Friday, June 13, 2008

"Lillian Shaw"

Lillian Barbara Ishman was my co-worker for the over 20 years I've worked for the State of Con(n). When I was still a brand-nubian I got hoodwinked by another co-worker to go and ask Barbara to perform some task or another. Apparently this second c0-worker knew Ishman didn't like her and would never agree to perform this task (Ishman supervised one of the clerical units) so I unknowingly became the sacrificial lamb. After finding her lair and having a couple of people point her out to me, it took her approximately 15-20 seconds to hear me out, assess my level of stupidity for even thinking of stepping to her with such a bold yet innane request and proceeded to curse me out for whatever I was worth in her estimation. I stayed away from her for the next 2 years, "Mean lady", I'd mutter whenever I was out of her hearing range.

Ishman had battled breast cancer for a number of years and REFUSED to stay home. She came to work bumping into walls, having James, the office "everything man" carrying her pocketbook & totebag upstairs for her, driving her car into the fence in the parking lot too many times to mention. She was beyond frail - she no longer looked like anyone I'd ever met. The only thing that remained the same was her voice and her fight...

Saturday, May 31, 2008

9:30am: A warm, sunny morning gave way to humidity and overcast skies with a forecast of an all day rain. Ishman had lost the fight the Sunday before, May 25, and her memorial service was being held at her longtime church, Macedonia Baptist in the one-horse Connecticut valley town of Ansonia. My co-worker and sister from another mother and father Linda Comen scooped me up and quicker than you could shake a lamb's tail, we were at the church. The first thing I noticed was the compact-ness of everything. The street corner, the parking lot, the church (not that I can talk - since there aren't too many church's smaller than my own!) But this was different - it was a typical church structure: white clapboard, steeple, stairs leading up to the entryway just - compact. Like from another era when people weren't as big as we are now. Whatever. We create a parking space and enter the edifice. The first floor is mainly the vestibule and what appears to be a fellowship hall. We're directed up a narrow staircase and are greeted by ushers who offer us programs and memoriam cards both imprinted with excellent likeness' of Ishman - in her way healthier days. We sign the guest book and enter the sanctuary only to find it pretty much filled up. The absolute back pew is available so I figured we'd better sit our happy cracks down while we could. There are current and former co-workers sprinkled throughout the congregation and more coming in. We got here just in time...

10:15: Silence. More people come in and get in where they can fit in.

10:30: Silence. People are now being directed to the compact choir loft to be seated.

10:35: Silence. Finally a man's voice from what sounded like the front of the sanctuary yelled out: "It's too quiet in here!"
Dead silence.
"It's too quiet in here!" The same voice repeats. I squeeze Linda's arm and think to myself, "Welllll, if y'all had spent a buck and hired an organist/pianist we could have some nice funeral interlude music. Otherwise get somebody to lead a congregational hymn."

10:38: The pastor enters the pulpit. I realize he's the same fella who was "traffic directing" in the miniscule parking lot. He greets the assembly, gives the invocational prayer and has the motley crew of a choir lead a congregational "Blessed Assurance". After old and new Testament scripture readings and a valiant but off-key solo by one of the aforementioned choir members, the reading of the obituary and a few acknowledgements, the "Reverend Dr. David Penn, Pastor" begins his eulogy by referring to the deceased as "Lillian Shaw". I grab Linda's arm again. Now, I've been to funerals where the pastor didn't know the deceased personally, heck I've been to a wedding where the bride was called by some other name throughout the entire ceremony. But dang - this is your last public hurrah - shouldn't somebody make the effort to get it right??? I've got to admit, I didn't really want to listen to much more of what he had to say. He did preach from II Corinthians 5, but his Word, like the rest of this service was pretty darned dry. He kept it moving though and reached for common ground with a little self deprecating humor.

10:50: I noticed a co-worker, Ed Donroe who'd been amongst those sitting in the choir loft get up and leave the stand. His wife was still sitting with the others and then I realized - they were getting ready to sing again. Ed's wife, the only white person up there, stood along with the rest of the choir members too - until one of them gave her the high sign and she scurried back to her seat. Linda and I crack up.

11:00: The benediction is given and this one's a wrap. There's no viewing, I figure she must have been in pretty bad shape physically when she died since she had been withering right before our eyes daily at work for months. She was being cremated and as the congregation came around to pay their respects to the family it was clear that there were at least as many people in the outer sanctuary/vestibule as there was inside. My friend and Ishman's work buddy/confidant Jackie, had left the sanctuary earlier in tears - the only person to do so. I wanted to get outside to check on her. She's fought the breast cancer fight too.

Petite and frail Barbara Ishman was probably one of the physically strongest and determined women I've known. She'd worked at that job for 30 years. 61 years old, married with a grown son and an almost grown granddaughter. She didn't have to work these last few years - she chose to. She didn't want to be home waiting. She wanted to live. She wanted to redeem her time.

She collected clowns. I'd made my peace with her years before when I discovered her passion by turning her on to my old neighbor who made ceramic figurines. Ishman loved her work and had a couple of clowns made. It's always curious to me what people collect - what the signficance is. I never asked Ishman why clowns, I didn't want to risk getting cussed out again. I was just glad I'd made it to her good side.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"Melonie's Dad"

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Meriden, CT

My middle niece, Mimi's best girlfriend Melonie's dad has passed away. The girls have been friends since high school. Mimi's about to start graduate school, Mel's a single, working mom with 2 adorable toddlers. As classmates, my sister's house was the only friend's place Mel's parents would allow her to spend the night. They were the girls in school everybody loved to hate: pretty, smart, personable, talented. Melonie was taking college courses in her senior year. Always polite and respectful, a tiny little wisp of a thing with hair to the middle of her back. Since graduating, the girls' took divergent paths but they've remained friends, supporting each other in the highs and lows of their young lives...

2:00pm: Mimi and I rendezvous after morning worship service in New Haven to make our way to Meriden, about 20 minutes up I-91, before the 1-3pm viewing for Mel's dad is over. It's unseasonably and almost unbearably hot on this late spring afternoon. In anticipation of a long, steamy day (I had another church service to attend at 5:30pm) I wore a black, ankle length linen sundress - black so I wouldn't have to wear a slip - there's a method to my madness. I'd found a curly afro "toupee" to drawstring onto the back of my head - channeling 'Jazmin', the cute little mixed girl that lives next door on "The Boondocks" - except there's nothing remotely mixed about me and I'm as brown as a new penny after spending a week in Maui and a slow roasting at a bbq the day before.

2:35ish: We stop at McD's so I can grab some fries before finding the funeral home further down the same street. We enter the coolness of the parlor nodding hello to a gentleman (director?) sitting in an office to our left as we pass through the hall to the room where all the activity is pouring out of. It looks like a reception or party is happening and we're just in time - we sign the guest book and wade on in. There was a squad of mostly hispanic folk wearing bright green t-shirts with a picture of Mel's dad silk screened on the back. I heard someone say they were his softball teammates. "That's all right," I thought recalling a friend's succinct theory on life - God's way of seeing how well we play with each other. I'm all for going straight to viewing the body and then greeting family/hobnobbing and since this is Mimi's friend I really don't know much of the family anyway, I was preparing for 'observer mode'. The room is long and set up with chairs around the perimeter and towards the back. Up front, presumably for the comfort of the family, are several overstuffed loveseats, a couch and some knockoff Queen Anne chairs. I stop to hug and extend my sympathies to Mel before viewing the body and kneeling to offer a prayer for his soul. He was only 57 and had died of diabetes related complications. His wish was to be cremated and have his ashes scattered at Gillette Castle in East Haddam. Mel and her older sister Ebony planned to honor his request. Both women seem quite composed though Ebony seemed a bit distant; I guess that's what happens when you're not really close to relatives and then find yourself thrust into their midst.

3:00pm: I choose a seat approximately 2 rows behind the immediate family as opposed to moving further back to where the softball team was holding court. I needed to hear and see what was going on or about to. The room was beyond buzzing - it was practically lively. I nudged Mimi and whispered as much - she nodded in agreement. She'd introduced me to Mel's Mom , children and sisters before we sat down so I contented myself with the various interactions until the service began. People came and went paying their respects to the family. A big but pretty hispanic woman walked past with a triple wedgie - her t-shirt, her shorts and ( I hope) her drawers all neatly tucked into the crack of her behind. C'mon. She had to feel that! Mimi and I exchange glances and I simply say: "Funeral blog". I saw one of the 42 women I attended the retreat in Maui with, Rose, who tried to explain the six degress of separation that related her to Mel's dad. Something to do with her husband who she pointed out and introduced me to. A tiny, clean-shaven white man stepped up to the podium and immediately commanded the rooms' attention by his mere presence. A woman admonished Rose (and me too I guess) to quietness. The buzzing stopped as abruptly as the music would during a police raid at Mr. Ray's afterhours joint. He introduced himself as one of the assistant pastor's at Melonie and her mom's church, Living Word, in West Haven. He spoke quietly and sincerely about a man I doubt he'd ever met since when Tyrone Rease was married to Mel's mom they attended a different church. After prayer, words of comfort and acknowledgement of the family the minister offered the podium to...Rose from Maui's husband, James. O.k. this should shed some more light on Tyrone's life especially from a family member's persepective. Or so I thought. When I tell you I took a GOOD nap on that brother's on and on-ness I am NOT exaggerating! All I heard was something about them growing up in the projects and what a good ball player and sports enthusiast Tyrone was. I didn't even care that I was practically sitting in the front row, in his face sleeping - I just know his longwinded 'tribute' was about as interesting as watching hair grow. OH LAWD HAVE MERCY! When I woke up he was talking about how he'd been inspired in his thumbing through the bible , "since I probably don't read it as much as I should" to look for an appropriate "script" for his tribute to use the 23rd Psalm. Coincidentally it was the "same, exact script the minister had his bible opened to!" Begging your pardon James, but isn't that like, the first bible scripture any HEATHEN learns???

3:30: Praise the Lord the dimininutive minister is back! He made more references to Tyrone, his love of fishing, family, etc. and gave the directions to the home where the repast would be held. Since it was such a blazing hot day the family planned to barbeque in the yard, except as soon as we stepped outside from the funeral home it was a totally different day from when we went in. The sky was turning from a dusky grey to a threatening charcoal as we walked to the car. By the time we'd reach the cook-out house it was raining. I tried, I swear I did, but even with synthetic hair on my head I was not trying to stand in the rain in a long, wet linen dress to eat a cheeseburger. We dropped off the beverages Mimi brought and pressed our way back down I91 just as the skies cut loose. RIP, T.

Friday, June 6, 2008

"Mother Kierce"

The date: Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2006 The location: New Haven, CT

On what could have certainly been a more atypical January day in Connecticut, another saint was laid to rest...Mother Annie Dawson Kierce, a stalwart of Church St. South - mom, friend, confidant to many who crossed her path. Due to this dear woman's immense popularity and the way she clearly touched the lives of so many over the years her homegoing service was in funeral parlance "packed out". It is here dear readers that I begin my saga:

The site: Trinity Temple COGIC. I volunteered to usher, "my reasonable service" I thought as I began to plan how much time I'd have to take off from work, when I would have time to cook/bake for the repast and if there would be sufficient heat at the "Temple"....

10:15: Leave work to go home and change into ushering get up, frost the cake I baked the night before after coming in from rehearsal and grab the roasting pan of Stovetop Turkey stuffing I'd made. Tissues (for me), check; hard candy (again, for me), check; eyeglasses so I'll be able to see across the room, check; cash to hit Bishop off, check ...

10:48: Arrive @ the "Temple", find a not-too-faraway parking space on Henry St. - except it's going in the wrong direction- towards Dixwell - for when I get ready to leave. I'm anticipating the need for a clean, quick getaway when this is senses prove to be prophetic...I approach the side door w/the bag of food so I can drop it off in the kitchen before manning my post. The door handle falls off in my hand. I stare at it momentarily - "another omen?" - perhaps, Willie, perhaps..

11:00: The ministerial staff is assembled in the vestibule, I popped a piece of watermelon Duble Bubble, slipped on my gloves & handed the envelope with Bishop's chedda to Pastor Middleton - all systems arrrrrrre GO! "I am the resurrection and the life..."

11:15: I get posted on the far aisle alongside the pews with the family. There's a lot of them - most grieving heavily. Thank God there are 2 seasoned mother's from the Nurses' unit up there as well - except one is on a cane & the other one's got a bad wheel. Oh boy.

11:30: Sheliah McCray-Dawson & Rose Kierce bust through the main entrance - Sheilah first, draped in full-length autumn haze mink, seafoam green, 2-piece knit shot through w/iridescent gold threading, a matching rhinestone encrusted brim-less hat w/matching hatpin and candyapple red peep-toed slingbacks??? Rose bringing up the rear in an all black, simply adorned 2 piece black knit; auburn, chin-length, flipped baby-doll weave, oversized Chanel knock-off sunglasses, bluish-green snakeskin pumps. I go to escort Rose to the family section - Sheilah follows and since they are late they sit approximately 5-6 rows behind family...

11:45: Sheilah begins the "seen and be seen" routine after asking me to get "corrected programs" to the pulpit. I do as I'm instructed, yet she follows me to the rear of the church - am I a half-wit? Can i not carry out this simple task? I maintain the straight, emotion-less expression I've worked on for years - I do not know if I am successful...

11:47: A young woman? man? approaches me as I'm speaking to the head usher, Sis. Stancil, about the "corrected programs" wanting a program. I ask him/her to wait until I finish, he/she walks away...

11:49: I get Sis. Stancil to agree to open the box of corrected programs in Bishop's office - she didn't want to open them in the church because "then everyone would swarm me wanting them" - Sheilah, spangly & sparkly yet without a STITCH of make-up, is still waiting by the main doors - "Do you need me to do anything else for you?" Rose needs the corrected programs too. It's going to be a long funeral...

11:50: The little guy/girl asks me if he/she can go into the pulpit to have remarks - "By all means. And here's your program." It's a she - w/a sweet, clear complexion and voice to match she sings a hymn that makes the family grieve even harder - especially the now obviously OVERWHELMING amount of other little dykes I realize are in attendance - fully 1/3 of the congregation in my humble estimation.

12:00: Rose has remarks - she is extremely composed - sunglasses removed, she brings a bit of levity to the situation by reminding us that her mother would feed a flea-ridden dog, was a true fashion diva and would pass out 50 cent flea market hats in the winter to the bare-headed kids from the projects on their way to school..a good woman indeed.

12:10: Jackie Daniels wobbles up into the pulpit in her trademark black mink beret w/tails and rhinestone pin. She immediately starts talking about herself - per usual - before launching into a shaky, off-key rendition of "Stand"; the little Briarsen Burke fellow tried in vain to follow her on the Hammond B3...Sheilah yelled out "sing Aunt Jackie!". "Please don't" I thought to myself...


"Aunt Esther"

Saturday, August 25, 2007 - Roanoke, Va.
It was 85 degrees by 10a.m. This valley town surrounded by waves of mountains had been blanketed by a thick cloud cover and suffocating humidity for the 3 days I'd already been there. Today the sun was out with a vengeance. My mother's only sibling, my aunt, Esther Turner Trent had died the Sunday before in the hospital after what was generally assumed to be a relatively sudden illness but in all probability was something that had been plaguing her all along - she just didn't tell anybody. That's Aunt Esther. Married for 50-something years to Henry "Big Tom" Trent, 7 kids, 14 grandkids, 25 great grands - she worked nearly up to the day she died. She was a young, vibrant 75. Still driving, still cooking like a fiend, still giving you a thorough cussin' out if you deserved it. That was Aunt Esther.

10:15a.m.:My mama, cousin Judy Turner-Ball-Pannell-Ross and myself arrive at the house on Hanover - the designated gathering spot for the family to depart for the homegoing service at Aunt Esther's church, Pilgrim Baptist. Conveniently, her pastor, Rev. Dwight Steele was also the funeral home director - cool - one stop shopping! The morning before the family had a private viewing at the tiniest funeral home I'd ever been in. Aunt Esther had requested to be buried in a pair of pajamas and sure enough when I went in to see for myself that this woman whom I never thought would die was indeed gone, her girls had honored her request and had her dressed in a cream satin pajama/robe set with a sheer, ivory lace-edged hanky placed over her crossed hands. She had diamond studs in her ears and her always gorgeous jet black wavy hair was fanned around her head. She appeared to be asleep - no apparent pain or torment on her smooth, dark brown face.

Cathy, Butch's widow Mary Alice, Tony's wife Tina, Stacy and a couple of granddaughters were sitting on the porch. The house was already filling up with the many, many relatives and more are arriving by the minute. It's starting to make me a bit dizzy - or maybe it's a combination of the heat, 3 nights on Judy's couch and Ambien. I just want to be home - alone - like I would normally be on a typical Saturday...The white limousines pull up and the funeral director's son who I guess is running things since his daddy's got to officiate the funeral gathers us together for a perfunctory, generic prayer before herding us into cars for the processional. This is accomplished rather smoothly considering the crowd - maybe everyone else is feeling like me - just wanting it to be over.

11:00: We arrive at/enter Pilgrim - a big, beautiful church in the cut/off the main roads of Roanoke. My mom and I had attended a Sunday service with Aunt Esther here once before. I don't remember much about that particular service, just the usual pride of someone whose relatives are visiting their church home for the first time...As soon as we are seated Pastor Steele is at the mic - exhorting and starting a song. I don't realize he's the pastor until later - just didn't expect him to be so involved in the service at this point. It makes sense later on.
A female soloist from the choir stepped up and gave a heart felt rendition of the popular Mary Mary song, "Yesterday". Afterwards, many people that Aunt Esther knew were acknowledged: classmates, former church members, members of the Jr. Usher Board which she was over, neighbors, the Krish's - the family who's home she worked in as a domestic for most of her adult life. The church is packed - she very obviously impacted a lot of folks' lives. That was evidenced by the parade of people who streamed in and out of her house the past few days with platters and bags and containers and pots of food and paper goods and beverages. One woman brought in a pot of string beans cradled in a head scarf. Hey, it worked. To say she was popular in/around Roanoke would be an understatement. It appeared she was an icon of sorts. From thugs to deacons, it seemed everyone knew "Ms. Trent".

11:30: There were 3 tributes given by family members: Tony - her oldest living son, read a poem and was able to hold it together for the most part. Bethany, Cathy's daughter read a "letter" written by Aunt Esther and designated to be opened/read only by her - sort of an instruction for "life after Mama" for her family - most specifically her daughters - and the reminder that she'd "see ya later, alligator!" and finally a lovely original acrostic poem written/read by Wanda, daughter of Aunt Esther's oldest (deceased) son Butch. Not a dry eye in the room...

11:45: Uncle Abner's daughter Tara is sitting on my left - petite and pretty as ever - with her new husband, a taller, lankier version of Col. Sanders (yep - THAT Col. Sanders, of KFC fame) with an earring. Hey, she's beatin' my blank...Cousin Carol Macklin is on my right, a fresh Jheri-Curl with a hat popped on top for posterity, fanning herself. The capacity choir sang one (mercifully) chorus of "Blessed Assurance" - and Pastor Steele was up. 2 Corinthians, 5:1.:"For we know that if your earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." I settle in, "hmmm...this might be interesting." The message/eulogy title was "Moving Day" and Steele deftly developed the analogy between packing/moving in the natural and the spiritual. Moving from life to death, the path we all must take - the great equalizer. He likened our bodies to the Tent that housed the ark of the covenant and how it was moved from placed to place. How our "tents" can become vulnerable to illnesses, violations and storms. How sometimes we are forced to move - evictions; sometimes we choose to move and sometimes we decide it's just time to go back home - wherever that may be, there is truly "no place like home."
This very well may have been the standard text that Pastor Steele used for eulogizing - but it became apparent that he had a relationship with my aunt. He remarked that if Aunt Esther "liked you - you knew it and if she didn't - you knew that too." He said when he'd visited her in the hospital the previous week she couldn't talk but clasped his hand tightly in response to questions. He broke down in tears and prayed over her body that she sleep sweetly until the Angels accompany her on her final move.

12:45: We have the final viewing and her many grand and great granddaughters aren't enough to carry all of the floral arrangements out to be transported to the gravesite. The grandsons too young to be pallbearers help the girls. Her children are pretty composed and even mingle with some of the mourners that they may not have seen the night before at the wake. Judy summons me over to introduce me to a young woman named "Tanya" that according to them is Butch's "other" daughter. "They don't acknowledge me - I'm an outsider." Oooookayyy..."Well, it's nice to meet you just the same and you take care ." I am, for one of the few times in my life, at a loss for words. This is oddly reminiscent of Uncle Sam's funeral/long lost daughter. And Lord knows I don't want a repeat of that scene. "C'mon Judy - we've got to move the car." Eventually we're efficiently lined up to proceed to the cemetery a short drive away. About half way there the processional comes to a dead stop on a busy street. I look at Judy and remark that I hope Aunt Esther's kid's aren't mixing it up in the limo. She immediately starts praying/rebuking that spirit. I see Sandy (Aunt Esther's youngest son) get out of the limo and walk around it - then Tony. Oh Lord - my mama's in the car with them and though she's seemed emotionally detached from this whole process I'm concerned about her. I jump out of the car, hike up my dress and high step it about 7 cars down to the limo. "What's going on?" I ask. "The car broke down," is the response. Oh. Good. THAT I can handle. I scoop Toot out of the limo and ask Butch's best friend Killer who's pushing a shiny, new, navy Chrysler 300 if he can accomodate my mama - he says "absolutely" and helps her into the empty back seat - cushy and air conditioned.

1:00: Somehow we all make it to the cemetery pretty much at the same time, Rev. Steele's suit is getting a bit rumpled in all the heat/commotion and he expedites this portion of the service. After the corporate Lord's Prayer a lone, white dove is released in memory of Aunt Esther. I watch it until it flies out of sight beyond a stand of trees. Immediate family members place hot pink roses on the platinum colored casket. I find a shady spot to stand in until it's time to go.
Aunt Esther - who cooked the best Thanksgiving dinner I've ever had, who defended her children like a pit bull and would rip them (mainly the boys) a new one just as fiercely, whos' razor sharp wit and tongue would leave you speechless, who made cream puffs from SCRATCH, who would have died all over again if she knew all of those negroes were sitting and EATING in her meticulously appointed living room the night before - was gone. I never thought I'd live to see that happen..

"Cousin Jill"

It was all love between Jill and I and that's all that matters now that she's gone - that and the knowledge that her son, Lynn, will be taken care of and loved...

Jillian Dierdra Marlana Pullen died too young at 26 years old, technically Christmas Day, 2006 after having been diagnosed with an operable brain tumor almost a month ago in November. I can't eulogize or obituate (is that a word?) her since she was one of my many, many baby cousins - whom I simple didn't have a chance to spend a great deal of one-on-one time with. An absolutely gorgeous young lady with an infectious smile, my Aunt Ruby reincarnated, she was special. What I can do is give you my version of her homegoing service - in detail:
Jan. 2, 2007
A spectacularly gorgeous winter day in Connecticut - an almost balmy 50 degrees, bright, hard sunshine, not a cloud in the sky - Jill's spirit seems to be everywhere.

10:40am: I find a park on Henry St. on the west side of Trinity Temple. My space is closer to the infamous Cardinals Lounge (aka "Dirty Bird") than to the church, but it's daytime/after the holidays so I don't entertain any thoughts of dodging stray bullets or a random carjacking.
It's family so I don't have to perform any duties - just be there for her sister/brothers and other family who knew/loved Jill like me. I get to dress in my own choice of drag - I'm giving them the 'gangster chick' look w/a grey on grey pinstripe wool pantsuit, black, wool feathered fedora, black pumps, fishnets, bag, tank. Hey, you never know when you might have to bang on a family member who decides to get out of pocket...
The lobby is packed w/black suited men - they all look the same - except for "the nut" (Danny Everson) who'd stand out in a crowd of other weirdos. Then again, I've still got my sunglasses on and purposely avoid any eye contact, this isn't a social hour for me. I don't want to be around half of my family at any given time.
I go straight into the sanctuary, up the middle aisle to view the body. There are a few people left from the 9-11am wake and some family is already seated. Jill looks like she suffered and died. Her sister (and my "special") Dina did her hair and make up yesterday - Happy New Year. Jill's blonde hair has been smoothed straight with a side swept bang, some lipgloss and an almost pained expression her face. You could see the adhesive and needle scars on her hand where her IV was. There are thin, red lines across her eyelids. She looked almost bloated. Yet with all of that, she's still beautiful. I want to see her dimpled smile. She's dressed in white, in a white casket with a small spray of flowers at the top of her head with a tiny banner that simply says: "Mommy". I hold back the flood of tears that threaten to come in spite of my resolve.

11:00: I squeeze in between my sister Kim and cousin Khris - the old dynamic duo. Khris is giving us the Coco Chanel look, and serving it up quite well I might add. Amazingly, with this being another Funky Pullen Funeral Production, the service starts on time. Lynn Jr., Jill's fiance, sits on the front pew next to his dad, (who I like to refer to as "Big Lynn" with his cute self!). He didn't view her body very long, it was apparent he'd been crying and I imagine he was trying to be strong. He worked on a piece of chewing gum throughout the service as though it was what caused Jill to be where she was.
Poor Elder Minister Deacon Bayne was on the Hammond, banging out the same old Baptist hymns he'd been playing for funerals since I'd been a member at Rehoboth. Some things never change. God bless him because his work was about to be cut out for him...
The Processional: "I am the resurrection and the life..." Page Reynolds is leading the way - and all of Rehobie's ministerial staff is in tow - yep, even that nigga Wilbert. Wow.

11:15: Eld. Monte Reynolds gives the invocation and asks the church, which is now packed window to wall -( when did that happen?) to join him in a rendition of what's always been acknowledged as the TURNER family hymn and somehow has now become the PULLEN family hymn "Oh How I Love Jesus". The entire family almost immediately stands as though it were the pledge of allegiance but for the most part no one's feelin' it - except of course, Monte, who's almost already in full gameshow host mode...

11:30: The Old and new testament scriptures are read by Duper and Hashim respectively. Rick gives a perfunctory "prayer of comfort". The fact that Lynn's 2-3 month old teammates from the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks are in attendance is acknowledged. A correction is made: the ENTIRE team AND the coach is in attendance. They all stand. Impressive, especially since they obviously haven't known Lynn, let alone Jill that long. Duper's wife Ann had button/pins w/a picture of Jill made up and SOLD them for $5 a pop. Hardly anyone was wearing them. "Where did the proceeds of the sales go?" I asked innocently. She was dressed in all white as though she were a sibling or close relative, as opposed to the married to-a-cousin chick that she is...Bustling past me in the pew she murmurs, "pray for us" as they announce Dina is going to sing "I Feel Like Going On". I realize belatedly that Ann and Jule along with Monte are the back up singers as she mounts the steps to the choir loft. Dina has a sweet yet healthy alto that's surprisingly steady - at first. She clearly isn't familiar with the song and it appears Joel is feeding her the words as he stands at her side at the lectern. At one point Monte picks up the tune, as loud and sharp as ever. Finally Dina takes it back and ad libs "Jill felt like going on..." finally it's over.

11:45: Bishop Brewer gives some shaky voiced remarks - maybe he doesn't feel well, I think, otherwise, why should he be shook? The Rehoboth COGIC 'chorale' drags out the old funeral chestnut, "Anticipation", which of course, Monte leads. Again, he's "pitchy" (see Gwen, I learned something @ Dr. Clark-Cole's seminar!) Jill's oldest brother Robbie and oldest sister Tina are the only one's designated to have remarks/reflections. Cool. Cuts down on a whole lotta lyin', cryin' and dramatizin'... They both keep it real. Tina goes the warm fuzzy route, Robbie the technical/professional course. Tina notes, "only Jill could get a NBA team to attend her funeral!"

11:55: Lord have mercy, it's time for Jackie (who is now known as "Rubye P. Daniels" - hey everybody's entitled to at least ONE reinvention of themselves in their adult lives) to sing - you've got it - "I Won't Complain". Wellllll, I'd like to lodge a complaint - your voice is SHOT pumkin - there ain't an OUNCE of "anointment" on it and for the love of God and all other professional funeral attendees, KNOCK IT OFF ALREADY!!!

12:00: Butch is preaching the eulogy. I should probably stop there - since there really isn't anything else TO say, except he hacked and coughed his way through "My Soul is Anchored in the Lord". Khris started laughing so hard she had to sit down. When she got it together she said it sounded like he'd drunk a carton of milk before he sang! I gave it 2 thumbs down, if I had another hand I'd give it a third. The preaching too. After some 15-20 minutes or so of his going on about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and how Jill, like Esther had decided that "if she perished, she perished, but she was going to see the King" and only his wife Michelle saying "amen", he wrapped it up. No altar call, no appeal to all the young people that were there that hey, maybe this is good time to do a self exam and see if you've got it right or perhaps you might want to try Jesus. Nothing. Another lost opportunity.

12:30: The final viewing goes smoothly, Scott's co-workers (NHFD), the medical practice Robbie's works with, old friends of Carl's, Lynn's teammates, Jill's old friends, everybody but the mayor (guess you have to get shot in order to qualify for an appearance by him) file past to pay their respects. It gets bogged down upfront with so many hugging and kissing on the family. Two-thirds of the way in, Butch tries to get a handle on it by requesting that folk save the meet/greet for the repast. He's totally ignored. I go up to view her for the last time. The casket had been left open the entire funeral - strange I thought, but maybe that's how white folks roll ( they used a white funeral home). I stroked her hair. The sureal-ness finally seeping away. Jill gone.

My last conversation with Jill was over the Thanksgiving weekend in Philly right after she'd been diagnosed. I was trying to explain to her the genocidal warfare in Rwanda and now Darfur. She asked us not be be offended (Big Lynn, Dina, Robbie, Gaynelle and I were at Gaynelle's after Robbie and I had gone to see Michael Henderson - THAT'S a whole other blog!) but "why were niggas killin' niggas?!" - "Because they don't love themselves and if you don't love yourself you can't 'love thy neighbor'" was my reply. As I readied to go back to Jersey, I hugged her, told her I loved her and she'd be alright. She said, "I hope so." God knows best. She's alright

"Miss Thelma"

January 16, 2007 An appropriately brisk, overcast winter day in CT, I peel down I-95 to attend the funeral of one of my mother's old friends from back in the day in Bridgeport. They met when my mother was married to my step-father and became fast, lifetime friends. "Miss Thelma" Shaw was a short, light-skinned, chubby, jolly woman who loved to laugh but somehow I'd guess she'd lay you low if necessary. She died too young at the age of 67. She and my mom shared an on-going, secret joke and language that only the 2 of them were privy to. Even at age 8 or 9, I sensed they were laughing about more than the obvious when they'd say to each other: "Bear the pain, Haughty, bear the pain!" and collapse in laughter. She was always nice to me and was proud that I was such a good student, she loved my brother like he was her own...

11:55: I roll off Exit 30 and make my way to East End Baptist Church in Bridgeport. As I go to turn left onto Central I groan - cars are parked on both sides of the street coming out from the highway overpass. I've got to pee and I'm in danger of missing the viewing which ends at noon. Sweet Jesus, the parking gods are with me, someone pulls out of a tight space directly across from the church and behold! the Maxima fits! I hotstep it into the church but nature's calling first. I make friends with an usher who directs me to a spacious handicap bathroom on the main level. Great, no stairs to maneuver.

12:00: I enter the sanctuary - what a blast from the past. I gave my first solo piano recital here when I was about 7 years old. Can't tell you what I played, except that I played it at warp speed. The inside usher directed me to a seat on the last pew, except I've got to crawl over a few women before I can sit my happy crack down. They're wrapping up the final viewing and I dare not crawl BACK out so I stay put. Bummer.

12:03: The short funeral processional/ministerial staff comes down the center aisle with no pomp or circumstance. Hey, maybe that's only a COGIC thing. But I'll say this, the Baptist start ON TIME. A family member I can't see is taking it hard and a bunch of folk and some ushers rush over to start fanning her. I'm always amazed at that. If air is what the person needs, they sure ain't gonna get it now...

12:05: A young-ish minsterial looking fellow gives the old and new testament readings and now comes the good part. I'd seen her as I was going to my seat but didn't think I'd be treated to her singing, but yep, there it is in the program, Beatrice Somerville, down for singing not one, but TWO selections! Yippee! The consummate professional, she followed the protocols and without any fanfare launched into the old funeral standby 'His Eye is on the Sparrow'. She worked it for all it was worth and left us all wanting more.

12:15: A thin, droopy faced woman with a spiral curled weave got up to read the cards/acknowledgements. Except she kept pronouncing acknowledgements as "A-Knowledgements". Her reading was like that of a 2nd or 3rd grader as she halted between nearly every word read. She pronounced Ohio with an 'r' on the end. Finally she read the letter my brother wrote/sent to the family since he's out of town and couldn't attend the funeral of the woman he knew as his "Aunt Thelma". It was a moving and heartfelt tribute to Miss Thelma and there was hardly a dry eye in the place after she finished.

12:25: Jonathan Dubose was on the lead guitar and the brother (journeyman organist that used to play for Trinity before Stilton Polite came along) on organ launched into a musical version of James Cleveland's "I don't believe He brought me this far" that had that little baptist church rocking. Dubose starts talking to his guitar like Earl "Fatha" Hines used to moan and groan to the keyboard (you young 'uns don't know nothin' about THAT) and segued into an "MTv-Unplugged"-like medly that included 'Precious Memories' and ended with a Jimi Hendrix-esque version of the 'Star Spangled Banner'. The organist watched him silently as if to say: "Show off!" I expected him to set his guitar on fire as the assembled shouted: "Play Jonathan!!"

12:35: Beatrice is baaaaack. And being sensitive to the move of the Spirit, she bagged her intended selection and picked 'Precious Memories' back up. That's what's REALLY up. Obedience. She swooped and curled around the lyrics like the pro she is and when finished nodded to the family, "was that alright?" You already know...

12:45: The Reverend Dr. C.L. Stallworth approached the pulpit with what seemed to be a mix of anticipation and giddyness. He looks to be in his 40s, balding but with a boyish smile. He's upbeat - "this is a homegoing and Deaconness Shaw will be missed but her work here is done." He goes on to say how he looks forward to the day when he can trade in his aching, breaking down body for a "new model" since we aren't intended to live on and on in this realm. That's what the hereafter is for. "We are down, looking up - HE is up, looking down. HE has the better perspective." He has a charming southern twang but is clearly intelligent. He's using the accent to his advantage, just like MLK, Jr. did. At 12:55 he is done.

12:55: The George Peterson Funeral Home crew takes over, presenting the bible to the family after having it blessed by the pastor & giving processional instructions. I'm thinking how incongruent it looks, this little old guy with Cartier frames on and a Bluetooth. They run a tight ship though, this funeral is over in exactly 55 minutes. No more pain Haughty, no more pain.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Big Frank's Funeral - My Hampton (Institute) Homie

Tues., 2/5/08: I get an email at work that "Big Frank" Giles, our adopted "homeboy" by way of D.C. while at Hampton Institute (nee University) died the day before of a massive heart attack. This was the year he (and a bunch of my contemporaries) was to turn 50 - April 7 in fact. Wow. Death seems to keep swirling around me. Moving closer and closer. My time was limited - I was preparing for surgery that was going to keep me out of work for at least a month and traveling to D.C. for Frank's funeral was not on the agenda. I prayed for his soul and his family and emailed Carol back to see if she was going to try and make it - after all, she had more of a connection to his family than I did and after all, she was the one he (along with a few other football players) had carried over their heads, passed out, back to her dorm room freshman year. A couple of days later I got a text from Carol that simply said, "Road trip".

Sun., 2/10/08: Carol pulled off the Merritt Pkwy from Mass. long enough to eat the Sunday dinner I'd pieced together before going to church that morning, scooped me up in her BMW SUV and we were on the Jersey Tpke. before the sun had completely set. In D.C. by 9pm, we found the hotel her niece worked at, checked into the charming suite she'd procured for us and after a bit of catching up and watching the Grammy's we called it a night. It had been a long day and tomorrow promised more of the same.

Mon., 2/11/08: I'm usually up at dawn's early light and today's no exception. The funeral isn't scheduled until noon and God knows I want to sleep in but old habits die hard. I shoot a text to my childhood friend from Trenton who lives in Md. and works at the Washington Post to see if I can catch up with her, give myself a facial, watch the local and national news and generally try to keep quiet while Carol continues to sleep. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around Frank's death, being in a city I never liked and preparing myself to see people I hadn't seen in at least 30 years. Damn, I'm old...After breakfast Carol and I pack up our gear, get directions to the church and bid her sweet niece goodbye.

11:45-ish: We enter the church's parking lot only to be directed back out to the street - cars are parked all over the place and there's more ahead of and behind us. We find a spot on the street - a block or so from the church: Allen Chapel AME, a beautiful, modern structure smack dab in southeast D.C. on Alabama. It's a bright, sunny, bitterly cold day and my dumb ass is without a hat. We enter the vestibule and there's a line snaking around to the bathroom to sign the guest book. I get at the end and start searching the many faces for signs of familiarity. Nothing. Carol had disappeared (it's what she does) so I couldn't even consult with her. As soon as she reappeared I saw a Hampton face - Tyra Dent. She looked exactly the same - just chubbier. I stopped her, we exchanged greetings and the first person we asked her about was the third person in our "Tri-state" trinity - Danita Smith. Tyra assured us she had Danita's contact info and would get it to us before leaving. Excellent! We hadn't seen Danita since she was pregnant with her first child back in the '80s...Hey, there's Lynn Harris, and, and, what's his name, and...

Noon: We've signed in, spotted/greeted folks and now need to find seats in the packed sanctuary. We settle in just in time for the memorial service to begin. There is no viewing, there is no body and there is no Frank's widow. There is a photo collage at the altar but we came in far too late to check that out. Better we keep our fannies' in these coveted seats and watch the overhead video projection when the time comes. We've been given a beautiful 7-8 page program, complete with color photos of Frank with friends/family and at work. He'd been a cameraman for CBS for over 20 years and there is a large contingency of his co-workers present. A chick (Carolyn Brown) I don't remember from Hampton sings a couple of songs. Her voice is adequate. It's now time for the tributes - and there were more than a dozen people listed in the program to proffer them. That's love. This should be good. One of the tributors was our other D.C. homeboy, Melvin Witten. Gee, the last time I'd run into him was at a party for Dave Winfield in Manhattan back when he was swingin' a big bat for the Yankees. We'd reconnected for a hot minute, he was staying with someone on Riverside Dr., he came up to Connecticut once for dinner and a concert and POOF! just like that, he was in the wind again. He looked the same, just older. Still had all of his hair. Still at his "fighting" weight. Melvin. He and his dad had renewed my faith in D.C. men since I always swore they (unlike Jersey guys) had no clue how to treat women. Cretins... Melvin's tribute was bittersweet - born of a lifetime friendship that was obviously closer to a kinship and was quietly directed to his parents. Sweet Tony Cheatham, representing the Hampton Alums read a proclamation. Another of Frank's friends made it known that HE was Frank's "best friend" and reminded us all that Frank was a true Funkateer, ending his tribute with the sage words of one of Funk's progenitors, "We love you Dr. Funkenstein, your Funk is the best!" Pinkie and index fingers fly up all over the sanctuary - To love Frank you had to love Parliament/Funkadelic. It was as much a part of him as his size.

More tributes, more love, all genuine. One of his co-workers spoke of how much Frank had impacted lives at CBS. How his big, booming voice would herald his presence, how he'd seen him at the hospital - looking just like he did at work when he was asleep. Other's spoke of the annual picnic Frank had started years ago at a local park - why didn't I ever know about this throw down? I certainly would have pressed my way down to D.C. for that. C'mon, there's food involved! The vow was made to continue the tradition - in memoriam to Frank's selflessness and untiring organizational skills. Someone said the inevitable - that Frank would be with the "love of his life" - Vickie - his first wife - now. Oooooookay. I guess it's a good thing wife #2 ain't here.

Rev. Carolyn Scales ended the service by acknowledging the different groups of people in attendance from family and friends to Hamptonians and co-workers. A good 300-400 in attendance by my estimation. That's love.

Frank Joseph Giles was a big man with a big personality and heart that all fit together. My memories of our times at Hampton are a bit blurry now: he had wheels and an apartment off campus. My man. Sophomore year I was his sweetheart when he pledged some social club. The "accidental" breaking of Vickie's arm one weekend she came to visit...I'm getting old. There's a picture of him in our class of '80 football jersey in my old photo album. We might've been indulging in the "stickiest of the icky", who can remember? It was the 70's, we were young and on our own for the first time in our lives. It was what we did and we survived it. Apparently it's the "now" portion of our lives that's killing us. "Take my body and give me the mind to funk with the rest"...

Postscript - On the last Saturday of June, 2008 some of Frank's friends and family got together to have one more picnic in Rock Creek Park in memory of Frank. A huge photo collage was posted by the d.j.'s set-up as the day wore on people streamed in and out of that dell and ate, laughed, reminisced, danced, drank until who knows when. Carol and I made the trip back down since we never knew about them throughout the years and this would be the last one. We met friends and classmates of Frank's, neighbors and relatives. There was food GALORE, line dancing, laughter and a general feeling of peace. Then wife # 2, Venna showed up. With the urn containing his ashes. Carol took pictures.

Monday, June 2, 2008

It's the "Dash" in between...

How do to all of you and welcome to The Funeral Diaries.
What can I say other than I love funerals! Macabre? Mmmm yeah, ok - but let me explain:

First let me note that I've not lost anyone terribly close to me in my 49 years. No siblings, parents, children or spouses. Just the typical losses that come over the years - grandparents who's time is just...up. Schoolmates who lived too hard and too fast. Acquaintances in car accidents. Associates who bogarted that joint. Co-workers who worked really hard I guess. Maybe I'm prepping myself for the inevitable or perhaps I've lost my interest in the living and the hereafter holds more intrigue - it is in fact where we'll spend the most time, eternity.
I'm absolutely intrigued at how other's handle death/grief. Where better to indulge my curiosity than at funerals?

The first funeral I recall attending was when I was about 9 yrs old. My Aunt Eunice had died from hepatitis related complications. I vaguely remember not particularly wanting to go - not because of the death angle but because Aunt Eunice blatantly favored my older sister Kim over me and in my 9-yr. old mind was the blame for me getting hit by a car when I was 6 one summer in New Jersey. BUT, I digress. So mom gets me all dolled up and ready to go. I'm rocking a leopard-print beret (ever the Styler ;!) and something velvet if I recall. I can't tell you much about the funeral itself but I know that night I was NOT going to sleep by myself!

Fast forward to today - my rationalization: As with a wedding, attending a funeral can afford you just as much in the way of laughter, tears and reconnecting with family and old friends; you can get dressed up if you want (or not) and if you're lucky, catch some Oscar-worthy drama and get a good meal if you attend the repast - and you don't have to buy a gift!

I try to attend at least one funeral every 6-8 weeks. It's not always easy especially if I don't have ANY connection to the deceased (knowing the deceased isn't a prerequisite for my showing up..) or of course nobody's dying! But oooooh chile! It's been a dying season and I'll take you along with me (in your mind of course) - it'll be just like you were there. Trust me...

But about this posts' title - "It's the 'Dash' in between?? Y'know, on the headstone or grave marker after the dead person's name they put the date born - then the date died. THAT dash. Yeah. That's what really counts...the dash in between those date and what you do with it. That's what's really good.

Chat soon with latest service/diary!