Tuesday, August 30, 2005

funeral fat

I generally put on weight after a funeral. Everyone brings fried chicken, casseroles, and pies to the gathering back at the church basement after the graveside service, and there is no hope of restraint around such a buffet. Irish Catholics have wakes with beer and whiskey, and Southern Baptists and United Methodists will remember their departed deviled eggs, baked ham, banana pudding, and some obscenely sweet tea. There is always too much food to list, and there is always some new recipe making the funeral and family reunion circuit in Alabama and Mississippi. A few years back it was meatballs with grape jelly, and at my great aunt Ruth’s funeral this past Saturday it was this dessert casserole comprised chiefly of marshmallows, chocolate, peanuts, and chopped apples. I like each of the elements separately, but would never have thought to introduce them. The result was a strange concoction of tastes and textures that worked better than the sum of its parts would indicate, and I went back for seconds.

Then again, maybe it was the heat.

I had just spent the past half hour at the graveside sweating through my dress shirt and picking white cat hairs off my navy blue suit. There wasn’t enough room underneath the official funeral tent, and we had to gather in the shadow of an adjacent tree in a feeble attempt to hide from the Alabama heat. The cemetery groundskeepers squatted and smoked and watched us from the shadow of their bulldozer. They were clean shaven and respectful, and their uniforms were tucked in, but they were still covered in the dirt from digging the grave earlier and couldn’t help but look somewhat like vultures as they waited on us to finish.

I kept thinking that I would prefer the title “gravedigger” to “cemetery groundskeeper”, but that is just me.

I couldn’t hear much from back there beside the tree, but a number of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who I had just met for the first time took turns telling stories about Ruth and trying to get through them without breaking down. Then my grandmother briefly spoke up from the front row and everyone under the tent burst into much needed laughter.

My grandmother will be ninety-one next week, and she still lives on her own and gets up every morning to cook sausage, bacon, eggs, biscuits, gravy, and sometimes country ham. She makes a pot of coffee and eats while working the crossword puzzle. If she has someone to drive her she will then go to the nursing home to visit her younger sister and any number younger friends before heading over to the same downtown lunch counter she’s been going to her whole life. They have both been around since nineteen fourteen, and my grandmother would exist on their hotdogs and sugar free ice cream if she had a way of getting there every day.

She is probably not much over four feet and can’t weigh more than eighty pounds, but she can eat.

I am her favorite grandson, and she tells me that every time I see her. Most of our conversations didn’t go too far beyond that for the longest time, as she was too proud to accept a hearing until her eighty-ninth birthday when she seemed to stop caring about age. Before that she would just sustain a healthy monologue while the other person nodded and smiled. Now she can have actual conversations, and it is strange to see someone rejuvenated at that age.

She talked to me all day Saturday as I led her by the hand from the car into the church or from the car to the graveside. Ruth was her older sister, but she never seemed sad or depressed. I guess it was mainly religious faith that did it, but you also have to keep in mind that anyone like Ruth who lives to be ninety-four and has great-grandchildren at their bedside is leaving on terms that anyone would gladly accept.

Back in the basement they were telling more stories about Ruth and how she would walk a mile to church every Sunday. She was there every time the doors were opened and even had a premonition of the schoolhouse when it burned down back in the forties. This was one of the signs they took to classify her as “anointed”. My dad then told the story of how he and his cousin wanted to smoke cigars when they were nine and how Ruth bought cigars for the three of them. The nine years olds got sick and lost interest in tobacco, but Ruth sat on the porch and finished her cigar. That is what “anointed” people do, I suppose.

I don’t know if my grandmother has ever had a cigar, but eating her own weight in breakfast meats and working at least one crossword puzzle every morning doesn’t seem to have harmed her too much.

I doubt that I’ve ever finished a crossword puzzle, but I certainly went back for seconds on that strange dessert casserole. Then I had a cup of coffee and tried some apple pie. I seem to have sat too near the dessert selection and the buffet, as couldn’t help but go back for peach cobbler, cherry pie, and another cup of coffee after that. Grandmother, on the other hand, is diabetic and could not enjoy the dessert spread.
And it occurs to me now that I probably should’ve just stuck to trying to climb the mountain of fried chicken if I want a long and happy life.


Blogger melusina said...

I hope I am as lucky as your grandmother and great aunt Ruth!
Love the cigar story.

3:00 PM  
Blogger red molly said...

I too would like to live to the good age of ninety something.

I think the three main ingredients in foods made for funeral gatherings are marshmellows, jello and veleveta cheese... and every dish needs to wiggle a bit.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Rex L. Camino said...

We should all be so lucky to stick around for nearly a century.

I have indeed noticed a disproportionate representation of marshmallows and velveeta at funerals and other family gatherings, Molly. There has to be a thesis for a sociology/anthropology major in there somewhere.

8:49 AM  
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9:37 AM  
Anonymous UberMom writee said...

I need an Alabama Funeral Casserole recipe that has rice & ground beef. Do you have one or know a gracious Southern Lady who would share? It is very simple but my husband who ate it cannot remember anything beyond bland beef & rice. I need to prepere it for a wake,

Lise - The West Texas Mermaid

11:37 AM  

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