When you introduce yourself to the family, what you should do is try to appear as devastated as possible, whether you know or like the deceased or not. Crying is good for older girls, the many cousins seventeen and older. Girls shouldn't cry. they don't. They walk down the aisle in their little white dresses with their sweet, sad faces and, my God, they look like they're devastated about it. So you're heartbroken because you love them a little and you end up loving the deceased a little too. You will like it or not. The girls are effective.
I knew all the tricks when I was six years old. Do not smile. Do not Cry. Make eye contact with the widow and then with the reverend. I relearned the rules at twelve and then seventeen, and now I can reach out to take someone's hand, give it a squeeze, not too hard, a small smile, and quietly walk my grandmother to our seats. I never speak. And I don't have the hips to be one of those girls who can scream in the name of Jesus and then pass out.
My grandmother is always the first to know when someone dies. Relatives, members of the Little River Class of 1943, Longs, even Claytons. Some quavering-voiced old lady will call, ask Mum if she's made dinner, and then, with the same indifference with which she asked about the salt pork and black-eyed beans, inform her that Baby Lee or Miss Margaret or Miss Minnie are dead. . Usually there's another five minutes of gossip, another two or three minutes of conversation about the wake and the passing, and then the mother ends the call. She never says goodbye. She nods once, maybe twice, she whispers, then she shouts the news to my deaf grandfather, then she solemnly announces it to my mother, my sister, and me. “John Parker is dead,” she will say, always in the same matter-of-fact tone.
Death meant three things to me growing up: itchy socks, restlessness, and fried chicken after the funeral. Bojangles' if he was lucky. I was a very lucky girl in the summer when the death spells started and continued until October. The summers always seemed to be the busiest for undertakers, the Bojangles, my grandmother, and me.
The church was very cold in Mr. Leroy. Managers can never get the temperatures right. Rougemont in August is hell in July: blinding heat and ninety-three percent humidity. The church's air conditioning, a technological marvel, gave the sanctuary an unnaturally cold air. I wished my teeth wouldn't chatter. I wished my fingers wouldn't scratch under the ruffles that wrapped around my neck. I was seven or eight years old, hot and cold and itchy, and I followed my grandmother as she walked to the coffin. I did not like to look at the deceased. I still do not. Directors can never get makeup right. His cheeks are very rosy, the base very yellow. Mister Leroy's shiny jet-black hair was twisted around his head. I looked in his direction and quickly sat up. The family started arriving in waves after that: some impassive, some whimpering, some shaking and scratching like me. The old pine floors creaked and groaned under his weight. The organist was in the middle of a slow rendition of "The Old Rugged Cross" when the first wail rang out. The receptionists snapped to attention. They all knew what was coming. A woman broke her tail. She went straight to the coffin, her eyes wide, tears streaming down her face and neck, her screams welling up from somewhere beneath her anguished heart. She fell into the coffin, buried her face in Mr. Leroy's face and begged him not to be hers. The procession stopped. The congregation watched. My grandmother looked at me and pinched my arm. She is rude to stare. Finally, two ushers picked her up and carried her half laden out of the sanctuary. The carnation in Mr. Leroy was crushed. The base of him stained with him. The organist continued to play.
Knowing how to act at a funeral, like knowing how to act at church, is one of the basic tenets of my grandmother's femininity. She received it from her mother. The rest, knowing how to spit, throw and roll his own cigarettes, was given to him by her aunt. My great-aunts Mary and Ida lived in a small duplex near the center of town. Two or three times a month, mommy, mommy, my sister and I would get in mommy's car and go to town to visit. I didn't really like these trips. His house was small and stuffy. The smells of kerosene contrasted with those of musty upholstery, sun pine, and bacon grease. My sister and I were expected to have fun, to be away from the adult business, but there wasn't much to play with at home. We sat in front of the black and white television, pretending that we cared.Hazard!and sailingHundredmagazines that were decades older than mom. Mom would often throw us outside, but there was as little to play there as at home. We lived on a farm. I had acres of fields and meadows to roam, barns to play hide and seek, cows and chickens to keep me company. Ida and Mary's backyard was tiny, with more dirt and twigs than grass, surrounded by cracked sidewalks and concrete.
Occasionally, usually after threatening to beat us up for trampling on her flowers, Mary would offer to take us out for ice cream. Ida didn't like going anywhere but work, church, or Winn Dixie, so she stayed behind. She would give my sister and me a few dollars, asking us to put extra chocolate in our cones and to bring a cup of raisins to the rum. The five of us would walk to a nearby ice cream shop, Mom and Mary gossiping the whole way. The heels of Mary's comfortable shoes clicked against the ground as she walked. Her hips wobbled a bit, arthritis preventing them from moving much. “That girl was built from scratch,” my great-uncle Chief said of her once when he thought no child was within earshot of her. The women on my grandmother's side of the family were beautiful. Even Ma was pretty, even considering that sour look on her face. Maria, however, was fine. Everybody knew. Or at least they knew that she was fine when she was young. There was a photo of her over the fireplace in the living room: Mary looking past the camera, her eyes bright, a half smile on her bright red lips. I could imagine Mary turning down my uncle, someone's future grandfather, to half the men in County Durham, and then running away to smoke and dance with her friends. I looked at this Mary, her beige leather shoes, her flowered housedress, the silver and black of her hair. I can't see
At the ice cream parlor, we grab our cups and cones and sit at a small table by the window. Maria went on gossiping. She told me about one cousin and then two more, smiling and teasing Mom and threatening my sister and me between spoonfuls of nut butter. Her eyes sparkled.
A week later, after Mrs. Tammy, Mary was in her comfortable heels and flowery funeral dress looking sad for a respectable time. She caught the eye of one of the gravediggers and smiled at him until she turned away. She pointedly looked at Mom and rolled her eyes. A half smile played on her lips. She walked towards us, swaying her hips a bit. The mother smiled like never before, as she only smiled around Maria. There was mischief and coded secrets in the looks they exchanged. I could never figure them out.
They said Jesse suffocated. I couldn't understand it. I had an accident while he was cleaning the bathroom, they said, but it didn't seem to make sense. I pictured him tall and strong, bushy brows and sleepy eyes, a bit handsome but he looked too much like his father, too much like his mother for me to appreciate. I pictured him face down on the tile floor, Lysol cans and bleach bottles next to his body. “You have to be careful mixing these things,” I heard Mom say to her cousin Roslyn. I avoided Clorox for weeks.
The sanctuary was crowded, as it always is when someone young and beautiful dies. We were a church family, not an actual family, so my sister, my mother, my mother, and I settled in a pew at the back of the church. We sit, sweat, try to cool off with paper fans. We wait. Mom moved to my side. She had heard the stories. Something about how Jesse might have been something else to her once. Before she ran away and met a boy that her mom couldn't stand. I pictured her: too young to marry, carrying a baby with eyes as big as hers, sleepy as Jesse's, who looked nothing like mine.
The family finally arrived. Reverend Smith yelled out the forty-sixth psalm as he walked down the aisle. Jesse's widow and daughter followed. The girl was dressed in white with ruffles and bows, her hair in two thick braids. She eyed the crowd warily, looking less sad than surprised, looking confused as she reached her father's coffin. I imagined her as she normally was: opening her mouth and passing notes at the children's choir rehearsal. I imagined her as she was the morning she died. I tried to photograph her when she found her body on the ground. I tried to picture her, but I couldn't see her face. My sister wrote a note on the back of the obituary and handed it to me, breaking my concentration. We texted and played tic-tac-toe until Mom caught my wrist between her fingernails and pressed down hard. I worried. I scanned the room. She looked at the coffin covered in faded flowers, looked at Jesse's mother, at my mother, at his wife. She looked at the reverend sweating in his robes, she looked at his mother, at his grandmother, at me. I looked away.
Mom watched us every Sunday. She told us to shut up but we never did. She told us not to misbehave, but we always would. My sister and I shuffle down the aisle, crouching on the benches, rolling our eyes as soon as Mom's back is turned. She threatened us, as usual, then she smiled sweetly at the receptionist, signaling us to be nice and quiet. She was not like the other ladies, all perfumed and holy. She was not like the other grandmothers, neither the ones in the church nor the ones on TV. She had seen grandmothers on sitcoms wearing pearls and laughing merrily, making cheeky comments to the delight of the audience. I've seen grandparents in commercials with gray hair and friendly smiles. They hugged their grandchildren and the music began to play. Mom hugged me once, as I remember. What comes to mind most easily are her footsteps on the stairs on school mornings, the impact of the freezing air on my skin when she ripped my sheets. Burnt bacon and fights at breakfast. I watch her walk out the front door in the spring to pick crape myrtle seedlings in the backyard. I can see myself sitting on the floor on Saturday nights, holding my ear while she combs my hair. Listening to the same stories that she had told a hundred times before. Sitting still and knowing that she would still burn me. And knowing that sometimes, just sometimes, she would pat my head when she was done. Then put me to bed so we won't be late for church the next morning.
There isn't much to keep a child busy at a funeral, but there isn't much to keep him busy at regular church either. Sunday school hardly counts. It was easy to get bored with the same five Bible stories told two different ways: the way it's supposed to scare you that you're going to hell, and the way young teachers tell it when they're trying to make Scripture sound cold. . My sister, I, and the rest of the reprobate children's choir kept busy passing notes, playing word games, and whispering behind the organist's back. Muttered jokes about a parishioner's lopsided wig or the first lady's bleached mustache drew laughter half disguised as coughing fits. The organist was almost deaf and did not notice. My grandmother sat far away and she could not scold us.
Miss Irene is a deaconess, a principal member of the choir, and an occasional friend of my grandmother. Their relationship is a pattern: the kind that develops between two people who have attended the same schools and the same church, worked the same jobs, and belonged to the same social groups for decades. Her banter is peppered with the kind of scathing comment only church elders are capable of delivering. Irene is a warrior, a firm believer in "save the stick and pamper the kid," and she was delighted to report to my grandmother whenever my sister and I misbehaved. notes and chuckles.
Cousin Mildred died in the spring, just after the dogwoods came into bloom. It was a lovely service in a beautiful old church on the east end of town. The roses spilled over her coffin. Lilies flanked on either side. The sky was blue. The air was sweet. It was almost perfect, but there was the chorus.
There are three types of singers in every church choir. There are those who can really sing, whose voices shake the walls, who make you cry or receive the Holy Spirit unexpectedly. There are those who do not know how to sing or maybe they are fine. They know their limitations. They play the tambourine. But those who do not know how to sing, but are absolutely convinced that they can, will be in for a real treat. They are the tallest. They are the most showy. are blessings
The choir that sang at Cousin Mildred's funeral was made up mostly of older men who could almost sing. They swayed gently as the pianist played. They were led by a remarkable vocalist: a man whose falsetto echoed through the sanctuary, who sounded like Barry Gibb choking on a toffee. I kept my peace through "Amazing Grace". I looked at my sister in the middle of "Upstairs to Meet Him" and noticed the twinkle in her eyes and the curve of her lips. We couldn't help it after that. We started laughing at her every time she started singing. Our giggles turned to guffaws as she attempted Mariah-Carey-style runs. We kept our heads down, trying to hide our tear-stained faces behind the obituary and cover our giggles by coughing and clearing our throats. The only thing that saved us was that Ma, Mildred's closest cousin, was sitting in a row over there. My mother looked at us, then at the singer and smiled a little. Miss Irene looked at us. She knew.
Miss Melba, the sweetest of Ma's occasional friends, reached out to my mother during the transfer. “I didn't know the girls were so close to Mildred,” she said. "They were so destroyed that I couldn't take it." Tears filled her eyes again. She smiled at us, handed us strawberry candies. My mom didn't say anything. Miss Irene frowned at us from a distance.
My great-uncle Clarence could sing. He was a big man. Tall and broad in his youth and then bigger, with a bigger belly as the years and pies and fried chicken caught up with him. The apples on his cheeks were huge and had been all his life. They blushed and his teeth flashed as he smiled. He laughed and everything quivered: shoulders, chin, belly, comparing him to some kind of country Santa Claus. His voice fit perfectly. He was as warm and heavy as the quilts that covered the beds in winter. You could get an entire congregation involved in it. He would penetrate the walls of the church on Sunday. Each note, rich and resonant and wondrous, would go down the road and come halfway. He drowned out the rest of the chorus. He couldn't be helped. Our church was small. When he sang there was no room for anyone else. It could be someone, Mom said, if someone important had heard him sing. But no one is discovered in the middle of a tobacco field. Much less someone big, black and with three lost wages far from being poor.
The church seemed smaller, much quieter, in the months before Clarence's death. What killed him was the same thing that killed almost all the great and black in our small town: diabetes, high blood pressure. A car accident and accompanying hip fracture sped things up. He was at our house before it happened, visiting Mom like he always did. Teasing her like he always did. She saw him go, she always did, she always said goodbye, she always stayed in the yard and watched him go. So he went into the house, put a chicken in the oven, made dinner. The call came shortly after.
Things were fine for a while. The doctors said he was stable. The deacons put him on the prayer list. Mom visited the hospital every day and dragged my sister and me along on the weekends. It looked good for a while. Sweaty and uncomfortable, but he still laughed, still joked, still acted like himself. Weeks passed. Mom kept going to the hospital. I kept waiting for him to say that Clarence was going home. I half expected to see his truck, broken up and sold for scrap long ago, pulling up in our driveway. Clarence stayed in his bed, covered in fine white sheets and gray blankets. I lost a little weight right after the first surgery, a little more after the infection, a little more each week. They printed his name in the church program, added him to the sick and excluded list. Another older person from the choir took over his solos. The choir raised their voices together on the song, but it sounded thin thanks to the screeching microphones. They never got the bell right.
Sometimes people just know things. Some people have visions, prophetic dreams, perceptions. Some people just have common sense. The mother got that call, the first one about the accident, and she knew, she just knew, that her brother was going to die. Even if he was fine. Even if the whole church prayed for him. Clarence stayed in the hospital and got smaller and smaller. Mom visited the hospital and saw him cringe, saw his family cringe, waited, smiled and knew. There was another call around Christmas time. I hardly needed to pick up the phone.
Ma was the first to know when Aunt Mary died. I don't know who called or what they said. All I remember is my grandmother nestled in my mother's arms. She had never seen them hug like this. I remember her choked sobs and her ragged breaths. I had never seen her cry like that. I froze in front of the TV watching them and feeling as if I had intruded on something I shouldn't have seen.
Mary's funeral went well. The morticians got it right. We sat near the front and watched a proper choir give satisfying renditions of popular dirges. There were screams, but no screams, no fainting, no jumping. The praise was perfectly worthy. Mom was silent and looked at the coffin. I sat quietly next to her.
After mass, after the funeral, after two orders of fried chicken and three casseroles, I headed out to our backyard looking for something else to do. I found Mom sitting under a tree with a bag of tobacco on her lap and a lit cigarette in her mouth. She had never seen her smoke before. She looked at me and said nothing. I sat next to her and didn't say anything. she smoked Ispat. Blessing.