Thirty minutes after I arrived at Nan’s wake, Aunt Poppy abducted me. I tried to kick myself free, but being shorter than Snooki and thinner than Gwyneth Paltrow neutralized me as a threat. Poppy tossed me into a cramped supply closet and slammed the door behind us, fidgeting like a schoolgirl caught smoking in front of the principal.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” I hissed as soon as Poppy released her hand from my mouth.
She’d always been one for dramatics, but I’d thought she could keep it together for her mother’s funeral. How my family managed to drag me into these situations was beyond me. None of them respected me much after I moved to New York, but I was determined to get through this wake with as much dignity and grace as possible. I had to admit being stuck in a broom closet with crazy Aunt Poppy wasn’t the start I had imagined to my long-awaited return home.
Rummaging through her purse, Poppy popped open a fluorescent orange bottle and dry swallowed a healthy handful of pills.
“Why does it smell like someone spilled ten gallons of bleach in here?” I asked.
I could hear the priest performing his sermon in the viewing room down the hall; he had to shout over my mother’s inconsolable wails.
Poppy sniffed the unmarked jars on the shelves behind her, then, as I pinched my nose and watched, she waved around the air in front of me like she was cleansing an evil spirit.
“I can’t smell a thing, dear,” she whispered. “I lost most of my sniffing power after that lemon snorting contest in Santa Fe. You reckon they had to bleach the floor because they spilled some ashes or something?”
“Ashes?” I repeated back to her.
The thought of being trapped in a confined space with dead bodies was enough to make me start hyperventilating. I suddenly couldn’t shake the feeling that bits of burnt human flesh were scattered on the floor, sticking to the bottom of my flats. I tried to make a break for it, but Poppy’s artificial E-cups bounced me back into the wall like two giant airbags.
“Sugar, this is important, so I’m going to need you to dial back all that red-light energy I see radiating off of your aura.”
Despite having never left the state of Indiana, Poppy had adopted a phony southern accent since I’d last seen her. Glancing up at the bedazzled pink rhinestones on her black cowboy hat, I guessed she’d either found a new boyfriend or got dumped.
“Alright, alright, what is so important?” I asked, doing my best to feign interest.
Whatever Poppy wanted, I needed her to spit it out quickly: my cousin, Sarah, had started singing a hymn, which meant my eulogy was up next.
“Sweetie pie,” Poppy sighed, chewing her words like she was about to tell me someone had cancer, “it’s your papa.”
Tears welled up in the corners of Poppy’s owl eyes.
“Is he dying?” I gasped.
I couldn’t fathom Dad telling Poppy something he hadn’t told me: he was the only relationship in my life built entirely on honesty. He was the one who had encouraged me to travel and live somewhere new while I was young; he was the person I called when I needed help with my taxes or choosing a 401K plan. If I was honest with myself, Dad was the only person I completely trusted. The way Poppy looked at me made me feel like a bomb had gone off, and I was the last one to know.
Lower lip quivering, Poppy squeezed the circulation out of my arms as she leaned in close to deliver the news.
“Riley, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your papa has gone and got himself in sexual entanglements on the internet,” she cried louder than a baby without a pacifier.
“Quiet down,” I warned her, shaking her like a rag doll.
Freeing my bleached-blonde hair from its high ponytail, I started flapping the jacket of my pantsuit: We needed to get some air circulating in there. I felt like I was in some twisted psychological experiment—forced to consider my father as a sexual being while being hotboxed until I passed out.
It took me a minute to try to process what my aunt had just told me. My father? In sexual entanglements?
“Inconceivable!” I heard the short dude from the Princess Bride’s voice shouting in my head.
My father was a fifty-two-year-old with a beer belly that jiggles like jello and skin paler than geisha makeup. If I were held at gunpoint and forced to describe my father’s sexual attractiveness, I would say he was painfully average.
“Is this something your tarot-card reader told you?” I asked Poppy.
Poppy answered by waving her phone under my nose.
“I knew you wouldn’t believe me,” she huffed, “but Sarah caught him on Tinder. She took what she called a ‘screenshot’ and sent it to me in a text message. Now, if I could only remember how to open this thing.”
It surprised me that Sarah had a Tinder. Mom would tell anyone who’d listen that finding dates was my problem. Every two months or so, she’d call to check if I’d come out as a lesbian. The other side of the door had gone quiet; I wondered if Sarah’s hymn had ended.
“Okay, I believe you, Poppy, but I have to go give the eulogy. Let’s deal with this later.”
But before I could shove my way to freedom, Poppy had pulled up my father’s alleged Tinder profile. The profile picture was the same as his Facebook profile; a family photo from when I was nine, and we took a trip to Disneyland. I saw my father’s burnt tomato face standing in front of the iconic castle; someone had cropped Mom and me off the sides of the memory.
Trapped in a mental block of ice, I winced as the cool sweat on my hot skin started to burn, but I couldn’t move. My dad loved Star Wars movies; he made jokes about may flowers at Thanksgiving and woke up early after heavy snows to shovel the neighbors’ driveways. How could the face of dads in suburbia have a Tinder profile?
“Riley Summers, are you with us?” I heard Father Joseph shout.
I ducked under Poppy’s arms and jogged out of the closet.
“But how are we going to tell your mother,” Poppy called after me.
I ignored both her and the thirty strange looks I received as I rushed in front of Nan’s bronze casket. Artificial flowers filled the room beneath creepy crosses nailed in parallel lines along eggshell walls. I looked down at Mom, who was still crying in the front row between Sarah and Dad. Sarah looked around for Poppy while Dad stroked his knuckle across the back of Mom’s wrist. He used to do that when I was a kid and Mom upset. Usually, I found it sweet, but right then, his kind gesture pissed me off.
Pulling out the airline napkin on which I had scribbled my short eulogy, I thanked Father Joseph for his moving sermon and introduced myself to the crowd. Still waving around her unlocked phone so anyone that bothered to look away from me could see Dad’s picture, Poppy stumbled into an empty seat beside Sarah.
“Sandra Summers was a caring and loving mother to my aunt, Poppy, and my mother, Diane. She was a wonderful grandmother to my cousin, Sarah, and myself. Though we are a small family, my Nan’s example has inspired us to remain incredibly close and consistently honest.”
I stopped to glare at my father; oblivious, he beamed with pride.
“Nan was a friend to many in the community. She insisted my father drive her to her weekly game of bridge, and she would report back to us what an impressive card shark she had become in her old age. Ask anyone at Sunset Living Community, and they will tell you her tennis serve was lethal.
Everyone in this room knows what a strong woman my Nan was, but some of you might not know that her husband, Grandpa Jay, died very young. Left with two daughters that had yet to start preschool, Nan committed her life to her family. She worked double shifts behind the deli at the Kroger on Prairie Street, and she took the time to drive her daughters along new roads on the weekends to see where they could find their next adventure.”
I stopped the second I caught Mom looking up at me. Her weak smile made my voice quiver.
“I think we should all remember my Nan by honoring the people she took pride in bringing into this world. Since I moved to New York, I started a weekly phone call with Nan, and every Sunday, she would tell me the same stories about her two little girls. Fifty years after her youngest daughter was born, she still couldn’t believe how gorgeous, curious, and giving her two girls turned out to be. So, as I stand in front of the two extraordinary daughters of Sandra Summers, I know she is looking down at them, filled with pride over the miracles she created. Thank you, Poppy and Diane, for passing on Nan’s example to Sarah and me. As Nan told us all each night before bed, she loved you more than the stars, and the moon, and the sun.”
As soon as I finished, Poppy stood up and suffocated me with a bear hug. Nobody else got up, but as Sarah scooted over so I could take a seat next to her, both Mom and Dad reached over to squeeze my leg. Folding my hands in my lap, I stared at the red and black striped carpet until Father Joseph concluded the viewing.
I was determined to stay by my mother’s side to protect her from Poppy’s poorly timed impulses. Whatever she might have found, today was not the day to tell mom. We silently sat together and watched Dad make the rounds. He took the time to thank everyone for coming.
“She was a wonderful woman, and she would’ve been so happy you came today,” he repeated each time he shook someone’s hand.
Once all the non-family mourners had left, Dad and the funeral director huddled in the corner to discuss donating the flowers to Nan’s nursing home. My bladder started shouting for my attention. Knowing I wouldn’t want to pee in the airport bathroom before my flight home, I decided to dash to the restroom.
Before I left, I shot Poppy and Sarah a warning look that I hoped would intimidate them for long enough that they kept their silence until I returned. Alas, I should’ve known any hope for Poppy’s cooperation died after I mentioned honesty in my eulogy.
Returning from the bathroom, I saw Sarah and Poppy hovering over Mom and making wild miming gestures. Sarah pointed frantically at her phone as Poppy drew an “X” in the air over Dad’s turned back.
“Mom, I know this doesn’t look good,” I said, rushing back into my seat beside her, “but there has to be an explanation.”
Sarah pulled up the snapshot she’d taken of the Tinder profile with Dad’s picture. Worried her shock, along with a day’s worth of tears without drinking water, would cause her to faint, I meticulously studied my mother as she glanced down at the photo. Had I not seen the flicker in her eyes, I might have been more likely to believe the theatrical laughter she erupted into as she threw her head back and clapped her hands. “Is this what you two were making all that noise over, in the other room ?” she asked me.
“Oh, sweetie, of course, there is an explanation.”
Sarah and Poppy shot each other confused but relieved smiles. I, however, was not so quick to take my mother’s word.
“John,” Mom called, still chuckling to herself, “you have to see what the girls found: they must’ve been in a tizzy all morning. It’s another one of those fishcat people.”
“Catfish, dear,” Dad corrected her as he politely excused himself from the director and strolled over to join us.
“Right, catfish,” Mom agreed. “We’ve had people from all over the neighborhood finding these dumb profiles,” she explained to Poppy, “apparently, some weirdo on the internet stole the photos from John’s Facebook. I mean, we only got the Facebook to see Riley’s pictures from New York, and now it’s causing all sorts of dumb trouble.”
I could feel my mother’s cringe as she mentioned my move to New York. She and I had struggled with communication since my teenage years. Unlike Dad, Mom found my lack of commitment to the state of Indiana to be a personal offense perpetrated by a daughter that must hate her. Annoyed, I tried to keep us from regressing into one of our screaming matches in the middle of the funeral home.
Squinting, Dad pushed the phone away from his face. Mom handed him her readers so he could see. Like her, he started laughing as soon as he saw the picture.
“What can I say, honey?” he said, winking at me like he was George Clooney, “your old man is a catch. I’ve tried to make my Facebook private, but every time we report one of these profiles, a new one pops up with my name and picture on it.”
Poppy slapped her hands against her cheeks.
“That ain’t right! You should go to the authorities, John; I mean, this is your reputation we’re talking about here.”
Sarah, the only other person under fifty in the conversation, shared my skeptical look. Still, she seemed set on keeping her mouth shut.
“In the first profile we found, they even had John’s profession down. Isn’t it wild what these creeps can find on the internet these days?” Mom asked.
“Don’t worry,” Dad grunted, “I might not know how to work those crazy apps, but the people of Nashville, Indiana know I’m an honest man. I bet—”
“But don’t you work with computers?” I interrupted him, my voice louder and sharper than I realized it was going to be.
For the first time that day, I didn’t care that we were five feet from Nan’s cold corpse. Seconds ago, I had wanted to diffuse the situation, but now that it was being swept under the rug, I wanted answers. Instead, I had a feeling that all I was getting was bullshit. Staring into Dad’s shocked, baby-blue eyes, a memory I hadn’t thought about in years replayed in my head.
I was fourteen, and Dad’s Jeep was parked in the driveway when I got home from school. Wondering why he wasn’t at work, I walked through the front door and spotted Mom, Aunt Poppy, and Dad talking intensely around the kitchen counter. Stopping behind the staircase before they could see me, I listened to Poppy shout to the heavens.
“It’s all a misunderstanding! Mark my words, as long as your family knows the truth, that’s all that matters.”
“What matters is that I lost my job,” Dad groaned.
Both his and Mom’s eyes were red from crying. Frowning, my mother stroked his back as he took another swig of his beer.
“You’ll get a new job; I already see a promising yellow aura bubbling around you,” Poppy assured him.
“They were just jokes,” Mom told Poppy, sounding so desperate I wondered if she was trying to convince herself, “that intern misunderstood. She’s only sixteen; you know how young girls get confused. John was trying to make her feel welcome, and this girl’s gotten herself into such a tizzy that she’s accused him of sexual harassment.”
Sensing my father would be embarrassed to know I was listening to this conversation, I silently ran up to my room. That night, Mom came up to explain to me why Dad would be home for a couple of weeks until he found a new job.
“Don’t worry,” I told her before she could begin, “I heard you and Poppy in the kitchen earlier. All that matters is that we believe in Dad, right?”
I couldn’t remember what my mother had said then, but I remembered she looked distant as she tucked me under the covers. I had felt like she’d entered a world I wasn’t old enough to understand, and I resented her keeping it from me. Dad never kept secrets like she did.
But I was older now, and I was starting to understand that my father did more than welcome the sixteen-year-old intern with some harmless jokes.
“What do you mean, sweetheart?” Dad asked me now, drawing my attention back to the poorly-lit funeral home.
“You work with computers,” I repeated. “How could you not understand how an app works?”
“I work in sales, dear,” Dad chuckled. “I sell monitors; the closest I come to an app is at Applebees.”
Poppy tried to laugh through the tension, but my scolding stare didn’t relent until Mom gently grabbed my shoulder.
“We should clear out so they can start setting up for the next wake,” she reminded me.
I threw my arms in the air.
“Doesn’t any of this sound fishy to you? People don’t steal profile pictures and job titles from fifty-two-year-old men in Nashville; people use models as their catfish photos.”
Dad tried to push my hair out of my face, but I slapped his hand away.
“You need to calm down!” Mom ordered. “Poppy, Sarah, why don’t you two go home and get some rest. John, could you pull the car around for us? We don’t want Riley to miss her flight home.”
Poppy and Sarah stayed silent as they kissed us goodbye. Mom never got this angry in public. Dad followed them out to the car, looking back at me like he was a wounded puppy. I wasn’t used to fighting with Dad, but the realization that he might have lied to me was boiling my temper beyond my control.
I waited until we were alone again before I tried to re-engage Mom. Refusing to look at me, she started collecting sympathy cards off the flowers to send the gifters proper thank-you cards.
“Mom, we have to talk about this.”
“You gave a wonderful eulogy,” Mom said, inspecting a bouquet of lilies.
Walking behind her, I waited for her to turn around and face me. She refused.
“You know there is no catfish, don’t you?”
I took her silence as confirmation.
“How long has he been getting away with this?” I whisper.
“It’s not that simple,” she whimpered, wiping tears from her cheek.
For the first time today, she seemed determined not to cry. The force of her strength simultaneously impressed and depressed me.
“I remember the girl. A sixteen-year-old accused him of sexual harassment at work. She stopped by the house once to deliver some important mail dad had overnighted from Atlanta.”
Mom dug her wedding ring deep toward her knuckle.
“Her name is Molly,” she whispered.
“Mom, how could you let him lie to me for all these years? Lie to you? He sexually harassed a child, and now he’s cheating on you for the whole town to see.”
We both jumped at the sound of dad’s horn honking in front of the building. Keeping her head down, Mom started walking toward the exit.
“Wait! I’m not done talking about this!” I cried after her. “You owe me—”
“Owe you?!” she shrieked, whipping around and throwing her finger in my face. “I’m the only one that cares about keeping this family together.”
“What about Molly? Don’t you care about sticking up for her?”
“Molly? Do you think Molly was the first one? Do you think divorcing my husband is going to somehow stop him from being who he is? You have no idea what it takes to make a marriage work. Has it ever occurred to you that I might have wanted to run away to New York? I had a baby at home who needed her father, so stop acting like I’m the one that isn’t being fair. We can’t always do whatever we want, and most of the time, justice isn’t clear or easy, so back off!”
Bursting into tears, my mother ran out of the room before I could say another word. Seething at Dad and wishing I could hug Mom, I followed her outside, got in the back seat of the station wagon, and sat in silence for the hour ride to the airport.
“Thanks for coming, kiddo. Sorry about the confusion,” Dad said, helping me take my duffle bag out of the trunk once we arrived.
I couldn’t even look at him.
“Is she not coming out of the car?” I asked, nodding toward Mom, who was sitting in the front seat with her arms folded across her chest.
Frowning, he shrugged.
“And you’re sure you don’t want me to stick around for a few days? I could come to the burial tomorrow.”
Dad leaned down and kissed my forehead.
“No, coming today meant the world to your mother and me,” he assured me.
We stood in silence for a minute while I tried to mentally will Mom out of the car. She showed no sign of budging.
“She deserves better than this,” I told Dad.
He opened his mouth like he was about to deny me the truth again, but I shook my head and patted his wrist.
“I know,” he admitted. “Lord knows I could be better.”
A light rain started trickling against the concrete awning over our heads.
“Your mother and I love you more than the stars and the moon and the sun,” he reminded me.
“Love you, too,” I sighed, the words tasting strange in my mouth for the first time in my life.
Racing into the airport, I didn’t look back as my parents drove toward their lives in the three-bedroom house they’d owned for the past twenty-four years. It’d been Nan’s house before she gave it to them on their wedding day. I spent the flight home thinking about family and forgiveness.
One day, I would have to have a much longer talk with Dad about what he’d done. I knew I couldn’t forgive him unless he confessed to the truth. Even then, I wasn’t sure what I owed to the young girl with freckles that had stopped by our front door to deliver my dad’s mail. I called Mom’s cell as soon as we landed. She didn’t have much to say other than complaining about the ridiculous hat Polly had worn to the wake. I didn’t tell her then, but I decided to call her again the next Sunday and every Sunday after that for as long as she’d answer.
Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash