Laurie Brown-Pressly : Jo’s Funeral (fiction) Dec. 2018
Southern Legitimacy Statement: My given name is Laura Ruth, and I am a sweet tea addict. I grew up in Woodruff, South Carolina–home of the Wolverines. I won a shagging contest in college at Clemson University, and, no shagging is the SC state dance–get your mind out of the gutter. I love Flannery and Faulkner. I wish I had learned to make my grandma’s biscuits. I aspire to be a Julia Sugarbaker, but I know deep down, I am really a Suzanne!
She held up the figurine and dusted it off. She didn’t have to turn it over; the muted colors and design of the figurine’s face were the tell-tale signs of a Hummel. She put it on the table next to the bubble wrap. The next item she selected from the shelf was an angel made of resin. She flipped it over to verify the “made in China” stamp before wrapping it in some newspaper print and packing it in the box marked for donations.
Every flat surface, every bookshelf, every dressing table, every chest of drawers, the mantle, and even the tops of the television sets were adorned with such knick-knacks. Save for cursory dustings, most of them never moved from their designated spots. They served as sentinels keeping watch over a family for over three generations. Betsy picked up two dainty tea cups that she once envisioned belonging to a fairy queen, and she smiled remembering the time she forced her little brother Brian to have a tea party using those fragile white and blue cups and their matching saucers. When she discovered her children playing with her mother’s prized Delftware imported from Amsterdam, Betsy’s mother, hands on hips, brow furrowed, admonished them, “Some of these pieces are quite expensive. You mustn’t play with them.” Her mother’s stern face only encouraged young Betsy to view the knick-knacks with greater awe.
She dusted the tea cups and saucers and gently placed them on the table. Next Betsy reached for a pewter pencil sharpener in the shape of a princess phone. Cradling the base of the phone in her palm, she picked up the little receiver and held it to her ear, thinking of the pretend calls she had made on the pencil sharpener.
“Who are you talking to?”
Betsy gave a little jump. She hadn’t heard her sister-in-law Claire come into the room.
Claire giggled, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” Then, turning to look around the guest bedroom, Claire added, “Your Grandma Jo certainly had a lot of Tchotchkes.”
“Knick-knacks,” Betsy responded flatly.
“Gran called them knick-knacks. My dad called them dust catchers,” Betsy answered, gesturing to the shelves. “Grab a dust cloth and join the fun.”
They worked at wiping away years’ worth of dust from her grandmother’s treasures before relegating the items into a donate or dump pile or placing them on the table where family members could select a favorite keepsake or two to take with them when they left Gran’s house for the final time. Claire grew up in a Manhattan apartment where space was limited and such tchotchkes were often culled, so she was intrigued by Jo’s collection. Claire placed a dime-store “Best Friend” plaque in the donate pile and carefully dusted a San Francisco Music Box snow globe featuring a boy and dog before placing it on the table. She paused to read the inscription on a plastic trophy honoring the Foulk County Bridge Champions and briefly debated where to put it before returning it to the shelf. Every couple of minutes, Betsy would pause to share unforgettable stories about many of pieces.
Betsy smiled as she picked up an orange model car. She showed Claire how to open the tiny doors on the toy car while revealing that as a boy Brian was so taken with the car that he slept with it during their visits.
Sitting next to the model car, was a beautiful Lancaster Glass goblet with etched stars and a subtle yellow tint. Betsy lowered her voice and raised her eyebrows, “Did you know that my Gran’s mother, my great-grandmother Alice, was a divorcee when she married my great-grandfather? That was so scandalous back in that day, especially in a small town like this. But Alice was independent, ran her own bakery, bought her own house…. Anyway, this was the goblet she used to toast at her first wedding.” Betsy raised the glass and continued, “According to Gran, she could tell when her parents were arguing because Alice would drink from this goblet at the dinner table. I guess it was just a subtle reminder that she wasn’t afraid to go it alone.”
When Claire began to extract gently the hard-bound books from their shelf, Betsy told her she should probably check the pages. Her Gran had been known to hide money in strange places. Hidden between the pages of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was a four-leaf clover that had been pressed between two sheets of wax paper, and a first-day-of-issue Elvis stamp fluttered from the pages of a Methodist hymnal. Claire also uncovered several black and white polaroid pictures, a church bulletin from 1973, and an olivewood bookmark from the holy land but no money.
The two women continued to sort items. At one point, Claire scrunched up her little pixie nose when she opened a trinket box to find four confederate flag cupcake picks. Betsy, who couldn’t tell if Claire was surprised by the confederate flags or by the fact that her Gran kept cupcake picks, laughed, “Here in Mississippi, they didn’t get the word about Lee’s surrender until around 1991. And even then, they didn’t believe it.” Claire raised an eyebrow, but Betsy simply shrugged and shook her head.
After clearing one of two big bookshelves in the guestroom, the women washed up and sat at the kitchen table to eat a slice of the seven-layer, chocolate-iced cake that Ms. Hill had dropped off earlier that day. Between forkfuls, Claire asked about the details for the next day, “So there will be a receiving line before the funeral?”
“Yes, we will meet friends first and…”
“Meet friends?” Claire interrupted.
“Meet friends is southern for receiving line,” Betsy giggled. “We stand around at the front of the church for two hours before the funeral as people come by to shake hands and offer condolences.”
“Who will we see tomorrow that we know?” asked Claire.
“Well, I imagine most of the Massey family will be here—Mrs. Pat and Mr. Dan and one or two of their daughters, maybe even a couple of their grandkids. Jeff will be here, but his girls are at the beach with their mama this weekend. Mr. Walt—he’s the one that always brings barbecue.”
Claire nodded. “What about Ms. Edna? When Rivers was born, she sent us a beautiful, soft baby blanket that she knitted herself. She’s still alive, right?”
“She sent Merritt one too. It was a lovely mint-green and pink. And I think Mom still has the ones she made for Brian and me.” Betsy sighed, “Good old Ms. Edna. Yes, she’s still alive, but she won’t be there.”
“Oh, is she not able to get out?” Claire’s forehead creased as she thought of a bed-ridden Edna missing her oldest friend’s funeral.
Edna and Josephine were both in their 90s and their friendship was documented in the frayed black and whites, faded Polaroids, and digitally-edited pictures printed from Claire’s mother-in-law’s computer. These photos were enshrined in several albums that lined the bookshelf in Jo’s bedroom. Their children and grandchildren had played together on the church playground. They held each other’s hands through births, illnesses, and deaths. When Josephine’s eight-year-old daughter Emily died following a short illness, Edna was waiting with a picnic basket of food when Jo arrived home from the hospital. Claire herself held fond memories of visiting with Edna who always smelled of White Shoulders and cinnamon and whose hot cross buns were a buttery, sweet delight.
Unfortunately, the previous spring, the two had a falling out over the rules of a card game. As she cleared the table, Betsy recounted the story she was told, “Edna accused her of cheating, but my gran insisted she did no such thing. Edna acquiesced, but when she dealt the next hand, Edna skipped Gran. In response, Gran quickly snagged the cards from all the players and suggested a game of 52-card pick-up before tossing the cards, confetti-like, into the air. Edna grabbed her casserole dish and purse before storming out, and they haven’t spoken since.”
“You’re kidding, right?” She and Betsy returned to the guestroom, ready to tackle the second bookcase.
“I wish. Apparently there was one mostly insincere exchange during the passing of the peace one Sunday. Mom described it as mechanical and quite cold, said that the church could’ve saved on air conditioning that day if they had just forced the two ladies to share a pew.” Betsy stood on her tip-toes and placed a recently dusted Jesus figurine back in his proper place on the top shelf.
“That’s so sad. They’d been friends all those years. But surely Edna will come tomorrow to say goodbye, won’t she?”
Betsy paused for a moment in thought before replying, “I doubt it. I loved Gran to the moon, and I adore Ms. Edna too. But both are…or were set in their ways. Sometimes Gran was slow to forgive. When Mom and Dad moved to Charleston, they joined a Presbyterian church near their house. Gran couldn’t believe they weren’t willing to drive a few more miles to attend the Methodist Church. When she was visiting us, Gran would go to church, but she never sang. She would barely grunt as she shook the pastor’s hand on the way out the door. She would mutter under her breath about predestination. This went on for years until Mom and Dad moved to Mount Pleasant and changed back to a Methodist church.”
Claire, who was baptized as a baby in the Catholic Church but was never religious asked, “So what’s the big difference between Presbyterians and Methodists?”
Betsy smirked, “As far as I can tell, the hymnal page numbers are the only difference.”
Claire took her place in the receiving line where she was flanked by her husband and daughter Rivers on one side and Betsy and Claire’s niece, Merritt, on the other. Claire could easily lean over and whisper to Betsy about the visitors she couldn’t place. Claire searched the faces in line and kept a close eye on the clock hanging on the back wall of the sanctuary. As the time for the funeral drew near, Claire became more anxious, shuffling her weight from one foot to the next, tugging at the hemline of her dress.
During the funeral, Claire was seated at the end of the front pew directly in front of Betsy. As the preacher delivered the eulogy, Claire fidgeted in her seat and kept peeking over her shoulders as if she were looking for someone seated at the back of the sanctuary. Betsy thought that perhaps Claire felt ill. The church was close to full and a bit on the warm side. Betsy leaned forward and whispered in Claire’s ear, “You ok?” Claire gave a quick little nod. However, as everyone made their way across the street to the cemetery for the graveside portion, Betsy noticed Claire hung back and watched as the funeral attendees filed out and made their way to the grave site.
The July air was a thick blanket of humidity. Betsy shifted from one foot to the other, glad she opted to forgo pantyhose. She had no idea what the pastor said as they stood by the open grave. Instead she kept a close eye on the pallbearers. Several were quite red in the face and all of them glistened with sweat. She hoped the pastor would be quick, so everyone could return to the coolness of the church social hall before someone passed out from heat exhaustion.
Claire sat picking at her lunch when a tired Betsy slumped into the metal folding chair next to her. “Small talk is so exhausting,” Betsy exclaimed. As she took a long sip of ice cold sweet tea, Betsy noticed tears in Claire’s eyes. “Hey are you OK? Did you get overheated?”
“She didn’t come,” Claire said earnestly.
“What?” asked Betsy. “Who didn’t?”
“Edna really didn’t come. Six decades of friendship and she didn’t come to say goodbye.”
“Oh.” Betsy wasn’t sure how to respond. She handed Claire a clean tissue from her pocket and gently patted Claire on her thin shoulders.
“I’m not even sure why this upset me so,” Claire confessed.
“Well, it is sad. It’s loss compounded by loss compounded by more loss—loss of friendship, of family, and then, of hope. It is sad indeed.” Betsy got up from the table and began to clear away Claire’s plate. “Bless your little Yankee heart. Let’s go back to the house, devour some more of that cake. Maybe later we can play a little 52 card pick up and drink a toast to Gran and Edna. We’ll use Alice’s goblet.”
Claire pushed her chair back from the table and murmured so only Betsy could hear, “Damn rebels.”