Funeral In A Small Town - Part III
I awake slowly, as I always do, reclaiming consciousness in degrees. Strangely, I am awake before the alarm has sounded and for a moment, I am confused. I remember setting it, but I can’t remember why. The kids are out of school and husband doesn’t have to work today because…because….ah, yes. The Funeral. The Funeral is today. In three hours. Suddenly lurching into full awareness, I spring from the bed, propelled by the sheer number of things I must accomplish to get us out the door on time. We have a long drive ahead of us.
I wake Husband, and then the boys, poking and prodding and cajoling them from their downy cocoons. Protesting, they unwind into lanky, shuffling wraiths, relying on instinct to guide them to the bathroom where, still stupefied with sleep, they assume that uniquely male stance and empty themselves. The sight of them in their boxers and socks with hair in riotous disarray always makes me smile. I am treated to a glimpse of dimpled buttock as Pre-Pubescent One scratches absently. Once I knew them so intimately; every inch of their rosy flesh as familiar as my own. Now it is off limits to me; the soft, baby smelling creases sprouting hair and stinking of almost grown-up.
I realize that Husband has not yet risen, though I know he is awake. I return to the bedroom and find him staring at the ceiling, blinking, unmoving.
“Honey? You okay?” I ask.
He sighs, his chest rising high beneath the comforter. “Yeah. Just…not looking forward to this.”
I can’t think of a single thing to say or do to make him feel better. Today, shoulders that have carried laughing toddlers and borne my tears will bear the body of his grandmother to her grave.
“Baby, can you pick out a tie for me?” he asks.
“A tie? You have dozens...just pick one.”
The mundane details of life are too much for him today. Nodding my assent, I coax him out of bed into the shower. I choose a paisley patterned tie in muted tones that will match his black suit. I remember that we bought it in Paris on our honeymoon. I remember how we fumbled with the francs, trying and failing to seem nonchalant and urbane while mentally converting francs to dollars. I still don’t know how much that stupid tie actually cost. It’s a thought that makes me smile. I wonder if he’ll remember. I place the tie on top of his shirt which is laid out on the bed with the arms spread wide, inviting me to lie down and wrap myself in its crisp, white embrace.
They all dress quickly and without incident, though the boys are not happy about having to dress up again and Husband is already perspiring in his shirt and undershirt, even in the chilly conditioned air inside the house. I shoo everyone downstairs so I can shower and make-up in peace. I hear my brood breakfasting and bickering while tendrils of coffee air coil upward from the kitchen. It is the language of our lives and it is beautifully ordinary.
An hour later I am nearly ready, but I vacillate over what to wear. I am usually very decisive about these things, but I am acutely aware that there will be many eyes upon us today. Husband left a long time ago, and when we go back, it is only to while away the afternoon on his parents’ front porch, sipping coffee and watching the kids play in the pond, where a grinning black skinned child in tattered breeches sits eternally fishing.
Few outside the family have seen him since he left 20 years ago and people wonder about him in that small town way. Most are merely curious and are usually appeased by a smile, a handshake, and the reassurance that of course! He remembers them…how could he forget? But some will be looking for proof that marriage to an outsider and life in the big city has changed him, made him less theirs. They look to see if his wife is snooty, his children spoiled, his moral fiber eroded.
I finally settle on a long black skirt, sleeveless silk blouse, and matching sandals. It is a choice made as much for its respectability as the knowledge that temperatures could soar into triple digits today. The Southern summer, always fiercely unkind, has been especially cruel this year. From my jewelry armoire I withdraw a set of antique mourning jewelry. It belonged to my grandmother and my great grandmother. I fasten the double string of jet beads around my neck, where they glitter with cold and somber beauty against my pale skin. Nobody will recognize their significance, nor are they likely to ask. But I wear them only for her. It is a small, private token of my respect.
At last we are all ready, and we set off with grim anticipation of what lies ahead.
We are to meet at the Funeral Home before the service, and when we arrive, the hearse and the limousine are already idling in front in an effort to keep the darkly upholstered interiors cool. They are sleek and sparkling in the shimmering waves of heat that quiver up from the asphalt. The boys are impressed by their elegance, which contrasts starkly with the utilitarian building. Diminutive One wonders aloud if the limousine has a refrigerator and Pre-Pubescent one rolls his eyes. Husband’s gaze lingers on the hearse for moment before we step inside. The ornate doors shush-bump shut behind us, sealing us inside. The interior is dim and cool and soundless.
We are a little early, but most of the family is already present. They are gathered around the casket murmuring to one another. This is the moment they must say good-bye. They stroke her hair; they kiss her cool, powdered cheek. They gaze lovingly, longingly at her serene face, trying to memorize every detail. One of her silver haired sons gently fingers the wedding ring that graces her left hand; strokes the veined marble of her knuckle with a calloused thumb. He whispers, “Hug Daddy’s neck for me Mama.” and then he begins to cry quietly, plopping tears onto the blue linen of her suit.
When everyone has said their good-byes, Young Mr. Funeral Director slowly, carefully, lowers the lid. Jerry can’t look. He turns away before her face is obscured from view. His eyes are dry and hard. The raw hurt of yesterday seem to be have been tucked away inside him. The only outward sign of his turmoil is the muscle in his jaw that continually tenses as though he is chewing something. His son steps forward to shield him from the awful finality of that tiny, muffled thud. They walk away leaning against one another, their bodies tilting together like sweetheart art.
A florid man with a handlebar mustache steps forward. I was introduced to him yesterday at the viewing. His name is Brother Dwight but I think of him as Brother Walrus. He will be delivering the eulogy today. He is a very large man, and when he took my hand in his to shake, it was completely swallowed up by the warm, dry ham of his grasp. He makes me feel very small.
After meeting him, I had asked Husband why they call one another “Brother” and “Sister”. He explained that it is a sign of respect for their brothers and sisters in Christ, and how they signify that they have been saved. I find it pretentious and irritating, which, of course, I shared with Husband. He said “Baby, not everything Christians do is designed to piss you off.” I am a little hurt by that. I count on him to validate my irreverent indignation. But he doesn’t have the strength today and my anger fades at the realization.
In a deep rumbling baritone that sounds like thunder and lightning, Brother Dwight asks us to join hands and I cringe. I am not a toucher or a hugger as so many Southerners are. I never initiate physical contact with strangers, and I usually studiously avoid any effort on their part to initiate physical contact with me. One thing that never grows any more comfortable for me is dealing with the Southern proclivity for touching, hugging, kissing, caressing.
Once at a job I held long before my marriage, I had to ask a co-worker to stop touching me. Every time she came to me for advice or instruction, she would drape herself around me like a stole. I felt suffocated, stiff, and violated. I thought that my inhospitable body language would eventually convey my discomfort to her, but she remained oblivious. I tried to ask her politely, but really, there is no kind way to say “stop touching me.” I saw the hurt in her eyes and I was sorry for it.
I try to surreptitiously position myself between my two boys, but Diminutive One has slipped away, and I have no choice but to join hands with the small elderly woman on my right. Her hand is cool and soft and dry, the fragile bones of her hand are gently gnarled with age, the skin slipping across them like water over pebbles in a brook. She gives me a small but sincere little smile, and suddenly I don’t mind holding her hand. We bow our heads, and everyone around me prays earnestly, while I simply pretend. I think she knows.
Husband has disappeared without a word, but I know that he has gone to join the other pallbearers. The casket is rolled to the hearse where he and the other five stand waiting. Young Mr. Funeral Director makes a small, subtle gesture and gently, wordlessly, they lift the casket and slide it into the hearse. The heavy double doors clang shut and the sons and daughters are ushered into the waiting limousine.
There is a state trooper waiting to lead the procession. As we line up behind him, I am amazed at the number of cars. There must be close to a hundred. There are vehicles of every size and shape; some shiny and new, some old and dented. Husband tries to get close to the front of the procession so that when we arrive at the church, he can get to the hearse quickly. But several cars insist on nosing in front of us. Husband is annoyed, but lets them go. It’s really the only thing that can be done given the circumstances.
At last, a small detail that Young Mr. Funeral director has overlooked. Pall Bearer cars should have been provided with flags and situated at the front of the procession directly behind the family limousine. He has handled everything so well that I am surprised by the oversight. Behind the wheel of our nondescript and unflagged minivan, husband is tense and anxious. He hunches over the steering wheel, peering ahead, trying to gauge how far back in the procession we are positioned.
As we pull out into traffic and make our way through town, it takes me a minute to realize that all the cars we encounter have come to a complete standstill. All of them. Even those on the opposite side of the road. Some of the people inside bow their heads respectfully. I have never seen anything like it. Husband is nonplussed. He shrugs and says, “This is SmallSouthernTown, baby.” He says it as if that explains everything. Maybe it does. I watch, waiting for someone to breech small town funeral etiquette and continue driving, but not one car moves until the entire procession has passed. It’s an amazing display of respect. It’s the kind of thing you don’t see in BigCity.
We arrive at the church after about twenty minutes. Husband shuts off the van and hands me the keys. He kisses me hurriedly, and rushes to take his place in line with the others. He is the second oldest grandson, so he is at the front. Young Mr. Funeral Director and his assistant open the double doors and the men step forward to take a hold of the casket. It glides out easily and they lift it with only moderate effort. As they carefully execute a turn to mount the steps up to the church, my eye is drawn downward by the crunch of gravel. I see six pairs of feet, six different kinds of shoes.
One cousin wears a pair of gray alligator cowboy boots, carefully polished and shining. One cousin wears a pair of sturdy black oxfords with thick, comfortable soles. One cousin wears a pair of charcoal colored orthotic hush puppies. The oldest cousin wears respectable brown lace-ups with a pointy toe, and Husband sports a pair of seldom worn Florsheim wingtips. The youngest, Jerry’s son, is barely 20. He wears a pair of battered workboots that peep out from under the hem of a suit so ill-fitting that it is almost certainly borrowed.
His appearance touches something in me. He was not supposed to be a pallbearer, but eagerly volunteered when one of the others had to step down. He is taking his role very seriously, and has taken pains to look respectable... He has no mother, and for a moment, I feel an absurd urge to dart forward and brush the shaggy blonde hair from his eyes and smooth away the lines of worry and tension on his sunburned face. I want to tell him he is doing just fine. Not just carrying Nanny, but carrying his father as well.
They are a motley but respectable group. Their shoes are different because they have walked very different paths. But as I watch I see that they all use the same oddly deliberate heel to toe motion, placing one foot directly in front of the other. They step gingerly, as if their shoes are filled with shards of broken glass. At first I think that the weight of the casket is causing their unnatural gait. But then I am struck by the realization that they are, in unspoken agreement, trying not to jostle their Nanny inside the gleaming silver casket. And in that one little thing, they are once again, very much the same.
Once those boys all ran the hills behind their homes in overalls and bare feet. They returned home with mud streaked faces and pockets full of worms. They were gap toothed, freckle faced, and knobby kneed, until one by one they grew up. And that is what the family sees when they watch these grown men carry their Nanny as cautiously, and as tenderly as they have their newborn children. They see not men, but dirty, smiling little boys.
“Them boys…” says a voice next to me. I turn to see Jerry at my side. He is addressing me, but he is inside himself as he speaks. His gaze is on the casket bearing cousins. “We used to give ‘em boys a quarter to faht.” He puts his hand on Diminutive One’s head, absently fingering the silvery blonde strands so like those of his own son. “I don’t know why we done ‘at.” He sucks hard on his cigarette and then flings it to the ground and grinds it out with a loud crunch. He exhales sharply. “They was good boys.” He pats Diminutive One’s head and then wearily joins his brothers and sisters in the procession behind the casket.
The boys and I fall in step at the back of the group, and we file into the church like royalty arriving at a state funeral. The pews are already filled to bursting on the left side, but the right is reserved for us. The pallbearers are ushered into the front row by Young Mr. Funeral Director and I realize that we will not be sitting with husband during the service. Husband turns around, searching for me. Our eyes meet and I see that he doesn’t like it either. This was supposed to be our time. Our moment to cleave to one another; to take solace and comfort in the strength our union. It was supposed to be my time to prove that I can be strong for him…that I am good for something besides keeping his house and rearing his children. So many times I have turned to him, in sorrow or pain or uncertainty, and always he was there to tell me everything would be okay. Always he was there to make it okay. I relished the chance to make it okay for him, and it is being taken from me. How can I do that when he is so far away…lost to his family?
His mouth turns down at the corners and he gives a little shake of his head along with a small shrug. I know he has to sit with the other pallbearers, but part of me wishes he would sidestep his way out of that pew and claim his family. Especially since it now appears that there is no more room on that side, and the boys and I are forced to take a seat with the common acquaintances on the left. Once again I feel marginalized as we are squeezed to the periphery of this family affair.
I know I am being silly. Nobody has purposely excluded us. They are focused on their grief, and rightfully so. But still it bothers me that we are sitting over here alone. Even Sister-In-Law, who often takes us in hand at family gatherings to make sure we are not overlooked, has forgotten about us today. From where we sit, Husband is almost completely obscured from view. In a room stuffed with people, I experience a profound and biting loneliness.
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