My grandmother was noticeably dead. I know because I stood there watching a young man with bad acne try to maneuver her sarcophagus. He seemed uncomfortable, maybe for having to perform manual, practical tasks before this seriously attentive crowd. The family is supposed to leave after the graveside service, scatter away slowly in reverse, eyes averted, having had an audience with their queen. They often do not wait out the actual interment, which is as utterly utilitarian as straightening the chairs on a patio or pulling weeds. He must have thought his striped mechanic's shirt with the name embroidered in cursive over the left breast pocket was inappropriate, next to all that black linen. He moved sternly, avoiding our eyes as he wrenched the oversized crowbar against the fulcrum of the grave's lip. As it should have, the metal box thumped into place, a cumbersome piece of furniture. Earlier in the day, it had finally hit me that I was tired of hearing Jay say he wasn't sad. "She was 96 and lived a wonderful life surrounded by people who loved her," he kept repeating. Maybe he believed in sounding philosophic or stoic since he was the first grandchild. I was sad as goddamn hell, but when he asked the funeral director if it was okay to watch her descend, I relented and loved him again, for thinking of himself and for sensing what we all wanted.
Some minutes earlier, the seven grandsons (six lifting, the youngest following) had rolled the pink casket onto its pedestal. Like air forced into a lung, we crowded into the funerary tent, its blue sides heaving. Oklahoma wind searches for vulnerability; it turns curiously desolate the unremarkable flapping of anything not tied down. The United Methodist preacher sang the words of the twenty-third Psalm; even the youngest great-grandchild was stilled by his unfaltering voice. He did not know us well enough to use his voice like that: to force our welling eyes downward, to shred our resolve. He had merely helped my grandmother choose her funereal hymn while her mouth uncontrollably opened and closed. As thousands of others had done, she whispered "Amazing Grace," the words skimming past her daughters' wringing hands, through the ceiling fan, across the mulberry leaves, over the stark white grain elevator, and over the shallow Texas canyons. And suddenly we were every exhalation she had ever made.
Fifteen miles down the road, an hour previous, across the border into the Texas panhandle, we all sang "Amazing Grace" with a little more vibrato than is necessary. Because the preacher did not know my grandmother well, he spent much of his allotted time talking about his own grandmother's funeral. "Talk about us; talk to us," I muttered to myself. The heavy memorial speech fell instead to one of our cousins because he was the founder of a very successful inspirational greeting card company. His sermon ended up not being so heavy. "Clara was a lifelong Methodist and a lifelong Republican; if you weren't Methodist, she didn't mind, but if you weren't Republican, she had plenty to say about it," he remembered. Once, on a long road trip with my Aunt Vesta, Grandma took to counting 18-wheelers, and went up past a thousand. Aunt Vesta asked, "Good grief, Momma, why so high?" Grandma replied, "I wanted to see what it was like to work for the government." Laughing in the sanctuary became the rightest thing I had ever done in the presence of God.
Grandma was a not-so-polished poet, a purveyor of thousands of sing-songy lines. I knew her poems weren't "works" because I had studied literature in college; they were just poems. As we stumbled through "Amazing Grace," I thought of my own poem displayed next to the guestbook in the foyer. Of course, it didn't rhyme. Grandma often recited her poems with little provocation. She would clasp her hands loosely next to her chin and narrow her eyes to little slits with her head tilted upward, and the rhymes spilled out in sections and pauses. I snapped out of my recollection and realized the greeting-card cousin was reading Grandma's "Springtime in Texas," and I followed along in the bulletin: "For it breaks my heart to be away / When it's Spring once more at home." I discovered then and there why my poems were pretty much shit while Grandma's were goldenshe believed the sole purpose of poetry was to fill in the tiny spaces in a life. I wrote; she imparted.
A couple of hours before the funeral, the entire family was gifted with potluck at the Senior Citizens' Center on Main Street. This meant an onslaught of casseroles and forgotten relatives. I saw again the branch of our family tree that consisted solely of redheads including my Aunt Rossabelle, Grandma's only surviving sister. I always liked to joke (but not to Grandma's face) that she and her sisters were named after dairy cattle: Mildred, Nellie, Bessie, Clara, Daisy, and Rossabelle. Yet, at 90 and seated there as the last Baxter girl, she seemed to shine above us like an oxblood garnet until she grasped my hand in her shuddering fingers and said, "There's so many people here." In this room, we were all the same, bewildered and profoundly reluctant to embrace an unbearable sadness.
Half an hour of lunchtime was designated as the "Say Nice Things About Clara Kerns" period. Uncle Jimmy cried. Most of us had never seen such a thing, but we knew we were watching his defiance flicker out, the same anger that stood between my grandmother and the raised drunken fist of her husband. Aunt Judy, Jimmy's twin, struggled with her words because brain surgery had affected her speech. The soothing lilt was long gone, replaced with something more guttural, more forceful. She put it simply, transparently: "Momma met me after school every day and we walked home together; she was always a good listener." My oldest brother Jay mentioned that he wasn't sad because Grandma had lived long and well. I silently called him a peckerhead because I was sad and needed others to commiserate with me. What I recalled didn't seem appropriate, like the time Grandma accidentally killed Popeye, my pet rooster, or the way she would respond after reading one of my poems; "Ty's a deep thinker" really meant "I don't know what in the hell this drivel means." Of the ten grandchildren, four of us had actually lived under Grandma's roof. We didn't have much to say, for this dalliance with memory seemed too similar to a grade-school book report: "What I Remember Now That Grandma Is Dead." We were caught in something surreal, a moment savagely benign in the way it just left us standing there.
During this lunch, I decided to visit Grandma one last time alone before all the formality began. I resolved not to thank her for "being there for me," a phrase I despised because cowards and deadbeats depended on it when they couldn't remember anything specific to say. When I stepped into the church, my middle brother was already there, chatting with the funeral director. Had Marck already made peace? I never found out for sure, or even if he needed to set anything straight. Marck was the quiet one who caused my grandmother to remark often that "still waters run deep," which probably meant she knew exactly what kind of shit he was pulling behind her back and that she respected his taciturnity. He spoke of "The Look" with a combination of veneration and dread in his voice. Grandma had used this weapon on him only once, when he was 16 and she knew he had been drinking out by the lake. She held up her index finger; her straight determined lips and puffy eyes peering unblinkingly over her trifocals filled him with despair and remorse. From then on, he always made sure she was well into her snoring reverie before staggering upstairs to his bedroom.
The funeral assistant was vacuuming. Grandma lay in her pink, rose-accented casket. I approached her like she was a jewelry case, as if I were confronting something I knew I couldn't afford. She wore a shiny purple blouse straight out of the 1970s, and I wondered what dead people wore on the half that didn't show. Was she wearing her big panties that I'd seen drying in the shower too many times? She never went without earrings or lipstick, put there now by a stranger who had already done it a thousand times before. She was skinny, her features gaunt and sharp. I stood there expecting the proverbial flood of emotion, but it never arrived. This polished mannequin was not the chubby-cheeked cackling force of a woman who helped rear me when my mother's marriage exhausted itself like a smoldering wick swallowed by wax. The woman who wore a rabbit-lined coat to my hilarious basketball games and who kept all criticism to herself just couldn't be found. I said, "Thank you for being there for me" and kissed her cold hard forehead, my lips brushing the edge of her widow's peak. I returned to the potluck wondering what kind of gelatin/vegetable concoction was available and why dead people needed underwear in the first place.
Over dessert and coffee, right before the funeral, my mother and Aunt Vesta talked about how Grandma died. They had been taking turns sleeping with her in the alcove, where they had positioned the rented hospital bed. She couldn't talk anymore. Grandma had never been an affectionate woman, but had recently taken to reaching for her daughters' hands to hold, silently requesting, "I want you to lead me to whatever precipice is out there. Don't wring your hands, my babies; I'll know what to do and then I'll have other hands to touch." In a moment almost too cinematic, precisely when my mother had stepped away, she stopped breathing in the brave morning darkness, delicately alone.
♦ ♦ ♦
The other day, I sat barefoot in my doctor's office. He looked at my logbook and said, "Your blood sugars have been way too high lately."
"Well, my grandmother died two weeks ago. It's a 15-hour drive one way; travel really throws my numbers off. Plus, when we got there, we ate way too much." I hated myself for stammering. As he walked out, he reprimanded me over his shoulder, "No more excuses! No more dying grandmothers to blame it on."
So that's what my grandmother had become as she veered past two daughters' brimming eyes, over another daughter's agitated sleep, through the ever-softening recitation of her son's anger, above the cottonwood branches, into the naked flight of stars. A beautiful, searing excuse for love.
About the Author
Ty Powers was born in Oklahoma City and spent his childhood in Norman, Okla., the Texas panhandle and Jackson, Miss. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in English from Mississippi College, where he wrote his thesis on harmony vs. cacophony in three novels by Toni Morrison. His fiction has appeared in Alive Now magazine, which also published his article "When God and Popcorn Meet," about how film achieves the sacred. His poetry has appeared in The Coe Review. Of his writing, Ty says, "Though I'm a longtime resident of the South, my writing relentlessly insists on returning to the Great Plains. It always feels like home in spite of its wide-open desolation. Somehow, this emptiness provides a solid base for triggering ideas both beautiful and painful." Ty lives in Nashville with his wife Monica and works as an advertising copywriter at a downtown publishing house.
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