Sunday, March 27, 2011

"An Irish Wake?"

Sandy is my work buddy/sister. I should probably say, "was" since I'm seriously doubting that she'll return to work, especially after this latest episode in her life. I've got to say,watching Sandy exhausts me. She's 3 years older than I am, has 4 grown kids, at least that many grands - 2 or 3 of which she has custody of, she's plus-sized, smokes, works the full and a part-time job, is a dutiful daughter to her elderly parents and she spells relief by working the slots at Mohegan Sun Casino - an hours' drive away. I have no idea how she does it - I'm not sure I want to know since I might be tempted to try it too. We've worked together for the 24 years I've been employed with the State of CT; she was pregnant with her oldest daughter when I started. Let's just say, like most of us, she's been through some things.

I call her my "work sister" since like sisters, we fight, laugh, cry, don't speak for a week or two, hurt each other's feelings, feed one another, encourage each other, will say when the other's hair looks crazy or sharp, commiserate over broken zippers, heels and romances. We make each other laugh loud and hard. Her laugh is infectious and distinctive. Her good natured goofiness makes me yell at her at least 2-3 times a day, "ya NUT!"

She married Larry, the father of 3 of her children about 10 years ago after he'd survived a serious stroke and with much water under their unified bridge. The kids were nearly grown and he was almost 20 years older than her but Sandy had hung in there and got her man. He'd been fighting cancer for the past year or so and lost the bout March 8.

Sunday, March 13, 2011
East Haven, CT

6:00p.m.: Sandy had adopted Milan as her "work daughter" pretty much the day that Milan was assigned to our unit a couple of years ago. That meant Milan had to do pretty much whatever Sandy "asked" her to do - be it fetching food/drink, stuff off the printer, faxing, or revealing the exact color/price/name of the wig she was wearing so Sandy could get one too. And wear it. The same day. Milan's since transferred to another state office for a closer commute but being the respectful "daughter" she is, thought it not robbery to press her way down to New Haven County for Larry's wake. This is relevant since Milan's been out of work for over a month recuperating from foot surgery which meant somebody else had to drive her down here - somebody that doesn't know Sandy OR Larry. That special somebody was her BFF, Kim. They scooped me up and we trouped together. It had been a sunny, relatively mild (for southern New England) March day so I didn't bother with a coat, figuring the pantsuit jacket would suffice since I'd just be going from house-to-car-car-to-funeral home. A good thing too, since as we stepped into the funeral home I hit a wall of heat that I KNEW was not of my bodies' making. The faint sounds of Diddy's "I'll be missing you" floated over the sound system - Kim and I exchanged "WTW??" glances as we made our way to the sign-in book. Not exactly the musical choice I'd expect for an old Irish guy's wake - oh, did I neglect to mention that Sandy/Larry were an interracial couple? Yeah, so anyway...

The funeral home is oddly configured and the narrow entry way we were in opened into the "parlor" where Sandy, in a black velour sheath dress with a silver-glittery jacket was meeting/greeting in front of Larry's open casket. The room was long and fairly narrow and upon first glance (and later, with closer observation) it appeared to be divided along racial lines. That is to say, most of the white people were up front on couches/settees/armchairs and the people of color were sitting towards the back of the room on the folding chairs. Larry was laid out in a tweed blazer,accessorized with a coordinating kangol, smokey lens'd aviators and a rosary in the grip of his stick-o-unsalted butter-pale hands. He didn't look a day sick. Just chillin'. Little did I know at the time, but the rosary was as close to a religious vibe this affair was gonna get. I knelt and offered a prayer for the repose of his soul. After greeting a smiling but teary-eyed Sandy and getting my black pin-striped suit covered with her glittery fairy dust, she introduced me to the family members seated on the periphery. There was her step-daughter Dawn with a perfectly cut bob looking drawn and tired but who managed to stand and hug me, her step-son, Larry Jr., and her oldest daughter Brittany who after hearing my name smiled, greeted me with a hug and thanked me for coming.

The 3 of us took seats right behind the family, largely due to Milan's need for space to angle her crutches/booted foot and partly so I could do what I do. Y'all know. More co-workers and friends came/greeted/sat/chatted. Earth Wind and Fire played, Milan/Kim/I caught up with each other and other arrivees. It was so hot by this time, I was starting to sweat in places that I normally never would and poor Milan was starting to look like Whitney Houston after a 2 hour performance, complete with the sweaty upper lip.I made mention of the fact that the atmosphere was absolutely not funereal and that if there were drinks involved it would actually border on festive. The girls agreed and we greeted/sweated/chatted some more. Sandy's oldest son, Christoper appeared with his young niece & nephew. She'd told me when I asked about him that he was "downstairs with the kids." He looked sad and out of place, leaning against a wall, almost aloof. I was always used to seeing his huge grin, identical to his mom's but when I tried to get his attention and wave hello, he never looked up. I pointed him out to Milan since Sandy was so very proud of his accomplishments - he's in med school - saying maybe she'd finally get to meet him. Brittany's youngest, who appeared to be 1-ish was giving her dad (?) a work out, squirming out of his grasp repeatedly as though it were a game. I saw a few faces I hadn't seen in a while and used the opportunity to catch up with them.

6:15pm:I'd noticed in the small foyer where we signed in a photo collage and as I'm always intrigued by photos of people living their lives I asked the girls if they wanted go check 'em out with me. There was Sandy & Larry back in the '80's - the hair/clothes a dead giveaway, the kids at various ages, Larry at work with one of his oil delivery trucks, at Christmastime, with his brothers - none of whom were well enough to travel to his wake - and so on. I pulled a passing Sandy over for clarification on some of the photos and she called her other step-daughter, Renee over, introduced us and told us she'd put the whole display together. Although she said she felt she hadn't done the project justice it was obvious she'd put a lot of thought and love into every bit of it - from the model-sized etching of his first oil truck, to a miniature sailboat "he loved to fish"; and tree/shrubbery symbolizing his love of outdoors/landscaping. I was impressed and as a big 'ol daddy's girl myself, was almost misty-eyed by her commitment to his memory.

6:30pm: I saw a woman that looked familiar sitting alone with a cane by the doorway. I asked a mutual associate of Sandy's who she was and she told me it was Julie - Sandy's BFF whom I hadn't seen since my second Maxwell concert back in 2001 (I keep ALL ticket stubs). As I approached her she broke out in a grin saying "Hey Willette!". Still very pretty, she'd gained weight to the point that I didn't recognize her. It was great seeing her and we covered 10 years in about 15 minutes. Two of Sandy's grands had come back upstairs and were frolicking in the open area in front of the casket. The little boy, dressed in a grey vest and matching long pants with a fresh, nearly shaved head climbed up onto the edge of the coffin and had one leg in before Julie called out to him to stop and Larry Jr. grabbed him. I'd noticed an older white woman with too much makeup and hair-gone-wild, sitting with Larry's first set of kids. I'd wondered to Milan if that was Larry's first wife. Julie confirmed that it was. Sandy joined us and I confessed to them that Larry looked more alive than #1 wife...I asked Sandy if she knew when or if she'd be coming back to work - she just shook her head and said, "I don't know Willie - I've got a lot of stuff to take care of." I can only imagine.

6:55pm: I looked over the room from Julie's perch and saw what I sensed - the great divide - and Sandy's original family (mom/sibilings) watching her created family but no interaction between the two. I didn't see Kim and Milan or my pocketbook so I figured they must be ready to roll out and their disappearance was my cue. One can't take liberties with other people's time or wheels.

I pray that Sandy makes it through this latest chapter of her never-a-dull-minute life. She once told me that she was going to write her autobiography and title it: "House Nigger No More". I was never quite sure if she was serious about the title or not - she seemed to walk the color-line in her marriage and outside of it quite nimbly. Especially for someone from our tail end of jim crow/brink of civil rights era. Ours is the generation of cautious hope that we can transcend all of the racial crap. We've benefited from all of the dogs/waterhosing/lynching/marching/beatings in ways that our children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews will never comprehend or probably care about. But we know.
Sandy loved and took care of that old man almost up to his 72nd birthday.

Last week was my birthday and although I haven't seen or spoken to Sandy since the wake she showed up at the job to drop off a gift for me. My heart was blessed to know that in her time of grieving she thought of me. My natural sisters didn't even check for me on my birthday. It's all good though - I've got a BUNCH of "sisters" - everywhere I turn.