Some of my friends, especially the WSB, think this story is entertaining and asked me to send it out there on my blog. It brings up, for me, one of life’s real ponder-able qualities. Why is it that ten people or even a hundred can witness the same thing, and each one will tell a different story about what happened? My friends laugh at this childhood mischief; but my sister on reading it, said quietly, “I don’t remember it happening this way.”
The summer I was nine, I attended my first funeral. Who knew that dying could be so fascinating? The ritual was enthralling; I learned that person’s reputation could vastly improve simply because he stopped breathing. I had overheard adult conversations about this man’s behavior. I had a talent for being absorbed in my own play while actually listening intently to adults. Today, it’s called multi-tasking. Then, it was snooping in things that were none of my business.
Mr. George was a drunk who was abusive to his wife and children; yet at his funeral, he took on a mantle of respectability that no one knew he possessed. Daddy said that he almost checked to see if the man in the casket was the right one. He thought we had gotten into the wrong service by mistake. My grandmother declared that people want to remember the good in people after they die. To which Daddy commented, “I didn’t know there was any good in that one.”
At the funeral, the widow and children grieved openly and loudly. They placed mementos gently beside the body and murmured to him. At the eulogies, they all spoke of a kind loving man who would do anything for his family. Then they stumbled out of the church behind the closed casket weeping loudly and clinging to one another.
The pageantry of the graveyard scene was even more magnificent. The casket was suspended over the open grave by a shiny metal framework. A green cloth and banks of flowers covered everything. I heard Daddy say to a neighbor, “Old George would have had quite a toot on the money spent on bouquets for this turnout.” My brother and I were discussing the possibility of seeing the casket lowered so ardently that Daddy turned and gave us “The Look.”
As the service ended, we were all startled to see the widow fling herself across the swinging coffin knocking the casket spray askew and causing the framework to groan ominously. She let out a wail that raised the hair all over my body; and while I clung to my father’s hand as the terrifying drama unfolded before me, I could not turn away. Her children finally dragged her off as the preacher said the last prayer, and I was hooked on burying.
Going home, we all discussed what had happened. My grandmother was distressed and thought the whole display was undignified. Daddy said that each family has ways of dealing with grief, and no one can say which way is the right way. Their way wasn’t what he wanted. “Just drop me in a hole somewhere, preferably under a tree so I can, at least, fertilize something,” he said.
For weeks afterward, we played at burying dolls and acting out the drama of grief. I got to be good at eulogizing and preaching colorful sermons. My grandmother’s cat refused to cooperate with our efforts to bury him, so we continued to look for a corpse with more warmth and credibility than a doll. Burying became the focus of pretending which we called “play lack,” as in, “Let’s play lack I’m the preacher and you’re the widow.”
If you ever visited the Arkansas River Delta, you know that the ground there is a rich sandy loam. It will grow any seed dropped into it. My grandmother’s farm had several black sharecropper families who worked that soil while Daddy oversaw the farm’s operation. During the summer months, we played in the dirt with the black children who were too young to work beside their parents. One of these children was Jackie. She was my little sister’s age and the only child and only grandchild in her family. Her mother, Melba, adored her and constantly protected her even following her to college years later so that she would escape the dangers that could befall black girls. Jackie always went to the fields with her mother and grandparents. She would play at the end of the rows her mother worked and would eat her lunch there with her family. She would even take naps curled up on a quilt at the end of a row. My sister and I often joined her in play.
During one of these play sessions, I suggested that we “play lack” burying. Jackie said that she did not like funerals much, but I explained that they were really wonderful. I told her how a preacher got to say all kinds of great things about the dead even if they weren’t true. Jackie said that dead people were “haints” and she didn’t like “haints.” I had no idea what she was talking about, and I told her that we were going to play lack burying anyway. She seemed to agree. Working together, we dug out a deep trench in that sandy loam. When the weather is dry, the soil may be two feet deep and as easy to scoop as beach sand. When wet, it can bog a car down to its axles. The weather was blessedly dry so digging a grave was easy. We told Jackie to lie down in the hole and we covered her up. We were not so dumb as to think that we could cover her whole face so we pushed the dirt up to her bottom lip and mounded it gently around her cheeks and brow. A small triangle of brown lips, nose, and two very round brown eyes was all that was left exposed.
As my sister began to “play lack” mourning, I began to preach a sermon on Jackie’s goodness. She was all virtues and no vices. I praised her family’s love for her glancing down the row where I saw her family had paused to see what was going on. Waving confidently at them, I returned to my sermon on God himself coming to take Jackie straight to His bosom.
Just then, Daddy drove up in his truck. He often drove along the ends of the fields to check on work in progress. Usually he’d pause and call from his truck, “What you kids doin’?”
This day, I answered back, “Playing lack…”
“Playing lack what?” he countered.
“Playing lack burying Jackie,” I replied.
“Where’s Jackie?” his face wrinkled into a frown.
“Right here in the ground, of course.” I was beginning to wonder why he seemed so upset.
I didn’t have long to wonder. Daddy killed the truck and was out of the cab in a second. Then he was standing over us saying, “What the Hell?”
Now, my daddy did not cuss. Ever. So right away, I knew there was real trouble.
My sister quit “playing lack” crying and started up for real. In a tight voice Daddy said, “Don’t you see how scared that child is?”
I looked at Jackie. She did not move a muscle and her eyes had grown even rounder with fear. I looked down the row and here came Melba and the grandparents running to beat sixty. Daddy was on his knees digging Jackie out of the dirt, talking softly to her just like he did to us when we were hurt or afraid. Jackie looked at him crying and said, “Mr. Luther, am I
a “haint” now?”
About that time, her family arrived looking worried and wringing their hands. Jackie came out of the ground with sandy loam clinging to her hair and body and making a dusty frame for her face. Daddy placed her gently in Melba’s arms and told them all to sit with her awhile.
Taking my sister and me by the shoulders, he marched us around to the other side of the truck. He made us sit on the running board while he paced in front of us explaining how Jackie’s family feared death and the dead. He also explained that she would do what we wanted because we were white folks, and she would think she had to cooperate even if she was afraid. He ordered us to march back around the truck and apologize to Jackie and her family.
Heads drooping in shame, we came from behind the truck and stood on the edge of Jackie’s burying hole kicking the dust and apologizing for not seeing that she was scared. We filled up the hole and rode back home with daddy in the truck. On the way, he talked about other people’s feelings and accepting that some people see thing differently. He finished by asking if we had anything to say. My sister said she was sorry that she had scared Jackie and through new sniffles, said she’d never hurt her again.
“And you, Sissy?” he asked.
“Well, Daddy,” I said, “I guess I’m sorry, too; but you know, that sure takes all the fun out of burying.”