She was dead. Ninety-six years and one week from the day she entered this world, she left it. Silently, peacefully, in her sleep, without so much as a clenched fist, she let go of life and slipped away. I didn't know her first name and couldn't remember ever saying anything more than hello to her when we met. Still, here I stood, among a swarm of strangers I would probably never see again unless another funeral drew us to the same place. I was here for Mark, my husband. The funeral was for Mark's granny. Yes, that was it. Granny, everyone called her Granny. Not her given name, I thought, but the one she probably answered to most of her life.
Mark looked so handsome in his navy-blue suit. The last time it was out of a closest was on our wedding day, a few months before. Good for weddings, funerals and Sunday-go-to-meetin', I thought. A nasty chuckle rose in the back of my throat and threatened to spill out. I swallowed and straightened my shoulders.
"Who are all these people?" I asked.
"Oh, some are cousins. Some are just old friends."
"But, so many?"
"Can't pay any attention to that. They come from all over. They don't have to be family, just a friend of a friend," said Mark.
"You mean they turn it into a social?"
I read disapproval in the long look he gave me. My arm, so comfortably linked through his, now belonged only to me, and he moved a step away.
"They do things differently here's all. Just don't you make fun of them."
His warning was clear, and I said no more. Still, I couldn't turn my thoughts from how savage I found the whole process. Before long all the greetings and stories and laughter would die away, and the funeral rite would begin. Mothers, sons, brothers, daughters, forced to stand on display as surely as the body resting in the coffin lay on display. I would have to be part of the reception line, and I was not looking forward to the idea. Soon the worthy guests would file past, shake our hands, embrace us, and wait expectantly to hear a voice crack or see a reddened eye. I guessed that I would deprive them of that pleasure and wondered if they would be disappointed.
Actually, I was feeling a little guilty, now. After all, the poor woman was my husband's grandmother. Mark displayed no open sign of grief, but he had been unusually quiet since we heard that she was dead. I could cope as long as we were at home, but the silence started to wear thin during the long ride into the Kentucky hills. Perhaps because we were only newly-weds, the comfortable feeling of shared experiences and the easy grace which comes from trust had not fully developed between us. Neither of us seemed able to let the other see inside.
I watched Mark out of the corner of my eye. He was such a strong man, always perfectly at ease. In fact, his strength first drew me to him. No situation found him out of control. He seldom lost his temper, and he had an enduring quality that made me feel safe. But even more appealing than his strength was his sensitivity. Instinctively, I knew he would never intentionally hurt anyone.
My mother-in-law, Sarah, appeared through the crowd, and again I felt a chuckle begin to rise as I watched this tiny, immaculate woman struggling to find an open path through the array of men in over-alls, women in mini-skirts with beehive hairdos reminiscent of the seventies, and teenagers moving to the sounds coming from headsets implanted in their freshly, scrubbed ears. A gaggle of children, all of whom seemed to have runny noses, whizzed around Sarah just as she cleared the mass and nearly knocked her down. By the time she reached us, I had managed to recover from the desire to laugh out loud. I have never liked a public show of affection, but I accepted her hug with my usual tolerance.
"The funeral director wants to speak to all of the pallbearers. Road up to the cemetery's out, so we're gonna have to walk up the hill," she said.
"You be all right?" Mark asked.
I nodded and he moved away.
"What do you mean, the road is out?" I said.
"Oh, you know. With all the rain and snow, it's just too muddy to get up there in a car. Come in here and see the sweet, little babies."
She took my arm and began leading me toward another room.
"How far do we have to walk?" I was thinking about my new shoes.
"Where? Oh, the cemetery. I guess 'bout a quarter mile or so. It sits up on top of a hill. They're over this way."
"A quarter of a mile in this weather? It's so cold out there."
"I know, real bad day for a funeral. The funeral director said the gravediggers had to haul all their stuff up their on a mule this mornin'."
"What stuff? Don't they have a digger or whatever you call it, a backhoe or something like that?"
"I s'pose they could bring one in, but these two fella's are out of work. It's a good way for them to make some money. Besides, a big, old backhoe would make ruts in that mushy ground that would be there from now on. I never knowed them to use nothing like that around here anyways. Wait till you see 'em. They're real cute, all in white satin and lace, and they're laid-out in the tiniest little casket you ever saw."
We had reached the doorway. I grabbed the facing and pulled away from her abruptly. I could see into the room now. Shabby gray carpet covered the floor, and the walls were equally dingy. The only light came from a small lamp that rested on a rickety-looking table near a platform on the far side of the room. The bulb cast a weary glow, and in the dim light, a young girl, I guessed to be about sixteen, knelt on the floor beside the platform. Her bare legs were scratched and splotchy looking. She pulled at the skirt of her faded, print dress trying to cover them and shivered. A young man, a boy really, stood nearby wringing his hands as if he would rather be anywhere else in the world. On the platform above the girl was indeed the tiniest coffin I had ever seen.
"I'm not going in there," I said. "I don't want to look at dead babies."
"But they're real sweet. Little twins, just four months old."
I pulled farther away from Sarah and turned away from the room so that I could not see the pain-etched expression on the girl's face.
"They aren't sweet, Sarah. They're dead, and I don't want to look at them."
"That's all right, honey girl," she said. "You don't have to look at 'em."
The next hour was interminable. Mark's sister arrived with her husband and small son. She introduced me to all of Granny's surviving children, none of whom seemed to be the least concerned that their mother was lying in the next room dead. Instead, they chattered and laughed and complained about the weather. Finally, visitation ended, and we piled into our cars and began the fifteen-mile ride, Granny in the lead, to the church. Our numbers had decreased significantly. Now, only a handful of cars remained. I wasn't sure where the others had gone, but part of me wished that I could disappear as easily as they had.
The church was a cement block building, flat-roofed, unpainted, and in need of repair. No steps led up to the doorway which was about two feet above ground level. Instead, a cement block sat below the threshold. When I stepped up it rocked on the uneven ground, and I grabbed the doorframe to avoid falling. The inside was even worse. The pews were nothing more than long planks supported by more cement blocks. They sagged in the middle, and the edges were rough with splinters of loose wood. In the corner was a bucket, placed strategically to catch the drips from a leaking roof. There was no raised dais for Granny's coffin; it rested on the floor, squeezed close to the front pew in order to leave enough room for the minister to stand behind it.
We had picked up another of the bereaved somewhere along the way. He was dressed in a red and black checked lumber jacket, blue jeans, and knee-high work boots. His hands were rough and chapped, and his fingernails were long and jagged with a build up of grease under the edge and around the cuticle that no amount of scrubbing would ever remove.
My plan was to slip quietly into the church and sit somewhere in the back, but it was not to be. The immediate family sat in the reserved pew, right in front. I sat down on one end but, before long, as more and more immediate piled onto the sagging plank, I found myself squeezed into the center and eye to eye with Granny. As if on command, the assembled grew quiet, and the minister came forward.
The man who took his place at the front of the church near the coffin was Lumber Jacket himself.
The service began with a summary of Granny's long, fruitful life. Lumber Jacket sang her praises and told of her faith in God and her familial sacrifices. I was beginning to slip into a false sense of security when, suddenly, Lumber Jacket slammed his hand down on the closed end of the coffin. I glanced at Granny, fully expecting her to sit up.
"There are many sinners here today. You'll see the fires of Hell. Don't let it happen to you, Brothers and Sisters. Throw the devil out of your life. Go forward to God while you got the time. He's a waitin'. Ask for forgiveness. Be like our sister here," said Lumber Jacket, and his big hand banged the coffin again. "She's found her reward."
I have always believed that it is better to remember people in life than to look upon them in death when the spirit, the essence of being, is gone. I cannot understand what ghoulish fancy draws one to say a last farewell to a corpse by stroking a cold hand or gazing intently at a mask which was once the face of a living person. Nevertheless, as the service ended, I prepared to take my place in line with everyone else for the final viewing.
I had managed to get through the service without the security of my husband beside me. Mark was sitting with the other pallbearers. They would process past the body first and then return to their seats until the rest of us had cleared the church. All was going well. No one was pausing longer than I thought was acceptable. Finally, it was time for the immediate family to take a turn.
I didn't really see why I needed to stand and look into the coffin since Granny and I had been close enough throughout the entire service to share many whispered confidences had she been so inclined. However, I realized now was not the time to balk. I rose and followed the rest of the family. I had reached the door and freedom when I heard a loud crash behind me. I turned to see what had happened. One of Granny's daughters had fainted and fallen into the coffin. I saw that several people were rushing to revive her and, since my services would not be required, I jumped quietly from the threshold to the ground, seized by a fit of coughing.
"You catchin' a cold, little lady?"
It was Lumber Jacket.
Before we reached the road leading to the cemetery, the number of dedicated mourners grew fewer once again. But that was understandable since not everyone was fortunate enough to have a husband acting as pallbearer. I gathered my coat tightly around me to lock out the bone-chilling November wind and walked cheerfully along. With each step I took, the tops of my shoes slipped beneath the sticky mud of the road and came away with a disgusting sucking sound. At one point, I thought I saw a bit of sunlight slip through the clouds, but when I felt the first raindrops touch my cheek, I realized it was only a mirage.
We followed the narrow road around a bend and then began to climb a hill. We paused periodically and waited while the pallbearers struggled for a better grip on the slippery handles of the coffin. Finally, some twenty minutes later, we rounded a final curve and were within sight of the cemetery.
The gravediggers huddled under a piece of canvas, beside a mound of earth, waiting to finish their job. When the rest of us gathered around, Lumber Jacket, whose apparel did not seem quite so ridiculous to me after trudging up a mountain of mud, conducted a brief but tasteful prayer. I bowed my head dutifully and looked into a grave half-filled with water.
Lumber Jacket concluded the prayer, and the funeral director addressed the assembled concerning the condition of the grave. There was indeed a problem. The part-time gravediggers had not brought along buckets should the need arise for bailing. However, Lumber Jacket was quick to salvage the situation by dispatching his son down the hill to their car. The boy must have run all the way, because fifteen minutes later, he came puffing back into our midst, clutching two Maxwell House Coffee cans.
Good to the last drop, I thought, and cleared my throat repeatedly.
The gravediggers worked diligently, but it was soon apparent that their labors did nothing to lower the level of water in the grave. I noticed that the rain had almost stopped and was a bit puzzled about where all the water was coming from until, suddenly, I realized that it was not rain which filled the grave but water from an underground spring. No amount of bailing would ever make a dry resting place for Granny.
"You folks might as well go on back down the hill," said the funeral director. "We can take care of things up here. This is gonna take longer than I thought, and you people are all wet from the rain. It's too cold to be standin' out here like this."
There was a sigh of relief from the shivering bereaved, and we turned to trudge back down the hill. Mark took my arm, and we walked around the curve, losing sight of the little cemetery. A few minutes later, I heard a loud splash, as though something heavy had fallen into water.
"You wouldn't know it now, but that hill is beautiful in spring. Wildflowers grow all over the place," Mark said. "When I was a kid, I roamed all over these hills. It's real quiet, peaceful. Sometimes you can walk for miles and never see a soul. Just the birds and the sky and, once in a while, some farty little squirrel comes chattering by to let you know you're too close to his stash. There's a bunch of caves over that way 'bout five miles." He pointed toward the woods. "Those arrowheads we've got at home came from there. Used to be lots of 'em. I suppose they're all cleaned out now."
I turned and looked at him, really looked at him, I think for the first time that day or maybe the first time ever.
About the author:
Margaret Damele Elam, a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has spent the past seventeen years teaching. Today she writes full time. First place winner of the Greer-Hepburn and Malcom Sedam awards for fiction, she has most recently been published in IdeaGems and is hard at work on a novel, entitled Daughter of Ascalla. http://www.wolfetales.com