Our home in Fort Bragg, California chose us [see December 13, 2013 guest post]. In the summer of 1990, we were on our annual trip to visit friends when we walked by a white Victorian, saw the For Sale sign and said, “That’s our house.”
This 130-year old home beckoned us to move in and fill it with a family. At the time, we had two kids in college, a three-year old son and three-month old daughter. We had professional jobs in Fresno that would not transfer to a small, remote community.
The act of buying this house made us determined to do whatever we could to raise our younger kids in this beautiful coastal area, to bring them up in a town where they could be insulated from big city pressures. Three years after the purchase, we were able to move in.
Since our house is so old, you’d think the most common question people ask is when it was built. Actually, the most common question is “Does it bother you to live next to the mortuary?”
It’s not like we live right next door. An alley separates the properties. If the mortuary didn’t have a sign out front, you would think that it was a stately old residence.
The owners of the mortuary—Larry and Shirley Blair—lived in the apartment above the business with their teenage daughter Charla. Their 20-something daughter Charise and son-in-law Nathan lived in the apartment off the alley. They were warm and welcoming—the perfect neighbors.
We moved in the summer before our son Harrison started first grade. One afternoon, walking home from the park, the kids and I stopped to chat with Nathan who was doing yard work. Harrison asked if he could stay and help.
Thus began Harrison’s summer of nearly daily visits to the mortuary. If he wasn’t “helping” Nathan with yard work, he was playing catch with Charla or trailing Larry.
One day, he discovered the casket room and came home to announce, “I picked out the perfect caskets for you guys.”
When Gary and I explained that we want to be cremated, Harrison shook his head in disgust and said, “Nobody wants to be buried anymore.”
Another time, he told us he saw a deceased person in a casket. “He looked like he was sleeping.”
Nathan came over later that afternoon and apologized. The viewing room is part of the chapel and when he and Harrison were walking through the adjacent hallway, Harrison caught sight of a casket and darted into the chapel.
When I asked Harrison how he felt about seeing a dead person, his only comment was, “He had a really pretty casket.” A few days later, I bought a copy of the Fort Bragg Advocate News and found the man’s obituary. I read it to Harrison and we talked about how that man was once alive, about his career and family. Harrison was mildly interested in the man’s history, but didn’t get into any questions about mortality or what happens after death.
During our first year in Fort Bragg, whenever anyone asked Harrison what he wanted to be when he grew up, he’d say, “A mortician.” The questioner would look alarmed, hardly expecting that response from a six-year old.
Harrison started first grade, began gathering friends and spent less time next door. A few months later, he stopped his visits.
When Harrison was a senior in high school, we hosted an end of season basketball dinner at our house. We needed a dozen extra chairs and asked to borrow them from the mortuary. Larry led us into the casket room where the chairs were stored.
Harrison’s face lit up in a big smile. “Wow, this place sure brings back memories.”
Living next door to the mortuary has not always been a lighthearted experience. At times we’ve been exposed to deep sadness, something we might otherwise have chosen to avoid.
Around 4:30 in the afternoon on August 26, 2003, the second Tuesday of a new school year, emergency sirens filled the town. An hour later, the mortuary became a hub of activity, the likes of which we had not seen in the eleven years we’d lived next door. The white van—the vehicle used to pick up bodies—left and returned more than once. Police and sheriff vehicles came and went throughout the evening. Glances out my kitchen window revealed a steady stream of law enforcement and emergency personnel, their pale faces strained with anguish.
Harrison got home from high school soccer practice to say he’d heard that some kids had been drinking and racing up Sherwood Road where their car hit another car.
A flurry of telephone calls assured us that our kids’ friends were safe. However, the pall of knowing that a group of kids needlessly lost their lives drifted across the alley and into our hearts.
Three of the five kids in the car died, along with a 43-year old woman who was driving the other car.
The loss of those children, of that woman, and the suffering of the injured survivors shook our small town to the core. The owners and employees of the mortuary were not immune to this trauma. As difficult as it was, they put aside their feelings to offer empathy and comfort to heartbroken families.
Does it bother us to live next door to the mortuary?
Not at all. Like nearly everything about living in this small town, the experience has added layers of quirkiness as well as deep compassion to our lives.
(Editor's note from Jennifer Hotes: One evening when I was staying with my Fort Bragg family over break, Harrison came home from the mortuary for supper. He smiled at me and said he'd picked out the perfect coffin for me, shiny white wood and pink satin pillows. I took his choice as a compliment. He said it was one of the most expensive caskets in the whole mortuary.)
Kate loves the quirky aspects of living on the Mendocino Coast so much that she writes a humor blog about it. Check it out at: www.ithappenedatpurity.com. Her posts are funny and poignant. Become a subscriber. While you’re at it, like her page on Facebook. Thanks for being a guest, Kate!