by Anna Bruner
This weekend, I will be going home. The last time I went home, I went home to bury my grandmother Willetta Kathleen Piatt. “Billie,” as she was called, named after her father William. She passed away on her and my grandfather’s wedding anniversary. My grandfather had passed away in 2004, five days before my tenth birthday. I feel it’s important to mention that, because when he died I was a child and most of our family was still together and plenty of people were still alive or well enough to remember him. But my grandmother…my grandmother who had been in hospitals and nursing homes for years…who would come to memorialize her, besides cousins and nurses and a few loyal church members? I didn’t know, I thought as I boarded my flight from O’Hare. I didn’t know who would be around at all.
I flew into a regional airport, as opposed to flying into Pittsburgh’s International Airport as I have done every time I have come home. I was picked up by my godmother, made small talk about my job and my plans to graduate this year, and counted the curves in the roadside as her car cut through the Appalachian mountains, hurdling on our way home by ski resorts and state parks and prisons’ distances away from Pittsburgh. I got out at the curbside in front of my house and slid through the foyer full of baby pictures and the dining room full of fresh cut flowers to a newly renovated back porch and yard I scarcely recognized. Since I had last been home, the back of our house had been drastically remodeled, and my father had open heart surgery. He sat laid up on the porch’s couch, talking with his stepmother and a visiting friend, nervously asking if I would like to see his scars from where they pulled open his ribcage. My mother came out and saw me for only an instant, then hugged me, and broke down crying. I cried because I didn’t know what to do, and because she had learned her mother had died only moments before going to visit my father in the hospital.
In the evening I sat up at the dining room table (gifted to my parents by my mother’s parents on their wedding day) sorting through family photos of my grandmother with my mother and her eldest sister. Many of the photos I have never seen: images of my grandmother posing along wooded roadsides, smiling against store lined streets in Pittsburgh, enjoying picnics with her young groom, playing with other people’s children and pets before she ever had her own. “She looks like a movie star,” I remember saying to my mother and aunt, to which they both smiled softly and nodded, as if in prayer, “Yes, yes she does.” We drank pink moscato and I listened to my aunt rehearse her eulogy, and I read my mother poems I have never shared with her because I didn’t know when else the time would ever feel right quite like this one August night.
The next day my mother sent me out to buy two “respectable” dresses for a Catholic funeral, which is no easy feat, let me assure you. I drove to the nearest strip mall in town where PTA moms buy dresses for friends’ kids’ weddings, and found only one black dress in the bunch, 2 sizes too big. I bought it anyway with my mother’s card.
“Anna?” the woman behind the counter asked, and I pretended to recognize her. “Anna Bruner?” “Yes,” I said. “I know why you’re buying a back dress,” her voice softened. I nodded and said yes again. She asked where I was nowadays, I told her Chicago. She asked if I was in school, I told her I was finishing up. She gave me her condolences, which was thoughtful, except she never showed up to the funeral, not even after watching me buy a black dress made for a woman twice my age with half my grief. The second dress I bought from Walmart, and hated myself for, so I went out and bought cigarettes for $5.40 at my nearest Sheetz plaza.
When I returned from my shopping spree, I came home to find my cousins flooding the house. The two youngest I haven’t seen in years, and immediately went about plotting what horror films we would be watching and what mischief we would get into. My cousin Jessica and I stole bottles of Spanish wine from my mother’s cupboard and watched Clueless in my bedroom, making fun of her brother being afraid of It Follows. We talked boys and drugs and college…a very different conversation from the one we had a decade before, when we shared this same bed in January for my grandfather’s funeral. We were small and mute back then, listening to cats scratch at the door. This time, we let the cats in with us.
At the viewing, I wore my Walmart dress and stood before the casket, flanked by my therapist mother and her United States General brother and her Presbyterian minister sister, not quite recognized by the mourners but pitied just the same. Most of them thought I was married to someone, that the children in the lobby were mine, that I could have in no way been born in the same county as my mother, or that I ever attended Saint Peter’s Catholic School. All of them chimed the same response when my mother introduced me: “Oh my, Anna, how are you? How is Chicago? Are you working on movies? Oh my, that’s so interesting.” In the breaks between floods of visitors, I played with my older cousin’s children and secretly smoked cigarettes in the parking lot. I texted old boyfriends. I scanned my grandmother’s photos looking for my face. I talked philosophy and economics with friends I haven’t seen since childhood when we would dress up and have Halloween parties in their garages.
At the end of the viewing, an old friend appeared, and we sat in the back talking in whispers about how the last time we were in this funeral home was when we buried our best friend. I told him I had been here all day and couldn’t stand anymore, and he offered to drive me home. Once in the front seat of his rattling car, I lit a cigarette and he asked me if I would like to go visit our friend’s grave. It had been over a year since I’d done so. “No,” I said, though I should have agreed, “just take me home.” He dropped me off in front of my house with its front porch full of gossiping family members and friends drinking beer and listening to Eric Clapton. “Did you take a ride home from a stranger?” one of my father’s buddies from high school joked. “No,” I hissed, “I was brought home by a friend.” Apparently I was the last person other than my mother to leave early.
While the adults drank and recounted tales of being slapped silly by Willetta “Billie” Piatt, I sat on the back porch with my cousin’s three-year-old and played restaurant. Our restaurant only served cookies and peanut butter, and it was the finest in all the land. When I crept into my bed I was drunk and numb to almost everything, and I fell asleep beside my cousin Jessica without saying a word, which was so unlike any of us. We both lay in silence, her listening to her music, me texting my boyfriend four states away, and I thought about all the times our hair was pulled and straightened and braided by Billie Piatt. I thought about the lollipops and Pringles hidden in the cupboard above the refrigerator. I thought about the times when I used to sleep in the closet of her house because I loved the smell of mothballs. I thought of all the times she called me, Jessica, and Joshua by the names of her children (Sheila, Mary Catherine, Walter) instead of our own. I thought about the times she sang Little Boy Blue to me before I fell asleep, how I stared at her faux crystal jewelry hanging from her statue of the Virgin Mary.
At the funeral, my cousin Jessica and I, being the only granddaughters, were asked to do the readings from the old and New Testament. I read from the book of Revelations, for the first time since I was twelve and still feared and loved God.
“I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had
passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming
down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a
loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He
will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with
We buried Billie next to her husband, my grandfather, in the same cemetery where I buried my best friend two years before. We drank from a chalice blessed in Ireland. We went home and ate chicken and scalloped potatoes. I bought another pack of cigarettes. I took two of her pictures back to Chicago with me. I still hear the song Little Boy Blue. I think of her, and I think of home.