No one was prepared for Sylvia's funeral, except Cora's mother.
Sylvia had just had a baby, just contact-papered the shelves of her new kitchen. No one expected it, which is why no one had anything to wear. Had she been old and sucking on oxygen, the prospective mourners might have had time beforehand to see if their funeral clothes still fit and, finding they did not, time to run down to the Falvert and Box to find something that did. But Sylvia was twenty-six. She had just, three days before her death, made her banana cream pie for the potluck. She had just, certain women close to her knew, found a one-piece bathing suit to flatter her post-baby (but still shapely, still sweet; no one could deny that) summer body. The suit was purple, with a modesty skirt.
So no one was prepared. Cora, young but well-trained, was horrified to see boys in black t-shirts so cheap they revealed the rusty under-dye at their seams, paired with black denim. Denim, for God's sake! Girls in pilled and stretched-out sweaters, skirts of questionable length, black tights, black ballerina slippers. All lesser laws of fit, quality, and drape were thrown out in favor of this higher law, this demand for black.
The families stood around the casket in their mourning patchwork, staring straight ahead, each woman unwilling to judge the child of the woman standing next to her because hers were assembled just as poorly. No one criticized her neighbor for being unprepared because they were all guilty of it.
Except for Cora's mother. Because only a month before (and this was not lucky coincidence; this was careful planning) Cora and her sisters had stood barefoot in the kitchen, lined up tallest to shortest, Cora at the top, while their mother tugged the hems and pinched the seams of their mourning clothes. This occurred biannually. If what she saw and felt was unsatisfactory (and it usually was) she drove them all downtown the next morning.
In those days they still had a seamstress on staff at the Falvert and Box, and though the clothes were ready-made the seamstress did alterations on-site. The clothes were higher quality then, with sturdy seams that could withstand a re-hemming or a taking-in. One by one, the girls stripped for the seamstress under a flickering fluorescent bulb in the fitting room. The seamstress was foreign and indicated with small, quick pushes that they were to raise their arms or lower them, correct their posture, turn sideways, breathe in. After her fitting, Cora waited for her sisters, entranced, listening to the blades of the seamstress' aides severing corduroy, wool, and polyester so thick it could have been used for tents. Heavy fabric, woven to withstand decades, to pass through the hands of a family like a maple credenza or a pewter candle stick. She thought she might like to be a seamstress, but understood even then that it was a dying industry.
Because of her mother's foresight Cora had a brand new outfit off of which to snip the tags on the morning of Sylvia's funeral. Black polyester with real brass buttons. Ruffled throat tied with an organza bow. Towering shoulder pads. A peplum perky enough to add architecture and distinction but conservative enough for the occasion.
Cora and her sisters passed Sylvia's casket in succession, oldest to youngest, smelling of acetate, and their mother held her head high.
* * *
Boys grow fast. Girls, too, Cora supposes now, remembering her sisters shivering in their cotton slips, the seamstress mumbling Hungarian through a mouthful of pins—but boys are definitely the worst. She buys her boys sneakers and jeans and sometimes it seems it's only the next morning that toes cramp up and ankles emerge. Like any resourceful mother she sinks her arms to the elbows in thrift store bins, hoping to turn up a jacket or a pair of boots that will fit one or another of them, and which she’ll then have to wrestle onto him because it isn’t the right brand or the right color. Tough, she will say; this is life. Money has to come from somewhere and there is only so much of it comes her way. Cora was not as lucky in marriage as her mother.
Even so, twice a year, regardless of whether or not there is illness in the family or rioting on the news, she lines them up in the kitchen, all five, tallest to youngest, dressed in their mourning clothes. She tugs hems and pinches seams, feeling for growth room. If what she finds is unsatisfactory she tells them to strip, tells each boy to give his jacket and slacks to the smaller brother to his right, which leaves only the biggest one shivering in his undershirt and his briefs, which are clean (though yellowed) and functional (though threadbare).
The morning after the kitchen fitting, she and this boy catch the bus. It is always the same boy—Brandon, the oldest—except for that one autumn when Teddy, to everyone's surprise, outgrew his brother, but that lasted only one season.
Cora does not take Brandon to the mall in the suburbs like he begs her to, where they stock overpriced China-made rags. No, she takes him to a part of downtown no one ever visits anymore. Through the bus window she sees the Falvert and Box, long empty, a twenty-year-old Easter display turning to dust in one of its Olive Street windows. The human-sized bunny, covered in glitter, grins.
Passing the dead store reminds her, of course, of her mother. She often wondered, decades ago on those walks to the Falvert and Box, what made her mother so determined to keep the girls in mourning clothes, what had given her the foresight to prepare for Sylvia's death when no one else knew it was coming. Her mother seldom spoke of her past. Cora's grandparents, on both sides, passed before Cora could form any conscious memory of them. There were no aunts or uncles. Cora knew of no cousins, no school friends, no lost loves. While her mother sat outside the fitting room, waiting, she opened and closed, opened and closed the clasp of her pocketbook.
The mother herself is dead now, and it was to Cora's great pride that, when her boys stood over the casket (there had been only four of them then), they had been well dressed.
Two blocks west of the ruins of the Falvert and Box, at a tiny clothier's shop between a cellular service store and a defunct chow mein eatery, an old black man with oil in his hair and a fine suit on his body takes Brandon's measurements for new mourning clothes. The suits are only ready-mades, but Cora has found them to be of higher quality, with sturdier seams, than those from any other store in the area. Like the foreign seamstress, the black clothier alters them himself on-site, in a small room behind a black curtain.
For this service Cora pays dearly. The clothier knows her by name and gives her a generous discount, but still she has to save up for six months. As soon as a suit is bought she begins saving for the next. She tears dryer sheets in half, cleans house for a neighbor on Saturday mornings, knows fifteen ways to cook a lentil. She is often tempted, because she has no elderly relatives, nobody on the brink of death, to forgo the contingency of the mourning clothes. Chances are very good Brandon will not need them.
But then she thinks of her mother, clopping down the sidewalk, rounding the corner into the Falvert and Box. Thinks of Sylvia and her new bathing suit, the purple one with the modesty skirt. And Cora lays the money by, twice a year, year after year, as long as the boys are still growing. Because she believes in being prepared. She is always ready.