It was over. The last person to offer comfort was finally departing down the gravel driveway to head home. Mama had long ago pleaded exhaustion and was lying down in the second bedroom, and I was dismayed with size of the mess. Grumpily, I started picking up the Styrofoam cups that had found their way to every flat surface in Gram’s living room. I carried the first load to the sink and dumped out the half-drunk contents before throwing the empty cups into the trash. Then I went back for more.
As I straightened up the room, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the day. It had been a long one with phone calls beginning at 6 a.m., followed shortly after by the first visitor to Gram’s house. Mama had decided her mother’s house would work as the place for people to gather. It offered more space and better parking than Mama’s condo. The fellowship hall at the Holly Ridge UMC, Gram and Mama’s church was undergoing renovations so it was unavailable. Somehow my grandmother’s little 1200 square foot home on Bluebell Lane had ended up with enough room for everyone. But I suspected it was thanks to her large yard that made it possible.
Despite what they say, the dead can’t wait, at least for a better time to deal with the task of burying them. We discovered, while sitting at the funeral home to finalize preparations for the funeral that Gram’s pastor was out of the country.
“He’s on his honeymoon, Isn’t it just the sweetest thing? They eloped” said Mr. White, the funeral home rep.
“Honeymoon?” Mama asked, “Isn’t Pastor Miller about my mother’s age?”
“He’s 79. He and his bride are in Aruba and won’t be back till next week.” The rep, who’s comb-over dated back to the Nixon era, crossed his hands on the folder that contained the paperwork for the funeral. “Now you can certainly choose to wait till he returns, and if so we can discuss the holding fee..”
“Isn’t there another option?” I asked.
“Well, we do have a list of pastors who rotate on an on call basis for those times then a dearly departed’s regular minister is unable to provide the necessary service.”
I looked over at Mama. She looked utterly worn out. I doubt she had slept 8 hours since leaving the hospital three days ago. She closed her eyes a moment, then said, “Alright. You have our denominational preferences, and I know she would have preferred someone a lot like Pastor Miller.”
Mr. White looked at a sheet of paper on his desk. “Ah, Pastor Eckhart is on call this week. He will perform a wonderful service for your mother,” He opened the folder and pushed some papers over to Mama. “Now if you will sign here, we’ll get everything taken care of just as you asked.”
Mama and I met Pastor Eckhart about fifteen minutes before the funeral. He was at least as old as Pastor Miller and I couldn’t help noticing that most of the hair that had once graced his scalp was instead growing thickly out of his ears. The elderly pastor had been quite soft-spoken as he introduced himself with fifteen minutes to spare before the start of the service. I stood awkwardly by the casket as people I barely knew continued to pay their respects. Friends of my grandmother, relatives I hadn’t seen in many years, and some I didn’t remember hugged me tightly and commented on how much I’d grown while Mama and the pastor stood off to one side speaking. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I’d long since mastered the growing up part, and didn’t even need permission to stay out late any more. I thought it best to keep my sarcasm tightly reigned, even thought I had inherited that trait from the woman currently in the casket beside me.
“I had to strain to just hear the man speak.” Mama whispered to me as we finally sat down in the front row. The opening measures of It Is Well With My Soul, began to play. “I hope those who have them put fresh batteries in their hearing aids.”
So it was a bit of a shock to the friends and family, most of whom were Methodist and expecting Pastor Miller’s usual gentle words words of comfort to sit through Pastor Eckhart’s funeral service. Instead of a gentle homily, the people packed into the funeral home chapel found themselves subjected to the exuberant style of the fire brand preacher from the First Apostolic Holiness Lighthouse Church.
“At least no one is sleeping through this service.” I had thought as I could feel half the room jump behind me every time Pastor Eckhart banged his bible down onto the pulpit. Sometimes someone would let out a surprised squeak as well. Mama was mortified. She had wanted a quiet service with little fuss. Between the cavalcade of relatives who’d been calling non-stop since getting word Gram’s passing, some of whom had asked at this morning’s viewing for Mama or I to arrange for a place to “lay their heads”, a mix up with which coffin was actually hers and a very enthusiastic preacher, quiet was hardly what Gram’s send off to heaven could be described as. I watched as Mama sat there, hands clasped so tightly together they were white, as she fought back the tears that had been threatening all day.
“Just think Mama,” I whispered to her, leaning so I could be close to her ear. “This will be over soon. Besides, just imagine Gram’s conniption fit over this spectacle. I bet it is taking a whole host of angels having to hold her back so she don’t come right down here and haunt the lot of us. Why, what she’s probably planning for Mr. White is likely giving St. Peter fits.” The pastor stopped in mid-sentence and scowled right at us, as Mama fought to get her laughter under control. He then got over his outrage and continued on about the wages of sin, as my mother took my arm and linked it to hers. She only let go long enough to get in and out of the car for the graveside portion of the service.
That will be a funeral gossiped about for months I thought as I continued to clean up. As I went along, I caught myself humming to a song called I’d heard earlier. Someone had turned on the radio to a local gospel station sometime during the afternoon. When the song aired, Uncle Carl had announced “Suppertime!” He soon had half the people visiting singing along with his off pitch tenor yodeling the chorus for all he was worth. I thought it had sounded like dogs in pain, but several hours later, I just couldn’t get the damned tune out of my head.
That is when I found a porcelain coffee cup sitting on the floor almost out of sight between an end table and the wall.
“Damn you, Uncle Carl.” I said to the empty room. He’d found Gram’s bottle of bourbon despite Mama’s assurance that it was well hidden. My grandmother had always kept a bottle around for those cold winter days where mere coffee couldn’t take the chill away. That Uncle Carl thought he was fooling anyone by using a coffee cup from the cupboard when everyone else was drinking iced tea and lemonade from Styrofoam ones, was an unspoken family secret. The man had a bloodhound sense when it came to hidden liquor. I hoped he’d left some. I could use a coffee cup full myself after today.
I turned to the ruins on the dining room table. There sat 17 casserole dishes in various degrees of destruction, four large half empty bowls containing salads where mayonnaise was a primary ingredient, a platter that held only a ham bone and a few scraps of meat, and 7 plates of fried chicken, with only a few thighs and wings remaining on each plate. At one end of the table sat six besieged cakes, crumbs trailing from each platter and onto the floor. I didn’t have to look to know that each plate and bowl on that table had a masking tape stuck to the bottom with the owner’s name written on it.
Crenshaw friends and family members had been bringing platters of food since morning and then lining up to refill their plates all afternoon until I finally persuaded the last one to leave. I had managed to eat a roll, and a quick sip of tea all afternoon, being too busy replenishing the coffee pot, finding a spot to put yet another food offering and trying to keep cousin Louise out of Gram’s bedroom. I must have told half of the male visitors that watching the NASCAR road race was not going to happen in Gram’s living room. “I am sorry that it is Saturday race, “I told them, temper barely in check. “But ya’ll know that Gram hated NASCAR. You want her to come here, when she’s barely in the ground and haunt you?” I snapped as I confiscated the remote. None of the NASCAR fans stayed long.
The front porch had been delegated to the younger visitors, children and teens who had been dragged along with their parents or grandparents. There they had sat listening to I-pads, or playing with a hand held game, expressions of utter boredom on their faces. Only when they realized it was time to leave did any of them express any excitement.
Closing my eyes a moment, I brought myself back to the present. I started the process of moving leftovers into storage containers and loading the dirty bowls and platters into the dishwasher. I filled the kitchen trash can three times before all the inedible scraps and discarded eating utensils were gone. There was still enough food left to feed a family of eight for a week. Mama would never eat it all, nor would she want to take it home to her condo, and I was flying home tomorrow. I just couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Old habits die hard, I thought to myself, as I put the last container in the fridge. Mamaw had never been one to waste the remains of meal knowing that it would still be good the next day and the next. When I was done, there was barely any room left in the small fridge.
I stacked up what dishes didn’t fit into the dishwasher by the sink. I’d wash them all later. I wiped down the counter tops and took the vinyl tablecloth off of the dining table. I looked at it for a moment. It was old, and cracked from long use. That table cloth had seen many meals at this house. I wadded it up and threw it in the washing machine. I’d hang it on the line in the backyard later. Finally, the remains of the aftermath of Gram’s after funeral get-together were gone. I was exhausted, my feet ached from standing most of the day, and I didn’t care if I saw another relative for at least a year, maybe two. I started a fresh pot of coffee, and walked out to the back porch. There I saw more cups and paper plates strewn about. I hadn’t realize that people had also wandered out to the back yard as well as invaded nearly every room of my Gram’s house.
I picked up this trash as well, and angrily threw it into the big trashcan by the carport. “Do they have no respect?” I thought. “How can they think its OK to leave such a mess?” I slammed the lid down on the trash can, then plopped down on one of the reclining lawn chair that sat under a pair of silver maple trees. I lay my head back and closed my eyes. I just wanted this day to be over. I wanted to scream in utter frustration. I wanted to be back home in my own bed, surrounded by my two cats Casper and Wyoming. I wanted Gram to be with me, still alive,with her wicked wit and handing me a bowl of her amazing peach cobbler. I missed her so much that the pain of her absence was nearly physical.
“Here. You look like you need this.” I looked up, and saw Mama standing there, two steaming cups in her hand.
“Oh, thanks.” I said taking one of the cups, as Mama sat in the lawn chair next to me. I took a sip then looked at Mama with surprise.
“There’s bourbon left?”
Mama chuckled. “Yeah, Uncle Carl couldn’t get to the bottle once I went to lay down.”
I laughed with her, and I now knew why my great uncle had lingered near the bedroom door before he left.
“Sorry for abandoning you Kate. I just couldn’t take another moment of well meaning family.”
“It’s ok Mama. I know you were tired, and I don’t blame you one bit. Too bad you missed the sharing of family ailments, and the including the apparent colossal size of Jenny Baldwing ‘s gall stone.”
“Thank goodness for small blessings.” She grabbed my free hand.” I’m proud of you. You kept your temper, and was a gracious hostess. Your Grandmother would have been proud.”
“I miss her so much. I know she’d struggled those last few years, but I keep thinking she’s going to be walking out that door at any moment.”
“I know. I miss her like no tomorrow, always will.” We both sat quietly sipping our bourbon laced coffee. It was growing dark and we could see fireflies signaling to each other along the forsythias at the edge of the yard.
“Mama?” I asked after I took my last sip of cooling coffee.
“You going to be ok, with all this? I could delay my flight a few days, take a couple more days of vacation.”
“I’m ok. Louise has offered to help close up the house.”
“Mama!” I exclaimed. “She and those kids of hers are going to take everything that isn’t nailed down”
“Kate.” Mama took my cup and set in the ground next to hers. “Whatever hasn’t been already sold to help pay for Grams’s medical bills is going to given away anyway. There’s not much left of any real value. Louise will discover that soon enough.”
“I’ll be fine.” She stood up and stretched her arms over her head, arching her back a moment. Straightening back up, she said. “Besides, Louise won’t be the only one helping. I got it covered, k?”
She turned to head back inside. ”I’m going to go tackle the rest of those dishes.”
I watched her walk up the steps of the back porch. “I’ll be right there.” I said.
I sat there until the dark made it hard to see the bushes on the far end of the yard, listening to the sounds of the crickets as they began their nightly serenades. Mama, had more experience with this then I did, the picking up the pieces of what remained after a loved one was gone. She’d buried my father, and her father, all by the time I was 12, and now she had buried her mother. It wasn’t until today that I recognized the toll that it took on one, and marveled that anyone could live once through the emotional trauma, the overwhelming list of things that needed to be done, much less the influx of people wanting to help but often being more of a hindrance. Doing such a thing repeatedly was to me yet unthinkable. I’d survived three days of assisting with the business of death and burial. I never wanted to do it again, but knew that one day I would have to. It was a lot different then being merely a mourner sitting in an itchy dress. I’d only been to two funerals as a child, my dad’s and my granddad’s. I knew they were dead but still could not quite understand what was happening other then someone you loved was gone and everyone was sad, including me. Taking an active role in making seeing to the duties of what happens when a life ends did not make the sadness any easier, just busier.
I looked up at the stars beginning to make their appearance. “God, I don’t want to do this again for a long time,” I said. “Keep Mama safe, and healthy, please?” I didn’t hear an answer, only the crickets and the occasional car that passed by on the road in front of the house.
It was then that I realized the depth of my mother’s tenacity. She’d handled the death of her mother with a grace and calm I knew I wouldn’t have been able to manage. I knew her exhaustion, knowing it was far deeper than my own. I admired that in her. I also realized that true to form, she had taken things well in hand. She had a circle of friends, people who with she’d shared much of life’s ups and downs. They’d make sure Mama would get through the next few weeks and months surrounded by love and friendship.
I walked back into the house to discover Mama standing in front of the fridge with the door open. She saw me and said. “I got hungry, but I just don’t know what is what in here?”
“How bout I order us a pizza instead?”
Mama looked at contents inside the fridge, then closed the door. She turned and pulled me into to a hug.
“Pizza would be wonderful.” She said as she held me tight. I wasn’t particularly religious, and rarely prayed, much less attended church. But at that moment, even while I knew she had a lot of grieving yet to do, felt my prayer answered, that my mother was going to be just fine.