We arrived to my aunt’s sprawling farmhouse shortly after lunch. We greeted each other with long embraces and sad smiles. There around the kitchen table gathered the oldest daughter, the youngest daughter, the oldest granddaughter. We picked from our plates, commenting on the multitude of dishes the community had brought. Crispy fried chicken, the first bite of which is solely “fried” – it usually takes a couple of bites before actual meat is tasted. Vegetables, creamed corn, succatosh, that combination of butter beans and corn I’ve eaten since I was a baby, and green beans, all swimming in grease. We didn’t think we were hungry, but suddenly our plates were empty, so we sampled the dishes we didn’t have room for on the first helping.
We talked about the mundane. My trip out, my apartment in San Francisco, the cousins, who’s doing what and where they’re doing it, stories from the past. The laughter came, reserved at first, then more and more freely until we all held our stomachs, reeling from side stitches. The middle daughter arrived and more laughter followed. The atmosphere wasn’t one of joviality, but one of a loving bond of those who have experienced hardship together. They’ve lost their mother, their brother, their father, and now care for their father’s invalid wife. It’s been a hard few years.
When I first learned about my grandfather’s indiscretions, I was angry. How dare he preach the gospel and chastise sinners, all the while committing adultery against the woman who bore him five children and pampered him? The visits over the years haven’t been easy, as I always looked at him and wondered, Why? Why’d you do it?
My mother and aunts may have wondered the same questions, or maybe not. They certainly don’t harbor the resentment I do. My youngest aunt is the Power of Attorney for the second wife. When she spoke of the funeral arrangements, she talked about Betty’s wishes and how one of grandfather’s last requests was that she look after Betty until her death.
Without considering the callousness of my tone, I blurted, “What about Betty’s children? Why don’t *they* take care of her?”
“Well,” my aunt replied, “They said that they have jobs.”
“But you have a job, too!”
“I know, but someone’s got to look after her.”
And this was said from a place of compassion, not from one of obligation.
It’s been many years since I’ve stepped foot in a funeral parlor. It was a sterile place, attempting to appear homey. Fake antique furniture adorned the lobby, creating a small sitting area in front of a fake fireplace. Fake blossoms decorated the small tables placed in the various hallways. Even the director of the parlor appeared fake, his unshakable demeanor couple with a smooth, monotone voice.
We walked to the open casket together. Within a few feet, I stopped, paralyzed by what I saw. The tall, handsome, strapping man I remembered as my grandfather had been replaced. This man in the coffin was mere skin, stretched taut over sharp bones. His face was an eerie grey color, his features nondescript. His hair, once so thick and wavy, was reduced to a few brittle strands.
I simply stood there, unable to cry, unable to speak, unable to move.
Who created this custom? Why is staring at a dead person a good thing to do? I found myself focusing on his lips. He was going to start breathing, I could tell. I waited. I watched. His lips were parted just enough… But he never did.
Then she entered. Betty. The second wife. It was the first time I had ever seen her in person. One of her daughters wheeled her down the rows of pews. She is completely deaf, so she couldn’t hear any of us talking. Also blind, she stared off into space, rarely blinking, not seeing anything around her. When she approached the coffin, he daughter and son-in-law lifted her from her wheelchair, so that she was leaning over the open casket. She came within inches of grandfather’s face, the let forth the guttural cries of one who hasn’t heard words spoken for years. “L – l – l – uh- eeeeee….” my grandfather’s warbled name echoed through the almost empty sanctuary. “Ah… Ah… Ah… luh – uh – v…. oooooo.”
The resentment I’ve felt for years faded with each garbled sound that was emitted from her lips. Pity filled me instead.
I turned my head, unable to look at the frail, broken woman in front of me.
The people entered, a trickle at first, then a steady stream. I smiled, I shook hands, I accepted condolences. A numbness overcame me; I simply carried out the actions expected of me. I still didn’t cry.
We were asked to sit, to simply stare at the coffin and listen to the pianist play angel music. I glanced over and noticed my mother wringing her hands, staring at her lap. I quietly slid beside her, wrapping my arms around her, cuddling her to my chest. She silently sobbed as I stroked her hair, rocking her back and forth. Her tears fell to my lap, soon followed by my own. As the preacher began, I slid over to allow the three sisters to sit side by side, holding on to each other for strength.
In true Baptist fashion, the preacher preached. He raved about death being God’s gift, about the afterlife, about being saved…
After only a couple of minutes, my mind drifted. I could no longer concentrate on the evangelical words. I could no longer look at the open casket, grandfather’s pallid face turned upward. I stared off to the side, conducting my own private memorial for grandfather.
At some point, the preacher stopped preaching, the pianist stopped playing, and the people stopped consoling.