Saturday, April 8, 2017

This Appalachia, this Kentucky, is not the rest of the world. (FREE STORY.)

A country funeral
-- "adopted" family.


    This is a little piece of the hills I love.
It's not really a story, more of a journal entry,
a memory noted down in detail.
It's a tale, yes, of a single aspect of our Appalachian,
if you will so label it, lives here,
and the way we're all so much like people from other places ... and the way we're infinitely different


    It's hot today, but raining periodically, thunderstorms rumbling in and out of the neighborhood.

    The reason for this is that I wanted to tell you all a little something about my little corner of the world before I take off for No Internet Connection Land, and this seemed to be the best, most vivid and recent option. I hope to post it before the storms swing back into this direction, and from there... well, I'm back to packing up the last bits.

    Weather permitting, we'll haul some stuff in and set it up tonight. By the truckload if we can (only two wheel drive), and by the much smaller Jeep load if we can't. I still need more clean, strong boxes, too, and will have to get some this evening.

    Yesterday was also busy....

    Ronnie took the entire day off from work yesterday; he was designated as honorary pall bearer for a funeral. He'd have been a pall bearer, but the family was unable to find him in time to get it into the newspaper in time. Our telephone number is unlisted, our cell phones are prepaid. He was upset about the way the arrangements had to work out, and a little confused, but also very heartbroken.

    Many years ago, Ronnie lived with a local family. They not only took him in and kept a roof over his head and food for him, but they also took him into their family completely. Not on paper, not in any computer, but in a place that matters far more: in their hearts. Monroe and Darleen treated Ronnie like their own children of the flesh, making room for a fourth with no discrimination between them.

    As in most families, there was a certain amount of "sibling" conflict, and in the end, to keep the peace, Ronnie left the family and moved back in with his maternal grandmother. She was happy to have him, as was his grandfather.

    I have been lucky enough to know all of these people from Ronnie's past. Of them, only my Ronnie, Darleen (who has fought various forms of cancer for many years now) and her three blood children remain alive. Ronnie's grandfather died first, eaten alive by cancer. His grandmother died many years later, several years ago, the 'Old Timer's disease' combined with arthritis, a worn-out heart, and numerous other problems associated with old age. Monroe (pronounced "MON-roe") died on Monday, of cancer he hadn't fought for more than a few months.

    We didn't sleep well the night before, which is normal for us. But that we both were tired when we got up was unusual. Ronnie usually hits the floor in full charge, all steam ahead and damn the torpedos! I, ahem, am far more ... decorous (limpy, drabbled in leftover sleep, and more than a shade grumpy prior to strong coffee). I checked the forecast on the radio, and was surprised to hear that the long-awaited rains had been taken out of the listings for the day. Odd. The humidity was heavy enough to float your hat on, and the tree leaves were all turned upside down on the water-trees across the driveway, each leaf quivering independently with the changes in the atmosphere.

    When the fog burned off, the day turned seriously hot. By 10:00 am, it was already in the mid-80s F., and the humidity was if anything stronger. Yet the sun was brassy-hot in the sky, the sky itself faded from a pleasant blue to a washy white.

    The funeral was at 11:00 am, in a small-town chapel in Clay City, a neighboring town in the same county we live in. We went in a shade late -- the ceremonies had already begun -- so we snuck down the hallway of the old converted house and into a seat in the back of the family section, as we'd been instructed to do. Several smiles met us along the way, some faces that we knew, some that we didn't. More than one face was surprised to see us there at all, as we were of them in turn.

    As usual in such a place, the folding seats had cushions that were as hard as the wood itself, and would have done the Spanish Inquisition for torture instruments. The whole place was done up in an insipid, slightly off-key shade of fleshy pink, even the carpet. Every curtain at the numerous windows was drawn tight shut, the bright daylight filtered through this sickly rose and promptly gave me a headache, something I almost never get. Every incandescent lightbulb in the place was lit, obviously by someone who had the inclinations of an anemic Anne Rice vampire.

    Honestly, I don't like pink. It's a personal thing. I think the headache was the pressure of a sheer desire to get up and paint the place a nice soothing blue-gray or something, just to get rid of the wide pinkish pinstripes and fluttery flower patterned wallpaper. Some of the local florists had tried to combat the sickly color by sending large, bright yellow and white flowers. The effect was worse than ever.

    There were three preachers. I was in hell.

    After a bit, I dropped into a meditative state, getting rid of the headache, the pukey pink decor, and the droning voices crying out in loud enthusiasm periodically. "PRAISE the LORD!" The occasional bout of music, not live as many of these occasions bring out, poured crackling from inadequate speakers thankfully located in the hallway we'd come in through, and thus was less than direct in damage to my ears. Ronnie curled an arm around me, and I eased over against his side. He patted my shoulder, more to comfort himself than to comfort me, though I'm sure he knew I wasn't comfortable with things.

    Through this meditative filter, I was able to listen objectively to the men who spoke (no women at all spoke) about the deceased. They told little stories about Monroe's skill as a carpenter, his joy in helping friends, his unspoken kindnesses, and his unflagging spirit.

    They spoke of his sneaky, harmless sense of humor and the pranks he loved to play on those he cared most about. One man, a brother-in-law told of a mule that Monroe worked for a long time, a mule belonging to a good neighbor.

    It seems that Darleen had noticed that Monroe would sometimes ride the mule home for 'dinner' (lunch), and sometimes Monroe would arrive on foot, leading the mule instead. So she asked him about it one day. He told her, "Well, you know when I go back out after dinner, and bend one o' them ears of that mule down?" She hadn't seen him do this, but nodded, thinking she'd only missed something. "I ask that mule if I can ride. Sometimes he'll let me, sometimes he won't." So after he ate lunch that day, and every day thereafter while he worked the mule, he would go out and bend down one of those long, expressive ears, and pretend to whisper into it, then listen for a reply. After that, as often as not, he rode the mule away. The rest of the time, he led it.

    Monroe had let the brother-in-law, also a good friend, into the secret joke. The punchline of this was that Darleen had never caught on to the gag.

    The hard-working mule was a "telegrapher" -- he would tell on himself by certain repeated actions if he was in a mood to act up and misbehave. In this case, the mule communicated his displeasure by lowering both ears. If those ears went down, Monroe stayed safely on the ground. The mule would work in harness, but not tolerate being ridden on those days.

    This story brought every person in the funeral home to a smile, and most of us to outright laughter. There was, in the crowd, an accumulation of horse and mule enthusiasts that outnumbered the others by a huge margin. Every one of us in the majority got the joke, because we'd all been in his place: most horses or mules have a tell-tale like that. My old Bess was a classic, which was why I could ride her when I was only sixten, when grown men couldn't stay on her for any amount of time. This story brought kinship, it brought understanding of the person, Monroe, who was gone from this life.

    After an hour of laughter and tears, of hearing countless "PRAISE the LORD!" outbreaks, and of pink miseries, the funeral broke up and the mourners were allowed to view the deceased for one last time.

    "He looks good."

    "They did a good job on him, didn't they?"

    "Ay, Gods. I'm a-gonna miss him."

    "He was a good soul, and a good carpenter. Why, he built my barn! Did I ever tell you...."

    "Bless you, sister. Bless you, child. He's watching you, and he knows your love is dear."

    The smell of flowers in the close place, with the air conditioning laboring to catch up with the day, was overpowering. Ronnie patted Monroe's hand one last time, I had a look (and said my piece under my breath so as not to offend anyone with my own beliefs). We dodged through the throng on the wide, long porch to a location light on colognes and perfumes and body heat. Ronnie hopped off the edge of the porch after a while to go see Darleen and her (adult) children for a few minutes. I stood my ground on sore feet -- not having a good day with the pain -- and watched the crowd for signs of the pall bearers carrying the coffin.

    Children romped in the small yard, parents and grandparents of every description chasing after them while all wore their Sunday best. There were more smiles and tears all around. I felt like an outside observer, leaning on a porch post alone, wondering at the unique combinations of interaction.

    When the pall bearers came out, loud wails also split the air. My headache hit apex, and I quickly shut it down again. The humidity was more pressing than any personal preferences, and contributed a lot to my discomfort. I wasn't the only one in distress; I saw many people fade off the edges of the crowd immediately.

    When the vehicles (all kinds, from beat-up old farm trucks and SUVs to a glossy BMW and both a new and a Classic Corvette) were all lined up to the funeral director's satisfaction, the procession began. All through town they took Monroe on his last ride, swinging onto a main side road just inside the other edge of the town's limits. We rolled slowly along, looking down on Red River, where wild cane grew in blotches among other tall weeds. Houses on the other side of the stream had beautiful, rich gardens all along the way. The soil is strong where the river feeds the land. A patch of dried thistle stalks stood tall, strung out on a narrow steep bank alongside the road for most of a mile. I saw birds take flight after a hawk who had intruded on their territory.

    Ronnie wiped the sweat from his face, letting the open windows do the work of our long-forgotten (to recharge) air conditioning system in the Jeep Cherokee. He too was watching the land along the road. A rock bluff on our left, the river on the right. The road lay just above flood level, a main artery to the next county.

    Just a couple of miles out, the procession of mourners turned into a hidden driveway entrance surrounded by weeds and neighbored by cluttery little houses perched on what passes for high ground along that stretch. Every vehicle, regardless of make and model, drove along the gravel road and through a cowpasture. Where the creek crossing had to be made, we all lurched across a water-fissured slab of solid stone, splashing the water flowing over it into little fountains, rooster-tails of sunlit liquid spraying and squirting up to sparkle and fall back, passing along on its way to the distant sea.

    The graveyard, when we arrived, sat perched on a little knoll, a brief island that the floodwaters probably never touch. It wasn't much to look at; the whole area enclosed by the woven wire farm fencing was smaller than what an average sized brick veneer ranch house would occupy.

    Every low-slung car in front of us was searching for a place to park, and I indicated to Ronnie that he take our Jeep up on the bank beside the road proper, nosing it into the fence near the gate. He concurred with my assessment: not too far to walk, and it would let others have better places to park cars that had their limits in efficiency.

    We got out and stepped carefully around the Jeep, dress shoes not being the weapon of choice for combatting fresh cow pies. Someone had already stepped in one, I pointed out the slick smear to Ronnie and he grinned. We swung wide and arrived at the open gate with clean footwear. Others weren't so lucky -- or careful. Several people took time to stop at the gate post to prop up and check their shoes, then some wandered away from the crowd into the thicker grass, hoping to wipe away some of the evidence on the pasture itself.

    Dresses. Jeans. Suits. Jewelry. Tattooes. Hats, caps. Bib overalls. All clean, all respectful, all quiet. It was a swirl of hot faces, hot tears, hot sun, and it all centered on one green canvas canopy over a neatly dug hole, covered with plywood and a piece of green indoor-outdoor carpet. One large metal box, tightly sealed.

    In a short while, the service was over. All goodbyes had been said ceremoniously, and the mass of mourners began to talk in little clumps, some of the family carrying away a rose from the spray atop the coffin for a souvenir of love and memories.

    Darleen came to Ronnie like a moth to flame, patting him on the arm, hugging him, teasing him about her "poor" cooking and how he was the "only-est one who ever liked it!" Ronnie gave her a hug and responded in kind.

    After the hugging session, Darleen reared back and looked at Ronnie with suddenly ancient eyes. "Do you think he'd have been proud of me, Ronnie? This is the first funeral I ever sat the whole way through. Sick or not. Whether I loved the person or not -- family, friends, all of them. I went, said my piece of goodbye, and left. Not this time." She swallowed hard. "This time, I wanted to be here through it all. I'd... I'd follered him for so long, I reckon I just wanted to foller him as far as I could go right now."

    There were no tears in her eyes, only in her voice, so I made the offering for her. One of her grandchildren hugged me tight, patted Darleen on the shoulder and let me walk away alone. Ronnie followed me after a while.

    "Why'd you do that?" He asked curiously.

    "Because she couldn't. Not now, not this soon."

    "She will."

    "But not right now. She can't. She's the strong one for all of them." I indicated the family and extended family all bunched up once again around the coffin. "So I did it for her. I just know how I'd feel if it was me in her place."

    He fell silent, thinking. There was no more conversation as we dodged back among the cow pies to the Jeep. It was hot, the sun seeming to hold back all the cool for fear that it would rain on a solemn occasion.

    We'd been asked to come to the house and eat, as is our custom in this region. When we got there, we were taken in, both of us, with complete acceptance and affection, as if Ronnie had never left them and I had been there all along. Heaps of food awaited us, but my appetite had fled with the heat.

    Monroe's tiny little Chihuahua dog, a pet he'd bought for his beloved wife Darleen but ended up being claimed by himself, took up with Ronnie and I, begging for food from our plates, which she got. Poor little thing, she wandered in and out, watching every person who came in the gate, listening to every vehicle that passed on the road beyond the fenced yard, looking for someone who would never come home again.

    I claimed a thin ham sandwich, wishing for a thick, messy slab of garden tomato from the house, and followed it up with some dead-ripe slices of cantalope. A Pepsi washed it down. Ronnie gorged himself, as he usually does, cracking jokes with first this person and that. I simply sat, my left foot aching so badly that I was almost sick from it. I wanted to go lie down, but put it off, keeping to a polite joking tone with everyone who spoke to me, saying nothing about being uncomfortable in any way. They'd had enough. Monroe's daughter was so jittery and lost without "Daddy" that her grown daughter took over the hostess duties and made her mother go out on the porch for a while.

    As soon as we had eaten, and escaped the house to step outside, one of Monroe and Darleen's sons grabbed us for a tour of the menagerie. It was as always, even though they had moved house since I'd last visited with them.

    A Boer goat, a wether, naa-naaaa-naaaa'd constantly from a pen it shared with a fat nanny. Chickens and turkeys, geese, pidgeons -- many a fowl creature lurked in the narrow acreage between the house and a mobile home belonging to a neighbor. All of them healthy and clean. One caught my eye right away.

    It was a white goose with four wings! The tour guide, the oldest son, explained to us that the bird had been born that way, two normal wings and two turned upside down below the main ones. "It ain't never bothered it none. Mommy wouldn't take a farm in Georgia for that bird!" He wondered aloud if they'd have to get rid of some of the animals, or all of them. The younger son replied that she'd said to sell some, just a little while ago. I nodded, as did Ronnie. We'd been there when she told him.

    "Well, I reckon somebody's gonna get screwed when they get that noisy-assed damn goat! It ain't shut up once since Daddy brought it home." Ray snorted in disgust. The goat chimed in with a particularly long naaaaaaaaaaaa. "See what I mean?"

    We had to laugh. Flowers, critters, and children in this place met with equal care, all they had to give. These people weren't rich, just average folks with an adequate retirement, happy to make the adjustments that meant something beyond survival. They loved life, both Monroe and Darleen.

    Now Darleen is alone, Monroe having passed on this week, but for her grown-up children and a mess of grandchildren adult to still in diapers. She'll miss her dear Monroe for the rest of her life, however long she can fight the cancer. Her thin, chemical-shorn locks of gray are battle scars from a life never easy, yet always full of joy.

    It was the hardest thing I've ever done, keeping a dry eye when she held up a fluffy red teddy bear with "KISS ME!" sewn into a heart on its chest, and said, "This was my last Valentine's present from Monroe. Ain't it a pretty? Feel how soft it is. I could just hold it forever." At this juncture, her youngest grandson toddled up, grabbed the sentimental toy and jogged off to the kitchen to show it to MeMe (Mommy). Darleen laughed, watching, and said not a word. Monroe would have loved to see that baby with the bright bear, just one more time. Her face was lit with memories.


    (c.) 7-27-2007, by Rhonda L. M. Tipton