“I’m afraid that I won’t be able to make it to tomorrow’s meeting,” Whittaker said. “I’ve got a funeral to go to. It’s at the Catholic church on 5th downtown if you need to look it up.”

“Oh, I believe you,” Markson said. “But I’m afraid that’s no excuse.”

“No excuse?” Whittaker reddened. “Why not? What’s wrong with wanting to give my great uncle a proper burial?”

“My dear, if you want to cling to your silly and superstitious rituals in the hope that some imaginary great bearded man in the sky will give your distant relative better treatment, that’s your problem. But this is a business; if you indulge in private superstition, you must be prepared to deal with the consequences.”

“I…” Whittaker stammered.

Markson checked a nearby wall clock. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a feng shui appointment with my geomancer. We’re going to rearrange my office to generate the maximum positive chi.”

Our neighborhood was in the oldest part of our town, with houses nearing or over the century mark. We’d been the first new family to move in for years, and once we kids arrived, we found a willing audience in the many elderly widows next door. They tended to enjoy our antics, and kept large dishes bright with gumdrops on their tables for when we visited.

One by one, as the years went by, they all passed away. New families moved in and the old houses were painted and refinished. The house on one corner had its beautiful stand of pine trees cut down while a bevy of modern garages went up in backyards previously left fallow.

In the end, there was only one home left with its original coat of paint and owner, on the far corner of the block.

The end came suddenly, without the lengthy buildup of an illness. While my mother was out of town, the old lady died peacefully, napping in the chair in her living room. The housekeeper found her the next day.

There was no way for my mother to make it home in time to see her friend off, so it fell to our family to go in her stead. It was the first funeral we had attended in years, perhaps the first since I’d gained a more mature understanding of death. The waxy figure barely resembled the woman I’d known.

We met—for the first time, at least that I could remember—her son and daughter, and their children. The son is an overweight man with a tussled comb-over who mumbles a few words before taking a seat. The daughter was much more vibrant, dark-haired and slim.

“We’re really sorry our mother couldn’t come,” I said. “They’d been spending a lot of time together.”

“Oh really?” the daughter said. “What did they do?”

“Just talked, mostly,” I said. “They visited a lot, sometimes did a little cooking together. I think she saw your mother as sort a maternal figure.” I see that as the greatest compliment someone can give; surrogate or not, those relationships are worth a lot.

It makes the daughter uncomfortable. “No, I just think they were friends. Very good friends,” she said, shortly before excusing herself. It’s clear she was uncomfortable with the idea of her mother seeing anyone but her as a daughter figure.

Maybe it was telling that the first time they’d visited in years was to attend the funeral.