Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Funerals

My sister sent me a picture of a gravestone.  
This isn't some macabre hobby of hers.  She's working on our family tree.  She went online to find out where our grandfather on our mother's side of the family was buried.  She found a photo of a headstone that had "Hannibal M. Wilson" and "Isolene Wilson" on it.  She wanted to know if it was the right one.  
I think it is.  Hannibal Metcalf Wilson was the name of our maternal grandfather.  "Pops" we used to call him.  Isolene, who I've written about in this blog before, was the name of his sister, our great-aunt.  I didn't know they were buried together.  For various reasons I missed her funeral.  
I've missed several funerals, in fact.  I don't like going to them.  Funerals are like going to visit a friend and finding out they've moved away, never to come back again.    
The first funeral I ever went to was for my maternal grandmother.  Kathleen Wilson.  We called her, "Mumma."  I was eleven or twelve at the time.  She died suddenly, of a heart attack.  I remember the night Mom and Dad gathered us up in the car.  I was sitting in the back seat, in the middle between my brother and sister.  There was a moment after Mom and Dad got in the car when they looked at each other.  Dad reached across to grab Mom and give her a fierce hug and kiss.  They took us to Grandpa and Grandma's house (Dad's parents) and then went to the hospital.
The funeral was creepy.  Mom lead us inside, me, my brother and sister all dressed up, and found a seat near the back.  She then took my hand and took me up the aisle.  I kept staring at the casket straight ahead of us.  I'd seen them in movies before and knew what it was.  This was the first time I'd seen a real one, with someone I knew inside it.  
My first impression of Mumma was that she looked angry.  Mumma never looked angry.  Even when she scolded us for doing something we weren't supposed to she looked more disappointed than angry.  Afterwards she'd give us something to eat.  
"Her hair is wrong," Mom said, clucking her tongue.  She was right.  It was one of the things they'd argued about at the arrangements meeting.
"How did she keep her hair?"  The funeral director looked up at us from his notepad.  
"She wore it in a bun."  One of my aunts said I think.  
"Not a bun..."  Someone else, another aunt maybe, raised her hands toward the back of her head.  "It was gathered up, it was.  Back here."  
"It was a bun.  Near the top of her head."  
"Not really a bun..."  
"A pompadour, perhaps?"  The funeral director was trying to be helpful.  
"A bun."  Someone nodded her head decisively.  
The funeral director nodded and wrote something down on his notepad.  
They got it wrong.  The tight ball of head perched on her head like a tiny crown wasn't how she wore her hair.  Mumma's hair was a softly bunched up bundle near the back of her neck.  It would fall down clear to her waist when she undid it and combed it out for bed.  
It was then I noticed my Mom was touching her.
I watched in disbelief as Mom reached out and touched her hand.  I looked back over my shoulder to see if she was going to get in trouble over it.  When I looked back she was bending forward to give Mumma's body a kiss on the cheek.  
"Oh..."  Mom looked down at her hand.  Shifting forward to give Mumma a kiss, her hand had moved to Mumma's forearm.  "She's still soft.  Right here.  That means that means she'll come back to take someone with her."
I shuddered.  
"Here..."  Mom lifted my hand up toward the corpse.  "Feel."  
I pulled my hand from hers.  "I don't want to touch it!"  
Mom grabbed me and pulled me close.  She bent over to put her face close to mine.  She looked as angry as Mumma did in her casket. 
"It's not an 'it'!  It's your grandmother!"  She was hissing at me.
"No, it's not," I thought back.  Everything about the figure in the casket was wrong.  The angry look on her face.  Her hair.  The way she was dressed.  It looked like Mumma, but it wasn't.  And if 'it' was going to come back for someone, I just hoped it wasn't me.  
But Mom was mad, and saying anything was only going to make her madder.  I closed my mouth and nodded back at her.  
"Now, kiss your Mumma good-bye."  
I swallowed and shook my head.  My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me back to our seats.
I didn't go to any funeral for a long time after that.  My uncle Howard, my dad's brother, died of brain cancer a few years later.  I refused to go to the service.  My uncle Howard had been a vital, active man.  He'd played football on a scholarship.  He lifted weights.  He had been a policeman.  We used to hang on his outstretched arms like monkeys, my cousins and I, and swing back and forth while he held us aloft.  His illness had already transformed him to someone different.  I didn't want to see him like that again.  
The second funeral I ever went to was Mom's dad.  Pops. 
It was in 1991.  I had moved in with Pops for a bit after a moving from the apartment I had shared with a college friend.  Where Mumma was soft and round and comforting, Pop was short, bald, brusque and hot-tempered.
I remember one time having to pull him back when he lunged at a policeman who wouldn't let him watch a domestic violence dispute in one of the apartments he owned.  
"What you mean, I can't watch?  This is MY property!"  Like a bulldog on a leash, he barked at the Pasadena policeman, whose hand, I noticed, had dropped to the handle of his gun.  
"I got him!  I got him!"  I caught the policeman's eyes and willed him to take a step back.  When my psychic powers worked for once, I pulled Pop back from the door.  "Pops...  Let 'em do their jobs."  
"This is my property."  He tried to shrug me off.  I held on and he didn't try to get into the apartment again. 
I learned a lot about Pops while living with him, though.  When he found out that I'd lost my job while I was renting one of his apartments he came and told me to not worry about the rent until I got another one.  At night, sitting with him on his front porch, he'd talk to me about his life: working at St. George Quay in Belize as a teenager, collecting postage stamps while working on the Panama Canal (it was the safest way to save one's money, buying postage stamps), mining for gold in the desert when he came to America, working two jobs plus building the apartments behind his house in Pasadena, the same house my parents were living in when I was born.  
His lungs failed him in the end.  A legacy of his years working for a company that made refrigeration units.  When he started getting sick, and people suggested that he sue the company to at least cover his hospital bills, he dismissed the idea out of hand.  
"They gave me work when I needed it.  They gave me money for what I did for them.  Not going to do that, no."  He shook his head, his jowls shaking with determination.  The matter was settled.  
I wasn't looking forward to Pops' funeral.  I still remembered the fear, the strangeness of Mumma's.  But I older then, a thirty year old man.  And I felt a necessity to be there.  Not just because he was my grandfather, who I loved.  But because he had helped me when I needed it.  And he'd given me a tremendous insight on my family, and by extension who I was.  
I entered from the side.  Pop's casket was there to my right.  I found a seat in the front row.  I was one of the first people there.  I could see his body, just above the lip of the casket.  I took a breath, braced myself, got to my feet and walked over.  
Just like Mumma, Pop looked angry.  But since he always kinda looked angry while alive, that was actually a comfort.  I noticed his lips were slightly parted.  I could see something like fishing line inside his mouth, running up and down to keep his mouth closed. 
I thought, "So...  Even dead, they've got to sew your lips shut to keep you from complaining, huh?"  And it was here that I felt something like relief.  As with my Mumma, I knew that this wasn't Pops.  Pops was gone and this was something he left behind.  But unlike Mumma, who died when I was a child, Pops had wrung every drop of life he could out of the time he had.  It wasn't always good.  It didn't always work out.  But it was as close to the way he wanted it to be as he could get.  
I took his hand.  It was cool.  It was rough from years of hard work.  I bent over his head.  "Good job, Pop," I whispered.  I kissed the top of his forehead.  
I suddenly felt self-conscious.  I took my seat.  I watched the people coming in, filling the room.  Cousins I hadn't seen in years.  Cousins I never met before.  Strangers I forgot about moments after being introduced to them.  
One last thing happened.  It was at the cemetery.  After the gravesite service was over, while they were lowering the casket into the ground, my cousin David and I were walking down the slop toward the narrow road where the hearse was parked.  As two of the many cousins that had lived at Pop and Mumma's house, we shared stories of that experience.  
At the bottom of the slope, something suddenly came to me.  I stopped.  I started to look around.  
"What's up?" David asked me.  
"Mumma."  He shook his head at me.  "I just remembered...  I think...  I'm pretty sure that this is the same cemetery she's buried at."  
"Really?"  He started looking around too.  "You know where?"  
I opened my mouth to tell him I didn't, and that maybe we could check at the front gate to see if they had a directory or something.  But then I closed my mouth and looked down at my feet.  
We were standing on her grave marker.  It was right there, my toes just touching the edge of the metal plate.  I jumped back.  David followed my gaze.  We both looked up at each other.  Eyes wide, not saying a thing.  
Though I've thought about it a number of times, and my sister's photo has me thinking about it again, I've not gone back to visit their graves, Mumma's and Pop's.  
And that's because they're not there.  Their bodies have long decayed.  I'm not sure about where souls are stored once the bodies using them have stopped working.  
If they are anywhere, they are in my memories.  The smell of Mumma's kitchen, rice and beans covered in ketchup that I could eat by the bowlful.  Pop complaining on his front porch about all he saw wrong in the world.  Uncle Howard playing street hockey on the back patio and getting a huge welt on his ankle from my brother's slap shot.  All of that lives in me.  Surprising me at oddly miraculous moments, like when you find yourself standing on your grandmother's grave.
You can keep your funerals.  I'm going to do what I can to miss mine.  


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