Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Flyover Country Funeral

My mother's sister's husband died last week.   On Saturday I made the 5 hour round trip drive for my uncle Herb's 1:00 funeral and was back in time to see my son's 6:00 soccer game as he tries out for a new team.  A five hour drive isn't that far here in the flyover part of America between New York and California.

The funeral was simple and appropriate for a man who lived to be 95 years, 5 months and 4 days.

I've got the funeral routine down by now.  You see, my mother (the ninth of ten) had six brothers and three sisters, none of whom were closer in age than three years.  My dad has four sisters and a brother who died in infancy.  My dad gave the eulogy for my uncle and referred to the fact that at one time he (my dad) had thirteen brothers-in-law and he had been a brother-in-law to Herb for over fifty years.  

There have been a bunch of funerals the past few years. Three of my mom's brothers married three sisters from another family and they're all gone now. Most of them are buried in the country cemetery where my grandparents are buried and their parents and eventually my parents.  My dad has remaining four brothers-in-law, four sisters and two sisters-in-law from the original set of twenty-six.  The same crowd is at each funeral but a little smaller every time.

A funeral is a good time to catch up with people you have a shared history with. Nobody's watching TV or listening to an ipod.  You don't even have to stand aside for cell phone calls and texts since there's not really a consistent cell phone signal in rural southeastern Oklahoma.  So people visit and remember. Someone may step out for a smoke, but most of those are gone now, too. Everyone follows the casket from the funeral to the cemetery. People acknowledge the graves from prior funerals and compare decorations. This particular cemetery is always colorful with flowers and ornaments. The visiting continues and then we all drift off.

Usually there is a big meal at the church before the funeral at which pictures are shared and stories swapped. I've actually learned some interesting things about my parents that I wouldn't have known otherwise. This time there was no meal. My aunt is a very private person and always disliked funerals in general and funeral meals in specific. She was secretly worried that no one would come to her husband's funeral, but there were about fifty people there, a nice turnout.

I was reminded at the funeral of a few things about my uncle. And I'm writing about them now because they are typical of things said at each family funeral I've been to - anecdotes that illustrate the matter of fact way in which each person lived. Herb was an oil field worker as a young man. He had a work related accident that left one leg permanently shorter than the other. He was told he would never be able to work again, but after over two years of self-created physical therapy he not only recovered his ability to walk but continued to work for the rest of his life. He didn't whine or make excuses, he just went on with his life. He didn't expect a handout or a bailout, he just worked the best he could. Even with his crooked leg he could be fast as lightning when needed - one day reaching me to knock a black widow spider off my shoulder before I could react.

Herb and his brothers-in-law liked to laugh. When they hunted together, the joke was they had to hunt clockwise around a mountain so that Herb could stand up straight on his short leg. Herb's favorite joke was one he played on his nieces and nephews. We'd be driving with him somewhere in the cab of his pickup and he would challenge us to a contest. Whoever could stick a finger up his nose the farthest would win. Herb always won no matter how hard we squeezed and pushed our fingers. At some point, usually by the time we were eight or ten, we would realize that his pinky finger was mostly missing. He'd been cheating all those years, holding his sawed off finger to the end of his nose and pretending it was stuck all the way in. Then we would be mad at him, mad at our older cousins for not telling and mad at ourselves for being so stupid. But he just laughed and we had to laugh, too.

That's what I like about my aunts and uncles and my cousins who are old enough to be my aunts and uncles - the examples of work ethic, contentment and humor.  There's a real advantage to being from flyover country.

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