During a recent visit to my childhood hometown, Valdosta Georgia, I drove through some old neighborhoods that spawned so many fond memories, including this one of a special day during my fifteenth year.
During my childhood in Valdosta, funerals were routinely scheduled at churches on Sunday afternoon almost immediately following the morning services. It was a sensible arrangement; mourners already had on their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, and “meeting” included funerals. Sunday also was a non-work day for folks who couldn’t afford to take off during the week. One Sunday they gathered to say farewell to Joe.
In the interlude between the services, Ida Mae walked a block back to her home and changed clothes. When she returned she wore, not the dark colors of bereavement, but something that suggested her relationship with the departed. — a bright red dress. Her light green hat was perfectly tilted to hide the full expressions of her eyes. Ida Mae came to the funeral to say goodbye, and to say a few other things that were on her mind. She took a seat in the last unoccupied pew, creating for herself a little zone of privacy, unaware that in a nook behind her, I stood in my assigned place as a member of the funeral home staff.
Sometimes, funerals are assemblies in which the living offer excuses for the dead and occasionally even attempt to dignify a less praiseworthy existence. My elders rationalized this practice: “Don’t speak ill of the dead; the devil might be listening.” The minister honored this tradition. His first words of the eulogy caused Ida Mae to stir. She shifted and tried to make herself comfortable, anticipating that what she was about to hear was what they knew, or thought they knew. She knew some things that were at one time privy to only three persons: God, herself, and Joe.
It was not a particularly warm day, but Ida Mae’s body temperature was her business, and she regulated it as best she could with the hand held cardboard fan with the picture of Mahalia Jackson on the front and the name of the funeral home which donated it to the church on the back.
When the minister announced: “Brother Joe was a good man.” Ida Mae shifted and grunted the kind of noise that often signals suspicion and disagreement. Then, she twitched her heavily painted lips and uttered in a hushed voice: “He was good for only one thing, but that ain’t what killed him.” The minister continued. “He was a faithful and honest servant, a giving man, ready, if necessary, to give you the shirt off his back in your hour of need. Let the church say amen.” Ida Mae’s only response was a more audible “Lawd, Lawd.” The chorus of amen’s continued, but Ida Mae was having her own private talk with Joe. Her heart told her that Joe could still hear her voice, just as he had in those private and special places where they made their own history.
When all the tributes had been paid and the crying and moaning ceased, the pall bearers took their positions. But, Ida Mae had one final message. Some years later I learned that what she expressed was called ambivalence – the simultaneous conflicting feelings for a person, as love and hate.
Ida Mae leaned forward, as though God was seated directly in front of her, and she said: “Now God, you know I ain’t gonna lie to you, so here’s what’s on my mind. If he showed you something that he didn’t show me, then you deal with it as you see fit.” She hesitated, cleared her throat as to make sure her words were not misunderstood, not even by God, and she continued: “As for me, I’d appreciate it if you don’t have us end up in the same place, cause I don’t ever want to see his tired, lying, trifling ass again — in this world or the next. Amen.” She then fanned a little faster and hummed a tune.
When the pall bearers rolled Joe’s coffin past her, she smiled and said: “Bye honey.”