Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Mama Sadie"

Many years ago my great grandmother Roberta Paige Turner helped to establish the first Church of God In Christ in the Portsmouth/Hampton Rhodes, VA area. Thus the beginnings of my 4th generation COGIC roots. Growing up , my mother sent my sister and I to church as a way to garner some "me" time for herself. We went, by ourselves, to whatever church was within walking distance or a relative or neighbor would take us to. Denomination didn't matter I guess, as long as they didn't eat little girls. My mom found Jesus sometime in her 40's and by then I didn't want anything to do with any church, I'd just make guest appearances at weddings and funerals. Her way of punishing us was to make us go to church. If we wanted to go to a dance or a party on Friday or Saturday night the trade off was we had to go to church on Sunday. She'd joined the church most of my family here in the New Haven, CT area attended - Trinity Temple Church of God in Christ where Bishop Charles H. Brewer, Jr. was pastor. After a couple of chilly cold walks to/from church I decided partying with my friends wasn't worth the torture of sitting through a church service. Over the years my mother tried to cajole, intimidate, coerce and hoodwink me into going to church but by then I'd seen a bit of the world, considered myself cosmopolitan and hedging my bets decided I'd be agnostic.

Although my conversion in my mid-20's wasn't a Saul/Paul experience of getting struck blind on the road to Damascus (or Bridgeport for that matter!) for persecuting Jesus' followers, I had plenty to be repentant about. Still do. It was enough however, to propel me headfirst into joining the "Grand Old Church of God in Christ" where I was fed spiritually, immersed in doctrine and put up on all kinds of church protocol. Lord have mercy did the Church Mother have her hands full with me and my "too short frocks". ..By the time I'd moved on and out of the COGIC, doctrine and Sunday School teaching firmly under my belt, she'd whipped me into some kind of reasonable shape and submission. Over the years I'd attended Official Days, Women's Days, Choir Anniversaries, Pastoral Anniversaries, Church Anniversaries, Pre-Pastoral Anniversaries, First Lady Day's, Teas, International Festivals, Conferences, Seminars, Retreats, Meetings and the grandaddy of 'em all - the COGIC Holy Convocation held annually each November - better known as "Memphis" to the initiated. I can't fathom how much I've given in offerings, dues, assessments and presentations during that time. How much was spent on clothes/hair/jewelry/shoes preparing for some of these functions. I don't even care - I'm just free of it. So now when I attend a COGIC-related event it's usually with a slight tilt of my head, y'know? I mean, I know what to expect and what's expected of me - but it's sort of an out of body experience. I had one of those experiences at the homegoing service of Mother Sadie Brewer, mother of Charles H. Brewer, Jr., presiding Bishop for the 1st Jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ, Connecticut.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

10:55am - A typical November New England Day - grey, blustery, 50ish. It's the middle of my work day but - the Blog MUST go on. I got married at Trinity Temple, so did my sister for one of her 3 weddings. Other family weddings, funerals and anniversary celebrations have been held here. I never knew Mother Brewer. I was never a member of Trinity - but I know Bishop , now "Senior Pastor" and his only son Chuckie, now "Acting Pastor" although to my knowledge there's been no formal installation or passing of the baton. Our families have a long history going back to my great aunt Ruby Turner Pullen and "old Bishop" Brewer and Mama Brewer. They were contemporaries back when Trinity was located on Foote St. and well before I'd moved to New Haven. Aunt Ruby raised her family at Trinity. Her legacy is awe-inspiring: elders, missionaries, evangelists and pastors populate our family.

I park on Dixwell Avenue 1/2 a block from the church. A white limousine and pearl white hearse from Howard K. Hill Funeral Services are parked out front and there's virtually none of the usual foot traffic. I think to myself that perhaps I'm late/have missed something. As I approach the entrance a fellow I've seen at many of the aforementioned services falls in step with me from out of nowhere. We speak and enter the vestibule. There's been some updatin' and renovatin' at the "New Trinity Temple" and everything is brighter and more open. Black-suited men are everywhere - some I recognize, some I've never seen before. I'm on the clock because the viewing ends in like, 5 minutes. I go through the glass doors and right down the center aisle with a nod to a cluster of ushers who seemed to not be in short supply. It's not particuarly crowded yet so the opportunity to do a little hobnobbing and still get a good seat is not unrealistic. Mother Brewer's platinum colored casket is surrounded with a modest group of floral arrangements and sprays. I'd certainly expect more of a display with her only son being Bishop and her only daughter Pat being a pastor but I guess these hard economic times are cutting a pretty wide path. If I was still at my last COGIC church it would've been my job to see to it that a bereavement arrangment was sent...Mother is decked out in a winter white suite trimmed in matching fox fur. She's rocking a metallic gold turban-style hat (you don't get too much more COGIC than that!) with matching metallic gold ballet slippers. Yep, the coffin was totally open which is unusual no doubt - but cool. You can tell she was short since her feet didn't even reach the end of the casket. Either HKH's staff or somebody with the magic touch did her makeup or she was just blessed like that because her chocolate brown skin was as smooth as a baby's - a peacefilled, restful expression on her face, her pink manicured hands gracefully folded. Wow - even in the ultimate repose this woman's giving off vibes of pure elegance!

I decide to forego the mingling and instead found a seat on the last pew so I could have a wider view of the goings on and a quick and easy escape route since I knew I couldn't stay for the entire service. I guess the directive had been given for all the women/missionaries/evangelists to wear white or their official habits because I could see them all over the sanctuary now - either in their most elaborate winter white suits or the habits complete with hats reminiscent of a 1940's nurses uniform. 2 of my Aunt Ruby's daughters are sitting a few pews in front of me - Jackie and Jimmie. Jackie in white and her trademark ranch mink beret, Jimmie in a royal blue rain hat, and royal-er blue raincoat and who know's what underneath. Guess she didn't get the email...Enter Sheilah McCrazy and her mom, both dripping in full-length minks on this 50+ degree morning. Over. Kill. McCrazy has on a sharp ivory felt, high crowned hat - with an even sharper cherry red knit skirt suit. CHERRY RED. I can remember being told as a young girl that when someone wore red to a funeral it signified that they were "glad the person was dead". Now I don't know how true that is or where it even came from but c'mon - CHERRY RED??? At least her mama had on off-white. It's a little after 11 and the choir's all in white up and ready to go. I can see the gang of black suited men in the vestibule trying to get asssembled and Howard Hill himself assisting and appearing to give up. I could've told him that when you get that many preachers in one room/area you can fuggetaboutit - they're barely gonna take orders from the Almighty let alone a funeral director.

11:13am - The ushers open the double glass doors and Aunt Ruby's baby boy, Augustus "Butch" Pullen is clearly in charge. He's a district Superintendent for the COGIC and Bishop's go-to man for many years. Because he's a national adjutant he's extremely well-versed in all areas of protocol and Bishop knows he can be relied upon to do things "decently and in order". This is what he does. The choir's shifting into 3rd gear on the upbeat song and he gives the young director a stern look and signals with both hands to bring it waaaaay down. The choir does but the musicians are apparently in a zone. Finally everybody gets the message and the processional makes its way down the aisle. There are way more clergy/missionaries than Brewers. I'd say they're outnumbered 3-to-1 easily. Bishop Brewer in declining health for some years is wheeled in by a sunglass wearing, extra black edged up and bearded Scott Marks who's own father was just funeralized a week ago. Chuckie escorts his aunt Pat McDaniels who just always looks refined and polished to me but now has the weary look of grief underneath all of her finery. Hers and Chuck's children make up most of the family. Cassandra opted for something more colorful than the all white attire but Pat's oldest daughter working a blonde "I Dream of Jeanie" ponytail was in white. The last time I saw her she was bellydancing on the old Steve Harvey's Big Time show. All 200+ pounds of her. There's a older, chubby bleached blonde white woman in white and nothing short of a Vegas showgirl makeup job with the group. I don't have a program (they seem to be in short supply) so I can't even take an educated guess at who she might be.

11:30am - Everyone in their respective places, Bishop's bishop's chair has been removed from the altar and placed alongside the front pew. Butch is officiating. Pastor Gilbert Ginyard opens with a congregational hymn of "When We All Get To Heaven" except the sound system sounds like it's got a sock on it and either Ginyard or the organist started in a key entirely too low. All you could make out was the chorus - everything else was completely muffled. Oh well. He'd get a chance at redemption later in the service. Elder Rucker offers a prayer of condolence and Pastor Roger Wilkins "melodies of praise". The sock is finally removed from the sound system but the vibe is just, eh. Elder Ron Hurd gives the Old Testament reading, Pastor Nathaniel Woodward the New Testament. A proclamation from Trinity is read by the church's Administrator, Terrie Atkinson MacAuley Horton Estes detailing some of the attributes and accomplishments of this "Great Woman of God" - a phrase that would be oft repeated during this service. More resolutions and remarks were lined up and it was obvious this funeral was far from over.

12:00pm - Pastor Ginyard's back this time to sing "Stand" with the choir's support. The sound systems' healed and the organist has his correct key. All systems are go. Bishop gets wheeled out by Marks, presumably to the big boy's room since he's back in 5. It's circling around the time for me to get back to work. I entrust my Godson Joel to take up the reigns and report back to me once the funeral wraps up. I leave at 12:40pm and what follows is from his report...

2:00pm - I phone Joel to see if the funeral's over - he whispers "No, I'll call you when it's done." I can hear a woman speaking over the p.a. system in the background. Dang - they haven't even made it to the eulogy yet...

3:40pm - I text Joel to see if the funeral's over - he texts me back that he'll call me and tell me all about it.

Evidently at some point Mother Rivers, the COGIC's National Supervisor of Women(oh God, there are just soooo many titles to be had in this organization it makes me dizzy so please pardon me if I've messed somebody's credentials up!) who was in attendance with her adjutant, Mother Bogan got up to go to the ladies room. Sheilah McCrazy seized that opportunity to accost this woman (trust me, she had to climb over some people to get to her) as she made her way up the aisle and pressed her phone number on her telling her how she'd like to work in the Women's department on the national level!!! First the inappropriate suit color and now this?? Are there no boundaries this chick won't cross?? Did somebody miss their meds this morning?? Lord keep me somewhere in the vacinity of the cross!

Neither Bishop nor his sister Pat had remarks, they left that to their children Chuck and Cassandra respectively. Chuck went the "evangelist route" with a modest attempt at exhortation and Cassandra took the "intellectual path". Bishop Frank White in his remarks mentioned that "were it not for Bishop's health issues, he would have been elected to the General Board [of the COGIC} by now." Hmmmmm...Bishop Roy Jones gave the eulogy using the title "I just want to get out of here saved." Amen and selah. I think it's safe to assume that Mother Brewer did just that. Her assignment in this life fulfilled, God's plan for her legacy set in motion. Now we'll just have to wait and see how it plays out for the rest of us.

Thursday, September 24, 2009



Ernestine Bailey Goodwyn was my boy Chuck's mom. Chuck has been a reader and appreciater of my 'funeral blogs' before I even had a blog site. We go way back, 'bout 25 years now. We joke about how when we first met at a club outside of Hartford; he was with a friend of his and how if he'd only asked me to dance first neither of our lives would have been the same. I'm glad we never dated - ours is a solid friendship built on shared interests, different life lessons and zillions of laughs. I fancy myself the (big) sister he never had. He's one of those brothers that can do a little bit of everything - and if he can't - he'll tell you who can. Resourceful. Charming. Quick witted. Dependable. That's Chucky. It doesn't hurt that he's got dimples to die for and eyelashes that would make RuPaul envious! So yeah, easy on the eyes too.

Our paths crossed again in our late 20's when we both began working for the same State of Con(n) agency. We'd laugh until we'd choke and cry, wrestle one another to the floor when our trash talking would reach it's apex - then go back to our desks and finish working, and more recently commiserate about our respective mother's declining health as they were both in nursing homes. The circle of life. I can remember being out and celebrating his 40th birthday, my 40th birthday, Christmas, thank-God-it's-Friday - and sooner or later either Chuck would get a phone call or cut out early because he had to go check in on Miss Ernestine. He never complained. It wasn't like an obligation for him - more like an honor. I've got to admit, I didn't really understand his sense of devotion then - he's an only child - but after more than my fair share of butt wipings for my own mother I, too, know that kind of love.

I'd met Miss Ernestine on only a couple of occasions. I knew she had a fondness for peanut butter treats and when I baked I'd give Chuck extra to slip to her on his visits. A true southern lady, gentle like but very direct in her observations. Powdered, lipsticked, bejeweled and beaded up - I sensed she was the type of woman who got her way without imposing her will. They don't breed 'em like that much anymore...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Haven, CT

10:55a.m.: It's a beautiful and warm early fall morning. Big puffy clouds. A skipping work kind of day... The funeral processional turns right in front of me as I make my way down Dwight St. "Geez, am I ALWAYS running on CP time???", I chide myself. It's a short line of cars and they ease down Chapel St. and stop in front of Miss Ernestine's home church, Immanuel Baptist - the longstanding bastion for New Haven's muck d' muck as my mother would say. That's Toot-speak for the bourgeois negros. There's plenty of 'em 'round these parts. I zip down a side street, grab a park and try to hustle inside the sanctuary before the family does. I mean, as a professional funeral-goer I know my funeral protocol - trust, it is tres tacky to be trying to come in alongside/behind/ahead of the family. I succeed, in part I'd like to think, because I'm rolling by myself. After speaking to a couple of co-workers I pop into the church's vestibule. I speak to a couple of the pallbearers I know and go try to sign the guest book, except the pen isn't working. I pull out my own. That one's not working either. Oh well - nobody can make out my signature anyway. It keeps the forgers at bay. I enter the sanctuary which has folks scattered throughout on both sides. Immanuel's a good size church, I'm not real good with square footage estimations but I'd suppose it seats 500 comfortably. I had mad choices. I almost go make one when I realize I've still got a couple of minutes of "viewing" time left. Yippee!! I ain't as colored as I thought! Miss Ernestine has on a beautiful purple dress and is powdered, lipsticked and bejeweled to perfection - just like I remember her. She's 81 according to the obituary but looks a good 15 years younger. Good living. And kudos to Howard K. Hill, the local superstar mortician. I say a prayer for her soul and choose my seat behind some of my fellow Faith Christian Center church members. One of the life changes I made for myself in this 50th year of my roaming the earth was to leave the "family" church circle I'd been in for the last 20+ years and joined a ministry where I'm not only fed spiritually but my spirit is free. I'm just "Willette" - not anyone's sister or daughter or cousin or niece. There are no other expectations of me beyond that. It just so happens that Chuck and his sweet wife are members too.

11:00: The Reverend Samuel T. Ross-Lee, Pastor of Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church leads the funeral processional down the center aisle. Miss Ernestine is survived by 1 sister and her 1 son. Her husband died a few years back. As noted in a previous blog, when you live to be 80 and 90+ your funeral is either well attended or you've outlived just about everybody. The processional is nowhere near as long as one of my families. We don't die, we multiply. For real. Because of the type of congregation Immanuel has historically had, the age of Miss Ernestine and the fact that underneath all of his spearchucking shenanigans, Chuck's really a classy guy, I didn't expect anything less than a tasteful, honorable homegoing service. I am not disappointed.
In between Old and New Testament readings the obviously Senior Choir (who else can afford to leave their gig in the middle of the morning for who knows how long??) sings "It is Well with My Soul". And it is. The "ex" slips into the pew behind me in uniform. He says he's working an extra-duty job nowhere near Immanuel but wanted to come by - his and Chuck's parents are friends from before they were born. He wants a program, but I never got one. I ask another FCC member who'd sat down next to me if we could look at hers. As he gets ready to leave he threatens to steal the program. I snatch it from him and return it with an apology. Thievin' cops...More scriptures, prayers and a lovely soprano operatic rendition of "I Trust in God" complete with rolling r's ("the billows rrrrroll") follow. Words of comfort are offered along with some of Miss Ernestine's life accomplishments. She'd been an elementary school teacher in her home state of North Carolina and here in New Haven, a lifetime member of Immanuel and part of their Flower Club. A member of the New Haven Club of the National Association of "Negro Bidness" and Professional Women's Clubs, Inc. "Hmmm," I think in full jerk-mode, "does that club have something to do with Bid Whist playing?" - Oh never mind...She lived a good, full life.

11:30: One of the Deacons reads a few cards/acknowledgements and speaks of how she'd take communion up to Ernie at the nursing home. In their visits she said they'd sometimes sing - that makes me smile. Clearly in spite of her physical circumstances, she still saw beauty in her life.

It's time for the family tributes and I'm not sure who or what to expect since again, there aren't many of them. A young man who isn't sitting with the family gets up and says what most of us were likely thinking: "Who is this light-skinned brother?" Actually, to my way of thinking he was more of a light brown-skinned brother. Oh how us colored folk love to play the "complexion" game. Still. In 2009. Sigh. Anyway, after nervously introducing himself as one of the employees at the nursing home "Mrs. Goodwyn" was in, he soon had practically the whole church in tears describing the touching and real relationship he'd established with her. He'd claimed her as his "grandmother" and witnessed first hand Chuck's devotion to her along with his innate charm by his mere presence when visiting his mom :"Everybody would light up when Chuck came up - and the ladies loved Chuck!" Indeed. I am moved by the fact that this young man works in a facility populated mainly by "old people" as he put it, and didn't allow it to create a barrier to his getting to know Miss Ernestine. Generation gap? What? He grew to love her - and she, him I'm sure. He and Chuck share a long embrace at his conclusion. I am convinced that love is the most powerful high there is. It's no wonder God equates Himself with it. Crack? Heroin? Crystal Meth? Crown Royal on Ice?!? You better go get you some real love baby!!

A couple of other men - self-described family friends who's lives had also been positively impacted by Miss Ernestine spoke eloquently of her love of faith, family and friends. How she was a Miami Dolphins fan and expected the best from those she cared for and taught. How she created a warm and welcoming environment in her home and again, how she loved her "Chuckie". One of them sang a snappy rendition of "Great is Thy Faithfulness". I chuckled as Ronnie Pollard, a tenor with the gospel group I sing with, tried in vain to slow the tempo down with his piano accompaniment but ol' boy whipped through all 3 or 4 verses of that hymn in record time. C'mon, you know and I know that anytime anybody sings that song, they're gonna milk it for all it's worth. Not today. Not him.

12:00: Ahhh, the eulogy. I've never heard Rev. Ross-Lee preach - if I did, I don't remember. Not a good sign. He's on the young-ish end, certainly younger than I. A transplant from some place way south of here and - non-traditional -shall we say? There's been some murmuring and complainin' from the parishoners about his "electric sliding" at some local watering hole and chillin' with his frat brothers at their annual picnic amongst other things. To quote Neffie (you know who I'm talkin' about): "SO WHAT!!!" I'm willing to give the pastor the benefit of the doubt. C'mon. Bring it. He opens with the 23 Psalm. And then focuses on the 4th verse: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me;" - okey dokey, not exactly funereal, but I'm willing to ride with him a little longer to see where we end up. He's a little low key and it's apparent he really doesn't know Miss Ernestine. In all fairness, she was under the pastoring of the inimitable Rev. Curtis Cofield, who'd pastored Immanuel for years -left and came back and pastored some more before dying himself last year. Dude has had some Shaq-foo sized shoes to fill at this church. Aaaaand I'm starting to hear a bit of a persecution complex drifting into this eulogy as he builds to a modest crescendo. And then, boop - he's done. 13 minutes FLAT.

Howard K. Hill and staff stealthily take their positions and present a beautiful tapestry of Miss Ernestine to Chuck - it's a picture of her as a young woman. Her obituary states that she loved to "create and was familiar with tapestries and their intricate designs." What a lovely keepsake and not that the usual "family bible" isn't a good look, this isn't something that would be collecting dust in a corner. The pallbearers get on their posts and we head back out into the autumn sunshine. Chuck has gotten out of the limousine or never got in and is greeting friends - laughing and smiling. I've seen Chuck pull pranks on people that would win him an emmy, I've seen him angry as all get out and ready to put foot to tail. I can't say that I've ever seen him sad however. Perhaps I have and I just didn't know it. My prayer for him is that he is the man his mother would want him to be. I see my Pastor's wife, hug her and sidemouth to her: "I wish Pastor had preached - he was kinda dry." She laughs and says I'm "spoiled". True that. Hold on - what's this? I think I see a candidate for "Mr. Fine 2009" - and he's with what appears to be his mom or perhaps an auntie. Oh now here comes the "ex" again from his "nowhere near here" job. Oh, oh and the friend of Chuck's from 25 years ago who asked me to dance first. Nope - I'm not getting caught up in this negro-fied matrix - I'm takin' my black butt back to work. Right after I get some lunch. Hey, I've gotta keep my weight up.

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Uncle James" ("Uncle Pete")

I know, I know, it's been a minute. And it's not because folk haven't been dying, it's just that along with my grind I've got a hustle and family issues. I ain't had time to go to no funerals! That's all the explanation I'm going to offer.
Gwen, my girly-girl is also the supervisor for my hustle. She's 10 years my junior but from the time I met her (some 15 years ago?) she's always impressed me with her sharp mind and even sharper sense of humor. She gets it. On Thursday, December 4, 2008 I had to call her to dot some i's & cross some t's regarding time cards and she was instructing me on the fly. Her mom's brother, "Uncle" James Abraham had been living with her and her 10 year old son Blake for the past 3 years or so. A polite gent whom you seldom saw, but certainly smelled - the man smoked like a chimney which resulted in Gwen's home smelling like "The Dirty Bird" at 1am on a Friday night. We jokingly called him "Uncle Pete" from the movie, 'Soul Food' - tucked away in his own room, coming out for meals or to use the facilities and presumably, to get a fresh pack. Just cool.
Uncle James would often hold down the fort for her when she was out on one of her many missions: adjunct professor at the local community college, choir director at her church, co-director for a community choir (which I also sing in), her grind for the city of New Haven, sorority meetings, DJ'ng a local gospel radio show, helping to take care of her sick father and the list goes on. Thinking about what Gwen does makes me tired. Knowing he was in the house with her son gave her a sense of security when her missions kept her out later or longer than expected. It is hard work being a responsible single parent. It really does take a village.
As we wrapped up our business on the phone, she called out: "Uncle James? Uncle James? - Willie, I've been calling him all day and he ain't answerin' his phone." I hear her making her way through her house to his room. "Damn Willette, he's dead".

Monday, December 8, 2008

9:55am: The funeral is being held right at Howard K. Hill Funeral Services on Chapel St., a converted Georgian manse that used to be home to a white funeral home back in the day. This section of Chapel St. has undergone several re-inventions starting in the 60's after the riots. The stretch has been home to church's, bars (the Swingin Doors!), beauty salons, a furrier, chinese take out, community outreach centers and homes. Howard Hill is a young man who by all accounts and my own observations does an absolutely stellar job in body prep not to mention his level of professionalism and courtesy to the bereaved. As a bonafide funeral-goer, he gets top grades from me. He's recently begun renovations on his facility and was at the door personally greeting as I stepped into the foyer on this bracingly cold New England December day. Someone tapped me from behind as I extended my gloved hand to Howard and from every angle my eyes could take in, the place was near capacity. I turned to see who'd tapped me, thinking I was in someone's way already. It was AJ, Gwen's BFF, who like me, had dipped out of work to come support G and her family. He blew me a kiss as he huddled near the door and whispered he couldn't stay because he had to get back to work/court. I signed the guest book and started picking my way through the maze of doorways until I saw a free seat. Sticking my head into the main parlor/viewing room I caught Gwen's sister Debbie's eye and asked if it was too late to view the body. She said I still had time and although I don't really need to look at dead people, I really did need to take a look at Howard's handywork. Uncle James in a natty light grey suit and tie, eyeglasses and a crisp edge up looks like he's taking a nap after (or during) Sunday morning service. Another Howard Homerun!
I lean over to Gwen's mom, Ms. Janie to offer condolences. Ever the lady, completely composed and rocking a ranch mink wide brimmed cowboy hat, she thanks me and pecks me on the cheek. She is class. I want to be like Ms. Janie when I grow up. I skidaddle to my seat because Howard's on the scene closing the casket and the Busch women's pastor, Daylan Greer of the "Great Beth El AME", is about to get started.

10:05am: There's no processional, Pastor Greer is following the very succinct program per Ms. Janie's instructions, offering a pretty loudmouthed prayer of comfort then introducing "Minister Jenkins" who proffers Old (Ps. 23) and New (John 14:1-6) Testament readings.
10:10am: Gwen's singing! She's a trooper and like her mother, totally composed. She's a better woman than me on two fronts: she's been able to sleep in her house (with company) and she's got her heart far enough out of her throat to sing. And sing she does - the "new" funeral classic, "I Won't Complain". It's the new millenium version of "His Eye is On the Sparrow". She begins a capella and whoever's on the keyboard plucks around until they find her key - which is - different. As any singer worth their salt does, she "personalizes" the lyrics (i.e.: changes the words) for Uncle James. I listen contentedly while taking in the new Howard K. Hill Funeral Services decor. Off- peach stucco walls with white trim and either dusky mauve or brick-colored drapes. Hmmmm. Not sure I would've put that color combo together. A candle burns a scent on one of the fireplace mantles that's making my stomach do a slow flip.

10:15am: Greer picks up the John 14 thread and uses it as the basis for his eulogy. I'm perusing the tastefully printed 2-sided card-stock program. Again, very concise and without any embellishments: no photo and no biography (other than a brief paragraph detailing his age, address and those left to "cherish his memories"). I look over the "family" section and realize that the only ones on the "family row" are Ms. Janie, Gwen, Debbie, their kids and a young woman I don't know. Hey, wait a minute - where are the sons? Where's the brother? (He's in a nursing facility). Grandkids?? Awwww SHOOT! Ms. Janie done sliced up the guest list!

10:20am: Greer is passing the baton back to Howard Hill to wrap this one up. HH quietly gives the directives for the processional to Evergreen Cemetery. Everybody up, coats on, c'mon let's move it, move it.

10:25am: I'm on my way back to the Maxima which has scarcely had time to get cold. That's right folks - a new black people's funeral record has been set - 25 hot minutes from beginning to end! This made a Catholic funeral look like a wait in line at People's Bank on payday! I'm not even mad at 'em though. If I'd played my cards right, I could've just parlayed this one into my morning 15 minute break. But it's all goody. Uncle James deserved the time - and Gwen absolutely does. I put an imaginary cigarette to my lips and blow a plume of cold "smoke" into the chill air. This puff's for you Uncle Pete.

.....As an addendum, in honor of this funeral and it's perfunctory nature, I've been informed that Howard K. Hill is going to offer this type of service and call it: "The Janie Busch Package." Sign me up.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Cool Carl"

Carl William Bascum Pullen
Sunrise August 15, 1916 - Sunset, January 27, 2009

Uncle Carl Pullen or "Old Carl" to distinguish him from his son or "Cool Carl" as I'd christened him was one of a kind for real. He married my great-Aunt Ruby Turner in 1935 when they were both mere teens, the year after my mother was born. Aunt Ruby was my grandpop's sister and by the time my mom was grown and moved to Connecticut, Carl and Ruby were already established, working and having kids of their own. Now there's a bunch of Pullen's up this way and although I am not a Pullen by blood, God knows I've got enough blood relatives who are. THAT was evidenced by the packed out funeral for "Cool Carl" last night at his home church, Rehoboth COGIC, pastored by his second son, Augustus "Butch" Pullen. What? You don't know Butch? Well then you're the only person in the Western Hemisphere who doesn't! But I digress.

Old Carl told me some years ago why there are "2 sets" of Pullens here in the New Haven, CT area. Something about a couple of Pullen cousins in Virginia who were in love but the family squashed the romance so they ran off to No. Carolina to "explore their love" (my words!) and that's how the North Carolina Pullen's came about. True story. Cool Carl was full of 'em.

Never one to back down from an argument - I'd witnessed him and my Aunt go a few rounds before he'd wave her off or start his high pitched giggle or roll his eyes like: "this nut". He and my grandpop would go head up too over at the old house on 26 Salem St. They both liked "the grape" - my grandpop was a "Thunderbird" man - you couldn't get more rot gut than that! He'd hide his in the cool water of the toilet tank when he came over. I'd peeped Cool Carl's stash a couple of times out on the front porch when he and Aunt Ruby lived in the first floor apartment of my mother's house years later. Just chillin'...

Monday, 2/3/09:

6:50pm: I've got to preface this blog entry by stating that I am almost ashamed at what I did at this funeral . I got here for the last few minutes of the viewing and almost had to park on Stratford Avenue. Rehoboth COGIC in Bridgeport, CT had been Cool Carl's home church pretty much since Butch had been pastoring - along with a whole lot of our family. Living to the ripe old age of 92 guarantees you one of two things: either you're going to have a whole lot of folks at your funeral since you've met/made a whole lot of folks or ain't nobody gonna be there since you've outlived them all. I'd say Rehobie holds 150, maaaaaaybe 200 comfortably. It was firecode violation packed.

I view the body. He looked dapper and asleep. Just chillin. Cousin-in-law Renae Kennedy was one of the many ushers and immediately approached me with a program and a plan to find me a seat. "Family or somewhere else? Upstairs or downstairs?" Downstairs??? Why would I want to be downstairs? Does this girl know what I do?!? Does she not realize that a professional funeral-goer must be as close to the action as possible?? Lord Jesus...She squeezed me on the end of a pew after making one of Tina Pullen's kids or grandkids (who can keep up?) get up and go sit with her and Dina Pullen. I have no idea who the child was that was sitting next to me. She never said anything to me nor I to her. But I bet she was a Pullen!

7:00pm: Roger Wilkins is officiating. He's from the Trinity Temple/Bishop Brewer ministerial farm-system and Butch's contemporary. He'd just funeralized his older brother the week before. God love him...He steps to the pulpit and announces that there are going to be reflections given by Cool Carl's oldest grandchild, Khris Everson Crenshaw, one of his "grandson's", Pastor Joel James and nephew Keith "Big Butch" Pullen. In that order. I think. Apparently the family color-code for the funeral was all black and Khris had on a black/white knit with lots of Chanel-style chains/pearls/necklaces. She looked as though she'd been crying for days and with her only makeup appearing to be a slash of red lipstick on her Cool Carl-thin lips. She was actually quite composed and gave some touching and humorous anecdotes about her "grandpa". Joel James - "Greetings from Cincinatti", Shayla Pullen's (Butch's oldest child) husband followed with a very brief reflection of how awed he was at Cool Carl's huge family/legacy after spending his first Thanksgiving with us a few years ago. Mmmm hmmm. I think he's still just a wee bit overwhelmed by us.

7:20pm: The ministerial processional includes, Butch, all 5 of Cool Carl's grandson ministers/elders, nephews Rick and my brother Rob, Pastor Dewitt Stephens and Cleve Johnson?!? WTH?!? I'm gonna assume he was an add on since he was out of "uniform" (they all had on their formal habits - except for Dewitt, maybe he was an add on too!) Now, I could stop right here and blog for about a GOOD hour on this subject but since this was EASILY the longest funeral I'd ever attended I won't - but I will say this: the last time I saw THAT negro I had to stop him from running Butch down to me. And I repeat, WTF - I mean, H?!? At this point I fully expected friggin' Wilbert to jump out from under a pew and say "HAAAAAAAAAA - I'm baaaaaack!!!"

7:30pm: Pastor Rick Kennedy gave the Old Testament reading, Rob, the new. Duper gave the prayer of comfort. Heather's beau Deon Kipping ("Praise Him in Advance") sang a little, original made up just for the occassion sounding ditty that segued into a congregational hymn. Listen, trust me when I tell you that all the normal funeral pomp and circumstance that's supposed to take place, took place. And then some. There were remarks from the prelate bishop of the CT COGIC 1st jurisdiction (Brewer), the bishop from Vermont jurisdiction (Ivory Holden), the prelate bishop from the 2nd CT jurisdiction of the COGIC (Hester Bordeaux). Old Deacon Bordeaux who Cool Carl served with back at Trinity came and set it off with some old school "How I Got Over". Condolences by the church secretary, more remarks/reflections from grandsons Joel Pullen ("Grandpa, I salute you!") and Page Reynolds. Son-in-law Dennis Daniels representing the Deacons of Rehobie. Obituary read by niece Tracy Pullen Overton. And singing. And more singing. And more singing. Ok. Anybody that knew Cool Carl knew he loved music/singing. They even convened a "Pullen Family Choir" featuring Monte Reynolds and a cousin/nephew(??) James Pullen on lead singing: "God Is". So either have a concert, a memorial or a funeral. But please, not all three. Not on a Monday night. And not when I've got to be up at 5:30am...

9:00pm: I'm not quite sure who set this agenda/program but they need a firm talking to. Somebody came up with the bright idea to have little (old) Aubrey "Babe Bro" Pullen, Jr. and Roger "Blowhard" Everson, Sr. back to back!!! When I tell you I wanted to rip my eyeballs out of my head!! Dear God in heaven!! I took a nap with my head in my hands during Roger's meandering diatribe until Dina shook me awake. I awoke saying, "If this nigga doesn't SHUT UP!" before realizing how loud I was. Whatever. At a couple of points during Babe Bro's babblings (and that's just what his "remarks" had devolved into) the church started applauding (Roger Wilkins had stood to give him the old pulling of the coattail) - but he kept talking! In-credible! Talkin' about not being able to take a hint.

9:30pm: Yes, I said 9:30 - 2 1/2 hours later and still no eulogy. Why oh why did I think that I was going to make it home in time to watch the UConn-Louisville game? Note to self: Get a DVR.
His youngest daughter Jackie Pullen Daniels rocking the ultra-wide black rhinestone trimmed beret offers a moving version of "Safe In His Arms" but even with help from the "back up" singers can't pull it together to finish it. She'd taken care of him in her home for the last few years of his life. Believe me when I tell you, a totally new bond forms when you have to wipe/wash a parent's hind parts. Her grief will be different and probably last longest.

9:45pm: And now dear readers, I shall reveal my "shame". Naw, it wasn't falling asleep or wearing brown when everybody else was wearing black (I DID have on a leopard print newsboy!) or even calling Roger the "n" word when I woke up. I left. Right after Jackie (didn't) finish her song and before Butch got up to do the eulogy. I COULDN'T TAKE IT A MINUTE LONGER. I know, I know - that's like a movie critic getting up and leaving in the middle of a film. Please forgive me - I'll try to be more patient and professional in the future. And take a little pillow to sit on and a Red Bull.

When I was 14ish and had just moved to New Haven from New Jersey to live with my mother/sister/brother I too was awe inspired by the family connection here. As a kid I always knew I had a huge family with a bunch of aunties and uncles and cousins throughout VA, CT, NJ, Kansas and although I didn't see them often but when we got together - Oh Happy Day! And that's how it should be with family. As I've got older I see where that feeling has slowly leaked away it sometimes makes me melancholy for what used to be. I can remember starting to feel myself spiral out of control as teens sometimes do. I pulled MYSELF up and asked Aunt Ruby if I could come stay with her and go to school from her house on Salem St. To me her house represented stability. Something I didn't have a lot of growing up. There was always someone there and I figured not being left to my own devices I'd be more accountable. She said sure - she was used to folks coming and going in her house - what was one more set of feet under the table, right? And God knows my mother had taken in her fair share of wayward relatives over the years as well. It's what family does. My mom nixed the idea for whatever reason and that was that. But I always wanted that 26 Salem St. expereience. Something was always going on there - laughter, music, gossip, arguments, life. And Cool Carl, just chillin'.