Friday, June 6, 2008

"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.

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