In the middle of my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I start to think about calling off the wedding. The feeling of Clara’s damp hand wrapped around mine is suddenly revolting to me in ways that it hadn’t been before. I shrug my hand out of her grasp and she moves closer to me, squeezing my arm. The priest calls for a moment of silence, and I take the time to study Clara in a new way.
Her hair seems to defy the humidity of the small church, remaining a perfect swirl of curls at the top of her head. She wipes a tear off with a crumpled handkerchief, the one with my initials embroidered in the corner. I have a sudden flash of déjà vu as I remember my mother sitting next to me in a church pew similar to this one only a few years earlier, wiping her eyes with the same handkerchief as we both mourned for my father. Her hands, always so steady and sure, trembled as they held mine.
My mother introduced me to Clara, the daughter of one of Father’s old business associates, shortly after my father’s death. Her presence echoed through every step of our relationship, though I did my best to ignore her ever-present nagging. The sense of relief my mother felt when Clara accepted my proposal was not shared — I resented her involvement, and had little say in the matter anyway. Money had been tight since Father’s death; it was clear that Mother’s interest stemmed from the knowledge of a hefty dowry offered by Clara’s family.
My mother constantly reassured me that I was making the right decision. “Clara is a lovely woman, dear,” she would say as she waved the servant over for another drink. “You got real lucky with this one. For the love of God, don’t screw it up.”
I tried to love Clara, I really did. She was, without a doubt, way out of my league. She volunteered at the soup kitchen on the weekends. During the week, she ran events for the local rotary club, and hosted a monthly book club for the neighborhood wives. She was perfect in every way, especially for putting up with me.
My hand twitches for a nonexistent glass of Scotch. Clara’s hand squeezes mine tighter, her fingers slipping over my knuckles. I squeeze back, half-heartedly, before I notice she’s trying to get my attention.
“Get up there,” she says, not unkindly. She presses the handkerchief into my hand, damp with her tears now, not mine, as I stand up. The priest shakes my hand at the podium and steps aside. I glance out at the audience, the many people here for my mother’s funeral. I have some note cards prepared, a speech that was dictated to Clara and then carefully transcribed in her girlish print, but at the last second, I decide against it.
Maybe it’s the way Clara looks at me from the pulpit, eyes shining with tears, a delicate smile on her face, that stops me. The look in her eyes, not unlike devotion, stirs something uncomfortable in my stomach. I have to look away from the intensity in her stare, undeserving of her worship. I grip the handkerchief tightly.
“Clara,” I say. “I want to call off the engagement.”
The church erupts in murmurs and whispers as everyone turns to look at Clara. Her face is the same shade of red as her hair. There is an awkward silence, before the priest gently nudges me to the side and asks if anyone else would like to speak.
I only wish my mother had been here to witness this last act of defiance. I’d like her to know just how much of a disappointment I continue to be to her, without her presence looming over me constantly. She looks so peaceful in the casket, her face free of wrinkles. Her lips are pulled back almost in a smile. An overwhelming urge to shake her and wake her up overtakes me, like I used to when I had a nightmare as a small child. Instead, I drop the handkerchief into the casket and walk away, feeling lighter than I have in a long time.