Mr. Bradley and the Old Floozies

imageMr. 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.

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Don’t She Look Natural

Aunt Ellie's Funeral
My mother was raised during The Great Depression. This is her story and illustration of her Aunt Ellie’s funeral.

The events surrounding Aunt Ellie’s death were a real treat for me since the two of us hadn’t invested much affection in each other. The wake was unforgettable with all its glorious food: fried chicken, peach cobbler, deviled eggs, bread ‘n butter pickles, dainties not seen outside “dinner on the grounds.” Sprinkled with carbolic acid, Aunt Ellie lay in a pine box stretched across two sawhorses in our living room. Folks tiptoed through, speaking in reverent whispers, “Don’t she look natural?” and “Ain’t she purty?”

Luckily for me, Mama couldn’t read minds or I’d have been eating standing up the next couple of weeks. She might ‘a been purty a hunnerd years ago, but I hadn’t never seen nothing “purty” ‘bout ‘er, bony and wrinkled as a prune, ol’ dry snuff ‘round ‘er mouth” Her ol’ crazy hair stuck up like a nest ‘a sting worms. She’d a skeert a person to death had if they’d ‘a met ‘er in the dark. Least she smells better dead.’

All the family came. The men sat with the body round the clock to protect it from the horror of desecration by varmints or house cats. Women-folk bustled in the kitchen, initially sharing woeful tales of death and illness, before branching off into ever-lasting business of child-bearing. New brides and rosily pregnant young wives studied snaggle-toothed old women, either dried-up and stick-thin, or walking barrels with pancake breasts hanging to their waists sure, they could have never been young or pretty enough to catch a man’s eye. In return, they were rewarded with horrifying tales of five-day labors and gruesome deformities, enough nightmares for the rest of their pregnancies. Folk sat around talking and parents weren’t quite as likely to run kids outdoors. Perhaps “not speaking ill of the dead” relaxed the old standby “children should be seen and not heard.” Old family stories were dusted off and embellished for the new generation. The best storytellers theatrically saved their best till the moment was right: Grampa Holdaway and his starving buddies roasting an unfortunate turtle over a campfire as they were marched to a Union Prison Camp in Illinois; Uncle George gored by a stampeding Longhorn cow; Daddy and Uncle Jim tossing cats and dogs off the roof of the Primitive Baptist Church during revival, making folks think the rapture had come. Kids hung on every word, never realizing their own great-grandchildren would beg for these same stories long after their ancestors were dust.

Ah, the funeral! Up till now, though I’d attended dozens, I’d never enjoyed the prestige of being a “member of the family,” though I knew the order of the funeral service by heart. The dearly departed lay in state on altar, surrounded by all the flowers the community could heap on them. The front pews were saved for “the family”, their grief showcased to best advantage. All eyes followed as they somberly took their places in the seats of honor. Strong men supported those most devastated, either by love or guilt, a topic of open debate by attendees. Following a eulogy so lovely the honoree couldn’t have recognized him or herself, the saddest hymns known to Christendom, and exhortations for the lost to mend their sinful ways. Next, the community filed by to pay their last respects, ostensibly leaving the family to their last private moments with their loved one. In fact, many intrigued guests filed back in and took their seats to see how the family “took it”, noting every utterance, cry, or wail to interpret at leisure for those unfortunate enough not to have made it to the entertainment. With any luck, mourners shrieked, fainted, rent their clothes, climbed in the coffin, confessed their sins to the corpse, or just generally made it worth the time it took to go to a funeral. Just once, I’d tried to join the line that circled back to see “how they took it” but Mama convinced me not to try that again. She usually towed me out the door to the home of the mourners to red up for the after funeral dinner and often left as soon as the family got back without even a bite of the luscious fried chicken or a crumb of chocolate cake. ‘Boy!! Was Mama mean!!’

Finally, finally, I was a fully qualified mourner, a member of the family, entitled to a front pew. Of course, Cousin Katie got the seat of honor, with that mean Johnny, right next to her. Daddy, Aunt Ellie’s only living brother was next to Johnny, then Mama, where she had a straight shot at me and John if we even looked like we might wiggle. For as long as I could remember, Margaret Lucille, the preacher’s little girl and Sarah Nell Bond had run up and down the aisles during church services as much as they pleased. Sometimes their mamas sat together and the girls giggled and played together, digging in their Mama’s purses till they were separated. Then they’d put their heads in their mama’s laps and go to sleep, showing everybody their bloomers. I’d always admired them, and one Sunday morning worked my nerve up to join them. As I leaned forward to slip off the pew, I felt a fearsome presence next to me and an iron grip on my arm. I looked up and Mama pinned me to the pew with a deadly look, shook her finger, and hoarsely threatened, “MAY YOU BUH!” I was never foolish enough to rock the boat to later to ask what “MAY YOU BUH!” meant, but it had to be terrible. . I’d never tried to roam during church again, but Mama still didn’t trust me. Years later,when I got the nerve to ask Mama what that fearsome phrase “May you buh!” meant she had no idea what she might have really been saying.

Sitting still throughout the long church service was usually torment, but today I made the most of being “a bereaved family member” and concentrated on looking sad and pale. I considered trying to faint but figured Mama would warm my britches up for me if I messed it up. I’d never kissed Aunt Ellie when she was alive with snuff in the wrinkles around her mouth and wasn’t about to start now, even if it would make a good impression. ‘That was just creepy.’ I hoped the neighbors didn’t notice how much Cousin Katie looked like a purple eggplant as she stood before the coffin, supported by my poor, skinny daddy. I caught my breath when Katie leaned over coffin to kiss Aunt Ellie. Thank Goodness, she didn’t flop like a fish in front of the coffin like a fish, thrilling the neighbors. I’d always enjoyed watching other people clown around at funerals, but didn’t want people poking fun at my family.

After the service, folks filed out to the cemetery for the graveside service, usually an anticlimactic postscript to the funeral: a brief message, a sad hymn or two, and a prayer, but today, Margaret Lucille livened things up a bit. She’d brought her beautiful colored baby-doll along for company, and decided to conduct a funeral of her own off to the side. As always, her parents pointedly ignored her behavior. I seemed to be the only one who noticed. Margaret Lucille dug a little hole in the soft sand nearby, buried her doll and sang along with Aunt Ellie’s service. In fact, she enjoyed the singing so much, she kept right on singing after everyone else was through. Her song only had one verse and no apparent tune. The longer she sang, the louder she got. Her daddy, Brother Sanders went right on with Aunt Ellie’s service, patiently raising his voice to be heard over Margaret Lucille’s caterwauling. Not to be outdone, she sang louder. Each time he raised his voice; she sang ever louder. After a few competing rounds, Brother Sanders gave up and concluded his service as Margaret Lucille enthusiastically sang on.

“OH! My poor little baby’s dead.

My poor little baby’s dead.

I ain’t never gonna see my pore little baby

No more! No more! No more!

As the service ended and mourners filed away from the grave, I looked backed, hoping Margaret Lucille had left the doll buried, planning a grave robbery. No such luck. That baby came straight out of the ground and went home with her. Of course, Mama dragged me home with her as soon as the funeral was over. That night in bed, the two funerals, Aunt Ellie’s and the beautiful colored baby doll’s replayed in my mind till I went to sleep. Even though I knew I’d seen Margaret Lucille disinter and reclaim her baby doll, I still had to go back to the cemetery first thing the next morning and check to be sure. I wasn’t concerned about Aunt Ellie.