Friday, June 12, 2009

Brown Needles

I think about death fairly often. In a general way, not in a morbid way. I don't necessarily think about how I may die, though I do that sometimes. I'm not religious; I don't wonder much about whether we "go" anywhere after we die. I don't ponder over the existence of an afterlife, though it would be cool if there were one. I tend to think about death from this side of it.

I allow my head toy around with it. I've long since stopped chastising myself for doing this; we really have no control over our brain's gymnastics. The brain plays games; sometimes it plays morbid games. What would I do if a loved one--a family member or a dear friend, walked out the door one day and never came back? A heart attack, a speeding car, movers dropping a grand piano from the seventh floor window? What would everyone do if I suddenly died? How would my family react? How would my friends feel? What if I didn't die suddenly, but lingered for a while, if I had cancer, or some degenerative disease? Would I go out in a classy fashion; would I leave all (or any) visitors feeling better when they left than they did when they arrived? Could I be that strong and that composed, or would I be a bitter, blubbering wreck?

I imagine who might speak at my funeral and what they might say. Who might come, who might not be able to make it, who might not be able to bring themselves to.

I envision myself buried. I have nothing against cremation, and no real desire to make a big deal about it in my will or anyplace. If my family cremates me, they cremate me. I won't know. Just please don't scatter me across the sea. I'm nervous way out on boats, and don't want to be thrown in the water. I know, I know, I just said I wouldn't know. But just don't, please. If you have to cremate me, put me in a nice urn on a shelf, preferably in front of the TV. I know, I know. Just do it.

But I like cemeteries. Woodlawn Cemetery is beautiful; a superior place to walk around on a warm and sunny spring day. I like the thought of surviving loved ones coming to a beautiful park like that to pay their respects, lay some flowers on my grave (I like irises...) They could enjoy the scenery, get some fresh air. Maybe visit Miles Davis or Fiorello LaGuardia while they're there.

My grandpa died when I was four. He was buried in the little family plot behind O'Kelly's Chapel off NC State Highway 751. If you pass the county line into Durham, oops! You just missed it.

No family visit to Durham was complete without at least one visit out to O'Kelly's. On a sunny summer afternoon Grandma would pick some flowers from her garden. She was a vegetable gardener really, not a flower gardener, but she had all manner of wildflowers around the edges. I remember the violets in particular. She'd pack a picnic, and we'd pile into Aunt Babs' station wagon--me, Dad, sometimes Mom, and most certainly Grandma.

It was a pleasant outing, always. Granted, I was only a little thing, there could have been some sadness lurking, some tears secretly wiped away that I simply did not see. But the vibe was a happy vibe. We'd eat, oh man! Fried chicken, ham biscuits, peaches. Grandma would brush off Grandpa's flat, full-sized granite grave marker, and lay most of the flowers there. Dad would knock around with a rake to neaten up the pine needles. I'd run around between the gravestones and collect pine cones for the fire we'd build in Grandma's fireplace that evening, the fire that would have a heavenly smell and the occasional, pleasingly startling POP.
I'd read all the names. "Who's this? Who's that?" Names repeated all over....great, great great, and even great great great grandparents were there. The grandmas from generations ago with the maiden names and the married names on the markers. Wives, husbands, uncles, sisters-in-law. Babies.

It was a great big puzzle for me to try to put together. Dad and Aunt Babs pretty much knew who was who, but Grandma ultimately knew best, and had anecdotes and background info to boot. "Mary Alice Herndon, that was my daddy's great aunt. She took care of my brother and me one entire summer when Mama had Scarlet Fever. Sallie Rose Parrish, that was your Grandpa's stepmother. She was only seventeen when she married your great-grandpa after he was widowed and took over that family."

Everette Pickett. Grandma's grandma.

"Wow that's old, Grandma!"

What a cool name, too.

We had the key to the little chapel, long since out of regular use by any church-going congregation. While Grandma distributed the rest of her flowers and Dad whacked back some of the weeds that lined the chain-link fence, Babs and I would walk back up from the graveyard around to the tall doors of the chapel that faced the road. It would take her a minute or two of working that old-fashioned key to get the doors to open. I always felt a little bit like we were sneaking in.

We'd walk in, sit in a pew, and embrace the simple silence. The center aisle separated seven, maybe ten rows of pews. I'd stare out the stained glass windows. I was not a regular church-goer. I was a regular Sunday-school goer when I was really little, Mom insisted. But it was more of a social thing than a religious thing, and I hardly remember ever attending church services. It was church services for the adults, Sunday school for the kids, and coffee and cookies for everyone afterwards.

So the hush of the nave, the empty nave, was most unusual to me. But it was modest, uncomplicated, anything but forbidding. After we sat for a while, I'd walk between the rows, up and down. Babs didn't mind. I respected the chapel, didn't climb on the pews or run through indiscriminately. I just wandered all around and had a good look. Paged through the hymnals. Gazed upon the altar.

We'd always pause at the organ, and Babs would always open it, just for a minute or two, and let me play. There were so many knobs with so many exotic names: Viola, Cremona, Clarabella. She'd pump the foot pedals and let me press a few keys and we'd listen the the big sound resonate in the little room.

Then we'd leave and Babs would lock the door and drop her key back into her wicker bag.

Babs died years later, died suddenly. I was grown by then, and back in New York. Mom and Dad and I had plans to visit Babs, who was recovering from a broken leg, a silly fall. Our flight was the next day when we received the call from her close friend and neighbor that Babs had died in her sleep. An aneurysm. A "ruptured berry aneurysm." I pictured a blackberry floating through her veins.

We travelled down with the plane reservations we already had, never dreaming that the tickets would be tickets to a funeral. Dad, stunned, worked his way through hasty plans. A service at the college where she was a beloved administrator was attended by hundreds.

Grandma had died some years before, also in her sleep. She was already at rest under a flat granite marker, next to Grandpa. Babs was laid next to them as we sat in folding chairs on that heavy August day. The preacher's name was Crate, I remember dad telling me, Crate Somebody. He'd known him since childhood. Crate. Only in the south.

Soon Babs would have her own granite marker, a marker I wouldn't see until some time later when I finally made my way down there again. I was pregnant, about six months along, with my first.

I couldn't even look at Babs or at Grandma for too long. I hadn't grown up with them in the ground, and coming back and seeing granite markers instead of Grandma with her violets and Babs with her chapel key was too hard. The ones who seemed in place were the ones who had been in the ground back when I was small, back when I ran around collecting pine cones, back when Dad cut the weeds by the chain-link fence. I'd known Grandpa almost solely through my family's stories and the visits to his grave, when we stretched out on his granite marker, eating ham biscuits and peaches. Grandpa called me to his grave and I sat down and rested. I knew him the least, but here I knew him the best.

I'd have to go soon. I couldn't lay across the grave all afternoon, even though the sun felt good, and I was in no hurry to get anywhere. I picked myself up and walked around, visited with my folks. The Parrishes, the Herndons, the Barbees, the Picketts.

Everette Pickett, farther in the back of the little churchyard than I remembered. Grandma's grandma. The one she always specially pointed out to me because she was so special to her. The one with the eye-catching name. Did she get teased for her unusual name, Everette, I wondered? I bet not. I imagined she carried that unique name with aplomb, and that it made her strong. Was it an unusual name, back then, for a girl? Did people have more important things to worry about back in the 19th century other than what your name was? Whatever the reason, of all the names at O'Kelly's, "Everette" was one I always remembered.

What a perfect name for my baby girl.

I looked at that "e" at the end.

Everette. Everette. Everett? Everette?


Let's change it, just a tiny bit, but in a big way, and make it my own, for my baby. Everett. An interesting name, a unique name. But a real name, a solid name. A name to live up to. A strong name for a strong kid.

Everett Barbara. "Everett," in memory of the woman who so influenced one of the most influential women in my life, and "Barbara," who carried the souls of the family past in her wicker bag.

I walked out and latched the gate behind me. I left quickly; there was no other way to do it. But I knew I'd be back one day, with my Everett.

We'll go down there, Everett and I. It's been this long, a much longer time than I ever expected to let pass before crossing back through that gate. I hope the groundskeeper still tends to it, the groundskeeper my dad still writes a check to every month after all these many years. He's got to be ninety, that groundskeeper, and one has to have faith.

I'll show Everett that stone. And Grandpa's and Grandma's. And Babs'.

We'll walk around and I'll show her all the names and I'll try to remember how all those puzzle pieces fit together, so I can tell her. I hope it's a nice day, because we'll have to stay outside.

I don't have the key to the chapel.

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