In the week following my mother’s funeral I wake up knowing I need to begin cooking again. For all of January my mother’s death has been my whole world. But now the gifts of home-made food have slowed. It is time to come out of the cocoon I have wound around keeping vigil and arranging the funeral. In the small hiatus between the bushfires and the Coronavirus lockdown, we’ve had the privilege of a communal farewell. Now I need to enter the world beyond my door. It takes me until lunchtime to coax myself out from under the doona. I will walk up to the local shops for bread and vegetables.
The Italian fruit and veggie shop has an open storefront facing the street. I recognise Aurelia as she stands in the aisle, lightly stacking gleaming fruit. She has worked here for as long as I can remember, though she only appears to be in her early 40s. She wears a navy-blue uniform stitched with lime green highlights. It bears the names of the brothers who own the business.
As I approach her in the narrow aisle, Aurelia is deftly placing plums. Her coral pink fingernails flash amidst the dark purple. She turns towards me with a bird-like quickness in the movement of her head. Her hair is full of impish drama, the top sticks straight up, the sides are close cut. When Aurelia cocks her head to one side, her bright eyes meet my gaze. I realise I’ve felt on my guard coming out into the world again, but here is curiosity and kindness. Aurelia’s eyes are alive and alert, undimmed by years of customer interactions.
The colour and sheen of the shop are open to the street and the weather. I have been feeling hidden, but Aurelia’s presence welcomes me back. Her face is mobile, attentive, there is no risk her strong make-up will mask her loveliness. The clean lines of her eyebrows, cheekbones and lips are accented and clear. ‘Hello’, she says, ‘how are you?’ Aurelia stands back and rocks on her heels as she says this, then grounds her two feet slightly apart. Her ready stance tells me she means the question.
I realise I want her to know that my mother died. I don’t need her to do anything, just know. I tell her Mum had a good death at the end of a long life. There is a pause that marks that this is a new absence. Aurelia is perfectly tuned. Her eyes rest on me as she asks, ‘Are you OK?’
Standing next to the fruit stack, Aurelia tells me about her grandfather’s death in Italy. She had visited him there many times but could not be there when he was dying. She rang while the family were gathered. Someone held the phone to his ear. He said her name. ‘Aurelia’. And then he said, ‘Goodbye Aurelia’. Later she learned these were the only words he spoke in the last weeks of his life.
‘You take care now’, she says as she gently straightens my collar.
The evening Mum died, when it was finally time to leave the hospital, I stood in the corridor, outside her room. A nurse came to farewell me. She held a clipboard in one hand but with the other she reached up and patted down my crooked collar. Sometimes this would feel patronising, but not in these moments. I am one of the motherless now, the gesture is instinctively soothing.
When I am about to leave the shop, I look for Aurelia to give her a wave, but she’s gone out the back. It doesn’t matter. The transaction is complete. Something important in each of our lives is known to the other. Aurelia’s shining listening and quiet telling have allowed me to re-enter the world. In returning to ordinary life I don’t need to feel I am betraying or ignoring what has happened. One person in this shopping strip knows my truth.
I step out into the street, my collar neatly arranged, salad veggies and ciabatta loaf swinging in my shoulder bag.
[Image: Stella Tzertzeveli, via Unsplash]