I made the drive out to Beulah Number Two Baptist Church from my parents house in Auburn alone. I went straight to Beulah even though Mom and I had talked about me stopping by Uncle James’ house and maybe getting some shots before. Before. And I wanted to do that.To get the power of the images showing family and what that meant. But I couldn’t. I don’t have that part of being a photographer down yet. I may never make it. Years of being polite (enforced until voluntary) at all times are hard to overcome. It’s hard for me to push myself in front of people or trample on their feelings for an image. Even one I know needs to be saved.
The distance to Beulah seemed so much shorter on the new 4-lane Highway 280 than it did on the old 2-lane 280 that ran right past my Grandparent’s and Uncle James’ front yards. That 2-lane road that claimed the life of the first dog I remember. Spanky. He was a cocker spaniel and he made it to the highway which featured highballin’ transfer trucks at all hours of the day and night. He was mowed down. For not following the rules. We were not surprised.
I came around the corner after passing the White cemetery (as in cemetery for white folks) and across from the Pecan Co-op sales shed stood Beulah Number 2 right up at the top of a little hill. A sparkling white cinderblock building with a baby blue metal roof. It was small but there was no missing it or misunderstanding what it was. It looked like every rural Black Baptist church in Alabama. Tidy. Immaculate. The lawn was freshly mowed and trimmed. No trash or cigarette butts or anything. Not today.
I pulled around the back and looked down the road to where the house my father was born in stood. 80 years ago. Uncle Junior and Uncle James were also born there. My Grandfather was a black farmer and those children were his farmhands. I thought about those three working on that Alabama farm. Plowing. Sowing. Picking. Caring.
Over and over and over.
We’d had a few scares in the family but all five of the children of Mildred and Milton Ware were still alive. With the oldest being 81 and the youngest 57. The chain endured. Before.
It was Alabama hot as I parked next to the entrance. I sat in the air conditioning to avoid sweating through my suit for as long as I could. I watched folks start to come in for the viewing. All sorts of folks. Blue jeans and tennis shoes. Flip flops. Shorts. Suits. Dresses. Capris. Lots of people with metal canes. Older ladies with orthopedic shoes carefully working their way up the five steps to Beulah’s entrance (ADA be damned). Men in threadbare coats that were mended but clean and pressed.
They kept coming. Family and friends. Colleagues and old school mates. I sat in the cool of the air conditioning and avoided eye contact. I didn’t want to go into the heat and I was alone. I had no social crutch. So I just watched folks coming and going. I watched a man pull up in a beat up old Honda Accord. Air conditioner not working and park all alone in a spot behind me. He left enough room for 6 more cars to park. Someone in a new white Chevy pulled immediately in front of him to park and proceeded to back up until he backed right into the Accord’s bumper. I heard the collision and looked up in time to see the owner of the Accord leap out. Time and circumstances called up his better nature. They both took a look at the damage (none). Last I saw, they were in the middle of that time-honored southern tradition of shooting the shit.
It was then that the hearse pulled up and they took Uncle James’ body into Beulah for the viewing. A very efficient group of Black men handled everything perfectly. All done under the watchful eye of a mid-40s Black woman. The owner. Black men working for a Black woman to bury a Black man because that is how it is done in the South. Not always. Not by law. But by tradition. And often enough. Which is worse. So much worse.
I got out of the car and into the heat. Welcome to Alabama. Wow. Listened to the cicadas singing in the kudzu. The unofficial official weed of Alabama. It’s everywhere. Once a Japanese foreigner and now a citizen. As much a part of Alabama as the red clay. Or the people that fight it every day. Adrian and Angela walked up with Ian. Hugs all around because even on a solemn occasion it is worth celebrating seeing those you love. Especially at these times. The hugs last a bit longer and are a bit tighter.
Into the church and a quick stop in front of the coffin and glance at the body. “Doesn’t seem like Coot” popped into my head. And we went and sat down. People filed in and payed their respects. Some sat while others left but Beulah is pretty small and it started filling up pretty quickly. And the majority of the family wasn’t there yet. In fact, it was just Adj, Ang and Ian plus Kayla, Cam and I.
In she walked.
I recognized her almost immediately and started to keep one eye on her. She was well known to go into hysterics at funerals and try to climb into the coffin of whichever unfortunate relative was the reason for the gathering. Years ago, my brother escorted her out the side door just as she was clawing her way into our Grandfather’s coffin. Locking her out and causing her to have to go around the church and come back in through the front door. In full view of the gathering.
He had a real soft spot for GrandDaddy.
No outburst this time. It was all good but this was just the viewing. Not the main event. Not her trigger. The closing of the casket is the real test. Then we’ll see.
No fans. No one was waving a funeral home fan. Seemed odd and then I realized that there was air conditioning. And it was magnificent. The first two times I was in Beulah Number Two, there was no air. Just heat. Strangling. Oppressive heat. Seemed to be right for the occasion. That was for the deaths of my grandparents. There were fans then. Everywhere. With the funeral homes name prominently displayed and nice White Jesus and His similarly hued angels floated around over the name of a funeral home that only buried Black people.
In came the Funeral Director, “If you aren’t family, I need you to sit on this side of the church.” And up they stood. Everyone except a few stragglers, Adrian, Angela, Ian, Kayla, Cam and I. They filled the other side to overflowing and some folks had to leave. “Those of you that are family, need to go outside and come in with the rest of the family coming in the limos.” So out we trooped. Back into Alabama. And July. No air.
We got into the queue order they were looking for. Waiting until the last minute to have the immediate family leave the cool shelter of the limos to stand in line in Alabama. And July. I saw my Mother and Father get out of the limo and head to the front of the line. As the line started to move, it came to a halt. I looked around the shoulder of the person in front of me and saw my cousin Larry walk up to Dad, shake his hand and say he was sorry. Then one by one the rest of Mother’s nephews came up, shook my Dad’s hand and expressed their condolences. Dad nodded. Nothing more. Just nodded each time.
They moved into the church and Dad looked “stoic”. The church was packed. People had rented vans to come from South Carolina to pay their respects to Brother James Ware. People were going to stand outside, in the heat, through the entire ceremony. Not young people but people who were truly immune to the heat from years of working under the Alabama sun.
The service started. It was a mixture of Black Baptist homegoing with a nod to the firm Middle Class status he had attained in his life. Coot had died but so had James. The negro spirituals were ringing out. Time came for the eulogy (I guess it’s the eulogy. I’m not really up on death lingo.) First, my Uncle Junior spoke.
Wares aren’t talkers. Except for Uncle Junior. He is smooth and well spoken. His delivery is pitch perfect for a salesman. He should do instructional videos. He stood up and told some heartwarming stories about Uncle Coot. About the night he was born. About how he got the name Coot. About where they lived. Beautiful stories. And he reminded us that our belief is that Uncle Coot had moved on to Glory and so we should make our sorrow short and our joy long. And he shed a tear and sat.
Dad stood up. Prefaced his remarks with a statement that he and Junior had not coordinated on their statement so some of the stuff might be a repetition. He then said virtually the exact same thing that Uncle Junior had just said. He read it from his prepared text. Not looking up or even acknowledging the uncomfortableness of the situation. Nope, he read. A few people tittered. My Dad is a man that prepares for things. And doesn’t veer from plan unless absolutely called for. He had prepared his remarks and they were still perfectly good for this situation. So, he read.
It was perfect
And then, suddenly, his remarks went wildly astray from the path that Uncle Junior had started down. He told a story about a stub of a pencil found when they were young and something cryptic that Uncle Coot had said while parading around with it. That came back around when they were in their 60s. He read a letter from Uncle Coot thanking Dad for everything he had done for Coot. Telling him how much he admired him. And he choked up. And tears flowed. And he couldn’t talk. And I cried because I couldn’t help him. And my Dad should never hurt. Ever. He doesn’t deserve that.
He kept reading. Until the end. Because that was the task in front of him. Because his brother deserved it. It was at that moment that I realized that Coot was just my Dad’s baby brother. Not the man that I knew my whole life. Just Dad’s baby brother and he was gone. And I thought about my baby brother and how much I loved him and realized that it would crush my soul if anything happened to Adrian. That’s what Dad was feeling.
Finally came the sermon. Firebreathing. Brimstone. Snorting. Sweating. Singing. Songing. Singsonging. And yelling…yelling…YELLING. My daughter started down the road of a panic attack. She’d never experienced anything like this. Ever. A sermon done in the tradition of a people who only had the afterlife to look forward to because this life was a living hell. That tradition continues in the former slave states. The Preacher implored, demanded, cajoled, screamed. ARE YOU READY TO DIE TODAY? ARE YOU RIGHT WITH JESUS?
All questions that we as Christians believe are more important than anything else but in the Middle Class world of American Christianity the Preacher’s Remarks at a funeral are not the time. And especially not at full Baptist Preacher volume. With genuine theatrics and spittle. My children are from that Middle Class world. Firmly entrenched. No theatrics. No spittle.
It took more than a while and bit of father/daughter chat to get her even.
We waited in the car while the others went to the graveside service at the Brummitt Cemetery in Camp Hill, AL. My paternal Grandmother was a Brummitt so we get space there. They would be back for the repast. And they came. The food was handled very efficiently. Everything was being dished into clamshell containers so you could come and get it and then find a seat. I’m weird about eating food that has been laying out publicly, so I didn’t grab one but I’m told it was good. I saw Dad talking to someone in the Church sanctuary and thought he looked a little bright-eyed. Walked over and asked him if he had eaten. He said “no”. I then asked him when the last time he had eaten was. He said “Breakfast…yesterday”.
Diabetic. Multiple heart attacks.
Yesterday? I told him he should get something to eat to which he nodded and mumbled and continued what he was doing. So I did the only thing the eldest son could do – I told Mom. She said “Good. When he falls out, I’m going for his wallet.” Then she got up and went to make sure he got food and ate. Like she’s done for 58 years.
Chit chat and reminiscing. Lots of people with names I didn’t know but faces that looked familiar but…older. I saw my Uncle Coot’s kids (Ramon (or DiDi as we knew him) and Tonja sort of collapsing in on themselves as the weight of the day became too much. Faces still trying to be polite after having just become orphans. The strain was showing.
Red Velvet Cake?
I looked down and Kayla had slid Red Velvet Cake in front of me. “Do you want the rest of my Red Velvet Cake, Daddy? You know you do.” I did. It’s a weakness. So I took a bit. Wonderful. But then the sweetness hit me. Too sweet. I love Red Velvet Cake but I don’t like the taste of sugar. Go figure. Kay knew I’d waste it but she also knew I loved it. And she loves me so “Do you want the rest of my Red Velvet Cake, Daddy?”.
Sitting across from her was Mom and Dad. And I realized that I love them, the way that she loves me. I adore them. Completely. And I’m not ready for a time when they aren’t.
I don’t think I ever will be.