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Sunday journal: After death, ties still bind

By MARGO HAMMOND, Times Books Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2002


Like animals who suddenly start washing themselves or nibbling on a piece of food when they confront overwhelming danger, those of us coping with the death of a loved one often focus on the most trivial of details. Something, anything I guess, to distract ourselves is better than looking square into the gaping abyss that we imagine death to be. So when my dad died, it was perhaps not surprising how much my family obsessed about his necktie.

Like animals who suddenly start washing themselves or nibbling on a piece of food when they confront overwhelming danger, those of us coping with the death of a loved one often focus on the most trivial of details. Something, anything I guess, to distract ourselves is better than looking square into the gaping abyss that we imagine death to be. So when my dad died, it was perhaps not surprising how much my family obsessed about his necktie.

By the time my younger sister and I arrived in Kenosha from out of town, my father's body already had been sent to the funeral parlor to be prepared. My two older sisters, who live closer by, had arrived earlier and had helped my mom decide on the attire my dad would be buried in: a favorite dark blue pin-striped suit, a white shirt and a new powdery blue tie that he had never had the chance to actually wear in life. When I asked about the clothes, I was surprised by the tie my mom had picked out and told her so.

"Oh, it wasn't my first choice. I had picked out another tie -- that tie that he wore to our 50th anniversary party, remember? He always loved that tie," she said, her voice trailing off.

"So why didn't you use that one?" I asked, remembering well the tie and its many colors forming something that reminded me of a stain-glass window.

"Oh, your sisters convinced me it was nicer to have the paler blue tie to match the casket," she said, adding in a voice that I found rather unconvincing, "It is a very nice tie, and it does match the casket beautifully."

Match the casket? Wasn't it more important to choose something that had some meaning? Shouldn't my dad be buried in one of the many cravats that would remind us of sweet memories? The anniversary tie, for example, or that tie covered with cascading shades of blue that he wore to nearly every special event in our lives. Or how about the dark navy blue one with the little red stars I gave him, and he dragged out every time I came home for Christmas? Even that gaudy flowered tie he wore for the newspaper photographer at least would have had a story behind it. (Wanting to surprise my mom about having his picture in the paper, he uncharacteristically chose the tie without consulting her. My mom was surprised all right. When she saw the photograph all she could think of saying to him was: "Why on earth did you pick that tie? It doesn't match your suit.")

No, there was no mistake about it. My younger sister and I, perhaps in some karmic attempt to finally gain ascendency over our older siblings, now had a mission in life: the new powdery blue tie had to go.

At first, our pleas to change the tie were rebuffed. My mother, always the peacemaker, didn't want to make a fuss. It's a done deal, she said. But we knew that with a little prodding she could be persuaded. Finally, after I called the funeral director and told her that he said that people make switches like this all the time and it was really no problem, my mom went to fetch the anniversary tie. My younger sister and I triumphantly delivered it to the funeral home.

On the day of the funeral, my dad was laid out for viewing in the vestibule of St. Mark's Catholic Church, just a block down from the house where we all grew up. For an hour before the funeral services, dozens of people came and filed past the casket to pay their final respects and to offer condolences to my mother, who stood sentinel by the casket. Friends whom I hadn't seen in years showed up -- the advantage, I guess, of dying in a small town like Kenosha, where everyone reads the local obits. An uncle, who had been too busy to see my dad when he was sick, suddenly materialized now that there was an audience. An aunt, known for her bawdy jokes, got a day pass from her nursing home and arrived behind a walker, announcing, "I wouldn't miss this for the world."

When the service was about to begin, the funeral director gathered our immediate family together for one last goodbye. One by one, my sisters and I each knelt down to say our final adieus to our father -- or at least to his remains. I was the last, just before my mother, and when I finished, I lingered a bit to hear what my mother's parting sentiment might be. A tiny woman, she didn't kneel down on the pew but instead stepped forward to stand by the casket at my father's head. Tilting toward him, she whispered softly words two words she had no doubt said countless times during their 53 years together:

"Nice tie."

-- Margo Hammond is the St. Petersburg Times' books editor.

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