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The Good Son
The dead, pretty much, have to take whatever we want to do to them "lying down," so to speak. But can you use the dead, I wondered, to make the living happy?
I hadn't ever contemplated that question until recently, and why would I? Why would anyone other than a physician, mortician, or anatomy instructor?
Guess I'd better begin at the beginning.
It was the first cold, crisp day of fall when I walked through the back door of my house and encountered my mother sitting at the kitchen table. She raised her gray head, dabbed her teary eyes with some tissue, and sighed.
I glanced out the window at the yellow leaves, which earlier in the week my wife had informed me were actually a burnished gold. The sky was a pretty blue. It was the kind of day that made most people happy--but not my mother.
"Hi, Mom," I said with forced joviality and tossed my keys onto the desk.
Rather than answer in kind, she blinked at me, then her small face crumpled like the tissue in her plump hand and she started boo-hooing in earnest.
From the hunger-inducing smell of mozzarella, beef and garlic, I suspected my wife Hannah was baking a lasagna, which didn't usually make my mother cry. It often did, however, prompt Mom to tell my wife how our family had never eaten Italian food for supper.
Maybe Hannah had borrowed one of Mom's dishes again. All hell broke loose several months ago when Hannah pulled out the electric frying pan with theintent of using it to make pork chops. You'd have thought my wife had committed murder the way my mother had carried on.
Food cooking in the oven was only adding to my confusion. School was in session. Why was my wife home before sundown and preparing a hot meal? Had someone died?
"What's wrong, Mom?"
"Why did you let me leave your father in Augusta?"
Mom's genteel Piedmont accent often lulled people into thinking she hadn't truly meant whatever hurtful thing she'd said, but I wasn't most people. I heard the veiled accusation--his being in Augusta was somehow my fault.
"Maybe because he's been dead for six years," I said. "I don't think he minds."
"Well, I don't want him there anymore. I can't drive down to see him without taking the whole day. Besides, I don't want to be in Augusta when I die. I want to be in Rutledge."
"Your plot happens to be in Augusta, Mother. In fact, you've got seven of them."
"Can't we move him?"
Hannah, who was tearing the lettuce for a salad, drew her breath in sharply. Mom's question didn't shock me. She'd been talking about moving him ever since the questions began about when Davy, my father, was going to get his tombstone.
"Daddy," I started to say, and my wife snorted.
The way I say "daddy" amuses her to no end. My wife, a Yankee I married to help the height of my gene pool, claimed "daddy" sounded like "diddy" when I said it.
I tried to ignore the snort. "Daddy didn't want to be buried in the first place, and now you want me to move him to the Rutledge Cemetery? He hated that town."
Mom stood. Her little body shook like her voice. "I don't care."
My father, a former Army officer, left the sleepy Georgia town where he'd grown to manhood as soon as he was able. He'd also provided clear instructions on what he wanted done at his death, which had come much sooner than any of us had imagined it would. A heart attack at fifty-three. He lingered in the hospital for a week.
Of course, the fact that Daddy was a drinker and smoker didn't help. Since his death, though, who he'd been and what he'd wanted and liked had morphed into a person I didn't recognize. His name changed from Davy to Ezekiel, his middle name, and he'd become a saint, a teetotaler, and a man who was kind to all animals including the deer viewing his garden as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Several family members had even attempted praying his atheistic soul into heaven.
Dad had wanted to be cremated and to have his ashes added to the soil in his garden, which had rivaled the one on the PBS show "The Victory Garden" in neatness and beauty.
He'd canned his own vegetables, and his days in the summer and spring were spent weeding and protecting his fenced domain from the bed of his white Chevy pick-up. Deer and other animals daring to trespass for a little nibble got a load of buckshot. His company during his garden-guarding vigil? A shotgun, a pack of menthol Benson & Hedges, and a tall glass of sweet tea. A screwdriver, the drink, not the tool, was actually his favorite beverage but wasn't appropriate during those after-hours guarding episodes.
Even if his remains wouldn't be in the ground, he'd wanted a monument in a cemetery, and he truly liked the plot in Augusta, which had belonged to my mother's great-grandmother and had passed down to Mom. A tall oak shaded the ground, the perfect spot, in his opinion, for a nice granite headstone that mentioned his service to his country.
When Dad died, my mother was a mess, so I couldn't count on her to follow through on his wishes. She'd always been what her family referred to as high-strung.
Since she couldn't, I voiced what he'd wanted to the family at large, and the mention of cremation made one of my elderly relative's pale skin go stark white. Her blue eyes widened like she'd seen a ghost. I was afraid she would have a heart attack, and we'd have two funerals to argue over.
My uncle quietly suggested a traditional burial, complete with displaying the dead body in the dining room of my parents' house and what we call "sitting up with the dead." I didn't sit up with Dad all night, and no one that I know did. I slept upstairs almost directly above the casket, which might be close enough. My Yankee wife was pretty shocked when I told her about that little tradition years later. I explained that I was only trying to be a good son, nephew, and grandson.
In the years since Dad's funeral, Mom had never pulled herself together (which is why she was living with me and my wife), nor could she bring herself to buy Dad's monument. I was still trying to be the good son--"trying" being the key word, because she was trying my patience to no end.
If I wasn't dreaming, Mom wanted me to move my father, a man who never wanted to be buried, to their homeplace, Rutledge, a town he hated. I had to take a stand for him. "You can't move him there."
Mom worked her lips in and out in a down-turned pout. "Why not? I don't care how much it costs."
"You know he didn't want to be buried at all, much less in Rutledge."
"That's not true." She worked her lips faster. Her eyes brimmed to full pool.
"Yes it is. Why don't we just pick out a monument? I'll come home early tomorrow afternoon and take you to the place on the highway."
She scraped her chair back from the table and fisted her small, puffy hands. "You've taken everything from me, and now you want to keep your father where I can't go see him."
My wife pulled the lasagna out of the oven and slammed it down on the stove. Her face was flushed, with anger I suspected. I knew what she was thinking. Right, being newly married we wanted nothing more than to take care of my crazy mother just so we could have all her things, such as the circa 1968 burnt-orange bedspread in the guest room and her deviled egg tray.
"Look, Mom, you can't exactly see someone who's buried, anyway."
"You're just being hateful," Mom said, now fully into the drama of her role. She'd be the first to tell you she liked to emote. With her lips pursed and the tears flowing, she stomped through the den to her bedroom and slammed the door behind her, her trademark gesture.
She'd played her trump card to perfection, accusing me, her perfect only son, of being hateful.
Now I was angry, too.
"Fine," I yelled from the other side of the door separating us. "You want to move him, we'll move him."
My wife probably thought I was as touched as my mother.
I stormed into the living room and dug through the drawers in the secretary to locate all the funeral papers. I unzipped the pouch from the mortuary that overflowed with sympathy cards Mom couldn't bring herself to throw away, and I found the phone number.
"You aren't serious, are you?" Hannah asked. She must have finished with the salad.
"He was used to moving around with the army."
"You aren't kidding."
"Nope, I'm trying to be a good son. If moving him will make my mother happy, does it really matter where his body is?"
"Correct me if I'm wrong," she said. "But didn't he make her promise not to ever bury him there?"
"It's not like he's even going to know. And if it'll get my mother to stop crying and obsessing, I win."
"I hate to tell you, Clay, but I don't think it's possible for her to stop crying and obsessing."
"Very funny," I said.
I dialed the number. What sort of message would I leave on the answering machine? You buried my father six years ago, and he's ready for a change of scenery. I had no doubt this would be expensive and involve more than one funeral home, two county governments, and a mountain of paper. But the move would be worth it if it helped Mom settle down. I listened to the recording providing the funeral home's viewing hours. The line must have been busy, so I'd been transferred to the automated service.
The beep sounded, and I said the first thing that came to mind. "I want to move my dad to a different cemetery. What do I need to do? Please call me at...."
I walked back into the kitchen, where Hannah was setting the table with our stoneware rather than Mom's off-limits dishes, and I placed the phone in its cradle.
My wife shook her head. "If your father starts haunting you, don't say I didn't warn you."