come down after acid or speed. Often she would lay awake, and see the lights on the ceiling that passing cars made, and dream of escape. Their old beagle, Joker, often slept in her room, curled up on the hooked rug. She liked the sound of his soft snoring as they both drifted off to sleep. The dog was her only ally in the house. Then he got too old to make it to the top of the stairs.

Alison remembered that one awful fight with her dad, about not wearing panties when she got home at 2am; he had waited up with a sherry glass in his hand. He had grabbed her purse, to check for drugs, and there they were, balled up in a plastic bag.

"So I guess you are always ready for action, then huh?" he had said. Mom was peering at them from the second landing, clutching her pink chenille robe to her chest.

All the protestations about it being the fashion or nobody wore them or whatever just withered in his angry scowl. She still cringed when she thought about it.

The next day he went to work, and she went to Albuquerque in Eva's blue Dodge Dart, the one that had gone straight into Kathy McGregor's pond at that party. Somehow a bunch of the guys had pulled it out, let it dry in the sun, and run it through the car wash three times, but it always smelled of fish afterwards. She called after three days. They sent her a plane ticket home.

Alison remembered eavesdropping on her parents from her room; with the door just barely cracked she could catch conversations from the kitchen. She was lurking by her door after little Tim next door had caught her at the park with Richie. Her mom was trying to calm her dad down. She could still hear her mom saying, "If you don't stop pushing so hard, we will lose her." She felt important at that moment; she liked the drama of the statement. She never heard what he said back.

Or the time when they searched her room and found her diary and called Cindy's parents, and then tried to make up for it with those filigree silver earrings. She remembered holding them in the palm of her hand, thinking that they were a bribe, even though they would look good with that embroidered skirt.

The marks her dad had made forcing the door off had long been repaired, of course. The window she punched out had been fixed for decades, thought she still had a scar on the palm of her hand. The sound of that glass breaking had brought them up the stairs that night.

Alison didn't know why she had made everything so hard. Was it because her mom had gotten that infection right after she was born and they didn't bond? Was she just born not to fit, in between a cheerleader and a frat boy? The past should just stay in the past. She was leaving tomorrow.

Alison could hear people starting to come for the wake now, so she headed back downstairs. Dad was up, he already had a scotch and soda in his hand, and Mom's brothers and sisters, six in all, had arrived from the hotel. Ann had put out the cheese straws and mini-quiches and stuffed mushrooms, and she had set her daughter to work as well. Everybody seemed to have a drink in hand.

Alison sat back down on the chintz couch in the living room. Dad leaned against the mantel, talking to one of the neighbors. Alison's great-grandmother, in a portrait painted when she was in her twenties, looked down at him. Alison was supposed to look like her. Dad looked like he was holding up okay. She could hear him saying his mantra, we had almost fifty good years, great kids, and I will always have my memories. He sounded convinced.

Alison felt another headache coming on, despite all the ibuprofen she had been popping. She had never liked these social gatherings or the small talk.

When Mom called to say she had cancer, Alison sat on the tiles in front of the sliding glass door in her cruddy garden apartment. It was pouring rain, and gusts hit the glass during the entire conversation. By the end, Alison was nearly in a fetal position, with her head on the cool tiles and one hand on the glass.

"You probably won't miss me, honey, you haven't seen me much."

"No, no. I'll miss you. Who will send me cards on my birthday? And I won't see your handwriting again. And if I ever needed a loan or advice, you -"

"Come on, honey, all families have to deal with these things. I had a full life, you kids, my career; I even saw the light in Italy! So don't worry. And I have my faith! Do you want to talk to your father?" Her mom always did that, always hustled off the phone.

But Alison hadn't gone to see her; she always found a good reason. Months became two years, and the cancer spread to her brain, and she wasn't even lucid on the phone anymore. Ann and Andrew had to do all the hard part, like getting the hospital bed and arranging for hospice and getting Dad out of the house for a few hours. A morphine cloud slowly took Mom away. For three months Alison was expecting that phone call. She had to borrow the airfare from her boss when it finally came.

Her dad was really packing them in. He was only using a splash of soda. He wasn't gritting his teeth like he did when that first strong taste of alcohol went down, he was gulping. He still had on his elegant black suit, and the carefully picked red tie, Mom's favorite, but he was sitting back oddly in his chair, his knees wide apart, his glasses slipping slightly on his nose.

He rose, and lost his balance, and almost careened to the floor, still with his drink clutched in his hand. It was almost funny, like a staged pratfall. Alison's eight-year-old nephew had been lying on his stomach in front of the chair, playing with tiny trucks, when his grandfather came skidding down, oh so close, with one leg in the air, its black sock pulled firmly up, the business shoe still tightly tied, with a glimpse of a men's garter. The blue hassock of Dad's chair flew back giddily and Andrew rushed and grabbed Dad's elbow, half catching him, half dragging him. Her nephew skittered out of the way. It got quiet for a moment, and then Andrew got Dad back in the chair and Dad took another sip of his drink. No one spoke.

The food was ready, and a slow surge began to the dining room. Alison surveyed the table, and opted for noodles swimming in butter and too sweet carrots in a brown sugar glaze. Her aunt surveyed her plate, and asked her if she was still a vegetarian.

Alison picked at the food, then stashed her plate on a bookshelf, above her Mom's complete folio edition of blue-bound Shakespeare, and slipped upstairs. She looked in the old phone book that was still underneath the princess phone in the hallway, and found Richie's parent's number.

"Richie, can you come by? I'm going nuts here."


"Yeah, can you come by for just a few minutes? I just want to get outside for a minute. Could you, do you mind? I have to go back tomorrow and I won't get to see you." She prayed that she didn't sound too desperate and that the silence wouldn't last too long.

Alison hung up as silently as she could, and crept back down the stairs, past her sibling's high school graduation pictures, and her grandfather's World War I portrait framed with his medals, and Mom's hand painted china bowls, and the portrait of Dad's Navy graduating class, all arranged on the ledges. She tiptoed on the wood floor, avoiding the spot that creaked, and passed the antique coat rack. She made it to the foyer, no one was looking, and so out the door.

The porch swing was still up; her dad was really letting things go; usually it came down at Labor Day; it must have been up all winter. The flowered cushions were in place, smelling faintly of mold, and Alison sat lightly on them. It was a clear cold night, and Maple Street was silent. The streetlights glowed yellow. The ivy and the evergreen sat in their copper pots and waited.

Richie's car pulled up and stopped a few doors from the house. Alison hurried down the porch stairs, past the horrid lawn jockey statue and quickly climbed into the car. She was careful not to slam the door.

"Thanks for coming, Richie."

"It's okay. What is going on in there? Is it that bad? Won't your dad be mad?"

"He's busy talking, and he's pretty into the scotch. Do you want to come in?"

"Nah, I'm not ready for that."

Alison heard a thump, and looked back to see a big yellow Lab on the backseat, wagging his tail and banging it against the door.

"Ohmigod, is that Cody?"

"No, Cody would be like 210 in dog years. That's his grandson, Cody."

"He looks just like Cody, doesn't he?"

She reached back and rubbed his warm soft head, and then scratched under his ears. His eyes half closed in the refracted light, he moaned slightly. Then he lay back down on the seat, his tail still thumping against the door.

Richie reached over and took her hand, and they sat quietly for a minute, both of them listening to the dog breathe and sigh. The light through the trees made wavering patterns on the dashboard, and Alison took her hand back and put her hand there instead, moving it through the reflected leaves.

"Want to have a smoke now?"

"I guess, but just one hit. I quit everything for a while. Rehab."

Richie pulled out a little pipe and a lighter. He passed it to Alison, and he lit it for her.

"So here's to black sheep, huh?" He smiled his off-kilter grin that used to slay her.

Alison smiled as she inhaled, then she coughed and coughed. Richie and she went way back. She used to lurk by the back door of Governor Thomas Johnson High School waiting for Richie to walk by on his way to the student parking lot. She didn't even care how obvious it was.

Richie was the first person she had slept with, although she had never told him that. They used to drive around for hours, dreaming of what they would do when they left Prince William.

"Richie, how did we get so old?"

"Hey, speak for yourself."

"Did you think we would end up this way?"

"What way?" Richie said.

"Oh, you know. Still not living up to..."

"Our potential?" Richie laughed.

They sat and chatted for a while. Alison felt very stoned, with a strange sort of clarity. Every detail seemed so in focus. Every once in a while, Alison looked back and saw people moving and mingling behind the sheer curtains in the living room windows. Pretty soon, people were starting to stream out of the house. No one had stayed very long.

"Damn, I better go back. I just needed to get out of there for a second."

"Do you really have to go back tomorrow? Why don't you stay a few more days?"

"I can't afford to, I don't get paid time off."

"Do you want me to drive you to the airport?"

"Nah, I have super shuttle already."

Alison put her hand on the door handle. She felt a little teary with gratitude. More folks were coming down the stairs, and she knew she better hurry.

"Really, Richie, call me sometime. Maybe this summer I'll come and visit, we could get together, see a concert. Are any of the old people still around?"

"Here and there, here and there." He moved closer and put his hand on the nape of her neck, pulled her close, and then kissed her. He was the first guy she had French kissed too. She pulled back and jumped out, then bent into the window to say goodbye.

"See you! I love you!" Alison hurried back to the house, relieved when she heard Richie start the car and pull out without squealing his tires. Good old Richie.

Back in the house, she saw that everyone she knew had gone. She went into the kitchen, where her sister was working away.


Her sister didn't turn around.

"Ali, can you get the Tupperware in the pantry and put these leftovers away?"

Alison turned and opened the door to the pantry. It was a shock. There were hundreds of cans of soup and boxes of prepared dinners and tea bags and coffee in cans and bottled water and paper plates and ketchup and jello. There were so many individual containers of Tupperware, none with matching lids, all stacked precariously, that she inadvertently put her hands out to stop them from falling. Her mom must not have entered the pantry for a year.

Alison just couldn't do it, she just couldn't start sorting it all out and scraping leftovers and loading the dishwasher. She wasn't her sister's employee. She came out of the pantry. Her sister still didn't turn around.

"I'm sorry, I am getting a migraine, and I just have to go lay down."

Ann looked at Alison over her shoulder, and grimaced.

"That is so typical of you."

"Can't Andrew's wife help you?"

"What, you don't remember her name?"

Alison just shrugged and left. Back up the three landings, into the last room on the left, shut the door. She should go talk to Dad. He was probably completely out of it, though. He would just have to get himself to bed. She sat on the tiny twin bed, and stared at her old books. Carlos Castaneda, the Beats, Nancy Drew, and Winnie the Pooh. Too bad she hadn't stashed a joint.

She pulled the chopsticks out of her hair and lay down on the bed. Only one more funeral to go, then she wasn't coming back for anything ever again. No weddings, no christenings, none of that. She set her alarm for 4am. The shuttle would come at five. It would be an early morning.

The alarm rang and it felt like no time had passed, she had slept so soundly; perhaps the weed had helped that along. She smelled coffee. She grabbed a too-short terry robe from the closet, and threw her stuff into her bag quickly. Then she found her dad in the kitchen with his coffee.

Alison took a cup of coffee, and opened the fridge in search of cream. There was only nonfat milk, which made coffee gray.

"What do you want for breakfast? English muffin with poached egg? Oatmeal?"

"Ehh, Dad, I can't eat in the morning."

Her dad had always been the early riser, and the breakfast pusher. He could eat pancakes before seven.

Dad had gotten so old. He had age spots on his face, and his carefully combed hair was completely white. He wore a red plaid L. L. Bean robe and leather slippers, as he always had. She looked away, and concentrated on the rooster place mats and the chicken salt and peppershakers. The entire wall seemed to be covered with nutmeg graters and tongs and garlic presses and net shopping bags and cork screws. They still had those old copper pots suspended over the island. Her mom had cleaned them every time she used them. She could see it was still dark outside through the sheer kitchen curtains, not yet morning.

Her dad sat down across from her. He still sat in the seat he had sat in every night for all those endless family dinners. Alison had sat in Andrew's spot by mistake. She took Dad's hand and held it. She could think of nothing to say. Her bag was packed. Dad turned to her and took a shaky breath before speaking.

"Did Ann or Andrew say they were coming over today?"

"Yeah, around nine or so."

Alison squeezed his hand, and felt his wedding ring, so tight on his puffy hands.

He looked so lost.

"Dad, I better go get dressed. The guy from the shuttle will be here soon. Did you get your paper yet?" Dad nodded, and Alison went upstairs for the last time.

As she was coming back down, the doorbell rang and Dad went to answer.

The shuttle guy greeted them, shaking both their hands. He had a West Africa lilt to his voice, which Alison had always loved, and his face had remnants of tribal scars. When she passed him her bag, their eyes met, and she felt such sympathy and human warmth from him that tears filled her eyes and she quickly grabbed her purse and coat to hide her face.

She hugged Dad fiercely, with the cold predawn air streaming in from the open door.

"I love you, Dad."

"I love you, too."

And she was out, clattering down the porch stairs and into the waiting blue van. She climbed in, the first passenger, and sat directly behind the driver. She looked back at the house as the van started up, and saw her dad, an elderly man, peering through the foyer curtains to be sure she was safely in the van. He was going to wait until they drove off. A sob choked out of her throat.

Off they went, alone through the empty streets of Prince William, and then onto the freeway through the rolling hills. Alison felt sheltered by this kindly, competent stranger, piloting her back to her real life. Maybe she could even cry.


  1. A searingly honest look at family dynamics. Brings to mind Faulkner’s adage that “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” The story captures perfectly the odd mixture of joy and love, sorrow and regret, that make up so many families

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for you thoughtful comment. Means so much to me. Is this Hal? Love your children’s books..Jane

  2. A good read about the black sheep..and the family dynamics... Alison has always been non compromising, a rebel, it seems like Richie she never grew up, stuck in that mode...the change in perspective comes at the end when she realizes in a way what she has lost thru her choices...the feeling to cry at the end .. could be for herself and her own losses, never knowing or reconciling with her Mom. An intriguing story.

  3. Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful analysis! Appreciate it!

  4. I suspect everyone can identify with at least one character. That, along with the writing itself, is what makes the story so good.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment…it means a lot..Jane

  5. Very intense. A wonderful sketch of a dense family dynamic. Gentle pace.
    I wondered about the mother. Pillar of the community. A liberal Republican? She pleaded mc's case against father. There is surely material for a novel here.

    1. Thanks so much! Love your thoughts about a novel. Appreciate that you took the time to read and comment it means a lot! Best, Jane

  6. Sad and raw. The family comes together for each other in their own way, despite their obvious differences.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment, it means a lot! Jane

  7. I felt immersed in this dysfunctional family as I read. Each character felt real--I recognized people I know, family stories I could identify with. The author doesn't shy away from the sad or ugly but develops her characters with compassion. I would definitely read another story--and will perhaps someday read a novel--by this writer.

  8. Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words. They inspired me! Jane