Friday, June 6, 2008

"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..

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