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The Morgan Hill cemetery was right behind the church, so you can imagine how convenient funerals were at that time. After a message by the preacher, we would simply walk out the back door and say good-bye to the poor dead soul in the casket. On a day of rain, we'd have the funeral service in the church and leave the casket there until the rain let up; at that time the undertakers would come back and bury it. But an eleven o'clock wedding was scheduled on the day we buried Daddy, and apparently the bride did not want his casket up front with her as she exchanged vows with her beloved.
Never in the history of the Morgan Hill Baptist Church had it ever been double booked. The funeral was scheduled for ten o'clock but the rain kept folks in their homes. It was close to ten-thirty when the first mourners arrived, and the bride and her mother had already beautified our tiny building by hanging construction paper bells and hearts at the front of the church. A big red banner that read "Naomi and Cal Forever" was draped over the preaching podiumnice for a wedding, but not exactly proper send-off decorations for a dead man. A handful of mourners sloshed their way into the church. Poor Naomi was beside herself.
"Mama, there is a dead man layin' here at the altar!" she sobbed. "He is goin' to ruin my weddin'!" Naomi's mother patted and cooed and soothed the best she knew how and greeted the smattering of early wedding guests that trickled through the door with a big, toothy smile as she corralled them to the back pews until further notice.
It was decided we would have to hold the service in the cemetery, but everyone wanted to wait till the rain slowed down to just a drizzle. So to stall for time we sang a few of the hymns that were sung at everybody's funeral. First we sang "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." The rain kept coming. Naomi kept wailing. Then we sang "Shall We Gather at the River," and, by the sight of the water now standing in the cemetery, it seemed we would indeed be gathering at the river very soon. We waited and waited and sang and sang, and the longer we waited and the louder we sang, the more nervous Naomi and her mother became.
We all made a mad dash to the gravesite, praying that the leaves on the trees would somehow keep us dry. They didn't. We stood like drowned rats huddled around a four-by-seven hole trying to act sad as water soaked clear through to our underpants. Our preacher for the past thirty years had retired, so Mama asked Pete Fletcher if he'd conduct Daddy's funeral. Pete wasn't a preacher, he was a farmer and mechanic, and I thought he'd come close to passing out at the thought of sending a dead man to his earthly resting place. Pete tried his best to talk about hope in the resurrection of Christ and being with Daddy again in heaven someday, but to be honest we were all too waterlogged to listen. Four men lowered the casket, the grave straps soggy and slippery in their hands, causing the box to slip and bang, then fall to the bottom with a wet thud. Not one of Morgan Hill's most touching funerals, but certainly one of the most memorable.
Mama made my seven-year-old brother, John, and me ride with Aunt Dora back to our house. She was Daddy's only sister and drove all the way from Cleveland, Ohio, for the funeral. Dora was thirty and had fat knees, thick ankles, and
a bad case of being hopelessly single. When a single man, regardless of age or lack of teeth, was anywhere near, she wrapped her fat, sausage arms around John's neck pretending to be the consummate mothering type. John said he couldn't wait for her to go back to "Ohi" as soon as possible. But if we hadn't ridden with Aunt Dora, I wouldn't have the memory of Milo's little black face in the back of that beat-up truck etched in my mind today.
We lived in a tiny white farmhouse where mama had been born. It had two bedrooms and a porch that wrapped around two sides of it. The front of the house faced the railroad tracks, which didn't make any sense because unless you were walking along the tracks or riding on the train, no one ever saw the front of the house. Our main entrance was off the kitchen at the back of the house, which faced the driveway. I was three years old when we moved in. I don't remember where we lived before that, but Mama always said it wasn't fit for a mean-tailed dog. I put on some dry clothes while the adults scrambled and fussed and flew around the kitchen, spreading out enough food to feed all of us, plus Naomi and Cal's wedding reception guests. I fixed a plate and snuck out to the porch with John following behind. One night two years earlier, after Daddy threw Mama into a wall, John became convinced the bogeyman was in our house, under his bed to be exact. I checked under his bed every night. When John learned to talk he had a stammer. He'd get caught on a word and sound like a tractor engine starting in winter. "B-b-b-b-but," he'd sputter. As he got older the stuttering faded but I always knew when he was afraid because words came hard for him then. If it was just Mama, John, and me at the house he could talk fine, but if Daddy came home it would take John forever to spit something out. Since Daddy died John hadn't stammered one time.
John didn't change out of his wet clothes and that galled Mama to no end. "John Charles. Don't you have enough gumption to get out of them wet clothes?" I never knew if it was really a lack of gumption that bothered Mama, or if it was the fact that John had mannerisms that reminded her of Daddy. Whatever the reason she was determined to give him an extra dose.
"They don't bother me, Mama. They ain't that wet."
"The water's running down your legs and squishing out between your toes," she said, pointing to the foot-shaped wet spot on the porch.
John slapped his foot to make another soggy print. "I know. I like it!" Mama rolled her eyes, mumbling something about John not having the gumption God gave a bump on a log, and walked back into the house. Since we'd heard the gumption speech a hundred times before, we dove into our plates and ate like pigs. We watched the rain pour off the front of the porch, stuck our feet under the waterfall that was flowing off the overhang, and never once mentioned Daddynot that we didn't want to; we just didn't know what to say. Sadness for his passing never occurred to us.
Daddy worked as a carpenter (although you'd be hard-pressed to actually find someone who saw as much as a hammer in his hand) and his work took him out of town for weeks at a time. He would often go into Knoxville with Beef and a couple of the boys for work, but somewhere between Knoxville and home the money would be all but gone. Whatever money he hadn't guzzled or gambled was given to Mama. She'd learned years earlier not to badger him for it because that only made him angry. He was scrawny but he was fast and could lay her out cold with one quick, hard whack with the back of his hand. Mama knew not to fight with him. When he'd hand over what little cash he had left, she'd just take it from him real easy and then sneak away and hide it in a coffee can she kept buried in the backyard.
They married on May 6, 1937, the same day the Hindenburg exploded. Mama would say years later that their marriage "was as doomed as that gigantic blimp." I arrived nine months later to very little, if any, fanfare. (By that time Mama knew what she'd gotten herself into and adding another life to a home shared with Daddy wasn't exactly a reason for celebration.) When Mama was young she was smart, funny, and pretty with long chestnut hair, blue eyes, a fine-drawn face, and China doll skin. She walked to school every morning with her best friend, Margaret, and a boy named Joe Cannon. Margaret used to tease my mother that Joe was sweet on her but if that was true Joe never did anything about it. He was too shy and backward to do anything more than walk to and from school with her. As people in the community would always say, nobody ever knew "how pretty Francine Parker ever ended up with Lonnie Gable." Even then, my daddy was a cocky, scrawny, know-it-all who appeared to be on the fast track to nowhere.
Mama had lost her own mother six years earlier so who knows, maybe if her mother had been around she wouldn't have been craving the attention Daddy gave her and run off with him after graduation. But Mama was never one for getting into a mess and then looking to somebody else to get her out of it. I think she probably hoped Daddy would just leave on one of his "jobs" and never come home, but that never happened. I think she saw his death as freedom from a whole lot of trouble.
John and I stayed quiet on the porch and gobbled down lemon pie, chocolate pie, and German chocolate cake like survivors of a POW camp, but if anybody came out on the porch we'd bring the food to our mouths, look real sad, and sigh. Every now and then Mama peaked her head out the door and we looked up at her with pitiful hound-dog eyes. "Jane, are you and John getting enough to eat?" We nodded our heads, glancing at our plates that looked as if they'd been picked over by vultures. It seemed a pathetic act but if it brought her some sort of peace to think that we were indeed sad in spirit over Daddy's passing then we'd play along.
Aunt Dora popped her fat face out the door above Mama's and said, "Your daddy's with the angels." We nodded again and looked somber as she and Mama closed the screen door behind them.
Henry didn't pretend though. Henry Walker had three grown children, fine tufts of hair at the top of his balding head that blew in the wind like the feathers of a baby bird, and a heart bigger than anybody I'd ever known. He'd tell John and me the greatest stories we'd ever heard. Our favorite was of the Three Musketeers. We never knew if he was making most of the story up, but we always believed that we were two of the three musketeers saving women and children from peril.
"I'm gonna write a book someday," I would tell Henry. "And you'll be in it."
"Make sure you tell people how good looking I am," he would always say.
Mama didn't like me to talk about it. "There's work to do, Jane," she'd say. "You can't work while you're dreaming." I learned to keep my book ideas for Henry since he was my best friend.
Henry never said things like "Jane, your daddy sure did love you" or "Jane, you were the apple in your daddy's eye" as so many other people did. He walked onto the porch, gave me one of his great big bear hugsone that made me feel like I was being squeezed by Heaven itself, and said, "Hey, Pretty Girl." He always called me Pretty Girl although that was far from accurate. I could see myself in the mirror; I knew what I looked likeI was as plain as my name. I had thin, uneven, short brown hair from the haircuts that Mama gave me, ears that stuck out like wing nuts, and freckles across my nose. I was common and ungraceful, a far cry from pretty, but somehow when Henry called me Pretty Girl I believed him.
"We saw them coloreds that moved to town," I said.
"They got 'em a scrawny little colored boy no older than me," John said. "He's got great big eyes and a pitiful, hound-dog face."
"He don't look like that no how," I said. "What're they doing out at the Cannons', Henry?"
"Helping put out their tobacco."
"What do colored folk eat?" John said. He always could ask the dumbest questions.
"They eat what we eat," Henry said.
"What do they smell like?"
"What kind of fool question is that?" I said. "They smell like people!"
"Aunt Dora says they're gonna shake things up," John said. "How they gonna shake things up, Henry?" That was a legitimate question.
"I don't know," Henry said. But I could tell by the way he looked at us that Henry did know what Aunt Dora meant. He just didn't want to talk about it. He put his arm around my shoulder. "I sure am sorry you lost your father, Jane."
For the first time all day I realized that maybe I should be sad. Not that my daddy had died, but that I'd never really had one in the first place. When I looked at Henry I realized he knew all about my daddy, even things that I didn't know. It struck me that somebody who walked on this earth for twenty-eight years wasn't even missed in death . . . not even by his own family.
Copyright © 2006 by Donna VanLiere. All rights reserved.