Singing Backup All Along

Singing Backup All Along

A Story by Chopstix
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Misguided mother takes her daughter to the wrong funeral affecting three children's lives.

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Missing her grandfather's funeral was my fault as much as hers. Travel affects me that way. Hours of terminals, plane rides, rent-a-car negotiations and unfamiliar roads made me nervous. I held it all inside. Seeing a restroom sign at the funeral parlor signaled release, and I really had to go.

Sitting on the toilet, I blamed her. We should have flown out the day before like normal people, but Mom was not one to plan in advance. She rushed me out of bed, into my fanciest dress, and we were off like two bats in the night. Had I not spent half an hour in the restroom, we might have caught part of the service. To my mother’s credit, she handled missing all of it well. While I relieved myself, she washed her face and rehearsed apologies.

Porters folded up most of the chairs by the time we entered the parlor. Mom found a funeral program on the floor. The director, dressed in a grey suit and white gloves, watched the front entrance.

“Where’s the gravesite ceremony for Elias Johnston?” Mother queried.

“If you take this road to yon parkway.” The supervisor’s calm baritone voice instilled confidence reassuring both Mother and I all would be right. “And follow it around till you see Old Father Oak standing sentinel over his hill. You park y’self there, Ma'am. Avoid all the other cars. Just walk over the hill and you’ll find your ceremony.”

We walked to our car, fastened our seatbelts and continued on Mom’s quest to say farewell to her grandfather. Lovejoy, Missouri seemed so far away, thousands of miles from Albany, California. When I think about it, only miracles could guide wayward granddaughters over great distances to the right place. 

A couple of cars passed us and turned on “yon parkway.” Mother followed them, and they lead us to a hill with a lone oak atop. Mother fussed in the car.

“Mother!” I chided. “In this swelter, any wrinkles will be smoothed out in minutes.”

“It’s just that ...,” she began in a flustered shrill.

She settled herself and produced a glowing smile. With a graceful sweep of her upturned palm, she gestured me out of the car, and we headed for “Old Father Oak’s” shade. Our shoes seemed swallowed by long grass. This section of the cemetery retained un-groomed naturalness. From hill’s crest, we saw occupied plots and manicured lawns. 

A few white people salted a pepper sea. We stopped. Mom surveyed our situation awhile. A few more colored people streamed past on their way graveside. Mom dropped to one knee and straightened my humidity-drooped blonde hair.

"Let's just go mom," I beseeched. "This isn't his burial; these people aren't your family." 

“If you can’t bury the one you love, honey,” she half sang, half spoke, “bury the one you’re with.”

She snapped herself erect and stepped down the hill. Dazed, I followed. We stopped well short of the coffin, but close enough to read condolence banners attached to wreathes arranged near the grave's head. 

Over two hundred mourners formed a horseshoe. A gospel choir more intoned than sang while Reverend Franklin consecrated the ground where Elicia Johnson’s body waited to rest. Choruses followed testimonials in a beautiful musical drama lasting half an hour. 

In the first pause, mother piped up:

It may be almost too late
I’ve been up past midnight
But I’ve held something that just can't wait

My mother’s voice carried down the hill clear and strong. The beauty of her voice amazed me. She hummed around the house during chores, but, at that moment, she sounded like Barbara Streisand. Her voice even seemed to crack at the right words adding emotional emphasis. The assembled mourners seemed shocked as well. Many heads turned towards us.

I hope y’all understand
Because every time I tried to write

Some mourners tried to join in, but they stumbled on the words. I was taken by the beauty of the song. I think it was an oldie my mother played on our turntable. Jim Croce, perhaps. A detachment broke away from the service and headed towards us. I retreated uphill.

The words just came out wrong
So I'll have to say I love you in a song

Choir members seized on the chorus. Brass horns, waiting to usher mourners out, struck complimentary chords. Harmonious voices almost offset growing fear as the cadre reached my mother. Two children, a boy and a girl about my age, split off and advanced towards me.

“Your mother sings well,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Pat.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Taylor, Taylor Zachary, and this is Mary.”

I looked up. The cadre patted my mother on the back offering one-armed hugs while she continued the song.

“Shouldn’t that be Zachary Taylor like the president?”

“Miss Patty, he knows his name,” Mary insisted, her arms folded tightly across her chest.

“My apologies.”

“I didn’t see you at the service,” he observed.

“You’re not from these parts. Are you?” She pounced.

“No,” I defended, “we flew in this morning, and I’m afraid, we missed it.”

Mom’s song ended. Miss Johnson’s coffin descended, and dirt-laden trowels symbolically sealed her everlasting peace.

Mom walked graveside and received solace from Miss Johnson’s friends and family. Afterwards, she retrieved me, and we passed Old Father Oak on our way to the car. Just before departure, knocks on my window startled me. Taylor’s smile prompted hasty cranking. He handed me a small paper with his address. Mary stood under Old Father Oak with her arms akimbo. A few pleasant farewells and we were off. Before long, we waited in the terminal for our return flight.

I held Taylor’s address in my hand all the way home.

#*-*-*#


Shame drove my writing Taylor, detailing every mishap landing us at Elicia Johnson’s burial. He wrote back:

… Your mother stumbled on a fine funeral. Miss Johnson bore the distinction of being the first colored woman to teach in Missouri’s integrated schools. She inspired many in our community, and, for white students, she was their first experience with an educated and eloquent colored woman in authority. A lot of her former students sent flowers and a few attended. You see now, why we accepted your mother and her actions readily. The song, however, threw some of us off. The lyrics weren’t quite right. Aunt J. wondered if you could send the lyrics your mother sang


I dashed to piles of records stacked on bookcase shelves, pulled Jim Croce’s album out, checked the liner lyrics and confirmed Taylor’s assessment.

“I just wanted to make the song my own,” Mother explained. “I wonder why the coloreds want those lyrics.”

“Why do you call them ‘coloreds?’”

“Old habits, I’m afraid. Mother used to say, ‘Society is like a housewife doing laundry: You separate the whites from the coloreds.’ Peepaw used to reply, ‘That’s why the world needs more bachelors.’”

She laughed at her remembrance. My glare, intended to convey disgust, elicited an explanation.

“He used to say, ‘Bachelors just mix ‘em up and wash them all together.’ He wasn’t very popular in Lovejoy, Missouri, but he was my favorite.”

I forced her version from her and sent them along with the story about her grandfather.

… ‘Tis a pity I never met your great-grandfather. I agree. The world needs more bachelors. Mary disagrees, but she disagrees with whites out of habit, I think …

An odd beginning to a life long correspondence. Our lives seemed so different, yet as children, we enjoyed countless similarities. Postal service took a week to carry our letters eighteen hundred miles. We learned to trust each other sharing intimate details sheltered from everyone else. He knew to whom I lost my virginity, my reasons, the pains I felt and why I tried again and again and again until I finally got sex right (well, most of the time). Mother could only guess about any of those things.

When I first broached the topic of sex, he replied:


… Though I’m not above listening to girly gossip, you must forgive gentlemen, white and colored, when we refrain from “kiss and tell.” …

… You wont believe this. At great Uncle Carrington’s burial, Cousin Aretha sang that Croce song. That’s the eighth time now. It’s become a community tradition. The person traveling furthest gets the honors. Sometimes they sing it straight. Sometimes, they use your mother’s lyrics…

Taylor never recounted sexual exploits, but he wrote at length about girls attracting his interest, his schemes, results and motives. These insights served me well throughout my life. 

As our high school years neared their end, letter writing frequency slacked to every other week. In college, once a month, and adulthood reduced us to two or three letters a year and a Christmas newsletter.

#*-*-*#


Mary’s letter brought me back. My own daughter grown and out of the house, I journeyed to Missouri alone. Mary picked me up at the airport. She was kind enough to put me up in her guest room. In the morning, we drove to the funeral parlor and sat through the service.

I recognized Old Father Oak right away. The hill held several tombstones settled in manicured grass.

“That’s his site.” Mary pointed to the crowd gathered atop the hill just left of the tree. “Let’s stand right over here, just up the slope a ways.”

Brass horns blared out a dirge as they preceded Taylor’s coffin. A hundred mourners formed a horseshoe. Praise, prayer, singing and consecration followed prescribed customs. I’ve played funereal roles before: dutiful daughter to a crazy as a bat mother; bereaved widow of the dearest, dearest man whom leukemia stole from us far too early. I knew this role too, having witnessed my mother originate it decades earlier. Like an understudy, I should have been prepared. Like an understudy, abdominal butterflies consumed my resolve.

“I only met him once,” I said.

“I remember,” Mary replied. “I was there, up by yon tree.”

Mary and I agreed I should sing Jim Croce’s original lyrics. The ceremony paused. I eeked out the first line. It was horrible. I wanted to retreat, hide in the car. Mary pressed her shoulder just behind mine and opened up. Her powerful voice filled gaps in mine, and by the chorus, hilltop voices joined ours.

Mary led me through the second verse. In the chorus, she added her own, “Oh yeah” just before “So I’ll have to say I love you in a song.” In a beat, I realized I’d been singing backup all along.

Mary dropped me off at her house before attending the reception.

“It’d be better this way,” she counseled. “You don’t know nobody there and ain’t nobody know you.”

I called a cab, packed my bag and waited in the airport for my evening flight. The next morning, I wrote Mary a letter of condolence. I hope she’ll reply someday.



Word Count: 1807


© 2017 Chopstix



Author's Note

Chopstix
Written for a picture prompt contest. Picture: Solitary old oak atop a grassy hill.

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Great job! Is it a true story? Seems like it

Posted 4 Months Ago


Chopstix

4 Months Ago

Sorry, not true. It was written for a contest on Writing.com. It was written shortly after my wife.. read more
#33

2 Months Ago

My greatest sin is playing pretend. Acting as if a monster doesn't live within. And surely some I of.. read more
Faith Knoll

2 Months Ago

wow... thats amazing!

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Added on February 3, 2017
Last Updated on February 3, 2017
Tags: Missourri, Race relations, pen pals, lyric, s funeral, bury

Author

Chopstix
Chopstix

Los Angeles, CA



About
In high school, I wrote lyrics. I started college writing poems and switched to short stories. After college, I discovered I could write computer programs, but I could not finish a novel (kept editi.. more..

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