By Prisha Mehta
I remember watching the first guests arrive, two vans, one black and one silver, glistening like water as they pulled into our driveway. The dust they kicked up looked frozen in their headlights, and the families seemed miles away as they walked up to the front door. My mother and I stood at attention, ready to greet them, smiles fixed to both of our faces and hands neatly folded in front of us. I remember noticing the steadiness in her hands and a look in her eyes like fire and glass and mourning.
It began on a Saturday. Or it may have been a Wednesday. It was early fall, and there was a sharpness to the air, and the days and the shadows were neither long nor short. My father’s job had just tossed us from the heart of New York City into a quaint little suburb near the Virginia coastline, and my grandfather had just passed away. It was strange living somewhere so quiet. I went on lots of walks during my first days there, wandering right down the middle of empty roads and marveling at how lonely concrete footsteps could sound.
At some point on that Saturday-or-Wednesday, my mother walked into Emily’s bedroom just as she was preparing to head back to university. She told her to stay home for another few days because we were throwing a middle-of-fall party at the end of the week. It wasn’t a question; it never is with my mother. My sister looked at me, and at my mother’s bloated face, and quietly unzipped the suitcase we’d spent the past two hours packing.
The next week was a blur of last-minute invitations and grocery lists. My mother seemed to be constantly on the phone, ringing up the librarian and the dollar shop employees and some neighbors she’d only met twice at the grocery store. She worked with a passion and a desperation—I remember, more than once, coming down well after midnight to find her still awake, hunched under the cold halo of an electric lamp with a cup of coffee sitting untouched on the table and a guest list spread out in front of her.
The day of the party was one of those small-town evenings when the freshness of the plants leaks into the air, and the breeze feels cool and bright and mischievous. Quiet towns, we were discovering, only came alive when they fell asleep. Over the past few weeks, we’d almost gotten used to the summer silence, the quiet music of rain on our windows, and the wind blowing soundlessly through the grass. But our backyard came alive in a different way that night—the way we were used to, the way of the city, with fairy lights strung up across our deck and laughter so loud that it felt sourceless, and moments that were enormous and fleeting and too much and too little all in a single breath.
Hours later, the mailman stood by the grill, talking politics with the crossing guard and the landlord of the apartment complex across the street. A kindergartener I didn’t recognize chased the neighbors’ twelve-year-old twins, trailing behind them as they leaped after fireflies and shed their shoes and tumbled onto the dew-swept grass. On the deck, a group of people sat clustered around a table, humming and clapping and shouting, necklaces and glasses glimmering like fireflies under the fairy lights. And my mother stood at the edge of the crowd, bent double, laughing with so much of herself that tears streamed down her cheeks.
My grandfather was a lively man, the kind who laughed too loudly and pulled quarters out of our ears. He was known for his backyard summer parties, known for planning them months in advance and inviting everyone from his sister to his dentist, known for keeping them going for years after his diagnosis. I’ve never felt farther from him than at his funeral—all that black, all that solemnity, felt like a betrayal.
We were a bunch of misfits with nowhere to be on a Friday night, a room full of odds and ends, a lost-and-found of human faces. We hardly knew each other. We were electric, a cacophony and a whisper, something made from nothing and joy made from hollowness. And the strangest part, looking back, is that only the four of us, my sister, my mother, my father, and me, knew that we were attending a funeral.