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.

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