Mr. Bradley died! Mr. Bradley died!
This was unbelievable! I had seen people get shot on “Gunsmoke,” but I’d never known anyone who had actually died. I knew I was supposed to cry when someone died but I couldn’t manage it. First of all, Mr. Bradley was an old grouch. He wore khaki pants and shirt and an old gray felt hat with oil stains around the hat band. He was really selfish. He had built us a chicken house. When I went out later to investigate, I found thirteen dollars rolled up lying In the chicken poop just inside the chicken house. I went flying in the house with my treasure to show Mother. I was of the opinion, “finders keepers, losers weepers” but Mother took me straight to the Bradleys’ to see if Mr. Bradley had lost money. He had…thirteen dollars. I held the money out to him, expecting him to say, “Just keep it” like my parents did when I found a nickel or dime they’d dropped. He snatched that money and stuck it straight in his pocket, grumping something at me. I was very disappointed in his bad manners.
Anyway, a few days later he died, probably of selfishness. Mother baked a three layer chocolate cake and took to his house without even giving us one bite!! Now he had my thirteen dollars and my chocolate cake. I didn’t know what a dead man needed a chocolate cake for, but nobody asked me. The good news was, his funeral was the next day. I was in the second grade and wise to the ways of funerals. Kids got to skip school for funerals. The bad news was, I wasn’t skipping school. Mother pointed out kids only got to skip for a family funeral. I looked around hopefully at my family, but they all looked disgustingly healthy.
Billy hadn’t started school yet, so he was going. That really made me mad. Little kids got everything. While I trudged off to get on the bus, he waved and grinned.
He was waiting for me at the door that afternoon with all the details. The funeral was scary. “Miss Alice and the big girls cried a lot. Miss Alice kissed Mr. Bradley’s cold, dead lips, he sat up in the coffin, held his arms out and said, ‘ Ughhhh, Ughhhh, Ughhh.’ Miss Alice screamed and fainted. It took two men to wrestle him back down and shut the coffin lid on him. Everyone else screamed and ran out.” I was furious he got to see all that while I was stuck in school. Mother said none of that happened. “Billy talked during the service and had to be taken out.” I knew better. I had missed the most exciting event of my life while I was stuck in school.
Not long afterward my luck changed. A family member died. I was going to a funeral!! Even though I’d never heard of her, Great Aunt Nora was now my favorite relative simply by being gracious enough to die and provide me with my first funeral experience. I would have loved her more had her funeral gotten me out of a day of school, but I was still thrilled!! We got up early Saturday morning, put on our best clothes and started the long drive to the funeral. Mother didn’t bake a cake since we were “family” and would go to her home afterwards for visitation and a meal. Hot dog!!!! Maybe someone would bring chocolate cake.
The funeral was more than I had hoped for. The church was old, dark, and obviously haunted. We were late as always and crept into a back pew. I was disappointed not to get to sit with family, but the back pew was better for getting the full show. Mother lined us up on the pew in hopes of maintaining maximum control. She held Marilyn, the little baby and made Billy sit right next to her. Phyllis sat in the middle, holding Connie, the big baby. I was stuffed in between Phyllis (Miss Perfect) and Daddy. I gave the funeral my full attention. . Aunt Nora was laid out in a coffin in front of the altar with only her beaked nose visible over the edge. All I could really see was the backs of the mourners, two old ladies together with some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins who got there in time to be “family.” The old ladies cried some during the hymns, but the real show started at the end when the family filed by for the final viewing. Anna Mae and Theo, the ancient, bereaved daughters were supported by my uncles as they approached their mother’ body. They had to have been in their late seventies since Aunt Nora was ninety-eight. I’d never seen anything like them. They were the skinniest women I’d ever seen, wearing satin dresses and hats from their much earlier and plumper days. Anna Mae was in an crusty black satin dress. It was shockingly low cut, especially on an old lady with no bosoms to flaunt. Theo wore an equally interesting red dress with a daring sheer lace bodice. Both girls had probably been enchanting when they last wore those outfits back in their twenties. Their black hats had sequined veils draped alluringly over their faces. They were both so emaciated their seamed stockings drifted in the breeze around their legs. The rhinestones going up the seams their stockings more than made up for the roomy fit.
The best was yet to come. Uncle July held Anna Belle and Uncle Ed held Theo as they stood before their mother for the last time. They each kissed their Mother’s cold, wrinkled lips and erupted into howls of grief. They were pretty lively for old ladies. Theo fainted first, inspiring her sister. My uncles looked like they wished they were any place else as they lowered them to the floor while trying to keep the oversized clothes in place. Just as they got one situated, the other would rouse up. Buoyed by her grief, she’d would rush to the coffin and start all over. Eventually, they wore themselves out and allowed themselves to be led out.
Aunt Nora’s house was a relic from the Civil War era, not a well-maintained showplace, just a relic. It was in the older part of town. The fence was so overgrown with bushes the house was not visible, even though the front door was no more than twenty feet from the street. The house was huge, but decrepit. We had to walk carefully to avoid holes in the porch. There was actually an organ in the creepy entry way, just like in horror movies. The living room was cluttered beyond belief. Spider webs hung like draperies in the corners. Cats lounged on all the furniture. Mother looked around briefly for a place to lay her sleeping baby. Anna Mae tried to shoo a big Tom Cat off the sofa, but Theo said, “Leave him be. He’s dead.” Mother said not to bother. She’d been sitting all morning.
The best was yet to come. When Anna Mae and Theo took off their mysterious hats, I couldn’t believe their faces. They were heavily made up, faces powdered deathly white, blood red lipstick feathering out into a multitude of wrinkles surrounding their lips, circles of brilliant pink rouge on their bony cheeks. Jet black eyebrows were drawn in the approximate eyebrow areas, giving the overall impression of startled mania. Wispy crowns of frizzed, jet black hair bushed out, apparently relieved to free of the musty hats. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
I could hear the sounds of a meal being prepared in the next room. Maybe there would be chocolate cake. We were summoned into the enormous dining room, where someone had recently cleared the table of rubbish and cat hair. Mother looked around in a panic and said, “Oh no, we just ate.” an obvious lie since we had all just come from the service with the rest of the group . Daddy shot her a look, and we got in line.
Mother went first, fixed us paper plates from the dishes with covers, and sent us out to the porch to eat, far out of cat territory. Sure enough, there was a beautiful chocolate cake in the center of the table, complete with fluttering cat hair, but Mother wouldn’t let us have any. She warned us not to even ask for coconut pie. She and Phyllis fed the babies, shooing the cats out of their food, while Daddy reminisced with his relatives. The cats resented the invasion of their territory, and spent the entire time trying to jump on the table. They walked daintily, stepping over plates and utensils, never disturbing anything but prissy guests. One of my aunts tried discreetly to remove some of the dishes the cats had stepped over, but Theo said not to bother. The cat hadn’t dropped any fleas. The old ladies fed the cats off their plates. When I asked to use the bathroom, Mother told Daddy we had to get on home. He said he wanted to visit a little longer, but for once, Mother got her way and we left. She must have had to go, too. She made Daddy stop at a service station, let everyone use the bathroom, and made us all wash up. Even the babies got a washup and they hadn’t touched anything
Daddy had an incredible capacity for overlooking bizarre, inappropriate, or hormone-driven behavior in his relatives while zeroing in on anything Mother and us kids might do, attributing our shortcomings to “Mother’s crazy family.” His family could have frolicked naked on the town square and he’d have only complimented their grace, while we got in trouble for wiggling in church. I had a million questions and knew asking the most interesting first would end the conversation. Daddy was always on the lookout for opportunities to keep us on the straight and narrow, so I played stupid first. “Those were beautiful dresses. I’ve never seen anything so fancy.” Daddy explained they must have had those dresses for years. “But they’re so fancy with all those diamonds and lace, and the backs of their stockings had diamonds. Mother, can you get stockings with diamonds?” Daddy answered for her. “No she can’t. Now be quiet. “
Knowing I had overshot the mark and would glean no more information, I smothered my grief with boredom and slept the rest of the way home, dreaming of the next funeral I’d be lucky enough to attend.