I profiled my Grandpa K in an earlier post, and I’m sad to say he finally lost his battle with lung cancer two nights ago. He’d lived longer with it than anyone expected, only succumbing after nixing more rounds of chemo.
Tomorrow, my family and I make the long drive from east Tennessee to central Iowa. Fifteen hours in all. I have twenty first cousins and a team’s worth of aunts and uncles. Many still live in Iowa. I never got to see them much, growing up in TN, but I’m reminded each time we visit of how much I like my family.
Well, most of the time. A family as big as mine is crosshatched with differences of opinion, especially regarding politics and religion. We run the gamut. Tree-hugging liberals, the reddest of conservatives, agnostics, atheists, die-hard evangelicals, and those who are apathetic or ambivalent to all of the above. Settling service proceedings for my grandpa’s funeral, for instance, required a conference call between eight people, some of whom would just assume forego a church service and some of whom fought tooth and nail for just the right hymn and Bible reading. I’ve learned who I can talk to about religion and politics while visiting, keeping my mouth shut on such matters when around others. This trip will be no different.
Then there’s Aunt B. From the day she married my uncle, she’s done nothing but disparage my family. She delivers most of her taunts in the most backhanded, condescending manner, but she’s not above leveling absolutely maddening insults. My family is midwestern, which means we try to keep the peace, but Aunt B is enough to test the patience of the most stoic of Iowans.
My grandma K’s funeral almost, ALMOST, broke the veneer of tolerance between Aunt B and the rest of my family. Not because she insulted us, but because her assumed grief grated absurdly against her usual animosity towards the woman we were there to celebrate and mourn.
There we were, mingling, chatting with second cousins, trying to ignore the macabre spectacle that was my grandmother’s embalmed, be-coffined body in the corner. Aunt B – ever seeking attention – had been working the room, putting on her best “mourning” face. Really, she outdid herself. Then, about halfway through the event, Aunt B decided my grandma needed some color.
In the middle of a conversation, my Aunt S gasped and pointed over at the coffin. Aunt B was leaning over grandma’s body, applying lipstick.
To be sure, my grandma loved her lipstick. Her dark hair and blue eyes worked fabulously with a red lip, and she wore one whenever she could. But Aunt B shouldn’t have been the one to apply it.
In hindsight, I actually find this situation morbidly hilarious. It’s the sort of thing you’d find in a Eudora Welty short story, chronicling the chaos and madness of southern families. Thankfully, no one made a row over the incident. Perhaps we would’ve, if we’d been southern and not midwestern.
I am excited to see my family. I don’t look forward to the potential for discord, or the funeral arrangements, for that matter. The religious faction held sway during planning, and so my grandpa – the man who never willingly entered a church – is having a respectable, solemn funeral service. It seems more about satisfying the desires and concerns of the living (some of them, at least) than the will of the dead.
If I had my way, I’d perhaps follow a New Orleans tradition, and stage grandpa in a familiar pose, amongst familiar possessions. I might have him propped up in his golf cart (a birthday gift from his eight children, probably ten years ago), wearing his sweatpants and pullover, or a pair of shorts and jacket, with a pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket. What he wore everyday in life. We’d make potato salad and hamburgers, and cut up some watermelon. Maybe we’d order in some pork tenderloins and chocolate malts from Starbuck’s (not the coffee chain but a local diner pre-dating it).
This is the way to honor grandpa K, and I’ll be thinking about it during the coming week, trying to enjoy my relatives and keep my cool in the family drama that is a loved one’s funeral.
Rest in peace, Grandpa. I hope there are Westerns playing wherever you’ve made your final destination.