Funeral In a Small Town - Part II
I would also like to thank all those who have come from her blog and left such incredibly kind and personal comments. I thank you all sincerely, as well as my regular commenters, for taking the time to do so. This piece has been a labor of love and I'm deeply gratified that it is touching people in the way that I had hoped it might.
As we creep up a crowded stretch of I-75 that used to be traversed only by tractor trailers and RVs, the mood in the van is somber despite the raucous Southern Rock blaring from the tinny speakers. Husband is subdued, which isn’t surprising. The boys are morose; uncomfortable in their stiff brown shoes and button up shirts. Pre-Pubescent One, mindful of my admonishments about attitude at a time when we really needed to pull together as family, said only “I look like Forrest Gump.” before retreating back into worried silence that anyone else would have taken for petulance.
I resist the urge to ask husband, again, if he is okay. I’m not used to him vulnerable. I feel the need to fix things…it’s what I do. But I can’t fix this with a cookie or a story. There isn’t a band-aid big enough to cover this hurt. At a loss, I simply squeezed his hand. The whining steele guitar jangles my nerves, but I realized the music is an anaesthetic for him. I leave him alone with his thoughts hoping he knows that I am right here next to him, always.
When we pull up to the funeral home, I am surprised. It looks cheap and somehow, impermanent. I expected a brick façade, graceful columns, a rolling green lawn. But the vinyl clad building we have parked in front of is not stately, or dignified, and it seems to be placed squarely in the middle of a parking lot, unrelieved of a blade of grass or greenery of any kind. There is astro turf covering the expansive porch and several straight backed rocking chairs placed here and there. I’m not sure if they are there for practical or aesthetic reasons, but they seem wrong somehow. Rocking chairs are for watching the sun set behind the majestic foothills that grace the landscape here. They are for lazy Sunday afternoons watching the kids run through the sprinkler. They are for stolen moments of quiet companionship between harried adults. They are for living.
Nevertheless, Nanny’s baby brother Jack, who must be at least 80 and who looks exactly like Santa Clause, rocks mournfully to and fro. Because of their suspicion that Jack is indeed Santa Clause (although my eldest had been disabused of that idea for several years now), the boys are excited to see him. He greets them with his customary warmth, but the twinkle in his eyes, which lent him that truly authentic air, is missing. His shoulders, usually straight and strong, sag with sorrow. Though his hair and beard have been snow white since the first day I met him, this was the first time he looked old to me. I would realize over the next couple days that grief paints time on people’s faces; the canvas of our skin becoming a perfect portrait of our mortality. It strips us of our pretenses and lays bare the awful truth…that every hour of every day, we are getting older. It denies us the illusion of forever. Jack is not Santa Clause today. He is a just a grief stricken old man, painfully aware that his own life grows ever shorter.
But he tries. He asks Diminutive One, “You been a good boy?” Diminutive One nods his head vigorously in reply. He turns to Pre-Pubescent One. “What about you slugger?” Pre-Pubescent One answers, “Yes Sir.” For a moment, the twinkle returns to Jack’s eye and he says, “Good, cause ain’t neither of yas too big for a whuppin!” The boys grin at him, fully aware that he is about as likely to whup someone as he is to put on a sequined gown and sing “Lady Marmalade.” I begin to grin as well, but stop myself, aware that as an outsider, I am being scrutinized. I do not want to seem irreverent or disrespectful.
It’s not that outsiders are unwelcome. But they are rare. Out of 35 cousins, husband is the only one who has gone to college, who lives elsewhere, and who married a girl not born and raised in that comfortable little town. Even those who accept me still wonder about me. They know nothing about my childhood, my “people”, my beliefs, my hopes or my dreams. They know I’m “different”, but Southern hospitality dictates that they don’t pry into my personal life, which means that relationships remain tentative and superficial. They are warm and kind, but we don’t have much to talk about aside from Husband. Conversation falters when the same tired anecdotes are exhausted.
People begin to arrive in larger numbers, and we congregate on the spacious veranda. There are many hugs and kisses, much back slapping and hand shaking, many proclamations over how the little ones have grown. Everyone is dressed in their very best. For many this means suits and dresses, but for some, this means a pair of overalls pressed into respectable pleats and unstained by fertilizer or axle grease. For others it means blue jeans stiff with newness and a crisp white shirt with mother of pearl buttons. There are cowboy boots buffed and shined beneath frayed hems, there are colorful Easter sandals worn with properly sober frocks. There is not a designer label in sight, but everyone has dressed with care. Their respect shows in their humble attire.
Nobody is crying yet, though there were plenty of tears shed earlier when making preparations for the service. The daughters especially have been assailed by memories as they laid out the trappings of Nanny’s death toilette: her powder blue suit and bone pumps, her “grandmother” necklace and her wedding ring, her gold rimmed glasses and dainty gold hoops. They recalled that she last wore that ensemble for Mother’s Day. They can see her in it, prim and ladylike, her little bird breast proud of her finery. It is a memory both precious and cruel; their tears are both joyous and heartbroken. They know they were lucky to have her for so many Mother’s Days. They wish they could have just one more.
Though nobody really wants to go in, the brutal heat, which saps the strength from our limbs and squeezes the air out of our lungs, soon forces us to seek refuge indoors. Everyone is damp and uncomfortable in their formal, multi-layered funeral attire. Husband mops his brow and offers me his hand. Together we go inside, ushering the boys in front of us.
The funeral director approaches and he impresses me immediately. He is a young-ish man, my age or perhaps even a little younger. He has a kind face. He is solicitous but not fawning. Respectful, but not maudlin. And he studiously avoids all the death clichés that impersonalize “the deceased”. In fact, he never says “the deceased”. Instead, he refers to her as Nanny, or Your Mother, or Mrs. Smith. I like him for that, and I like him because he looks like someone I might see at the ballpark coaching his kids, or in the halls of the elementary school bearing a forgotten lunch box. His youth is a little disconcerting to some of the older family members. There are some frowns and whispers. They were expecting someone else; the older gentlemen who helped them attend to all the agonizing details the previous day. I suppose his age and experience inspired their confidence. But he, thoughtlessly, has gone on vacation. I imagine someone in this line of work needs vacation more than most.
This makes me wonder about our young funeral director. How does one with so much life ahead of him choose to deal in death? The answer of course is that he probably didn’t. Southerners do love their legacies, which is why ideals abandoned by the rest of the world, still survive and thrive in the Deep South. From bible thumping to bigotry to bow-hunting, certain things just are. Tradition, custom, convention…these are the building blocks from which the foundation of Southern values is built. Which is why I suspect that young Mr. Funeral Director’s vocation was most likely a foregone conclusion before he even drew breath.
The private family viewing is scheduled for five o’clock, and as the hour draws nearer, the mood grows somber. People drift to the door of the cavernous chapel, beyond which lies the viewing room, where they huddle, reluctant enter. They remind me of a herd of forlorn little sheep, waiting for their shepherd. They are bleating and nervous, aware of their vulnerability.
The funeral director notices the peculiar little traffic jam, and comes over to ask if everyone is present. We all look around, mentally counting. There is one missing, and without even going down my mental list of all 9 aunts and uncles, I know it is Jerry. Everyone does.
Jerry’s life has not been easy. Some of it is his own fault; some of it is just bad luck. There have been a string of bad relationships and short lived marriages, there has been substance abuse and recovery, there has been one job after another, until finally there were no more chances for him in a town where everyone knows everyone else, and gossip is the pipeline by which information comes and goes. But his mother has always been there for him, strong and constant; uncritical and undemanding. She always loved him for who he was. She took him in when he had nowhere else to go, and she never asked how long he was going to stay. He had been living with her for the past couple years, drawing on her strength and enjoying the love and acceptance he had struggled to find elsewhere for so many years. Without her, he is utterly lost.
The young funeral director disappears out the front door and in a moment’s time returns with Jerry. His eyes are dry, his face resolved, his shoulders squared. Nothing is said, but his despondency bothers me a great deal for reasons I can’t quite identify.
At last we are ready, and the group moves forward as one in a hesitant shambling little surge. When the casket comes into view, a few sniffles are heard, and I am suddenly filled with panic. I can’t see this. I have my own death issues. The issue is, it terrifies me. I’m not certain I can stand here and watch people be overcome with grief without dissolving into a panicky mess. I’m not sure I can approach the casket and look my own death in the face. But I have to keep myself together for Husband and for the boys, who are nervous and fidgety like two lithesome little colts; prancing with anxiety. I squeeze my husband’s hand for strength and he squeezes back. He thinks I am comforting him.
The two oldest daughters, one of whom is my mother-in-law, have the honor of approaching the casket first. They were with Nanny when she died, and they took care of most of the arrangements. It is they who will stand at the head of the receiving line for more than three hours, kissing, hugging, thanking everyone. It is the last thing they will do for their mother and they do it with pride and heartbreak in equal measure. In a voice hoarse from crying, she says “Oh Barbara Jean, don’t Mama look purty.” and promptly bursts into tears.
Barbara Jean agrees, and then her tears begin to flow as well. She puts an arm around Linda and they sob together, gray heads touching, hands clasped. The rest of the family closes around them like a wave swallowing a pair of floundering swimmers. Husband is swept along with the tide of familial grief and also swallowed up.
The boys and I are left standing on the perimeter of this family throng. We belong, but we don’t belong. We watch, curiously separate, but deeply affected all the same. I feel a little abandoned and I chastise myself for being silly. But this is the first time Husband has needed me like this and I feel a little cheated. I feel usurped. I feel decidedly unnecessary. I look around and notice that Jerry is hanging back. He too is on the outside looking in. Our eyes meet, and I think that he understands what I am feeling for some reason. He doesn’t smile, but his expression is sympathetic.
I feel a hand in mine suddenly, and I look over to my oldest son, who is fighting to remain calm. Even as an infant, he was highly sensitive to the feelings of others. His plump, sweetly bowed lips would quiver and his eyes would cloud with concern if he perceived anger or distress. Now the palpable grief in the room is overwhelming him. He swallows hard and looks at me, imploring me with his huge hazel eyes. I don’t know what to do, so I just put my arm around his thin, but impossibly broad shoulders and place a kiss on top of his head. Any other time, this would have been completely unacceptable to him. But instead of protesting, he snuggles into me the way he used to, all but hiding his face against my breast. Diminutive One is struggling too, but in stark contrast to his brother, he refuses to acknowledge his distress. He stands stiffly, arms crossed, evading my outstretched hand. We stand, waiting.
When at last the family drifts away from the casket and begins the business of receiving the mourners who are scheduled to arrive at 6:00, Jerry hesitantly approaches the silver casket, which gleams softly under the recessed lighting. He places his forearms on the edge of the casket, bows his head and says simply…”Oh Mama. Oh Mama.” His voice is not that of a grown man mourning his elderly mother, but that of a little boy saying good-bye to the kisser of boo-boos, the banisher of boogeymen, the baker of birthday cakes.
When he cries, it is with the silent shoulder shaking sobs of a grown up man, and yet, I feel compelled to take him in my arms as I would a small child, and shush away the hurt. He is so broken, and my maternal instinct tells me to fix him. But I don’t touch him. I don’t approach. I simply watch, puzzled about why his grief more than any other has made me feel so unsettled and sad and vaguely afraid.
One of his brothers moves to embrace him and then leads him away talking to him softly. And then it hits me. Jerry is the inescapable truth, a testament to the fact that losing a parent at any age is a savage hurt. That it can make a person feel small and lost and adrift in a world they have navigated with comfort and confidence for so many years. A world that is suddenly very big and very empty when the root of all you are and all you will ever be is suddenly, completely, irreversibly…gone. With my deep seated fear of death and my mother seriously ill, it is a truth I do not want to face.
But I have to and I know that, so I lead the boys to the casket where Husband rejoins us, having temporarily extricated himself from his family. This is the boys’ first experience with death and he wants to be there with them. I put my arm around Husband who feels strangely unyielding in his stiff jacket and starched shirt. We all look down at the tiny form in the casket. “She looks beautiful honey.” I say softly. It’s a stupid thing to say, but it’s true. I am amazed by how lifelike she appears. Her snowy hair is glossy, and her skin is kissed with a gentle, rosy hue. I realize that I am waiting for her little bird breast to rise and fall with the gentle respiration of slumber. It seems so wrong that it doesn’t. The boys say nothing, but stand, unbreathing, and I wonder if they are waiting too. Husband sighs deeply and the boys glance sharply at him. They are afraid to see their Dad cry. Earlier, in a moment of rare candor, Diminutive One had confessed, “I can’t stand to see Dad cry Mom. I can’t take it.” I understood. Husband had always been there for them, strong, constant, unshakeable and resolute. His vulnerability unnerved them as much as it did me.
At long last it was time for the public viewing. The doors to the viewing room open and mourners pour through them in a torrent. Soon there are hundreds and hundreds of people filling the viewing room and spilling out into the cavernous chapel and the surrounding anterooms. 89 years worth of people have come to say good-bye to this simple country woman. Some are crying, some merely sniffling. Nanny was 89 years old, and her death was not unexpected. It was not a tragedy in the way that a life cut short by senseless violence or drunk driving is a tragedy. But when she passed on, many people felt that a little bit of light went out of the world. She was not perfect, but she had a rare goodness that people were drawn to. Underneath the sorrow was an undercurrent of joy; the joy of having known her.
Three hours later the funeral home is once again eerily hushed. The mourners have all departed, and the immediate family is once again alone with Nanny. One by one we tell her good-bye, and drift away to tend to the living. Children are tired and hungry, pets need to be let out, aching feet both young and old need to be put up.
We are among the last to leave. Husband is a prodigal son of sorts, and everyone wants to talk to him. He is speaking to yet another someone who remembers him from long ago and the children have already escaped to the van where they are watching a movie. I stand alone under the stars and exhale deeply. There is another exhalation behind me on the heels of my own and the acrid tang of cigarette smoke curls up to my nose. I turn to see an amorphous form huddled deep in the shadows and a shower of sparks as a cigarette is tapped by unseen fingers. The form slowly unfolds and steps into the weak light of the streetlamp. It’s Jerry. He looks beaten; physically and spiritually battered by the force of his grief. I don’t know what to say to him. I smile, and try, “Shitty Day, huh?”
He laughs… a short bark of mirthless amusement. “Yeah. Shore was. But tomarra’s gonna be worse.”
I nod, knowing he’s right. I am dreading it, but I’m sure my dread is nothing compared the cold hard ball of anxiety he is harboring in his gut. He drags deeply on his cigarette and for a split second I wish I had one to calm my nerves. It’s been a long time, but I still remember the soothing bite.
Thoughtfully he says, “You know, that little un’ of yours…he’s a saht.”
I give a short snort of derisive laughter, much like his. “Yes, he certainly is.”
“He’s Husband made over you know.”
Nanny used to say that all the time. Her words hang in the air between us.
“Yes, I’ve been told that a time or two.” I reply.
“He’s gonna turn out alright. Mama knew stuff lahk 'at. And now…” his voice trembled a bit, but he maintained his composure. “…well, I reckon she’s in a position to make sure.”
He squeezes my shoulder and walks away, leaving me startled, astounded and sad. I stood there for a long while, breathing in the boggy summer air thinking about what he had said and what lay in store. The last leg in this life journey was bound to be a rough one, for Jerry and for Husband and for all the people who owed their existence to one tiny, indomitable woman.