It's hard to mourn when you think they might drop the casket

For Emily, Katie, and Emma Grace...

My mother was the glue that bound her family. Through all their trials and tribulations, she was the one who was 'there' when they needed her. To her siblings she was 'Sis.' She was the oldest of 6 children; 5 survived until adulthood. They clung to her. In retrospect, they probably thought of her more as their mother than BigMama. She could manage to keep two of my uncles sober long enough to paint the exterior of our house after my daddy died. This was quite the accomplishment because I never knew uncle John and uncle Herman to be sober for long periods.

After her death, everyone drifted apart. Mama was the first adult sibling who died at 48 years old in 1975. Aunt Coot followed in 1987, and then BigMama in 1989. By 1991, when uncle Herman died, he and uncle John were the only two who saw each other regularly. They still lived in ATCO, the mill village where we all lived at one time or another. Years earlier when I decided to move away, my uncle Herman had sold his house next door to our house and had bought the one I'd grown up in. He was later divorced and lived alone until his death. His days were filled with work at the mill, smoking, and drinking. It was a pitiful way to live.

Unbelievably, events surrounding his death seem worse. My much younger cousin and his only daughter called to say the lung cancer he'd been diagnosed with had spread and she feared he wouldn't survive the night. Before I could pack and leave my house in Vidalia for the 4-hour trip to Cartersville, she called back to say he'd died. She had called uncle John and he had come over, rummaged through the important paper shoebox, had taken something and left - left her there with her dead father. Alone. No offer to help her. She was alarmed. He didn't say a word to her. She didn't know what to do. I told her everything would be fine and to call the funeral home. I was on the way.

"Everything will be fine." Famous last words.

We were supposed to meet at the funeral home the next morning to make arrangements. I called the good uncle and youngest of my mama's siblings - uncle Charles - to go with us. When we got there, uncle John had arrived. My cousin had no idea what arrangements could be made because she'd discovered uncle John had absconded with the will, the bank savings account book, and the life insurance policy. These are the papers he'd taken from the shoebox after she'd called him for help. I asked how much could be spent and what kind of casket my cousin wanted for her daddy. I'll never forget uncle John's response. "Put him in a pine box and bury him. He's dead." Then he laughed. HE LAUGHED. My cousin looked over at me and started crying. I was in shock. Uncle Charles, the family minister, looked down at the floor and was silent. I asked uncle John who put him in charge and also asked Mr. Bohannan, the family friend for generations and the funeral home employee helping us, to leave us alone while we chatted. Mr. Bohannon was happy to leave. I have my mother's temperament, and I was not happy.

Apparently, uncle John had coaxed uncle Herman into removing my cousin as the executor of the estate and beneficiary of everything uncle Herman owned - even my mother's house that he'd bought at a ridiculous price and had agreed that if he decided to sell it, I'd have the first option to buy. I had not required a written agreement, because (gasp) I trusted my uncle Herman. Uncle John now controlled the money, the house, its contents, and the entire pitiful estate. He arranged the funeral details after we left.

My cousin and I had spent the night at uncle Herman's house and she had planned to stay there until everything was settled. She had a key. Uncle John came over after the funeral home catastrophe. When I opened the door, I kept my body in the way so he couldn't walk in. He told us both we had to leave by the next morning. It was now his house. He "wanted us out." He demanded her key.

My cousin would have nothing to remember her father by. The only thing of any value was the house and maybe savings. It was so different than how I envisioned this situation. One day I will probably have to answer for the decisions I made at that moment after uncle John's visit.

I told my cousin to take what she wanted. I opened my mouth, and the words just flowed out. I wasn't even surprised I'd said them. She gave me this funny look as if to ask, "Are you sure it's OK?" I tried reassuring her. "He was your daddy. You're his only child. Uncle John is an ass" (as if any of these were legal reasons to do what I'd suggested). She chose a monogrammed handkerchief. As I watched her walk around the house inspecting the few things left she'd grown up with, my heart broke. In a moment of less-than-rational thought, I asked if she needed a mower, maybe a hedge trimmer...yes, I suggested it. I gave her permission (that wasn't mine to give) to take anything she wanted. She took very little - the mower, trimmer, one handkerchief, and an old shirt hanging in her daddy's closet that she thought smelled like him. I helped her load it into her car. And then, as a final finger to uncle John, I grabbed one of my BigMama's green Fire King mugs uncle Herman had in the dish drainer. We walked out the door and drove off.

I've never taken anything that was not mine. Not before or since then. But in that one moment of lapsed judgment, I made an emotional decision. Nothing had been "alright" like I'd told her. Uncle John was despicable, and in those few moments, I'd become as bad as he was.

The following day was the funeral, and my husband and the boys had driven to Cartersville to be with me. When we walked into the room that had been prepared as the chapel, there was the casket. The room was not one of their chapels they used regularly. The casket appeared to be MDF and not pine. Real wood would have cost uncle John more of the money. The selected music came from a cassette playing in a small radio cassette player on the table beside the casket. The whole episode was as close to a cheap Rent-A-Funeral as you might imagine. My cousin's uncontrollable sobs began immediately, no doubt about the state of this situation as much as for her loss.

My male cousins had been chosen as pallbearers. The problem with them being pallbearers is that most of them were either drunk or drugged. It was obvious they were under the influence of something. They were slumped in their hard metal chairs, unkempt clothes, just a wreck. As we sat in the pew listening to the cassette pre-recorded "music" selections, my husband leaned over and asked, "Do you think the boys and I need to help them carry the casket? What if they drop it?" I could see it now. One would stumble, and all of them would fall, taking the casket with them. I couldn't even mourn for picturing uncle Herman spilling out onto the floor. Mr. Bohannon caught me before we left and apologized for the arrangements. He had done as requested. I didn't blame him.

I'd grown up living next door to and loving this weak unhappy man who had made a terrible decision in his last bit of time on earth - he had made it possible for his brother to discard his daughter. I would never have my childhood home. I had sold it to uncle Herman for $10,000 in 1979, far below market value at the time, believing it would eventually be mine again.

A few days after returning home, uncle John called me to yell, scream and call me a common thief. This was the same man who demanded some of my mother's things when she passed. I was the only child, but he was selfish. I'd given in to him then because, at my young age, I was frightened and in a stupor. I'd grown up since then. I told him if he wanted the $1 mug, by golly, he could come to get it. He hung up on me.

My BigMama's Fire King jadeite single mug sits in my cabinet...never used, but it's there and I'm comforted in some strange way that I that I have it and see it every morning. It reminds me to take a stand when I see an injustice happen (and then pray I don't get arrested).

Uncle John promptly installed his children into the house and they ripped out all the vintage details and to my horror and their perspective"remodeled it." My cousin promptly sought legal help. I believe she was eventually compensated with a small amount.

Uncle John was the same mean uncle who told me my mother's secret, but he waited like a coward until a drunken rant after the death of my mother, my aunt Coot, and on the eve of my BigMama's death. I didn't go to his funeral. I believe he deserved worse, but leaving him a 5 instead of a 6-mug set and getting under his skin suits me fine. I'm certain those who loved me while they were here set him straight when they met him ^ThErE. His having to face them was far worse than anything I could have achieved here.

RIP, Uncle John.

This is a series of stories I'm writing, because my older granddaughters gave me a journal years ago, and I've neglected writing in it. Recently I asked the oldest Emily if I should just write about the good. She said they want it all - the good, the bad, and the ugly. This blog will become that neglected journal.