When you’re walking in with the family, the thing to do is to try to look as devastated as you possibly can, whether you knew or liked the deceased or not. Crying is good for the older girls, the miscellaneous cousins ages seventeen and up. Little girls shouldn’t cry. They don’t have to. They come down the aisle in their little white dresses with their sweet, sad little faces, and, my Lord, they look like they’re torn up over it. Then you’re torn up over it because you love them a little bit and you end up loving the deceased a little bit too. Whether you liked them or not. Little girls are effective.
I knew all of the tricks by the time I was six years old. Don’t smile. Don’t cry. Make eye contact with the widow and then the reverend. I relearned the rules at twelve and then at seventeen and now I can reach out to hold somebody’s hand, give it a squeeze—not too tight—a little smile, and quietly escort my grandmother to our seats. I never speak. And I haven’t got the hips to be one of those girls who can cry out in the name of Jesus and then faint dead away.
My grandmother is always the first to know when someone has died. Relatives, members of the Little River class of ’43, Longs, Claytons even. Anybody from anywhere in Durham, Person, or Orange County dies and Ma knows before the undertakers do. Some wobbly voiced old woman will call, ask Ma if she’s started dinner, and then, as casually as she inquired about salt pork and black-eyed peas, inform her that Baby Lee or Miss Margaret or Miss Minnie was dead. There’s usually about five more minutes of gossip, two or three more minutes talking about the wake and the repass, and then Ma ends the call. She never says goodbye. She shakes her head once, maybe twice, whispers, then yells the news to my hard of hearing grandfather, then solemnly announces it to my mother, my sister, and me. “John Parker is dead,” she’ll say, always in the same matter-of-fact tone. Another shake of the head and she’ll turn her attention back to the beans that are burning on the stove.
Death meant three things to me when I was little: itchy stockings, no fidgeting, and fried chicken after the funeral. Bojangles’ if I was lucky. I was a very lucky girl in the summertime, when the dying spells started and cycled all the way through to October. The summers always seemed to be the busiest for the undertakers, for Bojangles, for my grandmother and me.
The church was too cold at Mister Leroy’s funeral. The directors never can seem to get temperatures right. Rougemont in August is Hell in July: blinding heat and ninety-three percent humidity. The church’s air conditioner, a technological marvel, gave the sanctuary its unnatural chill. I willed my teeth not to chatter. I willed my fingers not to scratch beneath the ruffles that ringed my neck. I was seven or maybe eight, hot and cold and itching and trailing my grandmother as she ambled towards the casket. I didn’t like to look at the deceased. I still don’t. The directors never can seem to get the makeup right. Their cheeks are too pink, the foundation too yellow. Mister Leroy’s shiny, too-black hair sat crookedly atop his head. I glanced in his direction and then hurriedly sat down. The family started coming in waves after that: some stone-faced, some sniffling, some shivering and scratching like I was. The old pine floors creaked and groaned beneath their weight. The organist was half of the way through a sluggish rendition of “The Old Rugged Cross” when the first wail rang out. The ushers stood to attention. They all knew what was coming. A woman broke through the line. She headed straight for the casket, her eyes wild, her face and neck lined with tears, her cries bubbling up from somewhere beneath her anguished heart. She fell across the casket, buried her face in Mister Leroy’s neck, and pleaded with him not to go. The processional paused. The congregation watched. My grandmother eyed me, then pinched my arm. It is impolite to stare. Eventually two ushers pulled her up and walked her, half-carried her, from the sanctuary. The carnation on Mister Leroy’s lapel lay crushed. His foundation smeared. The organist played on.
Knowing how to act at a funeral, much like knowing how to act in church, is one of my grandmother’s central tenets of femininity. That one she got from her mother. The rest—knowing how to spit, shoot, and roll her own cigarettes—came from her aunt. My great aunts Mary and Ida lived in a little duplex near the center of the city. Two or three times a month Ma, my mama, my sister, and I would pile into Mama’s car and head to town for a visit. I didn’t much like these trips. Their house was small and stuffy. Smells of kerosene clashed with those of musty upholstery, Pine-Sol, and bacon grease. My sister and I were expected to entertain ourselves, to stay out of grown folks’ business, but there wasn’t much in the house to play with. We would sit in front of the black and white television, pretending to care about Jeopardy! and thumbing through Jet magazines that were decades older than Mama. Oftentimes Ma would shoo us outside but there was as little to play with there as in the house. We lived on a farm. I had acres of fields and meadows to run through, barns to play hide and seek in, cows and chickens to keep me company. Ida and Mary’s yard was tiny, more dirt and twigs than grass, ringed by cracked sidewalks and concrete.
Occasionally, usually after she’d threatened to beat us for trampling her flowers, Mary would offer to take us for ice cream. Ida wasn’t one for going anywhere that wasn’t work, church, or Winn Dixie so she stayed behind. She’d slip my sister and me a few dollars, entreating us to get extra chocolate on our cones and to bring back a cup of rum raisin for her. The other five of us would walk to a nearby ice cream shop, Ma and Mary gossiping all the way. The heels of Mary’s sensible shoes pattered on the ground as she walked. Her hips swayed the tiniest bit, arthritis keeping them from switching too much. “That girl was built from the floor up,” my great uncle Chief had said of her once when he thought no children were in earshot. The women on my grandmother’s side of the family were pretty. Even Ma was pretty, even when you took that sour look on her face into account. Mary, though, was fine. Everybody knew it. Or at least they knew that she had been fine when she was young. There was a picture of her on the mantel in their living room: Mary looking past the camera, her eyes twinkling, a half of a smile on her glossy red lips. I could picture that Mary turning down my uncle, somebody’s future granddaddy, half the men in Durham County, and then running off to smoke and dance with her friends. I looked at this Mary, her tan leather shoes, the flowery house dress, the silver and black of her hair. I couldn’t see it.
At the ice cream shop, we took our cups and cones and crammed into a small booth by the window. Mary kept on gossiping. She told one cousin’s business and then two more, smiling and teasing Ma and threatening my sister and me between spoonfuls of butter pecan. Her eyes twinkled.
A week later, after Miss Tammy’s funeral, Mary stood in her sensible heels and her flowery funeral dress and looked sad for a respectable amount of time. She caught the eye of one of the undertakers and smiled at him until he turned away. She looked at Ma pointedly and rolled her eyes. A half of a smile played at her lips. She walked towards us, hips swaying the tiniest bit. Ma smiled the way she never smiled, the way she only smiled around Mary. There were mischief and secrets encoded in the looks that they gave each other. I never could decipher them.
They said that Jesse suffocated. I couldn’t get my head around that. Had an accident while he was cleaning the bathroom, they said, but it didn’t seem to make sense. I pictured him tall and strong, bushy eyebrows and sleepy eyes, sort of handsome but looking too much like his daddy, too much like his mama for me to appreciate it. I pictured him face down on the tile floor, canisters of Lysol and bottles of bleach beside his body. “You have to be careful mixing that stuff,” I’d overheard Ma tell cousin Roslyn. I avoided Clorox for weeks.
The sanctuary was crowded, as they always are when someone young and handsome dies. We were church family, not actual family, so my sister, Ma, my mama, and I squeezed into a pew towards the back of the church. We sat, we sweated, we tried to cool ourselves with paper fans. We waited. Mama fidgeted beside me. I’d heard the stories. Something about how Jesse could have been something else to her once. Before she ran off and met some boy that Ma couldn’t stand. I pictured her: too young to be married, carrying a baby with big eyes like hers that were sleepy like Jesse’s that looked nothing at all like mine.
The family arrived eventually. Reverend Smith called out the forty-sixth psalm as he toddled down the aisle. Jesse’s widow and daughter followed behind him. The girl wore white with ruffles and bows, her hair tied into two thick plaits. She eyed the crowd warily, looked less sad than surprised, seemed confused when she reached her father’s casket. I pictured her as she usually was: running her mouth and passing notes in children’s choir rehearsal. I pictured her as she was on the morning that he died. I tried to picture her as she found his body on the floor. I tried to picture her but I couldn’t see her face. My sister scribbled a note on the back of the obituary and handed it to me, broke my concentration. We passed messages between us and played tic-tac-toe until Ma caught my wrist between her nails and pressed down hard. I fidgeted. I scanned the room. Looked at the casket covered in wilting flowers, looked at Jesse’s mama, at my mama, at his wife. His daughter scanned the room. Looked at the reverend sweating through his robes, looked at her mama, at her grandmama, at me. I looked away.
Ma kept her good eye on us every Sunday. Told us to sit still but we never did. Told us not to misbehave but we always would. My sister and I shuffled down the aisle, ducked into pews, rolled our eyes at Ma once she turned her back. She’d threatened us, as usual, then smile sweetly at the usher, direct us to be good and to be quiet. She wasn’t like the other ladies, all perfumed and saintly. She wasn’t like the other grandmothers, not the ones at church or those on TV. I’d seen grandmothers in sitcoms wearing pearls and laughing brightly, making sassy comments to the audience’s delight. I saw grandmothers in commercials with silver hair and gentle smiles. They’d embrace their grandchildren and music would start to play. Ma has hugged me once that I can remember. What comes to mind more readily are her footfalls on the stairs on school mornings, the shock of frigid air on my skin as she ripped my blankets away. Burnt bacon and bickering for breakfast. I see her storming out the front door in springtime to pick switches from the crepe myrtle in the yard. I see myself sitting on the floor on Saturday nights, holding my ear as she hot-combed my hair. Listening to the same stories she’d told a hundred times before. Sitting stock-still and knowing I’d still get burned. And knowing that sometimes, only sometimes, she’d pat my head when she finished. Then shoo me to bed so we wouldn’t be late for church the next morning.
There isn’t much to keep a child occupied at a funeral but then there isn’t much to keep them occupied at regular church either. Sunday school hardly counts. It was easy to get bored of the same five bible stories told two different ways: the way that’s supposed to make you terrified of going to hell and the way young teachers tell them when they’re trying to make scriptures seem cool. My sister and I and the rest of the children’s choir reprobates kept ourselves busy by passing notes, playing word games, and whispering behind the organist’s back. Muttered jokes about a parishioner’s crooked wig or the first lady’s bleached mustache set off peals of laughter half-disguised as coughing fits. The organist was nearly deaf and didn’t notice. My grandmother sat too far away and couldn’t reprimand us.
Miss Irene is a deaconess, a member of the senior choir, and my grandmother’s sometimes-friend. Theirs is a relationship by default: the kind that develops between two people who have attended the same schools and the same church, worked the same jobs, and run in the same social groups for decades. Their pleasantries are peppered with the kind of cutting comments that only little old church ladies are able to make. Irene is a war hawk, a firm believer in “spare the rod and spoil the child,” and was only too happy to inform my grandmother each time my sister and I misbehaved. Still, her glowers from the senior choir stand did little to deter us from our notes and hushed laughter.
Cousin Mildred died in springtime just after the dogwoods bloomed. It was a lovely service in a beautiful old church on the east end of town. Roses spilled across her casket. Lilies flanked either side. The sky was blue. The air was sweet. It was almost perfect but then there was the choir.
There are three kinds of singers in every church choir. There are the ones who can actually sing, whose voices shake the walls, who make you cry or catch the Holy Ghost unexpectedly. There are the ones who cannot sing or maybe they’re just alright. They know their limitations. They play tambourine. But the ones who cannot sing but who are absolutely convinced that they can are the truest delight. They are loudest. They are showiest. They are blessings.
The choir that sang at Cousin Mildred’s funeral was mostly filled with older men who could almost sing. They swayed gently as the pianist played. They were led by a remarkable vocalist: a man whose falsetto rang through the sanctuary, who sounded something like Barry Gibb if he was choking on a caramel. I held my peace through “Amazing Grace.” I looked at my sister halfway through “Going Up to Meet Him” and caught the twinkle in her eye and the curl of her lip. We couldn’t help ourselves after that. We started giggling each time he started singing. Our titters turned to guffaws when he attempted Mariah-Carey-style runs. We kept our heads down, tried to hide our tear-lined faces behind the obituary and cover our laughs with coughs and harrumphs. Our only saving grace was that Ma, Mildred’s closest cousin, sat one row away. My mother glanced at us, then the singer, and smiled just a little. Miss Irene glared at us. She knew.
Miss Melba, the sweetest of Ma’s sometimes-friends, approached my mother during the repass. “I didn’t know that the girls were so close to Mildred,” she said. “They were so torn up I couldn’t stand it.” Her eyes filled again with tears. She smiled at us, handed us pieces of strawberry candy. My mother said nothing. Miss Irene scowled at us from a distance.
My granduncle Clarence could sing. He was a big man. Tall and broad in his youth and then larger, bigger bellied after the years and the cakes and fried chicken caught up to him. The apples of his cheeks were oversized and had been that way his whole life. They flushed and his teeth gleamed when he smiled. He laughed and everything shook—shoulders, chin, belly—likening him to some kind of country Santa Claus. His voice fit him perfectly. It was as warm and heavy as the quilts that covered the beds in winter. You could wrap a whole congregation up in it. It would seep through the walls of the church on Sunday. Each note—rich and resonant and wondrous—wandered clear across the road and halfway down. He drowned out the rest of the choir. It couldn’t be helped. Our church was small. When he sang there was no room for anybody else. He could been somebody, Mama said, if somebody important had heard him singing. But nobody gets discovered in the middle of a tobacco field. Least of all someone big and Black and three missed pay stubs away from being poor.
The church felt smaller, much quieter, in the months leading up to Clarence’s death. What killed him was the same thing that killed nearly everyone else who was big and Black in our little town: diabetes, high blood pressure. A car accident and the broken hip that came with it just hastened things along. He’d been at our house before it happened, visiting Ma as he always did. Teasing her as he always did. She watched him leave, she always did, always said goodbye, always stood in the yard and watched him drive away. Then she headed into the house, put a chicken in the oven, got dinner ready. The call came a little while after that.
Things were ok for a while. Doctors said he was stable. Deacons put him on the prayer list. Ma visited the hospital every day and dragged my sister and me along with her on weekends. He looked ok for a while. Sweaty and uncomfortable but he still laughed, still teased, still acted like himself. Weeks passed. Ma kept going to the hospital. I kept waiting for her to say that Clarence was going home. I half expected to see his truck, long since junked and sold for scrap metal, pulling into our driveway. Clarence stayed in his bed, covered in thin white sheets and gray blankets. A little weight came off right after the first surgery, a little more after the infection, a little more every week. They printed his name in the church program, added him to the Sick and Shut-In List. Someone else in the senior choir took over his solos. The choir raised their voices together in song but sounded tinny thanks to the scratchy microphones. They never did get the timbre right.
Sometimes people just know things. Some people have visions, prophetic dreams, insight. Some people just have common sense. Ma got that phone call, the first one about the accident, and knew, just knew, that her brother would die. Even though he was okay. Even though the whole church prayed for him. Clarence stayed in the hospital and grew smaller and smaller. Ma visited the hospital and watched him get smaller, watched her family get smaller, and waited and smiled and knew. There was another call at Christmastime. She hardly had to pick up the phone.
Ma was the first to know when Aunt Mary died. I don’t know who called or what they said. All I remember is my grandmother crumpling in my mother’s embrace. I had never seen them hug like that. I remember her strangled sobs and shuddering breaths. I had never seen her cry like that. I sat frozen in place in front of the television staring at them and feeling that I had intruded upon something that I wasn’t supposed to see.
Mary’s funeral was fine. The undertakers did well enough. We sat near the front and watched an adequate choir perform satisfactory renditions of popular funeral hymns. There were criers but no screamers, no fainters, no jumpers. The eulogy was perfectly dignified. Ma sat silent and stared at the casket. I sat silent alongside her.
After the service, after the interment, after two helpings of fried chicken and three casseroles, I wandered into our yard looking for something else to do. I found Ma sitting beneath a tree with bagged tobacco in her lap, a lit cigarette between her lips. I had never seen her smoke before. She looked at me and said nothing. I sat beside her and said nothing. She smoked. I spat. Benediction.