Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The World Beyond

Tuesdays with Amy

Each Christmas, my family is invited to dinner at my uncle’s house. It’s a gorgeous old Victorian in a quaint New England farming town. My aunt is an artful decorator and generous cook, serving both turkey and ham, cheesecake and chocolate pie. We’re always eager to visit with family. One year, after we loosened our belts and sipped the last of our coffee, my uncle asked if we’d like to see the renovations he’d recently completed to the rooms below. They lived in the upper two floors and maintained the family business – a funeral parlor – in the lower two. Of course, we said. There wasn’t a polite way to say no.

First he showed us the mourning rooms with the intricately carved molding and comfortable seating, then the rooms where the bodies were waked. It was all tasteful, the colors and textures dignified and somber. The rest of my family was ready to return to the holiday cheer upstairs and forget the melancholy of those rooms, but I couldn’t help myself: Where do you prepare the bodies, I asked. It was no surprise when the others retreated.

My uncle led me down a flight of stairs and then through a labyrinth of basement tunnels. Behind an ancient wooden door was his workspace. The lighting was stark and the floors and walls so unlike the elegant rooms where the dead were laid out. Here was a room that was clinical, smelling of formaldehyde and industrial cleanser; with angled metal tables and floor drains. My uncle, a kind man devoted to the families he served, patiently explained the purpose of each item in the room. Then he nodded toward something I hadn’t noticed before, a portrait of Jesus staring out from beyond his frame. Pointing to it, my uncle said, That’s there to remind me that we’re never alone in this world.

But what if, I asked him, this man of impenetrable faith, what if you didn’t believe in God? Could you still do this job? He smiled at me, shaking his head, knowing how tenuous my own beliefs were. I don’t see how, he shrugged, you have to have faith.

For weeks, months after, I could think of nothing else; I was haunted by that workroom. Soon I began a story about a woman undertaker who didn’t believe in God. I named her Clara Marsh. One day while out searching for rugs, I told my husband about this character who whispered to me through the night and every moment of the day, telling me her story, desperate to share it. I knew how difficult publishing a book could be, I already had one gathering dust, and as we walked through an antique shop, I shared with my husband my concern. I didn’t know if anyone would want to read about something so dark, a woman so utterly crushed by life. He listened as we walked through the shop, scouting for something not too threadbare. And then I spotted it, propped on a table. It was a yellowed envelope adorned with a one-cent stamp and a carefully scripted name -- addressed to Clara Marsh.

It was a sign, surely it was a sign. My uncle’s words came back to me then and in every moment since when I’ve doubted my ability to finish this book. I can almost hear him now, as I begin to think about the querying process, wondering if Clara's story has a place in this world, if I do. Can you hear him? Have faith.


Lisa said...

This is an incredible story and it reinforces even more strongly my belief in signs. Faith comes in many different forms and I believe we all have it, whether we realize it or not. Thank you for sharing this.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Isn't it remarkable, Lisa? I keep the envelope on a shelf above my computer and each time I begin to lose hope, I look to it. How could I give up when I have that to bolster me?