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P. Jo Anne Burgh

Featured Author--Nov/Dec 2014

P. Jo Anne Burgh has enjoyed what may charitably be called a patchwork career path that includes teaching (middle school, high school, and adult education), office work, practicing law, serving as a short-term missionary in northern Thailand, and at long last, a return to writing fiction. Her stories have been published in On the Premises and Spark: A Creative Anthology, Vol. V. She lives in Connecticut with four cats, serves as a deaconess and worship team singer at her church, continues to practice law, and is working on her first novel.

Funeral Luncheons

P. Jo Anne Burgh

My mother always kept a box of brownie mix in the pantry because you never knew when somebody might die.

Brownies from a mix were the easiest thing to make for a funeral, she said. Just add water, eggs and oil, and that was that. Twenty years ago, people might have added a handful of walnuts, but now that everybody seemed to have food allergies, it was safer to leave them out. To make the whole process even simpler, Mom had one of those nonstick pans with the grid insert so the brownies would come out already cut into nice, even squares. Piece of cake, she’d say with a wink.

The squares sometimes had to be cut in half to accommodate a larger-than-anticipated crowd. The head deaconess would try to estimate attendance in advance based on factors like the size of the family and how long they’d lived in the area—long-time residents tended to have more local friends—but this was far from an exact science. So during the service, one of the deaconesses would slip into the back of the sanctuary and take a headcount so they could decide whether they needed to start cutting sandwiches in half or raiding the youth group’s supply of soda. Not that this resolved the question entirely, because some people who came for the service might skip the luncheon, while others who were late or got lost or just didn’t like funerals might come at the end to pay their respects and stick around for a quick bite. Regardless, the deaconesses never complained. The bereaved were entitled to do things however they chose, and everybody else adjusted.

Don’t sign up for sandwiches, Mom warned. You had to wait until the morning of the service to assemble them or they’d get soggy, especially if you put tomato on them. Besides, if you made egg salad or tuna salad sandwiches in advance, you’d have to find space for them in the refrigerator until it was time to take them over to the church. Even ham and bologna had to be refrigerated. You couldn’t do sandwiches the night before unless you were making plain peanut butter, and there wasn’t much call for that.

Most of the funerals were modest—thirty or forty people staying to lunch—but occasionally there was a big one, like when the choir director died. Big funerals were a lot more work. Long ago, somebody had decided sandwiches were too informal for such occasions and they should serve something hot instead. Usually they chose baked ziti, which sounded easy but was really a huge, time-consuming mess, involving stockpots of boiling water, unstable mounds of shredded mozzarella, and sizzling skillets of ground beef. The kitchen windows would be steamy, grease would spatter everywhere, and there was never enough space for everything that had to be mixed together.

When you put the ziti in the oven, you had to remember to put a cookie sheet under the foil pan before you picked it up, because a big pan of baked ziti was a lot heavier than a person might expect. If you didn’t support it properly, it would collapse, and you’d end up with a mess of hot noodles and sauce all over the floor. Mom always nodded sagely at that part. She never admitted to having made that mistake, but the way she told it, you knew somebody had.

The hassles didn’t even end there. You had to allow time to cool the ziti since you couldn’t put the oven-hot pan in the car. Once it was cool enough to transport, you had to haul it over to the church and find space for it in their refrigerator. Major pain in the neck, Mom said. Volunteer for something else.

It wasn’t that my mother didn't want to help. Just the opposite, in fact. She understood all too well what the families were going through. Death—especially sudden death—left people with too many details to attend to at the very time when they didn't want to think about anything at all. That was why the church offered the bereaved the option of having a luncheon in the fellowship hall after the funeral: it relieved them of the obligation to have people back to the house afterward, with all the cleaning and cooking (or ordering in) that would require. People who didn’t attend the church would frequently offer to pay for their lunches, but the deaconesses would just smile and say it was the least they could do under the circumstances. If somebody wanted to make a contribution to the church in memory of the deceased, though, nobody discouraged them.

Like her mother before her, Mom was a deaconess from the time she was a young bride. It wasn’t just a family tradition; she was genuinely happy to serve. She could knit afghans and make fruit punch with the best of them, and she enjoyed doing it. What bothered her about funerals was that there was no way to plan for them. Other events, like bridal showers and missionary luncheons, could be placed on a calendar, the preparation fitting nicely into the normal course of life. Not so with funerals. You couldn’t get advance notice of someone’s passing. Occasionally, when word got around that one of the elderly parishioners was nearing his end, the deaconesses would start lining up volunteers and nobody would admit that it all felt a little ghoulish. More typically, though, Mom would get a call from Donna or Audrey at nine o’clock at night, asking if she’d be available to make something for a funeral the day after tomorrow. Mom never said “no,” but she always volunteered for brownie duty since that would require the least rearrangement of her schedule. Mix, bake and cut. Simple and quick.

Rescheduling was not something my mother did lightly. Plans for one’s day, week, or life should be respected. On her lips, “spontaneous” was not a compliment—and no matter how you looked at it, death was spontaneous. It was unpredictable, thoughtless, and often downright inconvenient. Even when the passing was thought to be imminent, the actual moment was always a surprise. Not that there was anything to be done about it, but in Mom’s opinion, this was a flaw in the design: a person should be able to plan for such a major event. She knew there were those who didn’t believe in planning, who greeted each day with gleeful anticipation of delightful surprises, but in my mother’s opinion, those people were idiots. The unexpected was overrated. Anybody who’d ever opened the door on a rainy night to a pair of grim-faced policemen knew that. So she worked out her own private approach to serving, one which allowed her to provide assistance and comfort to those in mourning while minimizing the disruptions which the end of life imposed on those still living.

Even worse than baked ziti duty, in Mom’s opinion, was Jello salad. She considered it nasty, messy and unbearably tacky. When there were no church people around, she loved to tell how, when Arnold Franklin died, Becky Gerlach had brought an enormous clear glass bowl of lurid green Jello studded with miniature marshmallows, maraschino cherries, dried-looking flakes of coconut and chunks of mushy banana with slightly browned edges. Mom liked Arnold; he was a friend of Grandpa’s and a man of quiet distinction. He deserved better than that chartreuse horror. So, as the other deaconesses set out baskets of plastic utensils and paper plates, she entered the fellowship hall with Becky’s offering as if to put it on the buffet table. As soon as no one was looking, she fake-tripped and half-threw it to the linoleum floor, shattering the bowl and splattering bright green Jello everywhere. Mom always swore that when the gelatin hit the floor, it actually bounced.

Cookies weren’t so bad. If somebody else had signed up for brownies, you could volunteer to make cookies. The issue there was hands-on time. Since cookies only baked for eight to twelve minutes, you couldn’t really leave the kitchen. You were basically a hostage to cookies.

Which was why Mom always kept a box of brownie mix in her pantry. Because you never know when somebody might die.

She was right, of course. Brownies from a mix are so simple. Eggs. Oil. Water. Mix. Fifty strokes. Cooking spray for the pan. Her oven runs hot; reduce the temperature by fifteen degrees and the baking time by three minutes.

Once the brownies are on the cooling rack, I rummage through the cabinets. Take what you want and give the rest to the church, she’d said, back when this day was a mere someday. Take the immersion blender. The digital timer-thermometer. The electric tea kettle.

The brownies are always placed on the oblong ceramic platter. It’s cream-colored with embossed stalks of wheat around the rim. Mom bought it at the estate sale when my second-grade Sunday school teacher, who was in her nineties, finally died. On the bottom, PARKER is now written with indelible black ink. If I give the platter to the church, everyone will know where it came from. I cut each of the eighteen brownies in two and arrange them in neat rows. The foil rustles as I drape it over the platter, crimping the edges to keep the brownies fresh until tomorrow.

Mom never believed in squirting dish soap on the sponge, but she’s not washing up this time. The grid is annoying to clean—all those bits of brownie stuck in its corners—but I make sure each section is free of crumbs and grease. Ordinarily, I’d just set the baking dishes in the drying rack, but today, I dry each item with the blue-striped towel hanging on the rod. It almost seems silly to put anything away, but I do it anyway—the mixing bowl in its drawer, the wooden spoon and rubber scraper in the handmade blue crock I bought her at the pottery store in Minneapolis.

I carry the brownies out to the car. I position the platter on the floor of the passenger’s side and slam the door. I get in the other side and reach for my car keys, only to realize that I left my purse on the kitchen table. When I open the kitchen door, the rich, deep aroma of chocolate envelopes me like a bittersweet hug.

The brownie pan sits alone on the counter. Everything else has been put away, but somehow I forgot about the pan. Its dark gray surface gleams dully in the shaft of late afternoon light coming in from the window over the sink. Even after all these years, the pan is virtually unmarked. To look at it, nobody would know whether it was used for one batch or fifty. More, probably. In the eerie quiet of her perfectly-organized kitchen, I try to imagine how many people have found some small comfort in my mother’s brownies. How many times someone smiled gamely and took a brownie off that platter—someone who was numb with grief, or red-eyed and composed, or terrified of that gaping, jagged hole in the future where a loved one was supposed to be. How many times something as simple as a tiny piece of chocolate—a mere half of a square—might have helped a bereaved soul feel, just for a moment, that maybe there were a few things left that weren’t spinning out of control.

I hesitate for only a moment before I pick up the pan and my purse. I leave quickly, locking the door behind me. I can drop off the brownies this afternoon. A few of the deaconesses will undoubtedly be at the church to set up tables. They might even be making baked ziti. On the way home, I’ll stop at the supermarket and pick up a box of brownie mix to keep in my pantry.

Because you never know when somebody might die.

The Top
Ten . . .

Reasons You Might Be Better Off With a Dog or Cat Than a Kid

 P. Jo Anne Burgh

Long ago, when my three nephews were young and rambunctious, my sister sighed, “I should have stuck with cats.” While most parents will tell you how incomparably magical the parenting experience was (a statement generally made long after the kids are grown and gone), for those who may be still be debating whether to take the plunge, I humbly offer these insights:


1. Pet toys are cheaper than human toys. For the price of one computer or a season’s worth of sports equipment, you can buy hundreds of rawhide bones or catnip mice.

2. You’ll save a fortune on education.Even the priciest dog obedience school can’t touch the tuition at a four-year college. The notion of teaching a cat anything is a joke.

3. Pets are willing to be seen with you in public. Fido will happily accompany you anywhere. Not so with your thirteen-year-old.

4. Pets don’t throw unauthorized parties when you go away. At most, Fido may chew up your shoes. Fluffy will sleep the entire time.

5. You’ll never have to plan your schedule around your pet’s extracurricular activities. With Fido and Fluffy dozing nearby, you can enjoy salmon with mustard sauce and a lightly-oaked chardonnay at your peaceful dining table instead of clutching the steering wheel with one hand and a greasy burger from the drive-through in the other as you race from dance class to soccer practice to piano lessons while shredded lettuce and special sauce dribble down the front of your jacket.

6. A pet won’t beg to borrow your car.Fido’s happy to be a passenger. Fluffy would rather stay home anyway. 

7. With pets, meals are a snap. Fido will greet the same kibble every day with unflagging enthusiasm. Fluffy will snub whatever you put down. Neither will look at your lovingly prepared meal and say, “Can’t we go to Taco Bell instead?”

8. Toilet training pets is a breeze. Cats are born litter-box-trained. Put a kitten in a litter box, scratch its paws in the litter a couple times, and you’re done. With a puppy, you’ll have a few weeks of soiled newspaper, but it’s over quickly. Either way, you never have to argue about whose turn it is to change the poopy diaper.

9. Pets require much less equipment. Fido needs a leash, a couple bowls, a bed, and some toys. Fluffy needs the bowls and toys, a litter box, a scratching post (or an ugly upholstered chair you inherited from a relative with lousy taste), and a carrier. Humans require enormous amounts of stuff—cribs and strollers and changing tables and car seats (which are apparently now mandatory until the kid is old enough to drive himself)—and that’s not even half of what you need to care for a person who’s smaller than the average Thanksgiving turkey. Plus, as the kid grows, so does the list of essentials.

10. You can legally neuter your pet.Enough said.