UPDATE: Fully edited proof-read and PRISTINE. I think. Submitted to contest today. Now I wait.
Funeral In A Small Town
I have witnessed a life coming to a close.
Nevertheless, Nanny’s “baby” brother Jack who looks exactly like Santa Claus, rocks mournfully to and fro. Because of their suspicion that Jack is indeed Santa Claus (although the oldest 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 Claus today. He is a just a grief stricken old man, painfully aware that his own life grows ever shorter.
But he tries. He asks Brady, “You been a good boy?” My youngest nods his head vigorously in reply. He turns to Jason, “What about you slugger?” Jason 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 thirty-five cousins, husband is one of only a few who have gone to college, the only one who lives elsewhere, and the only 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. 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 my husband, who is our common bond. 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 a few this means suits and dresses, but for some, it means a pair of overallsbaptism unstained by fertilizer or axle grease and pressed into respectable crispness. For others it means blue jeans stiff with newness and a starched white shirt with mother of pearl buttons. There are cowboy boots buffed and shined beneath frayed hems, there are 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 youngish 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. Carmichael. 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 and baptism, 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 to 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 Judson. Everyone does.
Judson’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 Judson. 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, and 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 Joyce 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, which is silly and selfish. But this is the first time Husband has needed me like this and I feel a little cheated. I feel usurped. I feel unnecessary. I look around and notice that Judson 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 tentative hand take mine, 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 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 ever broadening 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. The youngest 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, Judson 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 and 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. Judson 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, the youngest had confessed, “I don’t wanna see Dad cry Mom.” 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 is time for the public viewing. The doors to the 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. We are among the last to leave. Husband is speaking to yet another someone who remembers him from long ago and the boys have already escaped to the van where they are watching a movie. I stand alone under the stars and exhale deeply. Another exhalation echoes my own and the acrid tang of cigarette smoke assails me. I turn to see a dark, shapeless 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 Judson. 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 to 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 once or twice.” 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 Judson and my husband and for all the people who owed their existence to one tiny, indomitable woman.
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 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.
“Hey. 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, I coax him out of bed and 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. I place the tie on top of his shirt which is laid out on the bed with the arms spread wide, like a lover inviting an 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 waffle over what to wear. I am usually very decisive about these things, but 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 concrete negro 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 something suitable, my 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. I choose antique mourning jewelry that belonged to 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.
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. The youngest wonders aloud if the limousine has a refrigerator and the oldest 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. Judson turns away before her face is obscured from view. His eyes are dry and hard. The raw hurt of yesterday seem to 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 all to join hands and I cringe inwardly. I am not a toucher or a hugger as so many Southerners are. I never initiate physical contact with strangers, and I usually 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.
I try to position myself between my two boys, but the youngest 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 find that I don’t mind holding her hand. We bow our heads, and everyone around me prays earnestly.
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. Behind the wheel of our sedate suburban 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.
When we arrive at the church, 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, Judson’s son, is barely 20. He wears a pair of battered work boots that peep out from under the hem of a suit so ill-fitting that it is almost certainly borrowed.
His appearance is strangely evocative. 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 disparity in their height and 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. In that moment, there is no difference among them.
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 Judson 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 the sweaty head of my youngest 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, 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. The pews are already filled to bursting on the left side, but the right is reserved for family. 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, but our reasons are very different. This was supposed to be my day 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 looked to him to making things okay. Today was to be my day to make it okay for him. How can I do that when he is so far away and lost to his family?
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 feel very alone.
I feel very angry at this proclamation. I can’t help but steal a glance at Judson. I wonder if he is angry too. But his face is stony and inscrutable. Earlier, one of his brothers told him that the only way to be with his Mama now was to let God into his heart and be saved. Weary of every hope stealing hardship becoming a platform for salvation, I thought it an unkind and predatory thing. Later I realized I was being unfair. The brother was trying to help, using the only tool he had; faith. But salvation is not what Judson needs at his moment, though I suppose most of those present would argue that is exactly what he needs. I can’t help thinking that one of those Southern hugs would probably be a lot more welcome and lot less difficult to come by.
Finally the mousy man steps down and the soloist is introduced. The song she will be singing is “Press On, It Won’t Be Very Long”. It’s not a hymn I am familiar with. A pale, bland woman steps onto the dais and raises a microphone to her lips.
I don’t know what I was expecting…perhaps some suitably dignified dirge from the funerals of my childhood…but the sound that issues from that unassuming woman startles me, rocks to me to the core. That sound comes from the place inside each of us where we harbor our most sacred joys, our deepest fears, and our most shameful secrets. It is a sweet, soulful, haunting sound. It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck like a lonely train whistle in the distance, or a loon crying over a moonlit lake. There is heartache, sadness, loneliness and loss in that mournful wail, but also….joy. Exaltation. The purity of hope and the certainty of salvation. That sound comes from her soul.
I am stunned by my reaction to a simple country hymn. I am stunned by the ache that it puts in my belly and the lump that it puts in my throat. I struggle to put a name to what I am feeling, pushing away the knowledge that what chokes me, is the bitter green gall of envy. Because it is clear from the power and the pathos of the words she sings…she has the solace of a convicted heart. She possesses the one thing I know I will never have.
Suddenly a cry rises up from the congregation.
More voices join in, until the soloist is barely heard above the din of religious zeal. They are overjoyed by the knowledge that they will soon be going home to Glory. They echo the words she is singing…"Press ooooooon, it won’t be ve-ery long"…
“Press ON Lord!”
“Not long now Jesus!”
People are weeping, wailing, praising, rejoicing. Hands wave in the air, faces are upturned, rapturous. It is like nothing I have ever seen and I sit in mute astonishment taking it all in. The spectacle is thoroughly alien, somewhat unsettling and yet, somehow, inexpressibly beautiful.
Beside me, they boys have gone still, their relentless fidgeting ceasing. They are as captivated as I am by what they are seeing. The oldest glances at me and then blushes. I don’t know why. I wonder if he is embarrassed for the shouters. I am, a little. My Yankee reserve finds it difficult to reconcile this overt display of spiritual fervor. Where I come from, religious ceremonies are somber, dignified affairs. Reverence is demonstrated through quiet solemnity, respectful silence and rapt attention. The religious teachings of my youth, though largely abandoned, still dictate my sense of propriety. Even if so moved, I would be unable to express my joy so unabashedly. I am a little saddened at the thought.
The song ends on one long, succulent note. It is held, and then fades away softly into warbled, whispered nothingness. The hands that have been waving in the air now drift back to laps and clasp once again into respectable primness. Brows are mopped. The rapture is quelled.
It is utterly quiet in the tiny church.
Into the quiet, steps Brother Dwight. He is larger than life, and as he mounts the steps and takes his place behind the podium, I’ll be damned if a fortuitously placed halogen light hasn’t created a beatific halo around his head. It’s the kind of cheap parlor trick that one expects from weeping televangelists on late night TV. It’s not a trick. But I can’t help thinking that Brother Dwight would be pleased if he knew he was being bathed in pseudo-celestial brilliance. Cu-cu-ca-choo, Brother Walrus.
Despite his resemblance to a Walrus, he has a dignified air. And as he begins to speak, I find I am eager to hear what he will say. The first speaker disappointed me with his finger wagging. But Brother Dwight looks as if he has very meaningful things to say.
And he does. But not about Nanny. He says nothing about her having borne and raised nine children. He says nothing about her having been a devoted wife for nearly 50 years. He says nothing of her many kind and charitable acts. He says nothing of her mouthwatering fried apple pies, or her lighter than air biscuits. He says nothing about who she was irrespective of her faith. Nope. I think it’s fair to say that Brother Dwight sees this funeral not as a commemoration, but an opportunity. Brother Dwight is here to save souls.
Something brings me out of my reverie. Something has changed in the air. There is…expectation and it is electric. I look around, wondering what I missed and why it seems as if everyone is holding their breath.
I realize that the timbre of Brother Dwight’s voice has changed. Before, it was as deeply soothing as a wooly blanket on a cold winter’s day. But now…it has risen an octave, and there is an edge to it that I don’t quite understand, until I realize that he has adopted that strange and comical cadence that I always thought of as the hallmark of disingenuous piety and profitable conviction.
“Dearest brethren-a. We are gathered here on this fine day-a, to honor this woman-a. She was a strong woman-a. A good woman-a. But most of all, she was a GOOOOOOOOOOOOODly woman-a.”
The exclamations started anew.
“Yes Lord. PRAISE Jesus!”
The spotlight was making sweat pop out on Brother Walrus’s brow, and his postulations were causing a deep red flush that spread from the flesh overflowing his collar to the very roots of his slightly thinning hair. He mopped his brow and continued.
“But although we are saying good-bye-uh…we will not MOUUUUUURN for this woman-a. We will rejoice that she is with her father in heaven-uh. We will rejoice that she has gone home to GLORY-UH!”
The chorus of hallelujahs grows more fervent. Some people leap to their feet and sway to and fro with heads bowed and arms raised. Others clap. Some bounce up and down on the balls of their feet.
“You all know how much salvation meant to Mother-ah. You know how she longed to be called to serve in his heavenly kingdom-ah. You know she is sitting at his right hand-ah. Do not weep for her-ah, for she weeps for you-ah! She weeps to think the souls of her loved ones have not been committed to the Lord-ah.”
Oh, here it comes, I think to myself. He is going to fish for souls at a funeral. I am incensed. The boys perhaps feel me tense in the pew, for I sense both of their heads swiveling in my direction and I feel the question marks in their eyes. I look around, but nobody else seems similarly affronted. In fact, they are beaming and…expectant.
“I am going to invite anyone…anyone here-ah, who has not taken the Lord as their savior-ah, to come forward right now-ah. Speak the words-uh, and commit your soul to JEE-zuSS! Come now…and let the Lord into your heart-uh! ”
I raise my eyes from my lap to find Brother Walrus looking straight into me. His eyes are alight with a righteous fire, and they seem to burn clean through me, searing my heart, stealing my breath. I have the distinct feeling that the pew behind me is smoldering and wisps of smoke rising from twin char marks. I raise my chin in defiance and hold his gaze, though I am trembling with an emotion I can’t name. I fear it is guilt. I fear it is fear. I manage to maintain eye contact, but I can’t suppress the shiver that runs cold fingers up my spine. I see him see it.
Suddenly, Brother Walrus’s eyes are torn from mine by a shout from the back of the church and the sound of heavy footsteps. A large man with a grey brush cut and thick glasses lumbers up the aisle, calling out.
“Yes Jesus!! I am here Lord! Take me to your bosom Lord! Wash away my sins!”
He prostrates himself at the foot of the podium behind which Brother Walrus stands. His forehead is touching the rough carpet and his large, soft buttocks are all that can be seen of him from where I sit. But I can hear him sobbing and begging for forgiveness.
I hear a whisper from the pew directly behind me. It’s the woman who had smiled kindly to my boys when we sat down, murmuring to her husband. “I thought Duane Sprague was already saved?”
Her companion grunts. “He is. The damned fool just likes making a spectacle of hisself. Gets saved every hodanged time he sets foot in a church.”
She tut-tutted in dismay, but otherwise said nothing.
I want to laugh. I wanted to leave. I want to demand that Brother Walrus explain to me why I should let his Lord into my heart. I want to ask him how his God can punish the good and reward the bad. I want to ask him how his God can let ugliness like child abuse, poverty, war and famine blight the beauty of the world he has created. I want to ask him why I should worship a God who discriminates. Why I should worship a God who puts conditions on his love, and holds salvation hostage.
But I merely sit and watch the drama unfolding. Again, I am stunned. Duane Sprague wails loudly and dramatically. He says he is not worthy, and Brother Walrus wearily assures him that all he has to do is ask and forgiveness shall be his. Duane Sprague wails some more. My youngest puts a hand in mine and rests his warm and sticky cheek against my arm. He looks up at me with his enormous blue eyes and says in a stage whisper, “Mom…I thought you said we had to be quiet in church.”
The lady behind me makes a small sound of amusement, and her husband chuckles outright.
The tension is broken, but I still feel a little as if I am sitting in the pew naked. I feel raw and open, like a wound from which the blood still flows. I cross my arms in front of myself and try to remember that Brother Walrus is just a man. He is not my judge and jury. He is not my conscience. He is not my damnation or my salvation.
In the pew occupied by Judson and his brothers, there is a stir. Judson has slumped down in the pew and crossed his arms in a posture that is decidedly similar to my own. His brother Henry hovers over him whispering fervently and gesturing emphatically towards the front of the church. It isn’t hard to surmise what kind of emotional blackmail is taking place in that pew. Suddenly, I am profoundly grateful that I am not sitting over there. I wish I could help him.
I notice that my mother in law is angry. Her lips are compressed in a tight line and her shoulders are stiff with outrage. Barbara Jean puts an arm around her unyielding form and whispers to her. Linda Joyce shakes her head emphatically and then begins to weep, crumpling into her sister's lilac bosom. Barbara Jean glares at Duane Sprague with malevolence. He has eclipsed the mourning with his theatrics. It is the height of disrespect, and he will pay for it later in the form of cold shoulders and ignored greetings. People in SmallSouthernTown do not take such transgressions lightly.
Alas, nobody but Duane Sprague comes forward and with a sigh, Brother Walrus concludes the service. I suppose that fishing for souls in a town that already has a goodly number of Christian folks can be a fruitless and unsatisfying endeavor. For a moment, I feel sorry for Brother Walrus. I wonder if he fears coming up short on Judgment Day.
The mourners file past the casket, which, after some discussion, has been re-opened for the service. Some of those who have come to pay their respects are terribly, terribly old, and I wonder what they feel when they look into that casket. One woman, whose back is bowed over a walker, and whose skin is translucent with age, is visibly upset. The tears stream down her face unchecked as she speaks to Brother Walrus. He takes her chin in his large blunt fingers as if she were a small child and speaks to her tenderly. I don’t think it is simple grief that causes her tears. She scares me. I know that sick and slimy fear. And I know the feeling of impotence that comes with it. Death is something that will claim us all. It makes me feel weak kneed and panicky.
The pallbearers, sitting in the front row, go first. I watch husband approach the casket and I wish I could be at his side. A cousin puts a supporting arm around his shoulder. They stand, together, solemn, unmoving. Judson’s son, whose mop of sun bleached blonde hair stands out among the older more grizzled heads, begins to cry silently, his shoulders hitching gently under his too big suit coat. The cousin with his arm around Husband puts his other arm around the young man and pulls him close. He pulls Husband close as well and they stand in a small, tight huddle of woe.
These men are so different, their lives divergent. And yet, standing there, they are as indistinguishable as they were in the days when they wore denim overalls instead of business suits; sneakers instead of work boots. Today they are all boys once again.
They turn to exit the church and I can see now that Husband has tears running down his cheeks. His eyes are red and his hold on composure is tentative. I feel his grief in my bones the way I feel his presence in our home when he is not there. I can do nothing, so I extend my hand into the aisle as he passes. His palm skims mine, clutches briefly, desperately, and then slips away. He is gone before the warmth from his body has cooled in my grasp. I feel a bitter sting behind my own lids. His tears wound me.
A glance tells me that they have wounded my boys as well. They are both crying soundlessly, salty drops plopping onto the sharp creases I have ironed into their pants. I draw them close to me and whisper to them not to worry. “Dad is okay…he’ll be okay.” My sister-in-law is now coming down the aisle. She leans heavily on her sweet, strong, silent husband and then suddenly stumbles, blind with tears, weak with sorrow. He quietly catches her, bolstering her with his body, buoying her with murmured tenderness.
We do not go look at the body again. When it is our turn we simply slip out of the pew and head toward the back of the church where Husband and the others have congregated. They are no longer crying. Though still somber, they are smiling. One of the cousins says,
“You member that time Nanny caught us beating on her rose bushes with sticks?”
They remember. They all smile.
“Yup. Stripped those suckers bare.”
“Lord, she tore me UP that day!”
“YOU! I couldn’t hardly sit for a week.”
“Why’d we do that…you member?”
“Naw. We was just kids. I reckon we was jes trying to find something to do.”
Judson’s son, much younger than the rest, listens intently, but with a furrow in his brow and a small frown on his lips. “She whupped you?” he asks, disbelieving. “Nanny?”
One of the others cousins snorts with laughter and says wryly, “Shoot son. With that many grandkids runnin ‘round, Nanny and PawPaw was always whuppin somebody for somethin. And they like to deserve it too. We was nothing but a bunch of heathens runnin’ wild.”
Another cousin chimes in. “Yeah, but she always gave you a treat after. Some biscuits with sorghum syrup or some fried apple pies. Damn. Them pies….” His lip quivers a bit at the memory.
Husband says, “I’m tellin’ you what…I never had pies as good as hers. Mama’s pies are good, but they can’t hold a candle to Nanny’s. Don’t tell Mama that though!”
They all laugh. It’s a good sound.
Yet another cousin speaks. “You ‘member them ‘maters Nanny used to grow in her garden? They was might near as big as cantaloupes. I don’t know how she grew them things so big. She used to say, ‘Them ‘maters has got the Lord’s goodness in ‘em.’"
“Yeah!” says another. “She make you ‘mater sandwiches?”
They all nod and a collective “Mmmmhmmm” ripples through them.
Husband says, “What about that time we rolled that culvert down the hill?”
“Soooooon….I thought Nanny was going to have a stroke!”
“Well, it woulda served us right if she did. What kind of hodanged foolish thing was that to do? We coulda all been killed. If that thing had rolled over one a us, we’d a been dogmeat.”
“She didn’t whup us ‘at time.” Says one cousin quietly.
“Nope.” Says another, “Too scairt, I reckon.”
“Yep. She was eat up with what migtha happened.”
“Poor Nanny. We was jes too much for her.”
“Shoot. We wasn’t neither. She knew how to handle young ‘uns.”
“Djou get a whuppin’ when you got home?”
“Hell yes. Daddy might near took the skin offa my backside.”
There is a chorus of general agreement and exclamations about the length and severity of the various forms of corporal punishment that each of the miscreants had received.
Husband says, “Daddy didn’t whup me.”
The cousins look at him with surprise.
“He just told me how disappointed he was that I would put Nanny through such thing. He said she would have blamed herself forever if one of us had got hurt or killed. He told me she was at home prayin’ her little heart out, askin’ the Lord for forgiveness for not watchin’ over us better.”
The cousins nod and murmur their sympathy to Husband. They know how that game is played and they know how much disappointment can injure the soul of a naughty but deeply penitent little boy. It was a harsher pain than any hickory switch could impart. It was a deep down gut sick guilty kind of hurt.
Husband continues. “I went to apologize to Nanny the next day. I was cryin so hard I could hardly get the words out. It took me an awful long time to say my piece.”
He pauses for a moment, remembering. The cousins urge him to continue. “Well. What’d she say??”
Husband smirks. “She said, ‘Praise Jesus and deliver me from these willful chil-dern Lord!’”
They all laugh until the tears flow again, but this time they are tears of mirth. They sober quickly as Brother Dwight approaches, and wipe their eyes, sighing. But he does not glower or scold them. Instead, he smiles beneficently and his eyes twinkle above his glorious moustache. I imagine he knows that Nanny would rejoice to see them laughing. I imagine he knows how much people need to laugh on a day full or mourning and sorrow.
Though I was angry with him earlier, I realize that he is not an unkind man. I begin to realize that much of what he does is a performance of a kind. Sunday after Sunday, he is called upon to deliver the hellfire and brimstone they expect of him. They are a demanding audience. Brother Dwight claps them each on the shoulder and asks them if they are ready. They nod and file after him, once again respectfully subdued.
The Final Good-Bye.
“I just…I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.” It’s a wholly inadequate expression of my astonishment and awe at what took place, but it’s all I can muster at the moment. He is puzzled, of course.
“It was just a funeral.”
I struggle to explain why, exactly, this was such a profound experience for me. There has been nothing comparable on my side of the family, no basis for comparison. He can’t understand how completely and thoroughly foreign I have found it. And I can’t explain that although it was startling, disconcerting and uncomfortable, it was also beautiful, uplifting and inspiring. Have I ever witnessed such fervor? Have I ever witnessed such joy? Have I ever witnessed such abandon? Never. Never. And my Northern reserve balks at all of it while also being thoroughly envious. It’s a dichotomy I am at a loss to explain. So instead, I pose a question of him.
“Why did Brother Dwight ask for people to be saved??”
There is indignance in my voice, and of course, he hears it. He is no stranger to my many indignances. They are as much a part of me as the color of my eyes or my deeply irreverent nature. But he does not know why I am indignant.
“It was a funeral baby.”
He says this as if that simple statement explains everything to me. But it doesn’t.
“Yes. It was a funeral. Not a goddamned revival meeting!”
I hadn’t meant to speak so venomously. But the words are out there and I can’t snatch them back. Husband is accustomed to such outbursts, especially when it comes to matters of religion and faith. He says softly, “It’s the way things are. It’s the way she would have wanted it.”
There is nothing I can say to that, and we both fall silent again.
At last, the long line of cars slows as the church comes into view. It sits atop a hill, small and unassuming, surrounded by gently waving grass, brightly colored wildflowers, and hundreds upon hundreds of graves. Some are sunken and choked with weeds. Some are fresh, the grave markers still slick and glinting in the bright sun. I can see the awning that has been erected over the family plot. We all turn in, tires crunching on the gravel strewn drive that leads up the gentle slope. As we park and unfold from cars, trucks and vans, the heat of the afternoon sun strikes like a hammer. It is brutally hot. I would not be surprised if it was a hundred degrees or even more.
Most of the family is in a hurry to get to the graveside. Everyone wants a front row seat. Except me. And Judson. We hang back, both of us tense and dripping. His son turns to look for him, worried, I know, that this will be the worst part. The leaving behind. But Judson waves him on, the picture of nonchalance. He pulls hard on his cigarette, steeling himself for what is to come.
Judson and I stand at the back of the crowd. I don't think he can stand the sight of that chasm beneath the casket. I can't stand the viscid feeling of the air beneath the canopy. I feel as though I am struggling to breathe, though I can actually do so perfectly well when I pause to draw a deep, deliberate breath. I drape an arm over each of my boys despite the heat. Their skin is slick at the nape and their hair pasted in damp spikes to the pale slices of skin revealed by their recent shearing. Judson stands beside us, smoking and silent. The smoke doesn't waft away on the breeze, but merely hangs in a bloated cloud about his head. It is making me feel quite ill, but I say nothing.
From my position at the back of the crowd, I can see the damp patches on every back above the red velvet of the straight backed chairs. Men mop and ladies blot; all to no avail. With everyone crowded together beneath the canopy, the temperature rises steadily and there is simply no hope of staying dry. I'm sure my own back, though not pressed against crushed velvet, is sporting a sizeable damp patch as well. I can feel the sweat trickling and tickling in multiple streams all over my body. I did not think to bring a handkerchief, so I have nothing with which to halt their maddening progress. My boys are wriggling surreptitiously, clearly having the same problem. Judson sweats heavily beside me, but does not mop or wriggle. He is as still as one of the many statues in the graveyard behind us; his expression every bit as stony.
Finally Brother Dwight takes his place in front of the casket. His color is high, and his glorious mustache has wilted dramatically. Most of the men have shed their jackets, rolled up their shirt sleeves and loosened their collars, but Brother Dwight still wears his vest and jacket. He mops his brow frequently, but still sweat falls onto the Bible he holds in his hands. He wipes the drops from the pages with his handkerchief, while blinking ferociously against the new drops that have already formed on his brow. His remarks are brief, there is no call to Glory. It's hot as hell, and it seems that is too hot for salvation.
She was a good woman, God will welcome her. She is going home and we should rejoice. Heads nod and a few half-hearted Amens are offered. It seems the heat has stolen the zeal from these mourners. A hasty but heartfelt prayer is said, and then it is time for the final good-bye. The heat makes people unwilling to linger, but there is no wish to leave their little Mother just yet. Her children touch the casket reverently. Linda Joyce and Barbara Jean hold one another in a damp embrace as they whisper their goodbyes. The men clasp one another by the shoulder and wait with heads bowed as their wives and sisters mourn. Her sons are stoic. Because as heartbroken as they all are over the loss of this remarkable woman, their grief is tempered by hope. They are convinced they will see her again. It is as beautiful as it is baffling.
"Good bye Mama. I'll see you in heaven."
"Good by Mama. God keep you 'til we're together again."
"Good by Mama. Go with Jesus. We'll be with you soon."
"Good by Mama. You're goin' home now."
"I love you Mama. We'll all be together in Glory soon."
Each person passes the casket and takes a rose. It's a somber procession, with many tears and few words. I usher my children towards the van, so husband and the rest of the family can have their last moments with her. We make the long trek up the hill to the graveled parking area without speaking. I turn on the van and crank the dial on the air conditioner to the highest setting. The boys settle in, instantly soothed by the air that streams warmly from the vents.
While husband lingers, talking to relatives, I stand outside the van, watching the crowd thin. I do not want to witness that leave taking. I do not want to watch that casket being lowered into the ground. So instead I admire the stately lines of the small white country church, the graceful green hills into which it is nestled, and the neatly tended graves that dot the landscape around it like children around a mother's skirts.
Despite my resolve not to, I glance back at the gravesite. Judson stands alone in front of the casket, one hand on the glossy, varnished surface, head bowed, shoulders shaking with sobs I can see and feel, but not hear. A man in overalls turns a crank and the casket begins to sink slowly into the ground. Judson's hand and body follow the casket until he is kneeling. The casket is flush with the ground for an instant, and then slips quietly below the earthen threshold. Judson's hand doesn't leave the casket and for a moment I fear he will tumble in after it. But he doesn't. His hand leaves the casket and curls into a fist, which he cradles against his chest like a broken wing. I see his lips move and I know the single word he has he has uttered..."Mama".
Husband suddenly reappears at my side.
"Let's go, Baby." his voice is thick and weary.
"What about him?" I ask, inclining my head towards Judson, still kneeling at the gravesite below.
Husband looks for a long moment.
"He's not ready to leave her yet." he says.
Nobody is ever ready, I think, to leave their Mother in a hole in the ground. But all of us have to. All of us will. Even Jesus can't make it any easier. For all I don't know about faith and conviction, I am certain of that fact.
"But he needs..."
"He needs his Mama, baby." says husband softly.
As we watch, Judson gets to his feet. He lights a cigarette and inhales deeply. His shoulders square, and then he begins the long slow climb up the hill. The words of that sweet, soulful hymn from the service come back to me.
He has decided then. He will....Press On.