When we moved to the St. Louis area after spending several years in Baton Rouge, we noticed right away that there were French names everywhere. I already knew that St. Louis was originally a French settlement; and that it was, indeed, named for the saintly King of France, Louis IX. What was unexpected was that many of the place names and French surnames were mispronounced. It was then that I figured out that all the English, Germans, Italians, and Irish that followed the French looked at the spellings and said what they saw. Another thing I noticed was that some of those early French settlers from St. Louis and south along the Mississippi River were extremely prolific so that now days some of those names take up as much space in local telephone books as Smith or Johnson did in the Little Rock area I was raised in. Because of that, what happened to me last week could have happened to anyone. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
After years in St. Louis, my husband and I retired to the country south along the river. In this little city, there is a quaint custom of posting obituaries on public buildings. Perhaps it grew out of only having a weekly papers. By posting these obits, people could find out about neighbors who had died and were about to be buried between publications. Whatever the reason, this custom prompted a writer friend to send out an e-mail announcement to fellow writers that she had seen on the post office door an obituary for Joe Dumas (I’ve changed the names to avoid lawsuits and /or the wrath of family members should they ever come across this blog.) The obituary listed survivors including the wife, Jane. We were deeply distressed as Jane Dumas is a prolific writer who has had to curtail her involvement with our writing group to care for Joe, an invalid.
Using the posted information about the services, I determined to go and show Jane the support of her fellow writers. To that end, I washed and dressed appropriately in a respectful outfit and headed to the local funeral home on the published date. There was a large crowd gathered, and attendants were directing traffic in and out of the parking lot. This did not surprise me because the Dumas have lived here all of their lives, and both were professionals with many contacts at the nearby college. Once I was out of my car, I noticed that while Joe and Jane tend to be sophisticated, fairly conventional people, most of the people at the funeral home were country folk. This is not a bad thing, just a distinction between those who attend such gatherings in suits and those who come in jeans. Nonetheless, the Dumas family are old home folks who probably have a wide spectrum of friends many of whom I don’t know. So in I went, smiling sympathetically to those standing around in the hall and dutifully signed my writer name on the register.
My first clue that something wasn’t right was when I walked into the parlor where Joe was laid out. Around the perimeter of this large room, set up on sturdy easels were five mounted deer heads. Hunter’s trophies. I had been to Joe and Jane’s home several times and could not recall any deer heads, but I had never been in the downstairs rec-room where he might have kept them. In fact, their home has a collection of fine antique pieces mixed with beautifully handcrafted furniture, a high quality pottery collection, and an impressive number of books. I ignored this distraction as well as one can ignore five mounted deer heads, and went to pay my respects to the body and my friend, Jane. I have to say, Joe looked better than I remembered. These funeral parlors can do great things with makeup and hair dye. I was glad about that as his last year had been hard on him and Jane. When I turned to speak to the widow, I had a shock. I had never seen the woman before in my life. She was much younger than the man in the box and she was wearing the same beehive hairdo that was popular in the ‘80s. Wait a minute, could I have gone into the wrong room? No, I distinctly recall reading Joe’s name on the registry. Like a lot of funerals these days, there was a large photo collage in the back of the room. I made my way back to look at the photos and try to make sense of this experience. Nothing looked like anything I remember about their home although the people in the pictures seemed to be having a great time. Lots of beer and casually dressed folks eating what looked like good country fare. About that time, a harmless looking woman came up beside me so I asked how well she knew the family. She assured me that she had known them well but had not seen them in resent years. I asked if she knew if the wife was a writer.
“Oh, I knew the first wife. I don’t know much about this one,” she replied. I then asked if they lived out in the country. “Why, yes,” she said, “They have a little house in town, but they love their farm out in the country. It’s beautiful out there.” and she named an area where Joe and Jane live. She moved on as I stood there even more puzzled. They lived in the same place. Both were in their second marriage.
About that time a country gentleman stepped up to gaze at the pictures so I thought “I’ll try this again.”
He confirmed that Joe and Jane did live in the country, but when I asked if the wife was a writer, he came back with, “Are you kidding. Between you and me,” and he lowered his voice to a whisper, “that gal is a dumb as a rock. She was his little piece on the side until he got divorced and married her.”
This was more information than I needed so I began to giggle nervously but as discretely as I could under the circumstances. He asked me what was so funny and I confessed, but only to him, that I was a wake crasher. He got a big kick out of that. He even said that he wished his old friend, Joe, could know about it as it was something he would have enjoyed telling about at some of the wild parties he liked to throw.
Looking back, it was a simple mistake, but it makes me wonder about the number of coincidences that led to crashing the wake; same first names, same unusual last names of both the central parties, same living area, both couples in their second marriages. I left as quietly as I could showing that same sympathetic smile I had pasted on when I came in only now it was hiding mirth. The good news is that my friends, Joe and Jane, are still with us.
People talk about bucket lists these days. If I had thought for a hundred years, I wouldn’t have thought of crashing a wake as a candidate for my list; but I have to tell you, it was a weird and enlightening experience. You might want to try it some time. Deer heads at a wake. Who knew?