Friday, February 3, 2012

"Jimmie Amanda Marjorie Celestine"

"Aunt Jimmie" was my mom's first cousin on her dad's side. Her mom Ruby Turner Pullen was one of my moms' fathers' (Clint Osborn) many sisters. They were all from Roanoke, Va and although Jimmie was 6 or 7 years younger than my mom, they were very close and remained so over the years. As adults they all landed here in Ct and raised their children together and we, like they, were/are close. When it was just my sister Kim, my mom and I we lived in Bridgeport while Jimmie, Serge, Monte and Page lived in New Haven. Whenever a "trip" to New Haven was on tap Kim and I would go nuts dancing and singing, "New Haven, New Haven!" to the tune of " la cueca racha" on the porch until Toot would shut us up. Visiting our cousins in New Haven was the third best thing behind Christmas and our summers in New Jersey! Monte and I wouldn't even bother to say "hi"- we would just immediately pick up our wrestling match where we'd left off. In fact, he gave me my first black eye (it was a sucker punch). As we got a little older my mom moved to New Haven and Rob and Jule were born. Our parents would go out and leave all of us kids together in the house to "watch" each other  - for what seemed to us days but in reality was probably overnight. Back then you could do that without fear of getting charged with risk of injury to a minor I guess...Yep, the good ol days.

Once Jimmie, Toot and Serge found Jesus along with a core group of the family including us "kids" (now grown) the dynamics of Toot and Jimmie's relationship shifted . They became prayer partners, confidants, pilot (Jimmie) and co-pilot (Toot) for the commute back/forth to church in Bridgeport. Both of their sons were ordained as elders in the grand old Church of God in Christ under their uncle Butch at Rehoboth. Once Rob left to pastor, Toot and Jimmie started a slow drifting apart. Other than the scheduled COGIC conferences or an isolated funeral they really didn't see each other. It would remain so up until my mother lay dying in hospice. Shame...

One day as I was going in to see my mom, Jimmie, Jasmine and "Aunt Edie" were leaving. I'd cleaned out mom's room at the nursing home earlier that day and still had some of her stuff in my car including an off white, wool dress coat. Toot and Jimmie were about the same size/age so it occurred to me that Jimmie might have use for the coat. She and Toot always did dance to a different fashion beat so I told  Jasmine to stop at my car on their way out of the lot and grab it for her grandmother. Both of us holding back tears, Jimmie hugged and thanked me, telling me that it "meant a lot to her." I guess it did to me also since I'm still remembering it. 

Toot wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered on "an island" , so since his father Carl Pullen had been in hospice dying along with my mom, my cousin Robbie  and I 
decided to spend Christmas in St. Thomas accommodating my mama's wishes and getting some much needed down time for both of us. On Christmas day while making and receiving the usual holiday calls and texts except from the beach overlooking crystal clear aqua waters, Robbie's sister Dina informed us that Aunt Jimmie had been hospitalized since Friday. They didn't know what was wrong with her and were running tests. Since Robbie is a doctor he went into doctor mode and tried to reach Monte. It seemed nobody had much information other than they were "waiting for the test results" which wouldn't be back until Wednesday - the day we'd be returning home. I shot Monte a text encouraging him and prayed for our family. It didn't help that Robbie started getting a flurry of calls for the rest of the day regarding his own mom, Gaynelle being hospitalized in Philly for a mysterious ailment. We just kept looking at each other saying, "enough already."  The following Friday, on my way into the funeral home for Michele Pullen's sisters' memorial in New Jersey ( she'd died Christmas day) Monte called and said they were giving his mom "days" to live. By the time I'd returned to my dad's house later that night I got the call from my brother Rob that Jimmie had passed.

Friday, January 6, 2012

6:20pm:  Today, like the rest of this month so far has been quite mild by New England January standards. I had stopped at the barbershop for an edge up after work, went to help clean my church as I do most Friday afternoons and now I was fresh and clean for the funeral. I'd heard something about the family wearing white the night before while at Butch and Michele's but that just wasn't happening for me. "I'm not too good at following rules." Instead I opted for a black semi-mini dress (yeah I'm 52 years old and will still rock a mini - within reason of course and tastefully, but yes!) Black tights, black knee high boots, a vintage, 2 foot long patent leather clutch bag that belonged to my step mama, matching wide patent belt and to set it off, a faux leopard cropped jacket. Ready for the world. 

I get to Trinity Temple - again, the scene of many family weddings and funerals although nobody in the family is a member anymore - but it  IS the biggest COGIC spot in the area. As I approach the entrance I see the line to get in is outside and on the stairs! I know this isn't the family processional since I'm good and late for that plus I didn't recognize anybody in line other than the isolated former church member here and there. Now Jim Bo Bim was quite popular and between her kids and siblings certainly a lot of people knew her but this? This was bordering on celebrity action. Heck, I'd covered, I mean attended Heavy D's funeral a couple of months ago and I breezed right in. I was not trying to stand outside on these concrete stairs in heels. Nah. I was going IN. I spotted some churchy folks I knew who were near the doorway and got along side them, ignoring the subtle screw face looks I got by throwing a couple of ill looks right back at 'em.  Working my way into the vestibule I saw Butch chatting with Bishop Bordeaux' wife and gave his shoulders a brief squeeze before resuming my stolen spot in line.

6:40pm: I've inched 3/4 of the way towards the open casket when one of Howard K. Hill's female staffers walks up and asks if anyone in line is family   - I am the only one. She instructs those of us within the sound of her voice to "not stop and greet the family after viewing the body" since that was obviously what was causing such a backlog with the line. I have no problem with this as I'm well versed in funeral etiquette, besides it's hard enough trying to hold it together without having somebody snotting  and crying all over you in sympathy. Joel Pullen is in the pulpit overseeing this mayhem but not addressing it. I'm a get that boy...Howard K. Hill appears out of nowhere at my left side. "I just had to come over and speak to you, Superstar," he leans over to me and says with his hands clasped behind his back. I nod once at him in acknowledgement, "Mr. Hill."

6:50pm: I'm finally at the casket and I can see she doesn't look anything like I want to remember her. She has on her white missionary's habit complete with the hat. Fitting. I side mouth to the HKH staffer, "looks like nobody's taking your directive to heart", nodding towards the family on the front pew and the mourners who are draped all over them. She said, "yeah, I know I'm just doing what they asked me to, but..." she shrugs helplessly/ hopelessly. Hey now, Michele and Monte both have post retirement hustles working for HKH Funeral Services but I guess they're both too distracted to notice this boiling hot mess taking place right in front of them...

I keeps it moving stopping only to ask Kyle-Hashim where his mother was.  He gives me the "duh" look and jerks his thumb to his right. Ummm, see my blog on Heavy D regarding my inability to see what's right in front of me when in large crowds. I hand her the mother of pearl and rhinestone eyeglasses I'd found when cleaning out my mom's apartment that she said her mom (Aunt Ruby) had a pair just like that she could never find. Up the side aisle I spot my nieces Brandi and Mimi and my sister Kim squeezed in with a bunch of cousins. They make room for me as cousin Bandy gets up to leave, reminding me that the last time I saw him I told him he looked like a fat Mexican. Kim, cracking up, says, "oh Willette, you didn't!" I said, "ok, a fat Guatamalan then."

Joel calls for anyone who wished to come and share their "Jimmie stories" and just about all of her grandchildren line up to honor their grandmothers' memory. I decide that I'd like to share the last time I was with her. Khris' daughter Madia came up behind me and whispered, "Aunt Willette, will you stand with me - just in case?" Of course. I introduced myself as Jimmie's cousin - her being my mom's first cousin and along with her older sister Martha and my mom's Aunt Jessie they were all more like surrogate sisters to mom. I shared how we'd experienced several deaths in our family in a short amount of time recently and a family gathering we normally had (Harvest fest on Columbus Day) had been all but forgotten until Joel called for its' resurrection at his home. I hadn't attended one in a few years and was glad that I made the effort this year since as it turned out, it was the last time I'd see Jimmie. We were sitting outside and she made a phone call on her cell. After a fairly lengthy conversation she hung up and Monte asked, "Ma, who was that?" She said, "I don't know, it was a wrong number but he said he was a cop in Middletown so I told him I had a son who was a cop and that I was a retired Parole Officer and I had another son who was a retired corrections officer." We were like, "you're kidding, right?!" Nope. She then went on tell how she called the White House to speak to President Obama "all the time" although she never got put through. I told her I'd written him a letter prior to his healthcare bill being passed encouraging him to not back down and how important I felt it was for his initiative to go forth. We laughed and said that we were both probably under surveillance and on some CIA watch list! I ended my reflections by recounting how once while I was supposed to be away at college I had snuck home to see my boyfriend. I ran into Jimmie on the street and begged her not tell my mom that she saw me! To my knowledge she never did and that had forever put her in the cool column in my book.

I step aside as Madia takes the mic, visibly upset.  She states matter-of-factly how when she became pregnant while still in high school she was ashamed and embarrassed as she felt she was the only one in the family to have this happen to her (not true). It was Aunt Jimmie who encouraged her, telling her to keep her head up and to continue to pursue her life goals. 

7:15 ish: The funeral processional with the attendant scripture readings, prayers and family hymn - "Oh, how I love Jesus" - all go forth along with the acknowledgements and remarks by the clergy, potentates and other important folks. Page is officiating at this point and Monte is handling the musical aspects of the service. Nice brotherly tandem. When it's Bishop Brewer's (pastor kinda sorta of Trinity) turn to have remarks Page introduces him as "our Bishop" and how much "we love our Bishop" etc. Since Page has been living out of state the past few years I'm not sure if he realizes that none of the COGIC folk in our family are in Brewer's jurisdiction anymore (side note : non churchy/COGIC folk, you can skip this part since it really is just a ball of confusion) but are under Bishop Hester Bordeaux. Brewer seizes the opportunity, from his wheelchair perch, to whoop a little bit - sort of like a "HA! Y'all thought I didn't have it no more, huh? Yeah, well this is still my church..." So anyway.

8:15 ish: The family choir gives a mini concert, my butts' gone numb and I take a bathroom break. They're still singing when I return and somebody's killing in the soprano section except no soprano is singing directly in a mic. Sitting in between my nieces they both ask me, "who IS that singing?" I study the choir and figure out it's Channing working a falsetto with plenty of vibrato. 

Older sister Martha Everson gives a fairly dramatic family tribute ending with the admonition to "Live!" I didn't see it but apparently there was some - and I'm using this term really loosely - pushing between Butch and Duper when Duper didn't move quickly enough to assist his mother Martha up to the microphone.

Jimmie's only daughter Jule was rock steady reading her mom's obituary referencing her mother's lifelong devotion to her husband Serge,  eliciting  laughter from those of us who know it to be an absolute truth. Jimmie's youngest sister Jackie ministers the same song for the fourth funeral in four months in our family, "Safe in His Arms". Her nephew TJ, her cousin Toot, her brother Carl and now her sister Jimmie. She does not waver, her voice doesn't crack. This is her assignment.

Monte sang an anointed  "My Soul is Anchored". I was proud of him and I know Jimmie would be too.

8:45? 9pm?: the acknowledgements, some condolences and proclamations are read by Michele and then Butch is up. He is listed in the program as the Eulogist but states that this is one of those times he needs to be brother, not Pastor and so he's passed the mantle on to our surprise guest - his first cousin Bishop Lemuel Thuston from Kansas. Butch and Lem's mother's (Ruby and Roberta Turner) were sisters and COGIC mothers. Lem hadn't made it to the 3 previous funerals and tried to cover them by doing a little time traveling. A truly gifted and learned theologian he kept it pretty in the pocket this time, reminding us saint and heathen alike, life WILL hit you up with some funky stuff (my words, not his) so you're better off prepared than not. At least that's what I got out of it...Throughout ALL of the singing, acknowledgements, remarks and preaching there is a pretty steady parade of friends? Relatives? Coming up to the first 2 pews of Jimmies' family and hugging/kissing them! The first time it happened most of us seated behind them were perplexed since we didn't recognize any of them. I guess that opened the floodgates for others to follow suit because they did, right through the eulogy...

9:30pm: HKH funeral staff do their presentation thing and then start the final viewing. When I tell you it was the exact same scene as when I FIRST came into this church I am not exaggerating. I think it may have been worse. Let me just park here for a minute and say this: everybody deals with death differently, heck everybody is different period. Personally, I can do without all of the hugging and kissing and whatnot. But then again, I don't thrive on attention.  So anyway. 

10:00pm: the viewing/greeting is still going on, it's finally reached our side of the church. I've been up and at 'em since 5:30am and I's tired. Make that with a capital T. I sure ain't feeling "superstar-ish" no more and real talk, I'm funeral'd out. Yes, 4 family funerals in 4 months, along with 2 of my girlfriends' moms, Michele's sister and a co-worker. Not to mention my best friend's husband who died while seeking cancer treatment in Mumbai the day after Christmas and another girlfriend in Houston who's mom died on Christmas day too - I'm kinda done. Yes, me - 'Funeral Fanny' (my Aunt Ruby Turner Pullen was 'Funeral Flossie' and Butch is 'Funeral Floyd') has had enough! 

I decide to skip the final viewing when Howard comes and stands at the end of our pew, extending his hand. Scott Pullen is leaning against the wall looking pretty shell shocked. I peck him on the cheek as I pass by and he says, "yeah, I think I'm out too", and continues with the 100 yard stare. Unbeknownst to me, Monte's ex wife, Audrey and current wife, Pat are having a little cat fight behind me. Audrey had been sitting directly behind me and I had said to myself, "this should be good" when she got up to go view/greet - but my exhaustion got the better of me...Of course there are several versions of what happened during the exchange between the 2 wives.  Could I make some calls to verify? Sure. Will I? Nope. SCUTTLEBUTT has it that Audrey (who's mom passed away earlier in the year) went to grab Monte's hand in a soothing/commiserating gesture and Pat knocked it away. Audrey called Pat a "hood rat" and said she "must be really insecure in her marriage." Welllll now, it sounds like there's enough insecurity to go around...But I will say this - I'd pay to see THAT fight before I would to see Chad Dawson and Bernard Hopkins fight again!

In these past few months of this dying season I've prayed, cried and questioned "why?" often. Now, although there are some people in my family who  claim to have regular ongoing chats with God, my mom and other assorted dead people, I am not one of them. However I DO believe God opened my spiritual understanding to this: there are people who get up, go to work or school or whatever and come home only to find their entire family has been wiped out by a tsunami, earthquake, fire, maniac with an AK47 or some other disastrous event. Willette, would you rather have time to process and grieve between your losses or get hit with them all at once? I'll take "process and grieve" for $2000 Alex.

My family is my family with all of our flaws and foibles. We fight, we laugh, we talk about each other we defend one another, we worship and vacation together. Jimmie and Serge helped make my dream vacation to Brazil a real thing back in my twenties. We. Had. A. Blast! In the end, I think Toot and Jimmie knew what we are learning in this season as a family going through the grief process over and over - we are better together than we'll ever be apart.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


September 21, 2011 was a picture perfect first day of autumn here in Connecticut, my mom's adopted home for the last 50 or so years of her life. She'd had a stroke exactly 2 weeks before that the doctor's told us she had no realistic chance of recovering from. On this morning around 10:45 am she started her transition from this life's realm to the next. Nothing to eat or drink for 14 days, in dying as in life, my mama was a tough old bird. Every day except the last day, for those 2 weeks of waiting/watching I'd troop up to hospice and sing, pray, massage her or just nap in the window overlooking L.I. Sound until someone else came up. My heart ached and rejoiced alternately and still does...

My Tootie wanted to be cremated and because she always marched to a different beat we decided on a memorial celebrating her and life as opposed to a traditional funeral service. I'm just not up to blogging her entire service but let's suffice it to say that if you didn't make it no worries - there wouldn't have been anywhere for you to sit. Gwen Busch SANG, the tributes were sincere (her grandson Jonathan's recollection of her saying how she could "hear a rat piss on cotton" caused some of the bishops/pastors in attendance to choke trying to hold in the laughter!) Bishop John Thompson gave a pre-eulogy tribute which ordinarily would have ended everything right then and there EXCEPT my brother Rob KILLED the actual eulogy - "It is well." I've always known but for the uninitiated - that nigga can preach! Yep, I said Nigga!

My tribute to her included a poem and it went a little something like this:

As you all can see from the pictures of my mother she was a beautiful woman, however to my way of thinking she didn't have a particularly beautiful life. Her mother died when she was a young girl and she was on her own by 17 or 18 years old. She raised my sister, brother and I pretty much on her own and always worked to take care of and provide for us - no public assistance or housing - often with some relative living with us in our already small apartments. Yet she never allowed her circumstances to make her bitter or hardened.

My mom developed Alzheimer's dementia and for a time my sister and I and to a lesser extent 2 of my nieces took care of her at home. It was very difficult for me since I was working 2 jobs at the time and in between the jobs I'd go to her house to clean/feed/medicate and spend time with her. I'm sharing this with you all even though I'm still very ashamed of myself but it will give you a glimpse of the type of woman my mother was. I had established a bedtime routine where we would pray together before I'd leave. One night after a particularly hellish day at work I was really weary and just wanted to get home. I asked her what she wanted to pray about and she said, "I don't know, what do you want to pray about? " I was like, "come ON! Not tonight!" I said, "I wish I was dead." My mother looked at me and in a moment of lucidity asked, "Why?" I said "because this is too hard." She said, "I've been through harder than this." I was like "oh man, she's getting ready to drop some knowledge on me and I've got this really brief window to get it before she slips back into la-la land! I said, "Yeah? Like what?!" and then the phone rang. The moment and her answer was lost to me forever. It's taken me to now to realize that was it - she'd been through harder things - and survived and so would I. I wrote this poem for my mom while she was still in hospice as a tribute to her, y'all didn't know I was a poet did ya? I'm gonna ask my man Boom (the organist) to give me a little jazzy something and my baby Brier (the drummer) just follow him please.

"My mom was that rare salty sweet treat - Virginia born beauty with an ironman grip.
Giving YOU her last dime - "we're having pancakes For dinner kids!"

Our humble home an open sanctuary for lost and wayward kin,
Her kitchen a meeting place-coffee shop-literary round table-prayer council-confessional-boxing ring-soul food shack extraordinaire-clear the air-bare your soul forum.

Tough love always on tap, check out her Mimi-whipping rap: "I don't care if it was Shontel, Montel or Do-tell - YOU know better than to let somebody pull my flowers up! Now go somewhere and take a nap!"

Yep, yep a salty sweet treat - working mad hard to make ends meet - with bad knees and bad feet - she'd knee knock her way through the house cleaning and humming a very off key beat. She's been grey, brunette and blonde - with eyes like hers - c'mon - she couldn't go wrong. Never left the continent of this U S of A but was SMART and wise as Tom the consigliere.

She called getting busy the "Humpty Dance" and what was cool to you to her was the "joint!" She loved Helen Baylor, Ron Kenoly, her cousins Butch and Lemuel and her baby boy's preaching and the higher heights her grandchildren and Shayla were reaching.

Whether rocking her shoulders to Stevie in her wheelchair or throwing snappy comebacks to the nurses like she just didn't care - her laugh was infectious, her faith too - this might not make the funeral blog - but Howard K. Hill and Heaven - this one's for YOU!"

Snap, snap...