by the Night Writer
When I was younger the weddings I went to far outnumbered the funerals. That ratio is changing, it seems, to something like 50-50, but I’m hoping to get through this summer and fall with with a blaze of those more youthful days and something like a 3-to-1 wedding ratio. Sometime well into the future the ratio will skew inexorably to the more somber tones. This year, however, is off to a bright start as the funeral I attended last Friday was more like a party.
As I wrote in my last post, my grandmother Lizey passed away just short of being 102 years old. I returned to the family hometown for the service and to the same funeral home where I’ve attended four other family funerals. I knew this wasn’t going to be the typical affair, however, when my brother called my cell from the visitation while I was still on the highway heading south, an hour and a half away. He was there with aunts, uncles and cousins and it sounded like there was a party going on in the background.
When I got there Grandma was laid out in peace, the only one it seemed like who wasn’t laughing, hugging, telling stories. This has always been a loud branch of the family, and all the stories were familiar ones and I think she would have liked seeing everyone together again and hearing the same old tales…the kind of tales that make you start to laugh as soon as the first few words are out of the teller’s mouth and you anticipate what’s to come. In one corner my oldest uncle was holding forth and in another corner his oldest son was doing the same, perhaps even more expressively, the circle unbroken. Three of her four surviving children were there, almost all of the grandchildren, a handful of the great-grandchildren, and once I caught a glimpse of the great-great-grandchild whose mother had been about the same age the last time I had seen her. I was told that Grandma’s remaining sons had decided that the last $100 of her estate was going to my own daughter, who marries later this month.
The funeral was the next day and the six grandsons were the pall-bearers. It had been a long while since the six of us — all of us within five years of age of each other — had been together but the elbowing, nudging and mild-horseplay seemed to pick up without missing a beat. The funeral director brought the six of us — Robbie, Roger, me, my brother, Kevin and Kent (who we call Fred) — together to run through the drill with us. After a few minutes she smiled and said, “We usually like to have the pall-bearers sit together in a group, but in your case I think we’ll split you up.” I told her that if she really wanted to get our attention she’d have to threaten to “beat the pee-waddin” out of us, and Grandma would understand. She allowed how she’d keep that in reserve.
The service was a sweet celebration. The wife of one of the great-grandkids sang two beautiful songs and the pastor from her life-long church, First Baptist, spoke of her great contributions the history and fellowship of the church and the rich heritage passed on into the lives of the family as he had witnessed over the previous 24 hours. Through the course of his brief talk he mentioned “First Baptist” about eight times. Later I told Aunt Sis that, given Grandma’s age, I wasn’t sure if the pastor had been referring to the church or to Lizey.
After the service the short procession moved out from the funeral home behind the hearse, heading through the drizzle for the Hodge-Enloe cemetery out on old highway UU. In the country, cemeteries are usually named after the families that founded them or the farms where they are located (often one and the same). Here’s something else about the country: when a funeral procession passes by, everyone on either side of the road pulls over. In the city, even with a police escort, people crowd you, even cut through the line.
Even in the mist and drizzle that day the hills were a beautiful green as we made it out on the old road, gravel the last mile or so, and there was a fresh smell to the air. It’s an old land, and an old cemetery, originally founded in 1889. I knew people with the same last names as those on the stones we walked past, carrying the casket, but I didn’t know any of those…except that I did, if that makes sense to you.
When the short prayer and final reading were finished we turned and walked back across the rough, wet grass to our cars. There was rain, and there was gloom and there was the new bright green on the old hills behind, around and in front of us, and the smell of spring and renewal.