Wintertime is an awful time for a funeral. Trying to force a hole into the frozen ground is no easy task. Expecting people to stand around that hole and pay their respects when it’s twenty-eight degrees outside seems pretty asinine and should almost guarantee a spot in heaven for the deceased.
Summertime doesn’t rank much better. It’s not much easier to bust open the hardened red Carolina clay when it’s been in the nineties for four weeks and the humidity is eighty-six percent. Wiping sweat, swatting flies, and dreaming about the crisp taste of an ice cold Bud Light doesn’t go too well with the last verse of “Amazing Grace”.
Fall is just too busy. Between harvest festivals, footballs games, and raking leaves there’s not enough time to stop and pay the respect that’s due the deceased. And besides that, most of the women would just show up wearing boots and scarves and sipping on a pumpkin-spice lattes.
Now Spring; Spring seems like it was created for a funeral. As the azaleas begin to bloom and the leaves return to the tall oak trees, we are reminded of new beginnings, rebirth, and resurrection. Spring is the perfect time for putting things into the ground; so it seems only proper for Aunt Vernie to give up the ghost the other day and prepare for the long dirt nap.
Aunt Vernie really wasn’t even my aunt. She was my Dad’s aunt. More accurately stated, she was my grandmother’s sister. Her only sister. My grandmother, Theola (though the only name I ever called her was Maw), was the youngest of five children. Being the youngest child meant many things. It meant that you were more likely to get away with behavior your siblings couldn’t. And they always reminded her of that. It meant that her chores were a little bit easier than theirs. And they always reminded her of that. It meant that her fashion was dictated by what was passed down to her and that she was wearing trousers before most felt it socially acceptable. Her mirrored reminded her of that. And it would also mean that eventually, one by one, she would stand beside her siblings and watch as they were laid in the ground. It was the phone call two days ago that reminded her of that.
Growing up in Texarkana in the late 1930’s didn’t offer many opportunities to little girls, or anyone else for that matter. To this day, the town’s biggest employer is still the Red River Army Depot. Fortunately, that’s as close as she or my grandfather would get to WWII. Once the war was over, Henry (that’s my grandfather) would take the welding skills that he gained working at the depot and use them to begin a life for the two of them. They would follow the Eisenhower Interstate System all the way to South Carolina as he worked with different contractors, building bridges for the highways and creating a future for themselves along the way. The ending of the war forced the closure of many Army training camps and Camp Croft in Spartanburg was no exception. They were able to put a down payment on what was previously the Mess Hall and together they would make a home and three children; the youngest being my father.
My father’s been in the ground for almost twenty years and that’s what brings us back to the phone call the other day. Aunt Vernie’s daughter, Mary Ada, had called Maw to let her know that time had finally taken the parts of Aunt Vernie that cancer hadn’t. The memorial service would be small, mostly family. Women who live to be ninety-one rarely have friends who attend their funeral. Maybe that’s why Maw wanted to be there. Even though they had lived almost a thousand miles away for the past sixty years, they had remained more than sisters. They were friends. At least once a year, Theola and Henry would make the trip to Texarkana so that the two sisters could exchange stories, and pictures, and warm embraces. Those things that just can’t be conveyed in a letter or over a telephone line. And now she wanted to make the trip one more time.
That’s why she called me. Maw sold her car, along with her house, five years ago on her eightieth birthday when she moved into the assisted living facility. Liver disease and Camel no-filters had made her a widow two years before my father’s passing and I guess that’s one of the reasons she called. I’m not sure what providence was at play that helped her to remember my number instead of my brother’s. He’s older and you would think the responsibility should fall to him. But I guess since Clay comes before Joe in the alphabet it was my number that showed up in her phone first.
“I guess it was only a matter of time. I’d stopped praying she would get better a long time ago. I’ve just been asking God to make her as comfortable as He can. I know it’s been hard on Mary Ada,” said Maw.
“Well, have they made any arrangements yet?”
“Mary Ada was going to have her cremated and I told her like hell she was. There’s the extra spot out there beside Momma and Daddy and she can bury her right there. I can’t help it Vernie outlived her income but Mary Ada’s lived in her damn house for ten years waiting on her to die. I don’t know who else she thought she was going to leave it to.”
Maw had always had a way of being able to let you know exactly what was on her mind. It wasn’t that she meant to be rude or indifferent to others. It was really quite the opposite.
Maw just felt it more practical to let you know how she felt about things up front. That way if there was any discrepancy between her plan and your opinion she didn’t have to waste any time listening to you try and convince her that you might be right.
“I told her not to worry about it. She’s supposed to let Mr. Bertram’s son over at the mortuary know that we’ll bring him a check Saturday afternoon before we go out to the graveside service.”
We? Why the hell am I hoping that she has a mouse in her pocket? But I know she distinctly said it, twice.
“Get your marry-bury suit and something to wear for the ride home. We’ll have to drive thru tonight so we can get there in time for her service but we can stop and spend the night somewhere Saturday if y’all want to.”
Now I’m sure she has a mouse in her pocket.
“I’m calling your brother when I hang up with you. He can help you drive. Pick me up by 7:00 underneath the portico. I’ll make my way out of the dining hall by then.”
“I know he’ll be happy to hear from you. We’ll see you in a few. Love you.”
“Love you, baby. Give Tanya a hug and tell her I’ll see her when we get back.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle under my breath as I made my way down the hall to start packing. How do you tell an eighty-five-year-old lady that you don’t want to take her to her sister’s funeral? This was the same question that I asked my wife to make sure that I hadn’t overlooked some excuse that would get me out of having to go.
“If she could ask your Daddy to do it, she would. You’ll be back by Sunday evening so it’s not like you’re going to be gone all week. Plus, didn’t you say that she was calling Joe and asking him to ride?” Tanya asked.
“Do you really think that he’s going be willing to go and ride for twelve hours without smoking a cigarette; or smoking something else for that matter? I can just go ahead and tell you that he ain’t going to want any part of that.”
Joe was a great older brother. The kind of guy you could always count on. If he said he would do something for you, he meant it. He just made sure not to offer unless he was already willing. When given the option to quit smoking to pass a drug screen or lose his job in the machine shop, he kindly looked at the screener and said, “I don’t need this kind of stress in my life,” and clocked out, handed in his time card with his resignation, and went home. A
week later, he went into business for himself. Five years later, he bought the shop he originally walked out of. Twenty-five more years and all the “happiness” his glaucoma will allow later, and I have no doubt I’ll be making this trip without him.
I had barely had a chance to get my toothbrush out of the bathroom when my phone rang.
“What the hell just happened? No, really, dude. What the hell just happened?”
“I assume Maw called you?”
“Yes she called, smart ass! I just got off the phone with her. I told her that we were swamped at the shop and that there wasn’t any way that I could get free this weekend.”
“So how did that go over?”
“She says, ‘Would you really tell your eighty-five-year-old grandmother that you won’t take her to her dead sister’s funeral?’”
I couldn’t help but laugh a little bit for having thought the same thing. “What did you say?”
“I told her that was a helluva thing to say to which she calmly replied, ‘I know.’ Then I tried to tell her that I couldn’t because I would have to stay at the shop at least until 8:00 when the late truck comes by to pick up the last pallet of parts we have going out.”
“So I guess I’m going by myself then?”
“Hell no! She told me to make sure that we picked her up not one minute after 11:00 because they’ll lock the damn doors at the assisted living facility and she’ll be stuck outside waiting on us. I’m gonna get out of here as soon as the truck comes and run by the pharmacy before they close at 9:00. I’m gonna need a refill if we’re going on a road trip. I’ll be ready by 10:30. See you then.”
Hanging up the phone, I looked over at Tanya and said, “Looks like we’re not leaving until 11:00 now. This gets better by the minute.”
“Lay down and try and get some rest while I finish packing your things. I have a feeling you’re going to need it!”
When Joe and I pulled under the portico at 10:45, there she stood. Her overnight bag was on the ground to her left just underneath the pillow she was holding in her arm. In her right hand was some type of ‘granny-tote’ that I assumed was filled with snacks, word search puzzles, packs of travel size tissue, a bottle of Jergins, and a plethora of medication.
“Put the overnight bag in the trunk. I’ll keep this small bag up here with me. It’s got my iPad and some snacks in it. I hope you have a charger back here somewhere.” “I hear ya Maw! Are we going to burn one and listen to the Black Crowes on the way?”
“Baby, you can listen to whatever you want. I brought my own headphones. I’m fixing to listen to the Gaithers and close my eyes. And I had my cataract surgery six years ago. I’m good.”
“Suit yourself. Just let me know if you change your mind.”
“How about you get yourself buckled up and let her lay down,” I said, glaring at my red- eyed copilot. “Tanya put you a blanket back there if you get chilly, Maw. Let me know if you need to stop or anything.”
“I will, darling. Make sure that Captain Chuckles up there beside you cracks a window. I didn’t pack that many snacks.”
“Yes, ma’am. Sweet dreams.”
“G’night, Maw,” Joe said as he reached into his pocket and cracked the window.
“See you in the morning.”
The sun was already coming up as we pulled into Sonny’s Stop and Save convenience store in Vicksburg. We still had about four hours left before we reached Texarkana but the car needed gas and I needed coffee. I think the late night start helped Maw to sleep through the night without being disturbed too much by Joe’s efforts to make sure I stayed awake. I thought for sure she would have woken up when we crossed the Alabama state line and Joe began to holler, “Dude, what just happened? Did we just time hop? The time on my phone just went all crazy and I swear I didn’t touch it!” I played along and said that I was sure it must be some type of government conspiracy. “I mean, c’mon. We all know jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!”
“Can I get you anything, Maw? Juice? Milk? Metamucil?” Joe asked.
“Coffee, black. Two ice cubes on top please. And see if you can find an air freshener, it smells like we hit a skunk.”
I removed the nozzle and slid the chrome lever into place as the numbers rolled back to zeros. The loud rumbling that rattled in my chest caused me to look back down the road.
Raising my head I barely made out their shape through the dust that surrounded them as a group of bikers coursed over the gravel and made their way into the parking lot. “I think I’ll have one of those coffees too. Let me run in and pay and real quick. You be ok til I come back?”
“I’ll manage,” she said as I walked towards the entrance of the little store.
Stepping inside, I walked past the cashier and made my way to the steaming pot of coffee sitting on a makeshift countertop. Joe had made his way to the back of the store and was peering over an old deli counter as two older men continued their work. One of the men was stirring sausage and rice with what looked like a boat oar in a large pot that was sitting over an open fire. The other man would dip out a potful of the mixture and put it in a casing machine and make links of what they called boudin.
“I don’t know what the hell this is supposed to be but I’ve ordered one for each of us,”
Joe said. “Do you think Maw will eat it?”
“How am I supposed to know? My guess is she eats cream of wheat every morning. Get some extra napkins just in case and I’ll go pay for the gas.”
It was when I turned back to the front of the store that I noticed the group of bikers who had walked in behind us. This wasn’t your group of weekend riders who bought expensive bikes to show off to their suburban neighbors. This was the meanest group of tattooed looking hellraisers I had ever seen. As I waited in line the thought occurred to me that two ice cubes would be just enough to keep me from blowing on this coffee and allow me to have a sip.
Maybe there was still somethings I should be learning.
Walking to the car, I could see where Maw had made her way out of the backseat to stretch her legs. She had come around to the other side of the pump and had started up a conversation with the beast of a man who was filling up the Heritage Softail he sat on. The closer I got, the more obvious his “1%” patch became.
“She’s not bothering you I hope,” I said in effort to make small talk and get her back in the car.
“She’s nothing I can’t handle. I’ve dealt with her type before. Sorry to hear about your loss. Time has a way of taking us all before we’re ready to go.”
“I used to always say that I was going to get on the back of one of these with your grandfather and see world. He passed away before we ever had the chance.”
“Then today is your lucky day, Grandma! Hop on the back and let me ride you over the bridge!”
Before I could muster a protest Maw was trying to lift her leg over the backseat to climb on. Seeing that she might not be able to make it on her own, Andy (or at least that’s what the tattoos on his knuckles said) hopped off and effortlessly lifted her onto the bike.
“Get off that damn bike before you kill yourself! What are you thinking?” I said this before I remembered the 1% patch on his vest. 99% of bikers are said to be good, God-loving people and now I could see it tattooed on his neck too. I looked away from his glaring eyes and begged her one more time. “You don’t even have a helmet!”
“I know. That’s so the wind can blow through my hair! Get your brother and I’ll see you in Louisiana.”
Joe slid back into the front seat with a beverage carrier holding two black coffees and a bag of boudin. Turning around to hand her a coffee, Joe said, “Where’s Maw?”
“Buckle up and crack your window. You’re not going to believe this shit!”
We caught up to Maw and Andy about three miles up the road, just as they were leaving Mississippi. We rode beside them, windows down, all the way across the river. The modified chrome muffler managed to drown out most of the squeals that were coming from the back of the Harley. But even the reflection of the sunrise beaming off of Andy’s bald head couldn’t shine brighter than the smile that was on her face.
Seeing my eighty-five-year-old grandmother riding on the back of Andy’s Harley on the way to her sister’s funeral taught me a lesson that I hope I can pass on to my grandkids one day. All of us have a date with death. Make sure you enjoy the trip.
I crack my window too and turn the radio up as I fall in line behind the howling motorcycle. Yes. Let’s just enjoy the ride.