It has somehow evolved into a tradition between my 81-year-old mother and me to begin our weekly telephone conversations with a round-up of the newly dead or fast expiring in Shawboro, plus communities to the north and west, and, occasionally, farther afield.
Fairly recently she announced: "Flora Walker's not doing well. Not well at all. Has no idea who's in the room with her half the time."
Since my mother has lots of dying friends, some of whom I never knew and some I knew only as a child, typically we do a bit of backtracking at this point, she filling in histories and bringing me up-to-date on the last details of a life concluded or seriously waning. In Flora Walker Grabo's case: a Currituck County native who lived for years on Long Island but would likely finish in a nursing home in Oregon, her daughter's adopted state.
"Backie" (Flora's sister) "can't fly out there herself," my mother fretted on Backie's behalf--a sister thwarted by her own ill health and partial blindness, unable to behave as a sister should. Led misery by misery, we discussed Backie's own travails for a while, then moved on to Pi Ferebee's demise.
"You remember Pi? Married James Ferebee's brother, John? Had that son who wanted to be a golf pro? What was his name? Don't you remember he stayed with Ann and James that summer? Camilla Williams had a crush on him, acted so foolish that time he came to church? Jett, isn't it? That's his name. Jett. "
"So what happened to Pi?" I asked.
A mammoth woman, Pi was tagged a prime candidate for heart attack or stroke in her thirties but managed to survive into her seventies when an operation whose purpose my mother is exceedingly vague about went mysteriously wrong causing a shrunken Pi to die "of complications," it was said.
No amount or manner of asking will net further specifics. My mother does not (or will not) retain medical terminology or exposition. Dead of complications is, for her, an entirely sufficient explanation. And why not? Pi Ferebee is indeed unraisably dead, at the mercy of memory's blur and reinvention by those acquainted with her living self. To know precisely, physiologically, why Pi is no longer alive is no preventative of the death she and the rest of us most significantly dread--our own.
Regarding that eventuality, negotiating with her God, my mother fervently prays that she will keel over at breakfast, as did my father, or die "without knowing it" in her "sleep." Whenever she mentions the request--and she mentions it often--I think: And who doesn't prefer to die instantly or exit in dream? But hoping--or praying--for a quick and painless finale is hardly the same as getting one, as my mother, at her core, realizes because a) she is a woman morbidly and many-generations Southern; b) she was a farmer's wife; and c) she is the scarred daughter of a mother who died when she was ten. Nevertheless, successful negotiation depends on the positive spin, on phrasing that presses for the personally advantageous, and so my mother closes her eyes, lifts her voice to God and works hard at striking a bargain that comforts.
By living long and living all her adult life in the same community, she has (to her distinct disadvantage) a span of three plus generations of the dead to ponder: her parents' generation, her own, her children's, and the generation that trails us both. Besides the usual flame-outs from cirrhosis of the liver and cancer, Shawboro has had its share of horrific on-the-job accidents, vehicular fatalities--both predictable (drunk drivers) and bizarre (my cousin's ex-wife died when the ambulance taking her to the hospital collided with a big rig)--and a statistically significant number of suicides. Before blinking lights and electrical crossbars were installed beside the main set of railroad tracks, several carloads of teenagers came to a bad end, racing night trains. Gruesome stories about severed feet in shoes found among corn stalks were neither altogether common nor entirely rare. Not long ago, two farmers, one diagnosed with cancer, the other suspecting that death sentence, each walked into the woods behind his respective property, placed a well-oiled gun between his teeth and pulled the trigger. As a child, my brother's classmate came home from school to find her mother hanging in the hallway. Got off the bus, opened the door and saw between ribbons of afternoon sunlight her mother's dangling corpse. In a letter my mother wrote (when we still wrote to each other as well as telephoned) she added, almost as an afterthought: "The middle child (her emphasis) of the Sugg Kight family got killed logging in the woods Saturday. A tree was caught on something and he tried to break it loose and it fell and cut his head off--terrible--at 36 and two children (John Henry). Talk to you soon. Love, Mom."
Then, in vigorous middle age, she could be horrified by such an event without permitting it to distract her from the demands and duties of her busy everyday. In her eighth decade, understandably, the perspective has shifted. Death has cut a swath through friends and relatives, her own immediate family now reduced to one severely medicated sister and a deaf brother who tried to slit his throat with a butcher knife, was "rescued" by his son and now feeds through a stomach tube.
My father, Dubby, was cremated, his casket-less funeral service the first the Providence Baptist Church minister had performed "without a body," as he so delicately put it. When Dubby died, I was an artist-in-residence in California, and very early in the morning Pacific Standard Time, Dorland's director came to my lizard-infested cottage in the hills overlooking the then undeveloped town of Temecula with a message to "call home." The shack containing the community's one telephone was dark and missing a fourth wall. I could hear the painter in the studio next door making his morning coffee, the faint murmur of his radio. When Ann Ferebee (sister-in-law of Pi, aunt of Jett) answered my parents' telephone in Shawboro, I could only think to identify myself. "Kathy, hon," she said. "Your daddy had a heart attack this morning." And I said: "He's in the hospital?" And she said, "No, hon, no." And then, as I recall, I started screaming, and she said: "Get yourself together, now. Get yourself together." Instructions I followed well enough to book a flight, board a plane and enter, near midnight, a crowded house where some third or fourth ancient cousin of my father exclaimed in wonder: "Why, she looks just like her Aunt Madeline!" My brother, who had picked me up at the airport, stood at my side, both of us in the early stages of a shock we may never fully recover from. In the moment, as a unit we flinched, neither of us fans of that particular aunt and inclined to take the comparison as insult, but it was my brother who gallantly snarled: "You do NOT look like Madeline!" and stunned silent a roomful of Dubby's kin. One did not contradict one's elders. One did not raise one's voice in a house of mourning. But unable to protect himself or me from the loss of our father, my brother chose to console where consolation was still possible: I did not look like Aunt Madeline, and for that reassurance, however rude, I was and am grateful.
The next afternoon, while I was taking a break from the claustrophobic house, wandering aimlessly around the front yard, the funeral director's son arrived with a paper bag containing the clothes and accessories my father had been wearing when a hospital doctor pronounced him DOA: green khaki pants and shirt, a watch with a sprung wristband, suede work shoes. No socks. Dubby often came to breakfast sockless, in unlaced shoes. When the emissary handed over that bundle, in polite Southern fashion, I courteously, absurdly, thanked him. Then I set the bag on the roots of a pine tree, returned to the living room and signaled my brother from the doorway. Together we burned our father's effects in an oil drum behind the shed while simultaneously, ten miles away, it might be argued, some mortician's assistant was burning the body of our father.
Dubby's mother, my grandmother Dora, died two evenings later: 95, bedridden, her departure a "blessing," as everyone said. It had turned into a week of funerals for the Meadses. Cousin Stanley was given permission to haul Dora's house trailer to a field in Cow Deaden for use as feed storage. Two black snakes fell out from the underpinnings before the cargo left the driveway; all but the right back tire blew out on the asphalt of East Ridge Road, rotten, the bunch of them, and disinclined to travel. Afterwards, from my mother's kitchen window, instead of a view of Dora's residence there was a view of dirt--rectangular, spookily grave-like and surrounded by trampled wisteria.
Because Dora's death so quickly followed Dubby's, I didn't have chance to properly--or singularly--mourn my grandmother: drained, embalmed, rouged and buried two counties east of the husband she loathed. When Dora purchased her single burial plot in Moyock, her cemetery of choice probably appeared more idyllic than it has become, wedged between a savings and loan enterprise and other sprawling development, gravestones blackened with pollutants generated by a four-lane, beach-access highway. But such is Dora's resting place. Almost a year after her bones had settled into it, I stopped by on my way back to the airport and trooped past row after row of plastic garlands and bouquets (if truly the dead could make a fuss, those memorials would have set Dora raving--she despised artificial flowers almost as much as husband Jack). At the burial service, of course, there had been no gravestone for the family to view, that marker with inscription added later. Since I remembered (or thought I remembered) the general area of Dora's site, I searched first by location. But too many folks had since joined the line-up for that method to work; in the end, I searched by name, found Dora Brothers Meads and below her official ID a phrase I read twice before starting to laugh so hard my knees buckled. Among dozens and dozens of "Loving Wife and Mother" tributes, the block of granite above Dora's head read "Loving Mother"--period.
My mother's family, the Sears clan, have their own personal graveyard in a field behind the old homestead on Tull's Creek Road. No commercial or housing developments have sprung up on either side to date, but will, no doubt, in future. My mother gives money annually to her dead sister Pearl's "boys" to caretake the site: mow the grass, repair the fence as necessary, and such. But she likes to check periodically on how well her nephews are doing their job. On our last joint inspection, we beat our way through brown soybeans to examine the graves of her parents, two brothers, Pearl, Pearl's stillborn child and assorted others, all but one dead before my birth. Clearly affronted by the thriving weeds and the disrespect that neglect (in her mind) confirmed, she pursed her lips. "Soon as we get home, I'm gonna call Bill," she said not entirely to me, more to the skies above, but in a tone I surely learned to recognize before I could speak. True to her vow, as soon as we got into the house, she snatched up the wall telephone, dialed and laid hard into alcoholic Bill, also home in the middle of the day, "doing nothing but drinking," she surmised, an impromptu and possibly unjust verdict that nonetheless precluded forgiveness then or later.
My last few visits home have, without advance planning, coincided with funerals my mother wanted us both to attend. When Pearl's son-in-law, Dot's husband, died, I would have paid my respects with or without maternal pressure because, in an act of pure kindness, Dot hired my newly widowed mother to work part time in her Elizabeth City dress shop. Dot didn't need the help--business was slow--but the job got my mother back out in the world and netted her a paycheck while she stitched two quilts. So we both had a soft spot for Dot, if not for her philandering husband. Ken's service was held on Bell's Island, property that edged Currituck Sound. He had been a sailor of sorts, so the plan was to dump his so-labeled remains into that body of water. Neighbors donated boats for the occasion and in a kind of funeral flotilla, we headed out, one pink carnation per passenger. My mother (who can't swim) insisted on being part of the entourage and so, with the help of cousin Stanley--trailer mover, husband of Dora's granddaughter, and brother of Dot--we got her into the boat and situated between us. Dot, her two sons and their wives occupied the lead boat. The entire fleet was to form a circle in the choppy water; Ken's ashes were to be dumped; then we, of the circle, would toss our flowers in the general direction of the last of him. "This swaying!" my mother moaned as our boat roiled, letting go of me to clutch her head. If she puked, I sincerely hoped it would land on Stanley who had greeted me with the slur: "You're pale as death yourself, girl. Next time get some sun before you come home." It fell to Ken and Dot's younger son, beer bottle in one hand, ash can in the other, to perform the final honors. Those ten digits engaged, however, he had none to spare for a wind test, which meant he didn't correct for direction, velocity or updraft, which meant what ultimately flew that afternoon wasn't vomit but minced bone and muscle, much of it settling on the dead's immediate family, who had but two choices: pretend not to be covered with Ken or treat his remnants the way they treated lint. "Jesus!" cousin Stanley blurted and shook his head. My mother claimed to believe he'd uttered that cry in prayer.
Once, my mother and I found ourselves double-booked, funeral-wise. "I'd intended to go to Earl's...but will that give us time to get to Roy's?" The mere prospect of having to choose turned her anxious. Earl Brinkley Sr. was to be buried in Elizabeth City; Roy Leary, in Gregory. Other factors to be considered: Earl had been a neighbor; Roy, kin of kin. "The thing is, I really ought to go to both--because the Brinkleys lived in Aunt Hattie's house all those years, and you claimed every one of those Brinkley boys as your boyfriend...Still, I have to go to Roy's. For Clara's sake." (Meaning: she'd taken it upon herself to serve as stand-in for her sister at her sister's brother-in-law's funeral.) "And I don't want to miss seeing Janice. They'll drive down from Baltimore just for the day, I suspect. Leave right after the service. And Chris will be at Roy's too. You'll want to see Chris yourself," she added--half assumption, half projection but perfectly true: I did want to see my cousin Chris.
"I think we can make both."
"Do you?" Not quite convincing, my confidence.
"If we leave Earl's a little early and get to Roy's a little late."
Her sigh signaled concession. "If that's the best we can do, that's the best we can do." But the divided mourning troubled her; it smacked of nonchalance.
The Brinkley boys I'd "claimed" as boyfriends in grammar school and high school were now grown men, all with careers in some area of law enforcement. My condolences went first to highway patrolman Clark, at the head of the "receiving line," who introduced me to his wife thus: "I used to like her in second grade." Then to Glenn, reigning sheriff of Currituck County. Then to Earl Jr., North Carolina wildlife agent. Only Clark resembled his younger self but his two older, puffier brothers looked well satisfied with their bulk and accomplishments, so what did my noticing the disappearance of their once athletic torsos matter? Our strained chitchat had barely begun when my mother grabbed and dragged me doorward, several times repeating why we couldn't tarry: had another funeral to attend, had to go, had to get there. In the parking lot, we whipped past another of the younger Earl's former sweethearts, Lois Givens, with barely a civil hello. But once in the car, successfully en route to Roy's service, my mother relaxed enough to muse: "Remember when Lois Givens threatened to jump off the Sligo bridge? Called up Earl, crying and screaming. Told him what she planned to do. And he kept saying: 'You don't want to do that, Lois. You don't want to do that.' Sixteen, if she was that old."
The car tires rolled on beneath us.
"How do you know what Earl said to Lois?" I ventured.
She took a breath, glanced out the side window, acting not guilty particularly, just caught. "Party line, remember. When they first installed telephones up East Ridge Road?"
To store her will and "important papers," as she calls them, my mother uses a battered green tackle box that Dubby used for fish lure. Each time she moves that repository (from under the kitchen sink to under her bed to the closet shelf and back again) she calls to describe its latest location--"just in case anything happens." For several years now she's been trying to give me "in advance" her incomplete set of silver and a vase that belonged to her mother, Luna. She has also composed a list of what she does and doesn't want at her funeral: first and foremost no "live-ins" allowed. A few months ago that injunction affected both her children, but my brother has since gone legal with wife number three, so only my 20-year partner is verboten. Shirley Staples, a second daughter to my mother and a dear friend to me, has also been given strict instructions: upon "hearing word," she is to come from New York "right away," not "wait till the next weekend." This demand is based on a perceived slight. When Dubby died, at my request, Shirley postponed her trip to Shawboro by several days so that our time with her wouldn't be interrupted by other consolation calls. But my mother has never accepted that reasoning or the good intentions behind it, and remains absolutely firm about the schedule by which she is to be mourned. "As soon as you hear the news, get on a plane," she orders a Wall Street lawyer with a husband, two children and a schedule of her own to maintain. But Shirley, a New Yorker for 25 years, a Southerner forever, knows what she's expected to promise and repeatedly does: "On the first plane out, Ann. Soon as I hear."
My mother did not attend Pi Ferebee's funeral or the funeral of Annie Sanderlin, her friend since childhood, "because of this blame head of mine," she reported. After a lifetime of debilitating bouts of vertigo, she now suffers from Menere's disease, the effects of which she describes as a continuous and scarcely bearable "roaring" in her ears, similar to the noise of "that awful plane" that got her from Boston to Martha's Vineyard, the second leg of a "trying" journey to visit me. After a bumpy landing, she and her "blame head" took to bed for half a day and thereafter she swore off all planes, propeller and jet. "Never again," she declared but soon qualified: "Unless you were sick or in a car wreck or something and needed me. Then I'd just have to get to you. However I could."
As it happened, I was home visiting when the community switchboard confirmed that Flora Walker Grabo had died, as expected, in Oregon, with arrangements made to fly in the body for a Currituck County burial. Flora's service, held in the chapel area of Twiford's Funeral Home in Elizabeth City, was attended by very few non-family mourners and two of those, my mother divulged (while pointing), attended every funeral announced in the local newspaper, whether or not they were acquainted with the dead.
The preacher who had baptized me and buried Dubby had come out of retirement to conduct Flora's service. The casket was open: Flora's remains propped for all to see. Ann Ferebee, who sat beside my mother and me, took a turn inspecting those remains which my mother thought scandalous. But Ann was only following precedent. Flora's entire family filed past. Deaf in one ear now, my mother believes she's whispering when she's not. Even so, among Flora's mourners, the volume and frequency of her observations presented no problem. Eighty-year-old and older survivors on all sides were raucously commenting on the proceedings up to and through the memorial prayer. As we left the chapel, we stopped, per custom, to shake the preacher's hand and compliment him on his apt summation of the life and good works of the deceased. During that exchange, my mother twice had to remind him who I was, which turned her huffy.
"Looks bad up close, doesn't he?" she semi-shrieked as we walked on. "And those hands! Did you see them trembling? Like he was a hundred years old. At his age, I was in good shape."
On that much travelled road back to Shawboro from Elizabeth City, her mood changed again.
"Thinking about Flora?" I asked.
If so, she denied it, preferring to discuss her own aches and pains, the demoralizing details of being 81 with no chance of turning back the clock.
"If I thought my head was going to stay like this from now on, that I had to live feeling this way, day in and day out, I'd kill myself," she said before turning fully toward me, irritated by my silence. "I would!"
And the appropriate response to that declaration from daughters worldwide would be--exactly what? Contradiction, objection, a recitation of the Ten Commandments with special emphasis on number six? An inventory of the simplest, most surefire methods at hand: mixed medications, the snake-shooting rifle, loaded and propped in the pantry closet? Step-by-step counsel on how it might be done if it were to be done?I would, my mother said, and I noted. Not I will.
All in all I've heard the doing-herself-in speech perhaps ten times in as many months, each delivery fueled by different combinations of self-pity, frustration, vindication and threat. Do I take it seriously? I take seriously her feelings of rage and hopelessness, her depression over her body's breakdowns, her contempt for the lousy business of aging. But my mother's particular brand of Southern sharply distinguishes between the public and private face and demands that inner desire (even desperation) lose out to appearances every day of the week and twice on Sundays. For as long as I can remember, she has cared inordinately, obsessively, what people thought and said, true or false, about her, and she cares just as much what they'll think and say after she's gone. That preoccupation counts as one deterrent, among others: her brother's botched suicide attempt, the scar etched across his throat, his permanent liquid diet; the fact that she still fears death more than welcomes it. And so, on a moment-to-moment basis, separated from her by a distance of some 3000 miles as the crow or airplane flies, I feel 99.9 percent certain she has no real intention of harming herself or, if the past few years are any indication, of going stoically, peacefully or uncomplainingly into the questionably good night.
Then again, I could be mistaken on all counts. Daughters often are wrong about mothers, and mothers about daughters whose Southern-ness is of a different strain.
* * *
A native of eastern North Carolina, Kat Meads is the author of a collection of essays, Born Southern and Restless, and most recently a novel, Sleep, which she calls "something of a future feminist fairy tale, inspired (of course!) by insomnia." She received an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.