Saturday I missed a phone call from my dad. That evening I happened to notice that I had a voice message. I checked it while we were planning out what the pizza order for Dungeons & Dragons night would be. Dad is always straight to the point when he leaves a message.
"Hey, your great grandmother died. The funeral is tomorrow at two. Call me back."
Well, crap. I called back and left him a message, then reflected on what a crappy great grandson I was. My parents divorced when I was five or so, and after about the age of 13 I just sort of fell out of contact with most of dad's side of the family. So my great grandmother had never met my wife, let alone my daughter. Being the terrible person I am, it didn't bother me overly much. I don't mean to sound callous, but what's done is done and wailing in lamentation does little in the way of positive action.
I decided to go to the funeral. This was going to be awkward. My great grandmother had fifteen children, most of which are still alive and kicking. They all had children, most of those children in turn procreated...so there would be something like five hundred people who may or may not know or care what a terrible grandson I am.
We get in the car and drive to the funeral. I had to call dad three times on the way because he gives terrible directions. Sorry dad, but "it's in Salem" and "it'll be on your left" aren't very specific. Pulling into the parking lot some older guy comes to my window and starts asking how I'm related. Sadly enough I can't name many of my relatives, but I damn sure know the answer to this. After a while I get, "Eh, I don't know any of 'em. I'm just a neighbor".
We walk in and spot dad sitting with his girlfriend Maria. Joe, dad's friend, is behind him. They're in the section reserved for family, which I am, so we go plant ourselves in chairs. Now, I've been to funerals with dad before. Neither of us has ever seen the other inside a church, but funerals are old hat. With typical reverence dad leans over and tells me he's hungry.
We sit there a little while, trying to figure out who's who. I play a little game I invented at the last funeral dad and I both attended. It's called, "Let's Find the Guy Who Looks Most Like Johnny Cash". I believe my uncle Mike took the trophy.
At one point I lean over and whisper to dad, "Hey, if there is anyone from out of state that doesn't know us and asks who we are, we should tell them you're Popeye and I'm Popeye, Jr."
Finally the minister guy (these are Methodists we're dealing with, by the way) gets up. Apparently he's also a relative, though I believe he married in. There was no singing, though there was music over the PA. I believe I detected some Conway Twitty, but I could be way off-base there.
The funeral ends. We all get up and file past my great grandmother, who I do indeed remember. Then we start re-meeting relatives. Aunt Candy knows us right off the bat. Uncle Kenny knows who I am by sight, as I look exactly like my dad and his father before him. My grandparents, of course, know all of us. I only got a few skunkeyes, but did get a lot of "I haven't seen you since you were a little kid" remarks. Most of them were very kindly. As usual at funerals, I begin to sort of enjoy myself. Again with the not wanting to sound callous, funerals don't bother me overly much. I've never been happy that someone is dead, but if you're in a casket your problems are over. I much prefer to celebrate that this person was alive to begin with and think that since you're in a room with a bunch of people who all know each other but seldom gather you might as well make the best of it.
We get in the car and drive to the cemetery. Salem, WV isn't that big a place to begin with, but we drive for something like forty-five minutes on roads that get progressively more remote. We make a 315 degree turn up the hill to the cemetery proper. Had it been snowing a Sherman tank wouldn't have made it up this road.
We were there for all of five minutes. Another prayer and we're off.
Dad and I are the first ones out. The trip that took forty five minutes in a funeral procession takes closer to twenty when dad is in the lead car. We are the first ones at Van Horn school. Van Horn School is where we were told everyone would meet for the post-funeral food gathering. Van Horn School is not where this was all going down. It was going down next door. We find it after milling about for a while, trying to open doors that are ajar but chained shut from the inside.
The food part of a funeral is, of course, the best part. People begin to realize that they're all alive and start enjoying it. I'm glad my wife and daughter are there, glad that we're at the same table with dad and, oddly, glad that some of the people did remember me. A few people may have wondered what prompted me to come visit my grandmother after she died instead of before, though no one said anything to that effect and I may well just be imagining it. Jerry was giving me a flat, hard stare, but he gives everyone he meets a flat, hard stare. We hang out a little while, eat dinner, talk mainly to the relatives that we're most familiar with. All in all it was a positive experience. My daughter wrote an essay about it in the back seat on the way home, dad and Maria agreed to come to dinner at our house two weeks from now. Things went so well that I'm going to try to make it to the family reunion this year, for the first time since 1988.
Checks and Balances
1 year ago