MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 33 – July 1964 – The Funeral
Once back in our own comfortable home, Billy never spoke about that Easter again, at least not for a while. He seemed to bury himself in his work at 53rd Company, spending long hours counseling and writing reports. I tried to be patient and not complain, but the truth of it was I was lonely, terribly lonely, as only a young wife can be when her mate seems to prefer the office to his home.
In June Billy received his promotion to first Lieutenant, and with that came a sizeable pay raise, which enabled us occasionally to eat more than hamburger and tuna, and to buy ice cream and cokes. Michael, delighted by the ice cream, thought every time I served it, we had to sing ‘Happy Birthday’, and now, when Billy walked in the door on a hot summer evening, I could pour him a tall glass of ice cold Coca-Cola. Other than a few more luxuries, the raise made very little difference in our lives, and still Billy could not put any of the additional income aside. Even the U. S. Savings Bonds that all officers were urged to purchase, not required although there was very little difference, he would cash as soon as they matured, and if my memory serves me right, it was thirty days. I was so proud of him when he pinned the brand new silver bars that matched his airborne wings on his shoulders. Our lives just seemed to be getting better and better, and the only way I could be any happier would have been to have Billy at home more.
According to him, life was almost perfect, with the exception he was still trying to get into Ranger School. Our love making continued unabated, and even when he had a long day in the field, he was more than ready for our customary shower, and then time alone in the bed before Michael woke up, crawled out of his crib, and joined us. It seemed to me as if we were far happier than most of our friends, except perhaps Bill and ‘Snookie’, but they were still relatively newly-weds while we had been married over two years now!
July in Georgia is perhaps its most miserable month, after bone chilling damp, cold winters, the warmth of the spring sun appears as if overnight. The grass once again begins to turn green, and the dogwoods and redbud combine to create a postcard around every turn of the road. Then, all too soon, in South Georgia, unlike it’s on again, off again arrival in the mountains, the miserably hot and humid summer months seem to roar in on the coattails of the Easter Bunny with full-fledged summer only weeks behind. By July, there is no doubt ‘this’ summer is the hottest ever, and I do believe the person or persons who first coined the phrase ‘dog days of summer’ had to be living in South Georgia! July prepares one for the coming of August, with long summer days when not a leaf or a blade of grass stirs in the blistering stagnant air, and once again the green lawns turn brown, but this time from the miserably hot weather when watering is just not enough.
Even Michael did not want to go outside and play, rather entertained himself watching cartoons and playing on the rug with his assortment of trucks in our cool air-conditioned apartment. During nice weather, he was a handful and difficult to entertain in the house – forever on the go, not even sitting still long enough to finish reading a little ‘Golden Book’, but in the penetrating heat and humidity, plus the ever-present mosquitoes, he was quite content to stay indoors. If I had a choice I would not go out either, but with the endless diapers and the other laundry to hang on the clothesline behind the apartment, I had no choice.
Realizing that Michael had to be watched constantly, I filled his little wading pool with cool, clean water and with the promise of a ‘swim’, he would follow me outside wearing only a diaper, and if he had his choice he would not have even worn that! The moment I opened the door, it was like stepping into a steam bath and the heat almost knocked me backwards to the coolness inside. I tried to think of one good thing about these hot months, and decided that at least the clothes dried quickly in spite of the absence of even a hint of a breeze. No sooner had I just put the last clothespin in the last wet article of clothing, Michael was more than ready to come inside and resume his indoor activities, and fortunately, he was a child, like his mother, who could entertain himself. Occasionally I would call Trish to bring Elizabeth over to play and vice versa, so at least the children had ‘playmates’ to share the worst of the miserable summer days.
I decided, without a doubt, this was the hottest summer ever and the heat made me feel run-down and nauseous, but then again, I had not been on the pill since May. Naturally, I warned Billy of the days that were not ‘safe’, but as usual, he only replied it was time for another little McConnell boy. I just hoped this was not false bravado on his part.
On one of the hottest days of the year, just three months since our disastrous Easter in Griffin, I was loading diapers into the washer when the telephone rang, and as I picked it up, expecting to hear either Trish or Margaret on the other end of the line, I was startled to hear Gene’s voice instead. I could not imagine why he would call to talk with me, since we had not developed a relationship where either he or I felt comfortable during a conversation, and indeed this was definitely not a social call. He had another reason entirely since he did not have Billy’s number at the O.C.S. Company, and he wasted no time in getting to the point. Shocked by his seemingly cold, calm voice, he told me Helen died in her sleep during the previous night. She was found by one of the boys that morning, and he asked me to call Billy, and for us to leave at once for Griffin, for an indefinite stay.
I knew Billy could put in for ‘bereavement leave’, which was a week, and I told Gene we would be there just as soon as I could pack and get in touch with Billy. He did not offer any other details, and I was so shocked I could not think of anything to say or any questions to ask, because, in spite of her alcoholism and mixing it with all kind of pain medication, Helen was still a young woman in her early forties. While Gene sounded more surprised than grieved, I immediately thought about the boys since I had come to love each one of them as if they were my own little brothers, and I knew Billy and I had to be there for them.
I had never made a habit of calling Billy at work, unlike Margaret who continued to call Larry almost daily for totally insignificant reasons, like ‘Anne is driving me crazy’, so when Billy was told I was on the line, he immediately knew something was wrong.
When he answered, as gently as possible I told him about his mother, and the first words out of his mouth were, "Thank goodness, I thought something had happened to you or to Michael!"
Once I assured him Michael and I were just fine, he said he would immediately apply for a week of emergency leave, and come straight home so we could leave for Griffin. He ended our conversation saying he loved me, which I knew was with spontaneous relief that his son and I were OK. He, too, was worried about his little brothers, and the effect their mother’s sudden death might have on them at their impressionable ages. Dickie was thirteen, David was eleven, and Charles was just nine years old and now, they were motherless, although they had practically been so while Helen was living.
When Billy opened the front door, his face pale, beads of perspiration obvious on his forehead, I immediately went to him, and with his arms folded around me, and mine around him, I told him all I knew, which was not much. Gene had said Dickie had found his mother dead in her bed that morning, although later Charles told me he had found her. I proceeded to tell Billy what little I knew, and repeated what little Gene told me. The boys had been concerned since their mother usually got up around 9:00 to get dressed to go to the store, and when she did not appear long after her usual waking hour, Charles opened the door to her bedroom and found her apparently still sleeping. She was lying on her left side, with her face turned away from the door, so her unsuspecting son gently tapped her on the shoulder and when he did, she fell over on her back, eyes, and mouth wide open, tongue protruding, blue in the face, and obviously quite dead. This had to be a gruesome, traumatic sight for anyone, much less her own son at such a tender age, so our first concern was primarily to get to Griffin as quickly as possible to comfort the boys.
Billy remained calm and tearless as he helped me gather up the clothing and toiletries we would need for the next few days, although I knew I would need to buy something black for the actual funeral. While I packed a suitcase, Billy carried the ‘hang up clothing’ to the car while keeping one eye on our son riding his tricycle on the sidewalk in front of the apartment. In record time, I was packed and had no choice but to take the still wet, but clean, diapers from the machine so I could dry them when we got to Griffin. I doubted if anyone would stop me from using the dryer today, or even take notice.
Michael always loved to ride in the car and happily anticipated our journey, and looked forward to see his beloved young uncles. Billy’s habit of singing silly songs had begun with the necessity of entertaining our small son when he became cranky, and usually he would fall asleep about an hour into the trip. It was then Billy and I had some of our more meaningful conversations since we both had a captive audience. Michael always asked his Daddy to sing the "choo-choo" song, and Billy would always oblige his son’s request and quite loudly, but not always in tune, he burst into "I’ve Been Working on the Railroad." Michael now sang along, and he already knew most of the words. Today though, Billy was silent, and Michael seemed to sense his Daddy was not in the mood to be silly, and he quickly fell fast asleep on the backseat although it was well past his lunchtime.
We arrived in Griffin about 2:00 p.m. and were puzzled to find not a single car at the house, except for Helen’s station wagon. Gene’s car was nowhere in sight. Once inside, we found the boys calmly watching television as if this was just any other Monday afternoon, although they had not gone to their various summertime activities. I suppose because there was no one to take them. The maid was cleaning the house for the anticipated visitors, although I did not think Helen had any friends in Griffin, or anywhere else for that matter. I surmised the only people who would come by the house would be family and those who wished to pay their respects to Gene and his sons. After big hugs that lasted longer than usual, we asked the boys where their father was and they said they thought he had gone to the store to take care of some important business. Of course, not even his wife’s death, nor the trauma suffered by his young sons, could keep Gene away from his precious store!
Not too long ago Billy’s cousin told me that Gene was "married to that business," and he was so right, but today of all days, both Billy and I thought he should have been with his boys. The entire scene just did not seem right! The three boys sitting calmly in front of the television as if they had not found their mother dead in her bed in this very house, just hours ago!
We had no idea until we arrived that Gene planned to have the funeral and the burial the next day, but that is what the boys told us. Shocked by the haste of his mother’s burial, instead of going down to the store and leaving his brothers, Billy called to let his father know we had arrived. It was then Gene requested we leave Michael with the maid and his uncles, and for both of us to meet him at the funeral home.
We could not imagine why he needed us to meet him there since we thought surely that he had already completed the arrangements for such a hurried funeral. I was feeding Michael his very late lunch when Billy hung up the phone and told me his father wanted us to meet him, and where, so I cleaned up Michael’s mess and left him in the conscientious care of the boys who would keep him well entertained all afternoon. I hoped the maid, who had barely spoken two words to me when Helen was living, would also keep a close eye of our "Mr. Destructo" – a name Billy had begun calling his son. I knew he would not take another nap since he had slept in the car, and since it was miserably, hot outside, he would not cry to go out to play. All of the boys loved their little nephew so I felt secure no harm would befall our precious son under their conscientious care.
Then, wonder of wonders, the maid turned to me and said, "Mrs. McConnell, don’t worry about that young ‘un, or those diapers, I can put them in the dryer, and I will take care of both of them for you, and I won’t leave until you get back."
Well, that was quite a surprise! She actually addressed me as Mrs. McConnell, although I could not remember if she ever had even spoken to me before. At this point, I was the only Mrs. McConnell in this house, and I suppose she thought I was now in charge! Gene had never even been around when she was here, and, other than pay her, he rarely even saw her since he was long gone when she arrived and he never came home until she left. I guess she was looking for someone to take over, and all of a sudden, I had a sinking feeling that someone had to be me. Of course Gene would be the ultimate ‘boss’, although for now she needed for someone to let her know what she should do, and I was the only female around. I knew Gene always paid her weekly, leaving an envelope in the laundry room that not even Helen knew about since he tried to keep Helen as ‘broke’ as possible. However, this was another day, and Gene told us to leave Michael with her, and she was not going to argue with her ‘new boss’, regardless who would now take over, Gene, Billy, me, or all of us!
Over her protestations, I hastily put the diapers in the dryer and told her they were drying, and she cheerfully repeated not to worry, she would take care of them! Oh my! How rapidly things had changed already. I actually felt like the woman of the house, and in essence, I was now the only woman in this family at the ripe old age of 21! I had thought to put on a dress before leaving Columbus, not knowing if family would have arrived early, so I did not need to change before we left to meet Gene. Billy, of course, was still in his uniform, but before tomorrow, I would have to ask him to take me shopping for something black.
When we pulled into the parking lot of the funeral home where Gene was anxiously waiting, he rushed to the car to greet us. He had never been nicer to me, and I should have known he wanted me to do something for him, and of course, he did. While Billy tried to get details of his mother’s death, Gene ignored his questions with a "we’ll talk about that later," and he turned his attention to me and asked if I would help to choose a proper casket and a shroud. I had no idea how to do either, and did not really want to know, but Gene seemed to think it was my responsibility.
I had very little experience with death and/or dying recalling the few times anyone I knew died. I suppose my first ‘touch with death’ came when I was not more then seven or eight years old. My grandmother was taking me to the Fox Theatre for the Sunday Pops concert, and since it was on the way, she wanted to stop by Patterson’s Funeral Home to pay respects to someone I did not know, but was either a friend, or the husband of a friend. I remember the first thing I noticed when we walked in the door of the wonderful old house that had been converted into Atlanta’s most prestigious funeral home was the overwhelming, almost nauseating smell of flowers – as if there were just too many of them in one place. It was like walking into a florist’s refrigerated room, but also with a different, sickening sweet odor that I would never forget, since I had reason to smell it again, and again over the years. All dressed in my Sunday best, wearing my black patent shoes, my grandmother sat me on a bench in the hallway while she went into the nearby room by herself. She told me not to move, but that was about like telling the sun not to set, and as soon as she was out of sight, I decided to have a look around.
There was door after door up and down the long carpeted hallway, most open, and some of the rooms were big bedrooms with large four-poster beds. Finally, I found a room where a man was asleep in one of the big beds, and I thought that strange since he had on a suit and tie, but no shoes. Well, since I knew never to get on the bed with my shoes either, perhaps that explained it, but he was so still I began to wonder if he was real. I stood in the doorway and watched for a few minutes, then my curiosity got the better of me, so like the naughty child I was, I walked to the foot of the bed and ‘tweaked’ his toe! He still did not move, he did not make a sound, and then it dawned on me, he was DEAD! I screamed and screamed at the top of my lungs, as I ran out of the room unsure of which way to turn, and I just knew no matter which way I went, I would find more of these dead people lying around or even sitting in chairs, so I continued to scream. Finally, with a middle age gentleman right on her heels, my grandmother rushed down the hall to rescue me, I thought, but instead she was angry I left the bench. While she apologized to the gentleman with her, she told me she should take me straight home and not to the concert, but she thought I had learned my lesson about staying put, and believe me, no punishment could ever have had the same impression, as did that ice-cold toe! From that day, I had an innate fear of death, and if my grandmother wanted to stop by the funeral home again when she had me with her, I would not even get out of the car! Therefore, you could say I was literally scared to death of death!
That was the last time I had seen a corpse until I was in high school, and one of my best friend’s elderly father died, but I did not go look at him, not for anything did I walk up and look in that casket. In fact, I tried to keep from even looking in that direction since in those days, coffins were often open during the service. About the only memory I possess of his funeral was the beautiful duet ‘Whispering Hope’, that became my favorite of all hymns. He was much older than my parents were so it came as no surprise when he died, and even my friend did not grieve as I thought she would. Then there were two other incidents of friend’s parents dying, and both were suicides. One of the boys I dated, but I did not attend his father’s funeral, and the other was the father of a girl who was in my class at Sandy Springs High School, but we did not run in the same crowd, so I did not attend his service either.
Then there was our next-door neighbor, a chronic alcoholic who was never sober, as far as I could tell. After her husband left her and took their two children, I rarely saw her unless she was crossing the street to go to a neighbor’s house where she could get a ‘free’ drink. One day I saw her stumble and fall as she attempted to climb the mildly steep bank, and if I had not known she had to be drunk, I would have gone to help her – but I just watched since I was all too familiar with alcoholics and their stumbling attempts to appear ‘normal’. Much to my surprise, not long after that day she died of cancer of, what else, the liver, and I remembered her abdomen being bloated as if she were pregnant. Her death certainly did not affect my world either, since her son, who was my age, was kind of ‘weird’, and I never even talked to him. The little girl I knew better since she was the age of my youngest brother and they played together a lot, but they had left with their father long before their mother died.
The next was a girl about my age – Sandy – who I had met at the regional Methodist Youth Fellowship meetings where we were friendly, but we never saw each other except for the monthly meetings. Not long after graduating from high school and moving from my parent’s house, another MYF friend, Judean, who I was better friends with since I had dated a boy who attended her church, called to tell me Sandy was in the hospital dying of cancer. She told me that her mother and sister would be taking her to see Sandy, and since my rooming house was on their way, did I want to go? Well, with nothing more urgent to do, I thought, why not. Judean was closer to Sandy than I was, so I thought that perhaps I should be there for her. Possibly that was one of the most traumatic events I saw up close, and I could not believe this shriveled and bloated ‘person’ in the bed was the same Sandy who just months ago was so effervescent and affable. Her abdomen was bloated just like my neighbors, as if she was nine months pregnant, and I was speechless. What do you say to a young girl of seventeen years who is dying? When Sandy did pass away, not even a week later, I did not cry, although seeing Judean cry, I almost did. We went to the ‘viewing’, which was in Sandy’s parent’s home, and this was the first time I had ever seen a corpse up close. I will never be able to forget what I saw that evening - Sandy was in an open white casket with a white net thrown over the top to shelter her ravaged face from visitors, and she looked as if she was ninety years old! For the second time in my life, death was so close I could touch it, but I probably never would.
Then, within weeks, Judean’s father died quite suddenly, and I went to his ‘viewing’, which was in the their home, but this time I was prepared and sidestepped the parlor to join Judean, her older sister, and her mother around the kitchen table. After all, I was there for them, not for him since I had probably never even met him but once or twice. It was there, sitting in that sunny kitchen, that I heard why they had someone stay up all night with the deceased - to keep the rats out of the coffin! That was enough to keep me from ever wanting to view another corpse again! I never could understand how people could say of the deceased how good they look; they never looked good to me, only dead!
As I returned to the moment in time when Gene met us, I thought of the lovely hymn, ‘Whispering Hope’ and I asked if he would have the hymn played for Helen’s service, and he agreed, although he said he had left those details up to the funeral home. It was then we discovered that the service would not be at First Baptist, their lifelong church, rather in the funeral home’s chapel. How very sad, I thought, that he would not even take her to their church, and I decided he was a rather cold and heartless man after all. It was not until later I found out the extent of his lack of concern for anyone’s happiness but his own, and that day did come, but unlike my handsome husband, I was not completely shocked.
So here I was, the only female member of the McConnell family and being asked to choose a casket and a shroud for a woman who had detested me and ignored my son. Billy, more upset by the haste of having the funeral the next day, told his father he thought he was rushing things, and he would feel better if there was an autopsy, since no one could tell us the reason she died so suddenly. Gene acted as if he had not heard his oldest son, and would not even discuss an autopsy but insisted that, for the boys’ sake, we should get this over with as soon as possible so they could resume a ‘normal’ life. What was a ‘normal’ life for them? They had never had one and would not recognize it when and if they ever did! They had an absentee father whose business was more important than his family, a drunken mother, and an adored big brother who had his own family now and could not always be there for them anymore. Billy continued heatedly to object to Gene’s hasty decision as we walked into the funeral home to meet with the director and owner, a friend of Gene’s, who was in several organizations with him. After commiserating with Billy, having obviously been in touch with Gene earlier in the day, he took us into this huge room filled with caskets.
There were inexpensive caskets of obviously flimsy wood that surely would cave in when the grave filled with dirt, and then there were the ‘middle of the line’ caskets made of steel and tiny white caskets for babies and children. Not hesitating for a moment, he guided us to the corner where only the ‘top-of-the-line’, most expensive were on display, as he said, for his "best customers," but what he meant was for his richest customers! These boxes, highly polished, were made of oak, cherry, mahogany, and other exotic and expensive woods. The inside was plush with silk and velvet tufted cushioning, with pillows to match, and the handles were made of brass, all very ornate. I could not help but think what a waste of money just to seal in a cement vault and bury in the ground, as the director quoted the price of each. I suppose it soothes the bereaved to make sure their loved one has a comfortable place to rest for eternity, or is it all a show for the community that reflects how much you cared, or how much money you have? Does the sheen of the casket mean you are rich? I have not figured that one out yet because regardless of the package, the person inside is still dead, and they do not know the difference in a mahogany casket or a pine box, a rough cotton pillow or one of tufted velvet. What did it matter anyway! However, obviously a lot to Gene as his friend went over and over the merits of each – all of which cost as much, or more than a brand new car!
Billy continued to try to convince his father to have an autopsy performed, although neither father nor son showed any signs of bereavement, so how was I supposed to act. Tearful? Sad? Mournful? All I wanted was to get out of this house of horrors as soon as possible, and how could I mourn the woman who had loathed me from the first time we met? So I thought about the boys and their loss, thus grieving for them, and not Helen, and that thought, I knew would help get me through the next two days. Gene finally narrowed the choice down to three coffins and asked me to make the final decision, and I thought why not, he could afford it, and after so many late evenings and so many night meetings, she deserved it, so I chose the most expensive! The wood was a rich gleaming cherry with elaborately carved brass handles and inside the lining was plush, tufted velvet of ivory with just a hint of rose pink, and a soft velvet covered pillow. This would make Gene’s friends and associates sit up, and take notice if that was what this was all about, and I had a feeling I had it right this time.
From the casket ‘showroom’, we followed the director to a smaller, slightly darkened room where we found burial clothing displayed in ensembles and spotlighted from hidden lights in the ceiling. Most men wore their own suits in their casket, and some women, knowing they are going to die, choose from their own clothing. Of course, Helen had never made any such arrangements, and I thought surely in her dresser drawers she had many more expensive and lovelier peignoirs than were on display here. However, wisely not wanting to rock what had become a boat already filled with holes, as Billy and his father continued to lob shell after shell at each other, I hurriedly chose a filmy pink shroud for Helen’s last public appearance since the color would compliment the velvet lining of her coffin, and the ribbons on the velvet pillow.
"Excellent choice, Mrs. McConnell, the director said, and again I had to turn around to see who else was in the room with us, but he was referring to me.
"I also want to let you know Helen’s very own hairdresser will be coming to fix her hair after her shop closes. Now with these final decisions concluded, all will be in readiness for a ‘viewing’ by this evening at 8:00 p.m., and an afternoon funeral on Tuesday."
He further announced there would be another brief viewing on Tuesday morning just before the service to give the family a last opportunity to say their farewells. This time Billy lobbed his largest shell yet, and said something to his father about putting his mother "on public display," but wisely, Gene ignored him.
"Why don’t you just put her in the front window at the damn store?" Billy bitterly complained, "That way we can set up concessions and ‘charge’ anyone $1.00 who wants a look, and before you know it, the funeral will be all paid for!"
I cringed with Billy’s last remark, pointedly disrespectful to his father, and the funeral director looked as if he could not get this business concluded quickly enough. This time Gene remained silent after Billy’s last comments that pointedly meant to ‘score’ a ‘direct hit’ on ‘the enemy’ who was his father at this moment. Instead, without a word of thanks for my reluctant assistance, we left the funeral home and Gene told us he would meet us back at the house. I think he was hoping by now, family from Atlanta would have arrived and he could avoid Billy and his accusations since he knew Billy would not create a scene in front of his brothers, or Bubba, who was bound to be devastated, but Billy was far from through with him yet!
Back at the house, we arrived to bedlam! The boys and Michael were running wild from room to room; the maid had left, leaving a note, even though she said she would not leave until we returned. In the note, she said she would be there by 9:00 a.m. and would keep the baby for the service, and I found the diapers neatly folded in our laundry basket. I picked up Michael to calm him since he was overly excited and almost hyperventilating from the rough play, then I tried to settle him down with a book while I rocked him in Gene’s big chair hoping he might take a short nap even though it was quite late. I knew his schedule would be impossible to maintain until the funeral was over, if even then. Billy had applied for a week’s leave, and in the parking lot, Gene told him he would like us to stay at the house after the funeral while he took the boys to the mountains.
Our ‘job’ was to make sure there was not one single trace of Helen left when they returned - no flowers, no clothing, or other personal possessions; nothing to remind the boys she had ever existed. Billy was as stunned as I was, but too angry over the hasty funeral to argue with his father about this last insult. Gene was not going to listen to anyone anyway – his mind was already made up, and that was all there was to it. He was just determined to get this over with as soon as possible, and with the appropriate fanfare that befitted his position in the community and the church, although we were still puzzled why the service was not going to be at the church.
In spite of my best efforts, Michael was simply too wound up to sleep, but hopefully that was a good thing so he would go to bed before we left for the funeral home and would never even miss us! Kind neighbors had brought food while we were out, so I was able to put a decent meal on the table for everyone who felt like eating, and surprisingly all seemed starved except for me. I was still stunned from the afternoon’s grisly task and had a lump in my throat that would not go away. Besides, I was beginning to feel queasy again and whether this was from the stress of the afternoon, or whether I was pregnant again, I was not sure. I watched my handsome husband as he entertained his son and his little brothers during the meal, and I thought how very much I loved him, and wondered how I could live if anything ever happened to him! Billy was the heart of this family, and without him, I thought it would surely fall apart. Certainly, I knew I would. As far as being pregnant again, I had only missed one period which was nothing unusual since I had been on the pill, but I just ‘felt pregnant’, and any woman can tell you when we ‘feel pregnant’, we probably are.
Gene had called Bubba, Pop, Gram, and Poppa (his parents) and they, with the rest of the family in the Atlanta area would be down for the 8:00 p.m. viewing. I did not think it was a good idea for the boys to go, but Gene disagreed, saying since they had all seen her that morning before the hearse arrived, they needed to see she looked like their mother again, just asleep and peaceful, and put to rest the ghastly scene they witnessed earlier. He had a point, but I knew she would not look like their mother ‘sleeping’, rather a wax image, and I offered to stay at home with them and Michael. Charles did not really want to go, and when Charles did not want to do something, then David did not either, but Gene insisted they show their respect for their mother. He had, without consulting either Billy or me, asked his neighbor’s teen-age daughter to come over and baby-sit, which was one reason it was probably best Michael not nap. Gene insisted I should be by my husband’s side, and that was the only thing he had been right about, so far.
I did not want to let Billy out of my sight until we could talk since I could not be sure how he was feeling, and I had not seen this particular ‘face’ of his before. It was not a face ravaged with grief, but one of anger mixed with relief and tension. I knew he needed to talk to me, and I hoped we could manage to steal a few moments before we left for the funeral home. After I cleared the table and put the dishes in the dishwasher, I asked Billy to help me set up Michael’s playpen in the bedroom.
We left Michael in the care of his uncles and grandfather, and went outside to our car to get our suitcase and the playpen. Billy brought our things down to his room while I made sure there were clean sheets on the bed, and much to my surprise there were, and stacks of clean towels in the bathroom. The maid, although we had not even asked, was now making sure she took care of us, and we knew then it had only been Helen’s orders that had prevented her from doing so in the past.
Finally, I had Billy alone, and I rushed into his arms while he held me and I let loose the floodgates that had been building all day. I hoped he would cry with me, and I knew if he did, I would be the only one to see, but he did not shed one single tear. When I asked him if he was sad, he told me he did not know what he was feeling; not a feeling of loss or sadness, he said, but rather a feeling of relief, or at least he thought he would feel that way when the funeral was over. He was angry because his father would not have an autopsy done, and seemed to be rushing the funeral, but he was not sad. He told me his mother had killed any love he had for her years ago, and the climax had come when he had to come to pick up his son and me during our plumbing crisis in Dahlonega. Her continued displeasure about our obviously successful marriage and our healthy baby boy had further distanced him from his mother, and he actually thought his brothers would be "better off" with her dead. I knew he had been angered by his mother’s demeanor, and her blatant abhorrence of Michael and of me, but I had no idea his feelings were this strong. He held me while I cried more from exhaustion and shock than anything else while he whispered repeatedly how much he loved me, and what a wonderful mother I was to our son, and a loving wife to him.
"You have always made me feel special, from our very first date when you kissed me and said that a kiss on the first date depended on who you were with. Even if we don’t always agree, our love for each other is the glue that keeps us together and always will. You know, little girl, from the first night, when I saw you sitting in the library, I have loved you more than life itself, and I always will. You are my past, present, and future all rolled into one pretty little bundle, and the addition of a healthy son was the cherry on top of the whipped cream. Now we have each other, we don’t need anyone else – just the three of us, and of course any other little McConnell boys that happen to come along. Diane, I love you. I love you more than I ever thought it possible for me to love anyone, and I always will."
With these words, I realized he had never really remembered his mother any other way than the verbally abusive drunk she had become over the years, and now I understood how important it was to him when I took care of him as I had been doing for all the years of our marriage. He had not even had anyone to put a band-aid on him until I came along, and that was why he so enjoyed it. From that one moment, I vowed, to myself, not only would I always love him ‘more than life itself’; I would continue to take care of all his needs for the rest of our lives.
After a long loving kiss, he shocked me when he said he would not be surprised if his father had killed his mother with his bare hands, and that was why he was rushing the funeral. I was stunned! How could he think that about his own father? Nevertheless, he did, and he never changed his mind, especially after seeing her later that night when he thought he saw red marks around her neck the funeral home tried to conceal. I never thought Gene capable of murder, because he certainly had put up with a lot from Helen without blacking her eyes like my own father did to my mother, and my mother was not, at that time, a falling down sloppy drunk! That came later.
Although I could have stayed downstairs with Billy the rest of the night, and never had to walk into that funeral home again, I knew that with too many kisses, Billy would be incapable of appearing in public, so I took his hand in mine, and gently led him upstairs where the rest of the family was waiting.
Surprisingly, Gene had picked Michael up off the floor and was sitting in his large recliner with his only grandson sound asleep on his broad shoulder. That was not a scene Billy had any sympathy or patience for, so he took his son from his father, and carried him downstairs to change his diaper and tuck him in, hopefully, for the night. Gene seemed to honestly love Michael as much as one of his own sons, and was delighted when we would bring him to the store, where he showered him with gifts. I also knew he adored Billy, the favorite of all his sons, so at first I did not see in him the character flaws that later became so obviously apparent.
It was close to 7:30 p.m. when the family from the Atlanta area began to arrive at the house to follow us to the funeral home. Even in her overwhelming grief over the loss of her only daughter, Bubba had brought Michael and each boy a ‘goody bag’. Bubba and Pop, and Gram and Poppa had always been very kind to me and seemed to love Michael very much, but they all loved Billy and wanted to be a part of our lives. Later, each one of them told me there was always something very special about Billy, not just the time he almost died when he fell off the pony cart, and again when his appendix burst while touring the West, but just something brilliant and extraordinary about him.
Obviously, I understood, since he was the center of my universe, and I practically worshiped the ground he walked on. Bubba told me that anyone Billy loved; she loved, so I always felt welcome in her home, and in her presence, although her only blind spot had been Helen.
She never acknowledged Helen’s illness, or her addiction to pills and alcohol, and in that manner, she protected herself from the pain. Her children were all ‘perfect, and everything wrong with Helen was "Eugene’s" fault, and they had always had a tenuous relationship, and now it was about to explode, and Billy and I would be showered with the sparks!
Michael, having wakened when his father attempted to change his diaper, had needed a good bath after all the rough housing with his uncles. Afterwards, dressed in his cool summer pajamas, I kept him awake just long enough to greet his adoring great-grandparents, but he was so tired he barely even looked at his ‘goodie bad’. Within minutes, he was once again nodding in his father’s arms, so Billy and I took him downstairs and stayed with him, rubbing his back until he was sound asleep. He never even knew when the neighbor’s daughter arrived, and I knew he would not wake until the wee hours of the morning, but still left her the number of the funeral home, just in case.
In a cortege, the family left the house on Spaulding Drive for the funeral home and the ‘viewing’. I had never been ‘family’ at any other death, but now I was center stage as the only female in the clan of McConnell men. Billy told me I looked pretty in the little black dress I had since high school since there had been no time to shop that evening, but I had never cared much for the color. I liked my clothing feminine and pastel or jewel tones, not the harsh black, or even the warm colors of fall. I am sure though Billy sensed my uneasiness being the center of attention with a vortex of new faces revolving around me, and he kept his arm firmly around my waist or his hand holding mine. He looked so very handsome in his uniform, and when he asked me if he should change into his old dark suit, I told him I had always loved men in uniform and the suit certainly no longer fit properly, so he had little choice, and I was so very proud to be his wife.
The viewing room was not open to visitors until the family had the first ‘look’ at the deceased, and I will never forget what I saw when I looked at Helen’s corpse caressed by the soft velvet lining of the expensive casket. Her tiny body enrobed in the folds of filmy pink fabric that comprised her shroud, the one I had chosen earlier this very day. Instantly, I knew she was at peace now, but obviously quite dead. She did not look like the same woman with her makeup applied so meticulously and every hair in place, rather a ‘real’ person who I had never known.
Was this still the same day? Had all of this taken place in less than twelve hours? I felt as if it had been at least a week and I was exhausted. Billy, too, looked tired, with circles under his eyes since his day had begun even earlier than my own, and this was his mother lying there in the casket of warm cherry in the rapidly shrinking room, or so it seemed. Flowers had already begun to arrive, the familiar cloying sweet smell I had first experienced with my grandmother filled the room, and I wanted to run! Then I wanted to reach out to Billy, and to hold him in my arms as we approached the casket together. He held my hand firmly, perhaps thinking what if it had been me lying there so still, and then he wrapped his arm protectively and possessively around my shoulders. Surely, I thought, now that he sees her, he will cry, but once again, I saw that combination of anger and resignation on his face, and he did not utter a word, nor did even one tear appear in his eyes. He was tired and in shock, I thought, and it will hit him at the funeral tomorrow, then he will really need me, but again I was wrong.
I cannot remember if the boys came to the funeral home with us that night like Gene insisted, but I think not since both Gram and Bubba thought it would be too much for them. It had been upsetting enough to find their mother dead in her bed, and I believe Gene finally agreed they had been through enough for one day and should not see their mother in her coffin until right before the funeral. Although this had not been his choice, just too many others had thought it best for them to stay home. For now, he wanted to appear the perfect father, considerate of the feelings of his young sons.
It was poor Bubba who almost fell to pieces weeping while Pop and her oldest son, Charles, held her up to keep her from collapsing. I am sure this seemed a nightmare to her when she saw her only, and ‘perfect’, daughter lying in a coffin, regardless how expensive, and it was more than she could bear. Now she was the one I was most concerned about, and that is when I finally broke down and cried. When I saw Bubba so stricken with grief, I thought if anything got through to Billy, it would be his beloved grandmother’s inconsolable anguish, but it did not happen. Perhaps tomorrow, when the boys were with us it would finally hit him.
My tears were not for Helen, but for Bubba who never thought she would have to bury her only daughter. She and Pop had already buried a son during World War II when as a pilot in training in Florida he had crashed and died. I had seen photos of the handsome Edwin in his Army Air Force uniform and I could only imagine the family’s pain. Gram and Poppa had also lost a son, Charles, during the war, in a motorcycle accident when he was on leave, on his way to Atlanta for Christmas before shipping overseas. I had not seen photos of him, but from what I understood, he was a handsome young man with a wild spirit. Nevertheless, parents do not expect to have to bury their children, and I could only pray Bubba would find the strength to get through tonight and tomorrow, and the rest of the days that she would have to live without her daughter. Perhaps Billy, Michael, and I could bring some sunshine into her life; I certainly hoped so.
Billy stood looking at his mother for a long time. Her face was uncovered, but there was glass over the top of the coffin so she could not be touched. Billy peered at her, and said later she looked like she was sleeping, and he expected her to knock on the glass and ask him to get her out of there. He also saw the red marks around her throat and unbelievably, he was positively convinced his father strangled her, and with the help of his friend, the owner of the funeral home, they had rushed the embalming that prepared her body for the burial, and wiped out any evidence of a crime. Then there was Gene’s insistence on not having an autopsy performed, and the hasty funeral.
By now, Billy could not even look at his father, and when he came into his line of sight, Billy turned away and whispered, "You bastard!" I knew I was going to have my hands full before this was over, and the accusations to his father became verbal.
I just wanted to go home – home to our little apartment, so cozy and comfortable, and take my son and my husband away from all this madness. It was like a circus. Just as Billy had intimated earlier that afternoon, and the room was jam packed with well-wishers, although Billy said they were only there out of curiosity since his mother did not have any friends. I tried to explain they were here for his father, or for him and the rest of the family, but obviously, he was not convinced. Even some of Billy’s old high school friends had come, and Billy introduced me to each one in turn, but I thought they were here more out of curiosity to get a glimpse of his wife! I just hoped they were satisfied! I know I was since Billy never once left my side, and kept his arm protectively around my waist as he introduced me to everyone who came up to speak to him.
Oh my but how he had changed since his high school days! How filled out and handsome he was, and a full 3 inches taller! No one ever looked better in a uniform than did my handsome husband, hair or no hair, and I glowed in his presence since now he was all mine!
Crowds of Griffin citizens, and even some childhood friends from Atlanta, and friends of Bubba, Pop, Gram, and Poppa were there. Parents of friends of all the boys came to pay their respects and, of course, with Gene as a deacon in the church, president of The Ruritans, and past president of other organizations, a founding member of The Country Club of Griffin, it seemed as if the entire town had turned out. In a daze, I met hundreds of people, but I never remembered even one. Billy seemed to become angrier and angrier as the crowds kept coming to sign the funeral book, to shake Gene’s, Billy’s, and my hands, and I could not interpret his anger. Was he still angry with Gene? Had I done something or said something to offend him? Did I not look nice enough to meet all of the people who filed past the family whispering their regrets? Surely not, since he kept me firmly by his side, and even pulled me closer to him.
I hoped by the time we got back to the house and everyone had left for the night he would talk to me again and tell me why he was so angry, but now was not the time or the place, so I said very little. Just once, on tiptoe, I whispered, "I love you" into his ear, and this brought a smile to his face, as he said, "Me too," he squeezed my hand and put his arm back around my waist. At least I knew he was not angry with me!
That evening seemed to go on forever and I met more people in those two hours than I had ever met in my entire life. Physically and emotionally overwrought, when we finally reached the house, Billy and I were both relieved Michael was sleeping soundly and had not cried even once. We would have to leave him again for the funeral and the long cortege to Atlanta where, at Bubba’s request, Helen was to be buried in the Smith family plot along with her older brother, and eventually Bubba and Pop. This time the little uncles would be going too, so Michael would not know anyone who offered to watch the house, fix supper for the family, and care for our son. I did not like to leave him behind, and I had hoped we could take him to Atlanta to my aunt’s house, but the procession would leave immediately following the service and there would be no time for a quick side trip to get our son and take him to the other side of town. Besides, we would be riding with Gene and the boys in the limousine behind the hearse.
When we finally excused ourselves and went downstairs to Billy’s room, which I now felt was officially ‘our’ room; he instantly pulled me into his arms and told me how much he loved me and how horny I had made him at the funeral home! He said all he was thinking about was getting out of there and getting me home to bed, and he knew he was the envy of his friends since he had such a pretty, little wife. I knew far more than that had been on his mind, and I hoped after a long hot shower together, and after we made love, he would eventually talk to me. This had always been when we had most of our serious conversations, and we both listened intently to the other; when the house was still and all were sleeping. It was then we felt truly alone and ‘safe’.
As usual, our shower outlasted the hot water, but since everyone was long in bed there was no one to complain, although on one of our visits, his father mentioned he noticed sometimes when he got up to shave there was not much hot water! I had thought it would heat up faster than that! We lathered each other, lingering on one another’s sensitive parts, and it was all we could do to dry off before, totally naked, we were making love, although discreetly under the sheets, just in case our son woke up. Once again, Billy told me not to worry about it being a ‘bad time’, as he carried me to the moon with him over, and over again. Little did I know I was already with child.
Finally, sexually sated and relaxed, Billy, propping is head on his elbow turned to me and said, "You know, I really do think he killed her."
Although I had heard him state this earlier, I was still shocked! I did not understand how he could think that about his own father, the father he professed to love so much he did not want to disappoint him when I was pregnant that first time. Calmly, I asked why he thought so, and he said there was no reason to have glass over his mother’s face since she had just died early the same day, usually glass was used when some time had passed between the death and the viewing, and certainly this was not the case with his mother. There had been no mention of glass earlier that afternoon at the funeral home. Billy thought his father did not want anyone to ‘see’ the bruises on his mother’s throat so his friend had covered them up the best he could, then added the glass so if anyone else noticed them, they could not ‘touch’ her or move her head to get a closer look. I had to admit I had not looked all that closely since I had been horrified by the sight of her lying there so still, so dead, but Billy swore he saw the bruises, and he never changed his mind, rather he became even more convinced by events yet to come.
He also was angry about the huge turnout for the viewing, and repeated his earlier statement that not one of those people had befriended his mother in life, but now they were coming to see her in death because they were just curious. I reminded him how many of his friends, and those of his grandparents from Atlanta had come and how his father was a very well known businessman in Griffin, but nothing I said could change his mind about that either. Certainly, Helen had no friends I knew of, so I thought he might have a point there, but rather than agree or disagree, I remained silent, for now, since we still had the funeral to get through. Billy thought the people who were not her friends, or family, could have come to the funeral to ‘pay respect’ without coming to stare at her in her coffin.
He made me promise two things to him that night. Number one was if anything ever happened to him, he wanted an autopsy, for two reasons. First, he thought I would want to know why he had died, and he was right about that, then, after an autopsy, he certainly could not be alive! Did he think his mother was not dead? Then I remembered his remarks about her looking so alive he would not have been surprised if she had knocked on the glass or smiled at him. Me, I would have wet my pants and passed out cold if she had done either, or maybe even had a heart attack! She looked plenty dead to me and for months, every time I closed my eyes, I saw her in her coffin, I had no mental snapshots of her in life, just that one last macabre picture in my mind. Billy’s second request was that his casket should remain closed to all but the family since he did not want anyone who barely knew him gawking at his earthly remains. I thought how silly those requests were at the time, after all, we were both so very young and had so many, many years ahead of us - little did I know.
By now, I was barely able to keep my eyes open, and as I fell asleep in my darling’s arms, with his heartbeat echoing my own, I agreed, and then said, "Just be sure you do the same for me."
"You will have to ask someone else, darling, since if you die, my own heart will stop beating too, so we need to write it in our wills," he murmured, and we both finally fell fast asleep. Instead of dreaming about Helen in her casket, that night I dreamed about a handsome young soldier, who loved me as much as I loved him, and I slept peacefully knowing this was not a dream at all – I had caught the golden ring, and I would hold onto him for dear life and never let him go.
The funeral was not until 1:00 p.m., but family was already filling the large house by the time I woke up. Billy and Michael were not in the room, but I had not heard either of them awaken. I must have been even more tired than I realized. After I brushed my teeth and washed the sleep out of my eyes, I slipped on a pair of shorts and went up to the den to find my boys. Billy was lying on the floor in a pair of his old fatigue pants and a white t-shirt, playing with Michael, and with all the boys wrestling and rolling around on the floor with him. It was obvious they worshiped their big brother and it was always such a happy occasion when we came to Griffin. Unlike their parents, their hearts were as big as the whole outdoors and all had welcomed me and accepted me as their ‘big sister’, and eventually when Michael was born, he immediately became their ‘little brother’, not their nephew. Gene was getting ready to take them to the barbershop for haircuts and to shop for new suits before the funeral, and soon after I got upstairs, they left with their father, but not before they all gave me good morning hugs and kisses.
Gram was in the kitchen, and I have always thought that Southern women have a ‘need to feed’, especially when there is a family crisis, so Gram was cooking, although the huge refrigerator was full of prepared food, and Poppa was reading the morning paper. They must have risen at dawn to get down here so early. Bubba, Pop, and other family members were in other rooms of the house and Michael went to each one for hugs and attention. He was such a gregarious little boy, so much like his father in disposition that I often wondered if someday a very lucky woman would fall as much in love with him as I was with his father. How would I take it? Could I love her and not treat her as Helen treated me? I thought I could because I loved my son too much to lose him, and I knew Helen ‘lost’ Billy completely.
Yes, I knew I would love anyone who loved my son, as long as she treated him well and loved him as much as I loved his father, if that was even possible. I watched Billy as he interacted with the family, and I could tell that he was not even vaguely aware of how special he was to all of them.
When he saw me standing in the kitchen alone, he came over, put his arms around me, and whispered, "Do you think we made another baby last night?"
I answered I could not be sure, but it was possible, and would he be upset? He immediately told me it was time for another McConnell boy, particularly since he made first Lieutenant in June and received his big pay raise. I was not so sure about having another baby so soon, and I knew no pay raise would ever be big enough for Billy! He had still not outgrown his ‘rich boy’ spendthrift ways, but if we had another baby, we both would have to tighten our belts another notch, just when I was able to buy ice cream without worry! I was not thinking about a baby right now although I knew it was possible I was already pregnant, or else the shock of Helen’s appearance in the church at Easter had delayed my period, and I could pray it was the latter, but I seriously doubted it.
The house was overflowing over with food and family, the doorbell continued to ring as more and more casseroles, cakes, pies, and cookies, everything edible came through the door courtesy of the women of the church, the Lion’s Club, and on and on. I was glad Gene had a big freezer in the laundry room since this was far too much food for us to eat even the next week, but I was sure I would not have to cook! However, this day, no one really felt like eating, nor did we sit down and share a meal together, it just seemed as if everyone ate whenever hungry. The dining room table overflowed with ham biscuits, egg strata, cheese grits, bacon and sausages, plus more as the doorbell continued to ring and another dish brought into the kitchen, marked with the donor’s name, which I then copied onto a list someone had begun earlier. Someone was going to have a lot of ‘thank you’ notes to write, and it would not be me!
After breakfast, Billy asked Gram if she could look after Michael while he took me to town to look for a new black dress since my suit was too warm for a July afternoon. Of course, she and Poppa both agreed, and we were able to get away together for about an hour. Billy took me to his mother’s favorite dress shop, and when I looked at the prices, I was appalled! We could not afford any of these clothes! Billy insisted the saleslady show me what she had in a summer weight black dress, and finally I settled on a black pique with cutouts around the short sleeves and on the bodice of the ‘popover’ top. While I tried it on, Billy convinced her that his father would be pleased if she added this to his mother’s tab since that was one bill he would not have to pay any longer. After she thought about the business she was losing, she was more than happy to send the bill to Gene, and once again, my convincing husband had won the battle.
When I came out of the dressing room wearing the dress that fortunately did not even require alterations since it was a petite, Billy said, "That’s it, Mrs. McConnell! That’s the one. You look great! Just keep it on since we won’t have much time to dress when we get back to the house."
I did as my husband asked, and it was a long time before I ever paid nearly that much for a simple little summer dress again, but I knew I looked nice in it, and the simple lines were slimming. Since it has been so expensive I had been able to wear a much smaller size than usual, and I knew I would feel as well dressed as anyone there, and that pleased me more for my husband than for myself. I wanted him to be proud to introduce me as his wife, since I was always so proud of him.
We had barely gotten back to the house, and I was feeding Michael his lunch while Billy changed back into his uniform when Gene returned with the boys. After they ate lunch, they went to their room to get dressed for the funeral, and Gene told us he wanted to talk to Billy and me in private, although neither of us had a clue what he wanted. I was almost afraid Billy was going to accuse his father of strangling his mother, and this was not the time or the place. Surprising me, Gene did mention he liked my dress, and Billy told him he was glad since he had paid for it, but Gene said nothing except what he had on his mind.
He told us he had made reservations to leave the next morning to go to the mountains with the boys for 5 days, and he repeated his request to have the house emptied of anything that belonged to Helen. He told me to take what I wanted or could use, and to give the rest to the church, or let the maid have it. I wondered if this was a good idea to erase completely her existence from the home where her sons had grown up, but this was what Gene wanted done, and although suspicious about why his father wanted his mother’s presence obliterated so quickly, Billy agreed to abide by his wishes, for now. It was then that Gene ‘paid’ to keep us quiet, and to accomplish this arduous chore without complaint, he handed Billy a check for $2000 and told him to buy a new car so we could visit Griffin more often! Billy was stunned by the check, and he still had many things he wanted to talk about with his father, but I knew my husband well enough to know he was not about to turn down a new car!
"Besides," as he said later, "I had my family’s safety to think about, and I worried every time you drove that old piece of junk." Yes, Gene knew his son, and he knew this check would buy more than a car, but perhaps his silence too, although I was not too sure about the last part.
The limousine from the funeral home was due to arrive in about half an hour, and Michael was not quite sound asleep after I rocked him in Gene’s huge chair while he held his own bottle since he would not allow me to hold it for him anymore. At least he still liked me to rock him, and I knew I would dread the day he no longer wanted me to do that. By then, surely, I would have another little McConnell boy to rock, and I could allow my firstborn to be less dependent on me and me on him. Finally, his little eyelids began to get heavy; Billy carefully carried him downstairs to our bedroom where we all could have some peace and quiet. Poor little fellow was all worked up and excited from the attention given him, and we needed some time just for our family to be alone together. Billy had brought the rocking chair from the living room downstairs the night before when the house was in bedlam, so I was able to ‘escape’ and rock our son where it was quiet and cool. Billy stretched out on the bed and watched me as I rocked him to sleep.
Softly I sang all the little songs I found so soothing, ‘Jesus Loves Me’, ‘Tu-Ra-Lu-Ra-Lu-Ra (it’s an Irish lullaby)’, ‘Only Believe’, and several other old hymns, and a sweet song from the one summer I spent at Girl Scout camp about a ‘Whippoorwill’. I always sang softly since I had not inherited my father’s singing voice. Fortunately, I did not have my mother’s total tone deafness, and I could carry a tune, but the singing voice had definitely carried genetically in the male line only, as both of my brothers sang like angels.
I thought surely Billy would fall asleep since he had been so busy these past two days, but instead he just watched us, and finally he said, "You know, I just feel so sorry for my brothers that they never had a mother like you."
It was then that my tears started falling and I never again managed to get them quite under control until the entire ordeal of the day was over when Billy, Michael, and I were once again alone. Billy slowly unfolded himself, and rose from the bed, then took our sleeping son from my arms and laid him gently into the playpen, well padded with blankets and a soft old quilt. We would be long gone before he awoke, but this time the little boys would not be here to keep him company. I hoped he would be all right, but my first duty now was by my husband’s side as the family buried their wife and mother.
The new black dress was even more flattering with the right accessories than it looked in the shop, and I would have sworn I had lost five pounds just yesterday. Then I realized I had forgotten to eat the past two days, or had eaten very little, tasting none of it. Just as soon as I put on my makeup, I combed my hair and pulled it off the back of my neck with a neat black bow. Billy polished the brass on the front of his blouse where it had been smeared from hugs the night before, and soon Gene tapped softly on the door without opening it, and told us the cars were here to take us to the chapel and then to Atlanta.
Gene, Billy, the boys and I rode in the first car while the car carrying Bubba, Pop, Gram, and Poppa followed behind. The parking lot at the funeral home was completely full with cars overflowing into the side streets all around the entire block, so we knew the small chapel would be overflowing too. Quickly and quietly, the family was ushered into a small room off to the side for the ‘final viewing’ before the lid to the coffin would be closed for good, but I stayed behind in the doorway not wanting to see her again. I watched as Billy took his brothers up to the coffin, with Charles frantically looking for his father and for Bubba, and while the boys and the grandparents cried, Billy’s face remained stoic. Little did I know that not only was I watching him, but also a very displeased Bubba, just as she was watching Gene, and she did not like what she was seeing, not one single bit. Neither Gene nor Billy shed one tear, although she noted I cried almost the entire day. I was worried about Billy, and I dreaded he might have one of those ‘delayed reactions’ after all of this was over, or was he being strong for his brothers? I could not hold my feelings for these little boys inside, and I broke down in tears once again as I watched their pitiful, tear-streaked little faces.
Bubber continued to watch her oldest grandson, and once I thought he looked as if tears were on the verge of flowing when his little brothers clung to him in their grief, but Gene never altered the expression on his face. I am sure that long ago Helen had killed any love there was between them, and I knew for a fact they had not been intimate for years, at least not since they had conceived Charles.
She had not wanted a fourth child, as she once explained to me. She wanted a second so Dickie was not raised an only child as Billy had been, and David was conceived, but Charles was a total surprise, and not a pleasant one, in her own words. She had refused to accept or acknowledge her pregnancy and never once went to see the doctor. As a result, Charles was born premature and almost died when a nurse accidentally unplugged his incubator. Helen found him almost blue, and quickly plugged it in, so begrudgingly, I had to give her credit for that much. Once he was born, he was hers and she loved him, in her way, but she never loved any of the three younger boys the way she did Billy, and that had been my mistake, falling in love with and marrying her favorite son.
Billy left his brothers with his father when he saw me standing back in the doorway with tears running down my face, and he handed me some tissues he had brought just for today. He held me close to him as the warm tears washed away all the makeup I had so carefully applied just a few minutes ago. Oh well, I was sure once Gene took those young boys into the chapel, there would not be a dry eye out there either. How sad to be motherless so young, even if she was not the perfect mother, she had been there some of the time, perhaps not sober, but there.
I could hear the chapel’s organ faintly playing the traditional hymns when the funeral director came into the small room and closed the casket, for the final time. Suddenly it seemed as if Bubber was once again going to faint, but again Pop and Charles kept her from falling, although she could no longer stand on her own, rather propped between her oldest son and her husband. As the family filed into the front two rows of seats in the chapel. I felt strange being third, right behind my handsome husband and his father, and behind me came Dickie, then David and Charles, then Bubber and Pop, Gram and Papa. Seated in the order of ‘closeness’ to the deceased, and as the wife of the oldest son I was by his side. I just felt strange preceding her younger sons, parents and brothers, but Billy held my hand and pulled me close to him. I put my arm around Dickie during the service and Charles moved over between Bubber and Pop so Bubber could keep her arm around both he and David.
I heard sobbing from behind me during the short service, but before I knew it, we were once again being ushered up the aisle to the front doors, behind the casket, where the hearse and the limousines were waiting. What was I doing here? I had the feeling again I did not belong in such an important role, but I was here, and there was nothing I could do about it. I just went along for the ride, clinging to my husband’s arm and keeping an eye on the boys. Desperately I wanted to be back at the house, which was now a comfortable place for me to be. I wanted to rock my son and sing the old hymns to him, but that would have to wait while I joined Gene, the boys and my darling Billy, in the limousine for the drive to Atlanta.
The drive was long with the hearse never going over 45 mph, even on the Expressway. It was late afternoon when we finally pulled into the gates of Forest Lawn Cemetery where the Smiths had their family burial plot. As we parked behind the hearse, I could see a canopy set up about midway into the lawn straight ahead of us and already people were gathering around the perimeter. The casket was carried to rest over the open grave, and the family once again followed along behind and were seated in the same order as we had been in the chapel. This time Gene brought Charles up to sit on his lap, and Billy and I put David between us so each boy had an adult on either side of him. As much as I longed to sit by my husband with his arm brushing my own, it was far more important the boys feel the security of those they loved and those who loved them.
Graveside, the service was even briefer than the first, and the family was ushered away before the gravediggers began the task of lowering the coffin into the ground and covering it with dirt. By now Bubba was almost incoherent and since their home was nearby, she, Pop and Helen’s brothers and their families left in one direction, while Gene, Billy, the boys and I headed back to Griffin. The hearse and the funeral director stayed behind until the casket disappeared into the ground, the grave filled in, and the flowers arranged attractively, covering the raw, red, brick hard Georgia clay.
Back in the limousine, once again tucked under my husband’s protective arm with my head resting on his broad shoulder and my eyes half closed, I thought if we could be thankful for anything, we could be thankful it had not rained or been brutally hot today. Yes, I guess there was always at least one thing to be thankful for when bad things happened. Forever the optimist, I thought I certainly would never see the day there would not be something to be thankful for, however that day was just waiting for me to catch up to it.