Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Listening for the Bell

Aunt Rozzie died. Mama told me this morning. The visitation is tonight.

I will drive to Cobbtown and I will see lots of relatives. I will see some people I don't know. I will some people who are in both groups.We will stand around and talk. We will fill the funeral home air with reminiscences and stories and exclamations on how much or how little we have all changed since the last time we saw each other.

Some of us, Mama included, will make a point of surveilling the flowers and potted plants, reading the cards pinned to wide pastel ribbons and cooing blessings over the kind souls who sent them.Back at my cousin Vera's house there will be Pyrex dishes of squash casserole and macaroni and cheese. There will be cakes, most of them these days, sadly enough, bought at the WalMart deli instead of baked in somebody's oven. The fried chicken will have, most likely, come from the same place, but the sweet tea will be home-brewed.

I know all these things because one does not grow up southern without learning them, without absorbing and being branded by them.

I can remember sitting in the car as a young child outside Barnes Mortuary in the late evening of a sultry summer, watching men and women move in quiet waves up the steps and across the porch into rooms lit with yellow light. There was a small group of men on the lawn smoking, the tips of their cigarettes hovering like lightning bugs in front of their faces. They all wore suits and white shirts and lace-up shoes.

The car windows were rolled down and I could hear crickets and night birds and the whooshing of other cars going by on Savannah Avenue. Keith and I played silly games, made up songs, tried to recognize the faces moving up the dark sidewalk.

Sometime later, Mama, wearing one of her Sunday dresses, and Daddy, dressed just like the men on the lawn, would reappear, pause on the steps to speak to one or two people, and return to us, exactly the same as when they had left. Looking at death, speaking of death had not changed them.

I would understand later, much later, how wrong I was.

I don't get to sit in the car these days. I'm grown – or as grown as I'll every be – and I am a part of the quiet wave that moves in and out. I take the pen chained to the lectern and sign my own name to the book. I stand in line to shake the hands or hug the necks of the family and stumble over such simple words: I'm sorry.

Last week I took a field trip to the bookstore. I wandered around a while and found myself in the poetry section where I saw, front facing out, Selected Poems by John Donne. A friend had mentioned Donne in conversation the week before and so I took it as a sign that I needed to revisit the poet I'd not read in probably 30 years.

The last selection in the book is Donne's famous "Meditation XVII," best known as the source of the title of a Hemingway novel and which includes these lines: "All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all ... No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Whether one believes in an afterlife of eternal youthfulness and an absence of pain or whether one believes that the last breath is simply the last breath, we engage in the ritual, we perform the rites as a reminder to listen for the bell.

Copyright 2009

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