My Father died in the early 1980’s when he was about 54 years old. Technically, the cause of death was cancer. I always told people that, after more than 30 years with my Mother, I strongly suspected he really just really wanted some peace and quiet.
See, my Mother truly believed in “till death do you part.” She even had some questions for our Pastor about if, perhaps, the marriage bonds extended into the afterlife. I could never figure out if she was concerned with avoiding the effort of finding a new husband in Heaven or just trying to hang on to my Father forever. Literally.
In any event, it was a long, painful illness. I found out he was sick when I came home from college for Spring Break my Junior year and my Mother had left a note. She didn’t want to “bother” me at School, so she left a note they were in Winston-Salem for my Father’s cancer surgery. I’ve never quite figured that one out….
He came through surgery and was in remission for several years. Then it came back with a vengeance. He did fight gallantly to the end. But I don’t want to talk about that…at least not yet.
In any event, he was in the Baptist Medical Center at Bowman Grey Hospital in Winston-Salem and I was staying in Danville to work and keep up the home front. They were there for weeks. Truthfully, the “Death Watch” was just never my thing.
My sister called me, when the end, was obviously very near, to relay a message from my Mother. She said:
Daddy’s dying. It’s for sure this time. Mother wants us to get ready. She wants us to all wear all Black to the funeral. Like the Kennedy’s.
See, my Mother had been mistaken once for Jacqueline Kennedy, by some obviously senile woman, when she and my Father were staying at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach in the mid 1960’s. She dined out on that story for years and never got over that moment…
I made a mental note to wear my dove grey pinstripe suit.
Daddy did pass and the funeral drama began.
No one, outside the South, has any idea of what Southern funerals are like here. Appearances must be kept up, dignity must be maintained at all costs, everyone must be received using the best of everything and secrets come tumbling out of the closet. This is how the newly departed immediately becomes a Saint. It’s part of the fast-pass process.
The first major issue we had to deal with was the Family Plot was full. Of Rushes. My Father’s family who never quite took to my Mother. Her family plot was in the Mill Village Cemetary and she did not want to spend eternity in a place she had worked so hard to get out of…She decided a new plot was in order.
Off we went to the cemetery. In the pouring down rain. A deluge. My Mother still insisted we all be dressed up in case we “ran into anyone”. So, she my sister and my Mother’s older sister, my Aunt Goldie, were wearing suits or dresses, full jewelry and makeup and 4 to 6 inch heals. To tramp through the grass and mud to look at potential spots for Eternal Rest.
I had not been so wet since I was a Paperboy and I never delivered papers in a Hart, Schafner and Marx suit and Florsheim shoes.
Of course, my Mother was in her element. Several men with Golf Umbrellas paying her total attention and trying to “protect” her while the rest of us slug through the mud on our own.
She had many, specific requirements. She wanted a big plot with lots of room. My Mother always bought twice as much as she needed of everything. Including Cemetery Plots.
She pointedly said to me:
“Maybe one day you and your wife will want to join us.”
I pointedly replied
“I seriously doubt that-on many levels.”
The first place we looked was at the bottom of a hill. She thought that was too damp. Not the best real estate to show in the rain…
The next place we looked at, she asked:
What direction would we be facing? I want to be sure we are facing East so we will be the first ones caught up in the rapture and see Jesus when he comes.
My Aunt and I both muttered “Jesus Christ” under our breaths. The Cemetery Man told her he thought these plots faced North. She said that would never do and wanted to look at other available properties.
The next one we looked at, again in the pouring rain, seemed acceptable. Then she asked:
Who are the neighbors?
Meaning who was buried nearby. She wanted to be sure she wasn’t with the riff-raff.
My imminently practical Aunt Goldie finally said:
Dammit Lou, you will be dead, who the hell cares? Buy the damn plot and let’s get out of the rain.
Any wonder why I am a firm believer in Cremation?
The Main Event took place at North Main Baptist Church, which was the largest Church on our side of town. My Mother and Father were Founding Members and it had grown to be quite the space.
She thought the Funeral Home would not be big enough to hold the crowd. She was right.
Of course this being An Event, she had to make an entrance. I had to escort her in and down the aisle on my arm to the front row. For the record, she wore an all black suit, and a pill-box hat with a chin length black veil. And the Opera length pearls -before 6:00 p.m.-which I knew was not done and horrified me. But I let her get away with it since they were one of her 25th Wedding Anniversary presents from my Father. My sister wore a simple black dress. I wore the dove grey pin stripe suit.
The funeral itself was a blur. I was grateful so many of my friends came back for it.
Then there was a long reception at our house with everyone sharing stories about my Father. He had his faults, but he was quite a guy with a great sense of humor. She seemed to always miss that part of his personality. He was too smart for her room.
Anyway, eventually, everyone left but the equivalent of the “Steel Magnolias.” Her friends from girlhood. The ex-cheerleaders. Many of whom, at 50-ish, were already widows.
I wonder if anyone has ever done a study on the life expectancy of the husbands of Cheerleaders from the late 1940’s- early 1950’s? I think the results would be startling.
I didn’t quite know what to do until one of my Mother’s friends came into the kitchen, where I was hand washing the silver, to take charge of the situation.
She was the Senior Widow, whose husband had died of a massive heart attack when she was only in her late 30’s.
Her husband had been my Father’s best friend. He had been in Japan with my Father, just after World War II. We had visited them, repeatedly, in Richmond, when we were children. I remembered him, the raw shock of his death to my parents and us leaving for Richmond right away.
I still have a faded newspaper clipping of them all together at at dance from the Social Pages of our local paper in the late 1940’s/ early 1950’s. I found it in my Granny Susie’s-my Fathers Mother’s- scrapbooks.
I remembered her very well.
She was, however, more “in charge” than I remembered her being…
I know Lou likes to pretend she doesn’t drink, but I also knew your father. Where’s the bourbon? I know it’s here somewhere so just tell me where it is and save us all the trouble of looking for it. My guess is she hid it under the kitchen sink as soon as she got home from the Hospital.
She was right. An almost new half-gallon of Virginia Gentleman, appropriate to the occasion, was stashed under the kitchen sink where she hoped the Baptist Church Ladies wouldn’t find it. I readily gave up the goods.
Her friend said:
I’m sure there is somewhere you would rather be to find your comfort in your own way. Get out of here and don’t worry about coming home tonight. We’ll be fine…
I went off to see an older gentleman who I was, mistakenly, spending entirely too much time with, but who did have a generous bar.
Before I left, I did look into the dining room one more time.
They were all sitting there. The Belles of 1950 from Schoolfield, Virginia. With their pumps kicked off and their feet up on the chairs. Ashtrays ready. And a half-gallon of Virginia Gentlemen smack in the middle of the dining room table. Each with a glass in their hands.
I knew they would be just fine…