Storytime…

Yes, yes, from time  to time Uncle Winnie does indulge in storytelling.  Allow me to entertain you with the beginnings of a new one.

Funerals Are For The  Living

I am only the corpse.  When and why did it become so excruciatingly imperative I be present?

I’ve always heard funerals are for the living. I’ve imagined a funeral provided a point of focus for the bereaved— a point in time when they might all come together, bid good-bye to their dearly departed kinsman, friend, enemy, lover, whomever, and milk whatever joy may be derived from a public display of tears.  A date, for those predisposed to such actions, when they might safely, purposefully tear their hair, rend their garments, don sackcloth, ashes, and strike woeful poses amid armloads of calla lilies.  Or maybe just kick off their shoes and skip merrily through that wickedly enticing green clover at the cemetery, expressing the physical relief of burdens suddenly being lifted from shoulders.

For others, harboring deep-seated guilt complexes, having a funeral date circled on their kitchen calendars would grant occasion to bake pecan pies again, shirk ill-fitting diets and commit to wearing slenderizing black for the remainder of the season.  For still others, who dwell a bit too deep in their own shadows, that underscored event jotted on their desk blotter would serve as another excuse to lock themselves in their studies, sit in the dark with a case of gin and the misguided hope false grief could keep tongue-wagging to a minimum.  Yes, for the living, funerals do yield a bountiful harvest.

I’ve also heard of pre-need planning.  Oh, I know people will talk when they realize I entered into such an unholy alliance with an undertaker.  But I did it.  I’ve chosen my casket, my shroud, my plot, my stone and paid for it all with American Express like it was some fanciful Caribbean travel package.  The so-called bereaved parties won’t have to endure the strain— or the cost— at the time of my sudden departure from this mortal world.  But no one down at the funeral home had hinted that I should stipulate my willingness— or lack thereof— to appear at any of the actual festivities.

So anyway, there I sat that last Saturday morning of April 1962, at my breakfast table spreading cherry preserves on my toast when it struck me— a sharp chest pain!  It took my breath away.  I mean way away— for good.  I never felt the impact of my face slamming into my plate of fried eggs.  A single word filled my being.  REST.  It moved through me sort of prickly, like Olde English lettering.  Yes, yes, Eternal Rest.  The end of Time.  The end of Toil.  It was my turn now.

A memory swirled before me of Aunt Caroline’s dining room.  She, jabbing her autocratic index finger into my upturned tenyearold face, saying, “Millicent Anne Parker, stop acting silly!  Stop it at once!  Do you hear me?  You’ll get in too deep.  You’ll die from egg on your face sure as gun’s iron!”

I had been teasing Uncle Walter about his bald head, how red it had turned, while he was coughing on biscuit crumbs.  With fists on hips, I snapped back, “No!  You’ll have egg on your face one day when Uncle Walter dies at this very dinner table and everybody learns he choked to death eating one of your sorry old biscuits!”   I got slapped across my mouth, called disrespectful and sent from the table, for my boldness.  Well, Aunt Caroline, you were right.  Here I am, dead as chalk with fried egg up to my hairline— and a sausage patty under my chin.  But I didn’t do anything to bring it on, so there!

I don’t know the circumstances of how I was discovered at my breakfast table or how I arrived in the back room of Arpeggio’s Funeral Home.  I know only that I was, for lack of better terminology, asleep.  And more at peace than any mortal sleep could possibly have ever felt.

Nor can I describe in mortal language the way dialog occurs between myself— newly immortal, and The One.  But, somehow, I was given the option of seeing and listening in on the doings and conversations of the mortals that I was no longer among.  A deep curiosity led me to opt for continuing to know of their preoccupations for a time.  I had always been curious in life.  That trait was the leading reason I had become a teacher.

Teacher.  Goodness!  Who will be called in to take over my crop of fifth-graders Monday?  I hope it’s not that Nellie Jarman.  Such a busybody!  And can’t wring work out of any student. Doesn’t even try.  Just plays unproductive games with them all day.  I’ve never requested her services as a substitute.  I must see what I can do about that– if allowed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  There I am, lying prone on the cooling board in Arpeggio’s back room.  I see I’ve already been dressed in the shroud I chose.  I had selected the blue jersey one because it matched my eyes.  Silly me!  Who’s going to see my eyes in my present state?  I could have had that lovely velvet maroon.  Especially now that Brenda is brushing maroon nail polish on me.

Brenda.  Brenda LuVee Hotchkiss.  I taught her in my third year.  Even back then, that girl was applying make-up to herself and others in the back of the classroom.  Polish, powders, lipstick.  By the end of term I had confiscated enough supplies to open up my own Merle Norman Studio.  So, she’s working for Arpeggio as some sort of cosmetologist for the dead.  And none of her clients wiggle like they did in fifth grade.

Well, that’s it.  I’m glamorous, or as glamorous as a gal pushing fifty is ever going to be.  That white feather boa looped about my neck and winding down my left arm is the final touch.  With my shoulder line skewered at a rakish angle and head turned slightly away from potential viewers, I do impart an aloof smugness in death.  I’m glad I brought in that boa to fulfill a whim of my pre-need plans and insisted on it above Mr. Arpeggio’s raised eyebrow.  I do look radiant in my hand-rubbed cherrywood casket.  Will viewers like what they see or not.  Oh, well.  C’est la vie.  Or c’est la mort, I should say.

Anyway, Brenda and Mr. Arpeggio have done their funereal best, giving me style, flare, maybe even a little oomph.  Well, no oomph, but I like me.  I look better dead than cousin Ophelia looks alive.  She’s Aunt Caroline’s daughter.   I can’t stand her.  For all her airs, Ophelia’s looked dowdy since she turned fifteen.  Sort of a Mamie Eisenhower— without the bangs.  That’s mean.  But that’s Ophelia.

(To be continued… someday.)

Copyright 2011 WED

Father’s Day

You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until it finally buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody who says they have to do this. They do it because they love you.
—Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson) in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)

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My father died in 1973.  He was 55.  I was 22.  He had made a point of watching The Wizard of Oz annual TV presentations with me from when it was first broadcast in 1956.  The first year I was away at college, 1969, and not keeping track of TV schedule listings, I was shocked walking into the student center one evening and finding a large group gathered around a TV set.  The Wizard of Oz was on!  I rushed to a nearby wall of pay phones and called home to see if Daddy knew and was watching anyway without me being there.  He was, and was wondering if I knew if it was on also.  I told him to think of me while he watched, and I would do the same.  Then I told him I loved him.  He replied, “Same here, son.”  I detected a break in his voice.  That was the nearest he ever came to saying, “I love you.”  He could never handle that word— love, but at that moment I knew for sure that he did.  Every year when we had watched Dorothy say goodbye to all her Oz friends, tears would run down my cheeks.  I would glance at Dad, and spy tears in his eyes also.  Aside from that annual occasion, the only time I saw my dad really weep was in 1971, while watching The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.  (The basis for The Waltons TV series.)  Dad grew up in a very rural area and probably identified with John-Boy in that Depression era setting and age bracket.  So I learned via movies that Dad’s tears meant deep love for family and friends that, while could not be spoken of aloud, could not be doubted or broken.  My only regret is that I did not hug him as tight as I could during The Homecoming, but at the time, I was fearful that I would embarrass him by drawing attention to his tears.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  I still love you.

Spewing a Backstory

During a recent evening spent viewing the internet stream-of-consciousness style, I landed on a website for a Chinese-run business— a frame shop.  I spied a print of a painting rendered by an artist, Gustave Caillebotte.  Something about it intrigued me, compelling me to draft a little backstory to accompany the image.  I plead  a picture is worth a thousand words as my only excuse for a muse,  though I didn’t meet 1000 words by a long shot.  If this post proves anything, it’s that writers are often carelessly permitted to roam about without keepers.

————O————

January 22, 1913

Dear Zelma,

In your previous letter, you brought up the subject of Cousin Rowena.  I only know she secretly wed a Scandinavian Egyptologist in September of 1912.  On the third morning after the wedding, she brazenly scorched 17 marshmallows while masquerading an attempt to make breakfast toast. Her new husband tossed his table napkin into the fireplace with disgust and vacated the acrid apartment.  The following morning she received, by special messenger, a formal Proclamation of Annulment.  That’s the last news I’ve had of her doings. It’s a disgraceful turn of events, to say the least!

I am still on the horns of a dilemma: should I discretely publish her last known address in next Tuesday’s Personals column in the Times?  Uncle Trent would well approve of my action, but unsure of the rest of the kin’s reaction. I so hate that Rowena has put me into this unsavory position. She is the pariah, and rightly should own up to it, sending personal telegrams to each and all of them– even to Grandmother’s half-sister, Adelaide.

If only you’d inquired of dear Adelaide, rather than Rowena, I wouldn’t have been reminded of this unfortunate chain of events and thus be forced to retire to my divan with a renewed case of the Jumpsie-Wumpsies.  I’ve had to call Louisa back from her day off just to pour tea and watch over me.  Need I say more?

Faithfully,

Moira

————O————

Painting by Gustave Caillebotte

TV and Love in the Afternoon, 1950’s Style

No, this post is not about soap operas, even though I was captivated by As the World Turns from the time of its premiere in 1956.  But it does orbit around TV technology of the 1950’s, that era when we grappled with terms such as horizontal hold, vertical hold, fine tuning and mahogany cabinetry shielding myriad vacuum tubes, diodes and the magical cathode ray tube which turned electron beams, somehow, into glowing moving images that entertained us.

In those days TV channels could be counted on one hand, so choosing what to watch worked no hardship.   But actually turning on the TV set and watching your choice could be daunting.  Rotating the aerial, adjusting a row of picture-tuning knobs, setting the volume, all to capture the best reception possible.  Not infrequently, you’d get wiggle-squiggles, snow, or worse yet, pops, crackles and no picture at all.  Well, nothing to do then but rush to the phone and dial up that very popular service– TV Repair!

When such scenarios happened at my house, I would sit on the front steps mourning the temporary loss of my friend, The One-eyed Monster, while keeping my own eye riveted to the street awaiting the approach of a paneled vehicle emblazoned with the logo of Brown’s TV & Radio Repair.  No one can fully appreciate my 1950’s happiness at the sight of the TV repairman’s truck pulling into our driveway.  I’d leap from the step and usher the repairman through the front door and point to my sick buddy.  Then I’d crouch behind the TV set beside this big, burly man with “Gus” embroidered on his uniform shirt, a lock of black Vitalised hair falling over his left eye, and together we’d look at its innards with the back removed while he diagnosed the ailment of my magical friend, patiently answering all my youthful concerns.   Diagnosis completed, I’d walk back to his truck with him, watching him sort through the racks of vacuum tubes and wiry switches to find the replacement parts that would restore the glowing images on our TV screen.  He’d tinker within the TV set awhile, me hovering at his elbow, then he would sit back on his heels with short-sleeved arms folded across his broad chest and grin as the picture returned.  It seemed to me he basked in its restored glow– and in the warmth of being elevated in my eyes into a personal superhero.  I loved him.

Back To School?

This week I received an e-mail from our regional winery with the unlikely subject line: Duplin Winery Back To School Savings.  At first, visions swirled of second-graders standing beside their chairs with stemware raised in toast to their new teacher and the coming school year.  The tinkle of clinking glassware overwhelmed my auditory senses.  Then I thought, No, wait!  The enjoyment of alcoholic beverages is reserved for those of us who are twenty-one years of age and older.

The sale must be targeting the parents of those school-aged offspring.  What rapture to send the little darlings packing back to school after twelve unrelenting weeks of slamming doors, running through the house at breakneck speed, asking incessant “whys” about everything you attempt to do, and you, stirring up and serving them 1346 gallons of sugar-free Kool-Aid.  That must be it.  You’ve done your duty.  You’ve earned your freedom.  After the school bus pulls away from the curb, you and your mate call in sick, draw the drapes, unplug the coffeemaker, pop the cork and kick back with a refreshing glass of sweet muscatel.

I wonder if Jack Daniels is running a back-to-school special targeting vacationing teachers retuning to the grind?

Link: Duplin Winery

A Wake to Wake the Dead

A Recent news story from North Carolina.

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THE NEWS AND OBSERVER – 7 August 2010 edition

BY JOSH SHAFFER – Staff Writer

KNIGHTDALE — A fight broke out between daughter and stepmother at the visitation for a Wendell man Thursday night, a fracas that led to one hospital visit, two arrests and a dent in the funeral home wall.

The disturbance started as family gathered at L. Harold Poole Funeral Service in Knightdale to pay respects to Bryant Henry Williams, Jr., 90, a front-end and frame mechanic from Wendell, family members said.

Soon after she placed a kiss on her father in his casket, Phyllis Strickland, 58, was charged with assaulting Williams’ 73-year-old wife, Virginia, and causing $450 in damage to the funeral home’s drywall. Strickland’s son Christopher, 39, was charged with assaulting both Williams’ wife and a fellow grandson, Larry Wayne Terry of Duncan, S.C.

All called the melee a shame.

Phyllis Strickland said the family was not “there to fight and carry on.”

“My mother raised me to be a lady,” she said. “It’s a disgrace to have this going on when your father is laying there.”

Family members described a history of strife between the wife and her stepdaughter. Strickland said she was upset that Williams had failed to call her immediately when her father died Monday.

Strickland said she was assured by a cousin that she was welcome at the visitation and funeral.

But when she arrived and was straightening her father’s collar, she said, her stepmother shoved her away from the casket, slapped her and demanded she leave.

Strickland said she was only kissing her father when Williams “just went wild.” After that, other family members and friends got involved, she said.

“Next thing I knew, all 25 of them came up in the room where my daddy’s coffin was,” Strickland said. “It was so many of them you couldn’t get through.”

Williams told a different story and said she was struck first.

“I told her to step away from the casket because she was messing with my husband’s clothes,” Williams said Friday. “Her son knocked me down. I went to the hospital last night.”

Williams was treated for minor injuries at WakeMed, police reports said. Terry, a grandson, was injured but not hospitalized.

“She passed the first lick, buddy,” Williams said. “She’s nothing but a two-bit what.”

The Stricklands must appear in court in Wendell in September.

Christopher Strickland said he and his mother plan to press countercharges but have been instructed that they cannot until their case is settled.

In addition to those named, Williams is survived by two sons, a daughter, five grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, a sister, several nieces and nephews and three special puppies: Sheba, Angel and Bubbles.

______________________________________________________

Challenge:

Can any reader recommend an appropriate hymn/song

for the funeral service of Mr. Bryant Henry Williams, Jr.?

Operator-assisted Telephone Calls

“Num-ber PA-lee-aaze!” is what that scary, dominating woman’s voice on the other end of the line demanded each time I plucked the telephone receiver from it’s cradle and drew it cautiously to my ear.  Ice-drenched fear raced through the marrow of my bones each time I heard her voice.  I’d quickly hand the receiver to Mom who’d purr, “248-J” into the mouthpiece.  She would then pass the receiver back to me, I’d snug it to my ear, hear a briiing-briiing sound followed by Annie Lee’s cheery hello.  Annie Lee was my godmother;  her husband, Winston, my godfather.  Older than my parents, they dotingly filled the grandparent void as all my real ones had died before I was born.

But back to that telephone operator.  She stood between me and anyone’s voice I wanted to hear.  And worse, Mom had drilled me to pick up the telephone and tell that operator about any emergency that might occur, such as a fire, and she would dispatch help.  Yeah!  Like flames licking at my backside could be incentive enough to propel me to cry out to that malevolent-sounding telephone operator!  Years later, in the psychedelic ’60s when Lily Tomlin regularly performed her “Ernestine the telephone operator” sketches on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, I enjoyed Lily’s quirky, omnipotent Ernestine.  And she didn’t look at all like the ghastly creature at the other end of my telephone line.  I envisioned my telephone operator wearing thick-heeled black suede pumps, a black  dress with glowing eyeballs sewn on the sleeve cuffs, maroon nail polish, thick glasses on a chain around her neck, knotted brows swooping upward and a fat hair bun skewered with green knitting needles topping a very buxom figure.  And it wouldn’t have come as any surprise if red plumes of smoke escaped her nostrils.  Yeeech!

I believe Daddy was afraid of her too.  I remember times at the dinner table, while luxuriantly caressing my dessert with the back of a spoon, hearing Daddy say something like this to Mom, “Lois, get Wilber Ebert on the line, I want to see if I can borrow his wheelbarrow this weekend.”  Seemed he was forever getting Mom to place his calls.  Our community finally got dial phones in October of 1958, but then, Dad continued having Mom initiate telephone calls for him.  Maybe it was just one of those King-of-his-castle things instead of any heart-thumping fear that made him keep Mom toiling at the telephone.

Mom never complained about her household task as Official Call-Meister.  Perhaps it was in her blood.  In the tiny town in which she was raised, her own mother was the official substitute for Miss Eleanor Norfleet, switchboard operator of the town’s telephone service.  She had been hand-picked for the job in 1925 by Miss Norfleet, herself, because my grandmother had the reputation of being a woman who knew about all things and how do them well.  After all, Fannie Jackson was a successful milliner, had designed her own home, the Women’s Club facility, the town’s high school, so naturally, pulling duty at the switchboard would be a cinch, even though Mrs. Jackson preferred the absence of any telephone in her own home.   So, in addition to any planned days off, Miss Eleanor could, at the drop of a hat, go tend to something at home, run an errand, chase a cat or fly a kite.  All she need do was telephone Perkins Meat Market and instruct the delivery boy to run over to Miss Fannie’s and say Miss Eleanor needed her at the switchboard.  Whereupon, my grandmother would drop several hats in progress, march over to the telephone company and (wo)man the switchboard until Miss Eleanor’s return.

No wonder my grandmother was a woman who knew about all things– she probably eavesdropped at that switchboard.

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