IThose next few days happened without any participation at all from me. Most people were generally coming and going without seeing me or pretending not to. A smorgasbord of covered dishes took up every flat surface in the our kitchen. There was so much food from which to choose yet no one was eating. Cars were parked everywhere around the farm; when one would leave, three others jockeyed for the vacated spot. When food wasn’t being brought into the house, alcohol was being slipped in behind it. There were more people going behind the house than coming into it, little wonder since we lived in a dry county, (no liquor sales), and alcohol was almost as hard to come by as a paycheck. Music blaring from various car radios reverberate against the heavy, moisture laden spring air. It all felt so disrespectful somehow. The actions of those adults, seemed to say to me, “Somebody die? Let’s have a Party!” I couldn’t believe that what was happening there on the farm was what a ”wake” was meant to be. As I wandered back and forth, trying to find a quiet spot in which to think about Mother, people would press money into my hand. Five, ten and twenty dollar bills. I wanted so desperately to throw it back at them and demand they give me back mother instead. Why did they think that food, music or money would clear Mother from my thoughts? I tried several time to tell people how I felt but more often than not, it only produced another five, a pat on the head or murmurs of, “that poor child”, trailing behind them as they fled from me. In those moments, I despised them all.
While weaving in and out between parked cars, still looking for an unoccupied spot, I saw sitting beneath one of the two huge Sycamore trees framing our house, my three sisters. They were surrounded by a throng of people, male and females ready to lend an ear, run and fetch a drink or produce a tissue when tears threatened. But hadn’t I loss my mother too, “where were the shoes to click to my clack? Where was the voice to answer mine back? I felt all alone in the world.” I wanted to tell someone what it felt like watching mother die while she crushed my hands with super-human strength. I wanted to ask someone if they thought she was trying to impart something to me or just trying to hold onto the only thing available and familiar in those final moments? I needed to ask anyone, if they thought my mother was in pain during those last minutes because it sure looked as if she was to me, or was it her body’s natural reaction to a swiftly, catastrophic depletion of oxygen. I wanted to know if the nurse had somehow made Mother look as if she was smiling for my benefit or had Mother’s smile been eternally set upon her face because she had caught a glimpse of Heaven and of God’s welcoming arms? But most urgently, I needed to know when the nightmares would stop? I really needed and wanted someone to just hold me or offer a pocket to put my hand into. Where was Chinee?
I didn’t know where Chinee was. I wanted to believe that he was nearby but I hadn’t remembered seeing him during those days which led up to funeral. Wherever he was, I knew he was hurting even more than me, because although difficult to believe, they were even closer than he and I. The concern I held for Chinee’s well-being temporarily displaced my own self-centered pain, because I knew he would never openly reveal his pain to anyone, where then would he go, to find a willing, sympathetic and knowing ear? My tears and pain were somewhat abated when finally I found someone who didn’t mind sitting with me, who didn’t try to press money into my palms, whose breath was not soured by cheap liquor, who didn’t think a pat on the head was a sufficient substitute for a hug , he welcomed me when I curled up next to him on the steps of our back porch and at the moment when I’d reached the pinnacle of misery, unable any longer to keep silent the voice of my pain, he allowed his own keen whining to unashamedly match my own…so grateful was I for my little dog Henry.
The funeral had been planned for the 7th. A Sunday, four days after mother died. It’s odd how my mind has always played with numbers; Mother was born in the fifth month; she also died in the fifth month in room number 7 and was being buried on the 7th and in 7 days from then, I would spend my first Mother’s Day without my mother. Fives and Sevens…I’m reasonably certain that my still compulsive number trackings, which began the day my Mother died, must have a medical or psychological term but as I look back I must simply attribute it to, once again, finding a way to hold onto sanity.
It was Friday before the funeral and finally someone noticed me, sort of. As everyone was rushing about, laying out, ironing and pulling together their coordinating outfits for the funeral, I heard my much older cousin Jo, ordering someone to go and grab the outfit which I was to wear. She had offered to freshen it up with the now vacated iron and ironing board. The house had been chaotic for days with people coming and going and so many more coming and staying that a constant low level buzz had been created, not unlike the sound emanating from a large beehive, even so, all sound ceased immediately after Cousin Jo spoke that one seemingly innocuous request. Someone remembered that I existed and what a stir that memory caused! It had been agreed upon that Mother would be buried in her Eastern Star, Course of Corinthians, Ceremonial white dress. It had also been decided, by whom I wasn’t privy, that her daughters would also wear white and Chinee would wear a black suit with a white buttoned down shirt and black tie. These were the items along with an array of hats, gloves, shoes, purses and tasteful jewelry which were being pressed, steamed and matched with mind-numbing monotony. It was then that it occurred to everyone almost at once, that no one had given much thought as to what I would wear. Although everyone, I supposed from snippets I’d overheard afterwards, assumed that I would wear my Easter dress from little more than a month ago however, no one had asked if I had an Easter dress from little more than a month ago, I didn’t. Mother had been too ill to go shopping for a dress for me so, after putting on what I thought to be my grownup face, I determined to put Mother at ease by declaring that I neither needed or wanted a new dress. She had smiled knowingly, caressed my cheek and thanked me for being so understanding and wise beyond my years; she promised to make it up to me when she felt better, she never did…feel better.
The problem I had created by having the audacity to not have a suitable outfit to wear to Mother’s funeral was unforgivable, if the look etched on the faces in that room was of any measure. “Well there’s nothing to do”, someone declared, “except to go and find something for her to wear”. It was near 10 a.m. Friday morning and I was quietly rejoicing that I was at least for the time being, the center of attention, but something deep within me warned against showing any joy at this turn of events, especially when I heard someone murmur, “those girls have enough on their minds without having to go shopping for her”. HER? Wasn’t…I..one…of…those…girls…too?
(There was no grouping of nouns, verbs, adverbs or adjectives which could have made me feel less important or more distant from my family than those just uttered).
My three sisters, Cousin Jo and I piled into an available car and drove first to the closest town, Newton, about 15 miles away to the south. It was thought that since we were in the midst of Spring with the promise of summer approaching, it would a simple matter to find a simple white dress. Newton was fresh out. We then headed for Jasper, approximately 16 mile northwest of Newton. We were sure this twice as large city would have at least several choices from which to choose. It didn’t. If I had any joy remaining from being the center of attention, it disappeared somewhere between the trip in and out of Jasper’s last department store and I had actually began to wish to be forgotten again, swiftly. With no other shops within fifty miles, it was determined that we’d return home and sift through my things to see if something could be thrown together. Now, I was crestfallen, not only would I not appear as part of a white clad grieving family unit, I was being relegated to a poor relation of the white clad family unit; someone to be thrown together then thrown aside. Oh well, at least I’d gotten my wish; I was no longer the center of attention.
Cousin Jo, older than Mother by at least 3 years, saw through my thin veneer of bravery and announced that I would be accompanying her on the sixty miles trip back to her Beaumont home that evening and there, we’d go shopping for a dress on Saturday. My second eldest sister demurred that this was too much trouble and wasn’t necessary. Gratefully, Cousin Jo placed her hand on her wide hips, tilted her head to one side and with a
blistering gaze aimed unswervingly at that same sister, declared that she was not asking permission and thus clearly ended the conversation. (Beaumont, during this time, was second only to Houston as for as a shopping venue, in closer proximity to our home and being so, all concerns of finding an appropriate white dress in my size was allayed and I could be soon forgotten, again. It’s difficult to imagine that the entire retail populous of East Texas could pull off such a detailed conspiracy in a mere thirty six hour span, but it did, clearly it did).
After going in and out of so many shops and trying on untold numbers of too long, too short, too mature and too frilly dresses, it was I who finally surrendered and begged to quit. My plea was hardly necessary since we had exhausted all options. Walking back to the car, Cousin Jo remembered that her youngest daughter had an as yet unworn, new suit which would fit me perfectly, it did; and that it would surely be the perfect outfit for the funeral tomorrow, it wasn’t. Though very tasteful and the most grown-up outfit I’d ever worn, it wasn’t white by a long shot; not even in the white family, well not all of it anyway. It was a three piece olive green suit with matching skirt and jacket, cream piping and a cream tank top. I was too tired to care and decided that it made no difference anyway. It would not bring mother back. But there was something about that suit which my mind strained to capture a memory, but it couldn’t quite catch. Whatever it was brought with it a shiver of fear and I gladly set it aside.
Sadly, Sunday morning arrived and I had been dressed, coifed and threatened with bodily harm by second eldest, that if one spot appeared on the borrowed outfit, if a hair on my head was move out of place or even if the tiniest run appeared in the nylons which searched for a place to cling to my pencil thin legs. No one, she warned me, had time to put me back together if I became careless and so thoughtless as to undo myself. I declined breakfast, fearful of a drip of jelly, or a dropped forkful of egg, only to be harangued by my other sisters who were telling me to eat because it would be hours before the opportunity presented itself again; (Nothing doing), I chose instead to sit in a chair on the front porch and to continue looking for Chinee in the horde of people who kept suddenly appearing from no place. I’d had no interaction with Chinee since we had arrived home from the hospital on Wednesday, although I continued to sense him nearby. I found out much later that Chinee was going through the most intensely emotional and painful time of his life. I was only too well aware of his and mother’s deep affection for each other so I could only surmise how much he needed me and how I, steeped in my own despair, had failed him. I vowed a childishly resolute pledge that I would never again let him down in his hour of need no matter what he may ask of me. Years later I would come to lament this unspoken vow, but I never willingly broke it.
The family’s limousine arrived from the mortuary and all my sisters, a few of my Mother’s friends and Chinee all climbed solemnly inside. I stood there waiting for my turn to enter but I was moved aside and the door was closed by one of the attendants. (I guess he couldn’t tell that I was part of the family, since I wasn’t wearing white). Just as I finished forming that thought, the door opened suddenly and I heard someone (a family friend/distant relative) from inside say, “Aw now, she can ride with Roscoe, close the door”. Chinee said, “she’ll ride in here with us or we’ll damn well all walk!” He leaned out, his grabbed me by my arm and pulled me inside. We drove the nineteen miles to Jasper in relative silence to accompany the hearse which would carry my Mother back to Shankleville’s Mount Hope Missionary Baptist Church, with me riding in the only comfortable seat in that limousine, Chinee’s lap.
Chinee and I were separated when we arrived at the church and though I had been permitted to ride in the limo albeit reluctantly, I would not be allowed to sit with my family. The front row bench to the left of the church had been reserved for the most immediate family members, or should I say the adult immediately family members and the necessary minions appointed to hug, hold, fan and comfort my sisters and brother. I had been banished to a bench three rows back and forced to sit with an aunt-in-law, who admittedly disliked my mother and obviously cared just bit less for all but one of Mother’s children, I wasn’t the One. Throughout the service I strained my neck to peer into the casket which held my Mother. Back then, the casket was routinely kept open throughout the service. Family members and friends were allowed to approach the casket to bid their final farewells at the end of the service. I was afraid that since I was not on the front row I would not be given an opportunity to take a last look at my mother.
Each of my searching strains were answered by a vicious, twisting and violent pinch, apparently gleefully administered by my aunt, all while being told to sit still. There were tears streaming from the eyes of my sibling but none of theirs tears were tinged with the physical pain that accompanied mine. I longed for both my brother and my mother.
Somehow the memorial service ended and my bruised arm and I found ourselves standing next to Mother’s casket. She looked just as she had when last I’d seen her at the hospital; the little smile still on her face brought a small, a very small measure of comfort to me. Too soon, we were all ushered back into the various automobiles and ordered to follow the hearse. At the gravesite, once again, there was seating only for four. I stood across from my siblings with the yawning grave separating us. I stood at the very periphery of that gaping, anticipating aperture which was to be Mother’s final earthly resting place.
I heard the minister reading the verses leading to interment and it wasn’t that I was purposely trying to ignore what he was saying but there was a sound coming from the grave, a gurgling! I dared a quick look around to see if any one else had picked up on the sound. But, I must have moved too quickly because my movement was met with another blood-clotting pinch by that same Aunt, from where in Hell had she come? As Minister Lockett exhorted us to take to heart the passage of which he was about to read, something niggled at my consciousness and as he began to recite the Scripture’s chapter and verse, the gurgling, bubbling sound grew louder and became a crescendo of thunder ushering in an unwanted, uninvited dream I did not want to remember. “Children”, said Minister Lockett, “Christ has left us a road of which if we follow we will find not only Him at the end of it but our love ones as well”. “Your mother hasn’t left you no more than Christ has left us”. “He went to prepare a place for us and your Mother is now occupying her place in God’s kingdom and she will be waiting for you when God calls your name…St. John 14th Chapter…”, it was then in that moment that I lost the ability to breathe. The forgotten dream came flooding back to me, filling me with unexplained yet experienced dread. I recalled crying in that dream because I didn’t have a white dress. I remembered mother lying in a white casket wearing a white dress. I remembered a grave dug above an underground spring, filling slowly, slowly, slowly with water…I remembered… …nothing else because gratefully my brain turned off the switch that kept me upright and supposedly I went down, muddying the borrowed outfit, sending every strand of hair on my head astray and snagging the new nylons as I went. Although it was later blamed on my ill-fated decision not to eat breakfast, I knew better and so would have Mother, if she was not already seated around God’s throne.