Sunday, January 09, 2005

Summer 1963

Last week’s essay “Musical Chairs” reminded me of another story from a funeral where I served as musician. Which reminded me of another funeral, which reminded me of another time in my life. So join me as we journey back to the summer of 1963 and a visit to Gladewater, Texas. A time that I pretty much blot out of memory, save for rare occasions like this.

I was a fearful child.

I don’t really know where it came from, but I always anticipated the worst case scenario. Some came from past experiences. One flat tire on a trip and I would fearfully await the inevitable flat tire on the next trip. Never mind that the flats we suffered were few and far between. I was convinced that only my vigilant worry was what protected us on the uneventful trips. Woe be to us if I forgot to worry about what might happen and leave the door open to a vengeful fate.

As each new family misfortune transpired, my list of responsible worries grew. I can remember feverishly enumerating every possible relative in my nightly prayers for fear that something would happen to the unfortunate soul I forgot to name. Needless to say, I lived in a state of almost continual stomach upset for several years.

My parents were not very sympathetic or helpful about my concerns. My worry was met primarily with impatience and irritability. And sometimes with secrecy when they knew I would over-react. Which only compounded the problem. After a couple of instances where I had been told we were going to visit my grandparents or other relatives (true), but not told that our first stop would be at the doctor’s office for shots, I learned quickly that I could trust no one – not even my own parents.

So I learned to be a listener. Thanks to good hearing and a nose for sniffing out conspiracy in the wind, I usually had a fair idea when something was up. I also learned to keep my mouth shut. If those around you didn’t realize you were catching on to the subliminal conversations in the next room, they kept talking. Not much of any importance slipped past me.

Which was why in the summer of 1963, my health began to suffer. That was the end of a miserable year spent in Victoria, Texas. My father had accepted a pastorate at a small church and money was tight. My mother was suffering with a chronic strep infection. I hated my teacher. All in all, everyone in the house was unhappy and Little Miss Worrywart started to lose weight and look pale.

My parents began to actively pursue a new church, which added more stress. To help reduce their load, they arranged for me to visit my paternal grandparents for a couple of weeks and hopefully get me “fattened up” and put the bloom back into my cheeks. Off I headed to Gladewater and the watchful eye of my grandmother. In some respects, their plan worked. I did gain weight (hard not to when your grandmother pours ice cream and sodas down you on a daily basis). However, it did nothing to alleviate my tendency toward perpetual worry.

In my parents’ defense, they did intend for the visit to be 2 weeks. But the search for a new church began to show promise and they were tied up traveling around visiting different congregations in view of a call. Who knew that the visit with Grandma and Grandpa would stretch into 6 weeks? Or what kind of events I would be exposed to in those 6 weeks.

Placing a 9-year-old, timid child in the care of two sixty-somethings has some inherent risks. My grandparents lived in a neighborhood of older people and I had no contact with other children for the duration. Except possibly at church. I have no memories of attending church or Sunday School while staying there, but my grandmother was a staunch Baptist so I’m sure I did. But I was pretty much left to entertain myself much of the time. I had my family of dolls with me and their “house” was set up in the corner of a spare bedroom. My aunt took me to the library several times to feed my reading habit. I assisted at a wedding shower for one of my aunt’s friends. And I accompanied my grandmother on her errands about town.

Two of these errands stand out in vivid memory. The first involved a visit to the home of a black lady who sometimes worked for my grandmother. She had been around quite a bit that summer, helping in the canning of an enormous amount of tomatoes. Canning tomatoes in a hot East Texas kitchen with no air-conditioner is an experience in itself. But I especially remember our visit to the lady’s home.

East Texas in the early 1960s was a place where blacks were treated as considerably less than equal. I believe I waited in the car while my grandmother visited in the front yard. At one point I remember her inquiring of a surly black boy about the bandage on his foot. I forget what he said, but his mother sharply reprimanded him for his conduct toward “Miz Wilcoxen”. He grudgingly responded as his mother saw fit, but it was the first time I had ever witnessed the underlying hostility between the two races. I wanted out of there in the worst way, even though I was aware that his mother would not have stood for any disrespect toward her employer.

Another errand of my grandmother’s had a much deeper, longer impact on my childhood psyche. My grandmother had the typical older person’s fascination with death and the accompanying rituals. It was my misfortune to be around when a teenaged boy of her acquaintance was tragically killed in a car crash. Until this point in my life, I had never been exposed to the death of a human being. My grandmother felt obliged to go to the funeral home and view the body, dragging my reluctant little body along with her. My half-hearted attempt to remain in the car was naturally deemed unacceptable. (I was in her care, after all, and heaven only knows what would have happened to me left unattended.) Now why I was not allowed to sit quietly in the funeral home’s front parlor, I have no idea. But along I went into the viewing room to be faced with the first lifeless body I had ever seen.

In my self-protecting way, I hugged the back wall of the room and tried not to look toward the casket. Not my grandmother. She had to stand over the casket and catalog every detail. A century or two later we finally made our departure and I thought I was safe. But no.. My aunt was also with us and my grandmother regaled her with how the undertakers had had to “rebuild” the body for viewing. My vivid imagination went to work overtime as she related how the car wreck had crushed his upper body and damaged his face, along with the other sundry details she had gleaned from talking to friends of the family. She was quite pleased with the accomplishments of the morticians, but I was aghast.

Those few moments in a funeral home and the trip home afterward marked me for months. I’m not sure how my mind put together the stresses of the day with nine years of religious teachings, but I was convinced the spirit of the boy was hovering around me. Why he should have been haunting me was irrelevant. He just was and I was petrified. The first few days I could not bring myself to sit calmly on anything that had an open area underneath. I guess I was afraid of what might grab my ankles. For months afterwards, I had to follow a ritual at bedtime that involved checking under the bed and in the closet. Don’t ask me what I would have done if I had actually seen something lurking in their dark recesses, but fortunately I never did.

(It was a very long time after that before I could be persuaded to attend a funeral and then only because there was a desperate need for a pianist and, more to the point, I would get paid for being there. As fate would have it, the funeral was at a little country church where the piano was on the dais and accessible only by climbing onto the platform very near the casket. That day I finally conquered my residual feelings from that early encounter with death. Partly because as an 16-year-old I was better able to understand that the body no longer contained the essence of the person. Partly because at some point during the funeral, a very large wasp nest fell out of the ceiling and bounced off my head. It was fortunately an empty nest, but I was momentarily stunned with the idea of how I was going to gracefully jump through the adjacent window without disrupting the service. The humor of the situation finally chased away any sense of uneasiness. I began to work regularly as a musician at funerals and never felt haunted again.)

Don’t think that my adventures in Gladewater ended there. I was to have yet another brush with death. Toward the end of my stay we attended a family get-together down the street at the home of my aunt’s in-laws. Again, I was a child in a forest of adults, but the hosts had a small dog and we became instant buddies. With the dog on a leash, I roamed around their large yard, quite content with the company I was keeping. My grandfather and a few of the men were at the far corner of the yard. My grandmother and the ladies were inside somewhere. I have no idea what caught the dog’s attentions, but he suddenly yanked the leash from my hands and ran toward the street.

This house sat at the end of Pacific Avenue, where there was an intersection with the main road into Gladewater, a road with consistently heavy traffic. In horror, I watched the dog head toward the traffic and what I knew would be certain death. I immediately plunged after the dog, running as fast as my legs could go. I’m not sure whether I was more concerned for the dog or for what would be my shame to bear if the dog were hurt or killed. But motivation and adrenaline can do wonders and I was overtaking the dog just as he reached the edge of the road. With a desperate dive I managed to grab the end of the leash and keep him from running into the road. It was then I heard the squeal of brakes and realized how close I had come to diving underneath a car turning into Pacific Avenue.

Nonchalantly, though with heaving breath, I pulled myself to my feet and headed back to the house with the undamaged dog in tow. And realized that my grandfather had seen everything. In my way of taking the blame for everything, I figured I was in deep trouble for letting the dog get loose. As I approached my grandfather, he only said “dog get away from you?”. Nothing more. But I heard him telling my grandmother about it later on. I spent a miserable day or two expecting to have the riot act read to me, but nothing came from it. So I figured they would wait and let my parents do the honors. Never heard another word. It was several years before I had the nerve to ask my mother about it. She had no idea anything like that had happened. It had never occurred to me until then that my grandmother had probably been terrified that she would get blamed for letting me have enough free rein to pull such a fool stunt. She had probably done her own share of worrying about what the consequences would be when I got around to spilling the beans.

There did finally come the day when my parents were able to get to Gladewater to take me back home. When they arrived, my brother and I latched onto each other and pretty much ignored my parents for awhile. My Mother found this a source of great amusement. But both of us had suffered for the company of another child that summer and we were more than happy to see each other, even though we would undoubtedly be fighting again by the time we endured the 6 hour trip home. After that my parents were seldom able to talk me into spending even one night away from home if they weren’t with me. Fool me once maybe. No way you’ll get a second chance.


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