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.