by Elizabeth Fowler Sullivan
This is the kind of party Mamma always wanted to throw. There is music and singing and dancing. And there is laughter – lots of laughter. It’s Mamma’s funeral and it’s the best party she ever gave.
In life, Mamma struggled with get-togethers. Something would inevitably go wrong. She couldn’t get my brother to finish mowing the lawn, or motivate me to shake out the throw rugs, or her favorite yellow cake – the one with sliced bananas, fluffy white icing and cocoanut flakes – would burn when she put it back into the oven to brown.
This time it’s different. Mamma is here – and not here. This time Mamma won’t get upset. She lies still in her red and white polka dot blouse and navy-blue suit, just the way she said she wanted to be. And though they can’t be seen under the closed lower opening of the casket, she’s wearing the navy-blue slippers the two of us found for her to wear at a grandson’s wedding. Navy blue is good on Mamma. Any shade of blue, really. Even now, when you can’t see her sky-blue eyes, the dark blue is complemented perfectly by her snow-white hair.
I told the funeral directors how her hair was supposed to look. I knew they would have a problem because someone at her assisted living residence had cut short bangs – just taken a pair of scissors and cut them straight across like her daddy used to do all his children. He’d line the four of them up and chop off their hair. I gave Mamma short haircuts too, but I left the hair over her eyes as long as possible and feathered it to soften her high forehead. Her cowlick gave a natural
lift on top.
The preparation people at the funeral home have done the best they could and, even at 90, Mamma looks lovely. Her mother called her “My pretty girl,” even though she had two other daughters to consider. Today I think Grandma was right – not diplomatic – but right.
Once, as a little girl, I sat on her lap, stroked her face and described her complexion this way; “It’s like a peach, Mamma.” I remember her purring “Thank you, Darlin’.” And it was then that I realized I’d given her a compliment without knowing it – though I somehow knew not to tell her I’d simply meant that, like a peach, it was pink and fuzzy.
The truth is, Mamma didn’t spend much time trying to be beautiful. Her body was a strong and constantly moving thing and she enjoyed wearing work clothes, digging in the dirt, planting and tending her vegetables and flowers – especially her roses. Weeding and sweating, she would often work after the sun had set, pull off her garden togs and go “skinny dipping” in her kidney-shaped pool. But because she believed in – relied on – the power of contrast, she was known to
transform herself and go out dancing.
When telling the directors of Mamma’s plans for her funeral, I think they were a bit apprehensive, but they didn’t say so. I called Dr. Jim Faulconer, my friend and teacher at the University of Oklahoma. “I need a Dixie Land Band, Jim,” I said. And he replied, “Don’t worry, you’ll have it.”
Next, I called Dr. Gene Garrison, the minister Mamma watched every Sunday morning on TV, as she took detailed notes. He knew her personally because of her letters and the time he visited her in her home. “Yes,” he said. “I’ll be there.”
Agreeing to come to see my husband and me the next morning, Dr. Garrison mentioned that it would not take long to plan the funeral. But when we asked him to stay for lunch, he agreed and, as we talked into the evening, enjoyed quoting from the letters she’d written him. We shared with him stories of her busy, often troubled life. While getting her Bible for him – he wanted to use it at her service – I thought of a scripture she’d underlined, found Revelation 3: 15-16 and read aloud; “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” I handed him Mamma’s Bible and said, “Mamma was not lukewarm.”
I can’t believe it’s going so well, Mamma. Just as you planned, right here in The Little Chapel of the Roses, the Dixie Land Band is playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and we’re singing and dancing down the aisle.
THE MUSIC ROOM
Mamma is reminiscing. She tells me, “Your grandma would say, ‘Let’s do one more song… just one more!’ She loved to pick and fret.”
I’m thinking that now she’ll tell how Grandma picked up hickory nuts to buy her first mandolin. She does. And I enjoy hearing it again.
“She knew a thousand songs – all by ear,” Mamma says. “Turkey In The Straw, Shamus O’Brian, I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen… and whatever she’d heard at the vaudeville show on Saturday night.”
Mamma shares her favorite story about her parents: “You know how your Grandma and Grandpa met, don’t you?”
I don’t tell her that I remember – I want to hear it again. “She was playing her mandolin and he was strummin’ his guitar at a dance.”
I’m trying to pay close attention to Mamma. I might hear something I’ve not heard before. But my mind begins to stray – drift back to when I was very young.
We’re in the house my mother grew up in and we are company, my father, mother, brother and I. We’ve come from our little house on the other bank of Lightning Creek, in South Oklahoma City. It’s one of Grandpa’s rentals.
Mamma stirs something at the kitchen stove – briskly stirs and stirs. She pours the mixture into a large bowl. I see that it’s gravy – milk gravy. There’s the smell of fried beef steak, green beans with salt pork and something else… cinnamon. The crimped, browned crust of a pie is eye level on the long table, set with plain white dishes and mismatched knives, forks and spoons. I sit near an open window. The breeze sifts through its screen and cools the sweat on my back.
Grandpa, Grandma, Mamma, Uncle Billy, my aunts Molly and Martha, pile their plates high. Daddy and brother Glen eat small servings and I’m having apple pie.
Mamma begins to help Grandma wash dishes and put food away in the pantry and icebox. And, as we walk away, she wipes clean the white oilcloth covered table – the benches.
We pass the bathroom, where the roof slopes down over a tub. The smell of lye soap and Old Dutch Cleanser almost covers the faint acrid odor.
The walls of the living room are painted red. Mamma explains that’s why everyone gets angry. The wooden floors splinter and stab bare feet of children. Two big windows have no curtains. Grandma wants them, but Grandpa argues, “I put windows there so I could see out!”
Grandpa says you don’t need a house that’s “too good for ya.” He tells of trying to farm the poor land his family claimed in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 – of how they almost starved – and of how good we’ve got it now.
A bedroom with seven windows joins the living room on our right. Grandpa and Uncle Billy sleep here. A thick white cloth hangs from an iron rod on the other side of the living room. It’s pulled to one side so that you can walk into the bedroom where Grandma sleeps with Martha, her youngest. This room is dark because its only window is shaded by a porch.
“There used to be two windows,” Mamma tells me, “but Papa cut down a cherry tree and built a room for Molly.”
From the dark bedroom, we go into the largest room in the house. This room is for music. Here Grandma doesn’t make Grandpa crazy. Here, he forgets how often he waits for her.
“She may take a while, but she’s thorough,” Mamma offers in her mother's defense. “On family trips to swim and picnic, she never forgets a thing – down to the salt and the matches… she never forgets a thing.”
When he works and when he plays, Grandpa’s quick. He doesn’t understand anyone who isn’t like him.
There’s a wide bay window in the music room… the scent of honeysuckle comes through its opening. Evening comes and Mamma, sitting at the upright piano, chords to Grandma’s mandolin and Grandpa’s guitar. Aunt Martha sings "In My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown". Mamma wants Daddy to whistle "My Wonderful One". I want to hear him too. But he won’t. He likes to sit on the back porch – look at the stars – while he whistles.
Brother Glen and I aren’t ready to perform in the Music Room. Mamma’s bought us a piano. It’s not new, but it’s got a good sound and the keys aren’t hard to press down. Stuyvesant is the name painted on a wooden lid that folds down over the keys. She says it’s called a “player piano” because you can slide back little doors behind the music stand and watch rolls of paper with little punched-out holes that catch on the prongs of a turning cylinder. Foot pedals are used to work the bellows. The keys go down… it’s like many fingers you can’t see are pressing them to strike the strings. Music comes out. Mama says the “player part” has to go. She wants us to play it. But we don’t know our notes and Mamma insists we learn, says I’m prone to be like Grandma, who doesn’t read music.
Billy and Molly tune their violins, play hoedown while Mamma jigs and Grandpa clogs, innovate obbligato accompaniment to the tunes the others do… solo here and there. They play a Bach violin concerto and Grandpa forgets the time he spent waiting for them outside Mrs. Brandenburg’s Studio – and the cash it took. He smiles at Grandma, and I fall asleep on a cracked leather couch to sounds of harmony.
My granddaughter wondered how to arrange 90 candles on the birthday cake she’d baked for me.
Thinking I’d simplify her problem, I suggested she just use 9 of them – one for each of the decades I’ve lived.
But while she was pushing them through the icing, I said, “If I were a child, somebody would say, ‘Add one to grow on!’”
She smiled as I added, “Place another candle, Dear. Your grandma wants to keep growing too.”
Elizabeth Sullivan, May 22, 2020