Joan Baker: The Burial (memoir)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: This is a story about New York Yankee children listening to their Southern parents’ same old argument about their burial sites in the South. As you say, the South has all answers to all arguments…

The Burial

“I want you girls to dig up your father.” My mother’s eighty-nine year old North Carolina accented voice came through the phone quietly and distinctly—without even much of a hello.  It was several years after my father’s death, and four years before Mother’s demise. I had groggily answered the very early morning call.

Forever, my parents had argued about their burial sites. The subject, usually brought up at the dinner table, was a reliable source of irritation for both of them.

Out of nowhere Mother would start:  “I don’t want to be with your family.”

My father’s retort:  “What’s wrong with my family?” became a charged cue for one of the responses kept in my mother’s semi-locked but ready-to-explode mental vault.

“They’re a clique. They leave me out. They’re always laughing, and making fun. No, I want to be buried with my family, in my home town. And you should be with me. Besides, North Carolina is more beautiful than your Florida.”

“Oh Alice,” Father answered. “My family loves you; you just don’t see it. But,” he added casually, “maybe it’s best for you to go to your family and I to mine.”

I saw Mother look down at her plate and move the vegetables and half-touched roasted lamb from side to side. She did that often. We waited. “But, we’re a family. Don’t you want to be with me?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, of course I do. Don’t be so sensitive.”

Once the burial conversation had started, there was little chance for diversion, or for parental attention to come our way. All three sisters —Alicia and me, ten and eight, Barrett, age sixteen—would look from one parent to the other with apprehension as their angry voices rose. After years of the same old argument, we gave our attention to fiddling with our food or whispering, watching to see if Mother would soon push the kitchen buzzer that lay somewhere under the rug. The sound alerted Sophie to come in with “seconds.”   This, at least, would cause a distraction, if not a rescue. And at last, the fragrance of the crusty cherry pie, the one Mother had purchased that afternoon at the German bakery on Lexington Avenue, would drift around the swinging door.

My parents sat at the opposite ends of the table, the chasm of which seemed to lengthen as dinner went on. They were dressed for dinner, nothing fancy but Father always in a jacket and tie and Mother in a stepped-up dress from her daytime wear. Alicia and I squirmed in our matching outfits—white dresses with the green vine going up the side; we didn’t like the twin-look at all—and Barrett sat correctly in her favorite brown skirt and sweater that set off her red hair. She wore her new suede high heels recently bought for the coming Christmas parties. Taking it upon herself to be grown-up, in the older sister manner, she tried to start a conversation, “At school, we’ve been learning about a man called Darwin.”

“Who’s Darwin?” Alicia asked.

“He’s an important figure in history,” Mother interrupted.  “We’ll look him up later in the encyclopedia. For now, you girls eat your dinner. ”

“But I want to tell you what I learned,” Barrett said, bravely ignoring her dismissal.

“Yes, yes, and we want to know, but your father and I are having a serious conversation.”

Alicia started fiddling with her knife and fork.

“Put those down, Alicia. Leave the silverware on the table.”

We stared at our plates or looked toward the side window at the thick damask curtains where green birds perched on brown branches. I squinted at the birds willing them to come alive. I charged the leaves to turn and rustle. But nothing. The correctly placed, polished-to-a-shine silver pieces: candlesticks, bowls and animal figures on the sideboard added to the room’s formality.  Little shell ashtrays awaited Father’s after-dinner-cigarettes, the object of my focus as the smoke rose and curled.

“Daddy, make smoke rings.”

Obliging us, his mouth formed a perfect O just like the Camel cigarette man on the Times Square billboard.

Sometimes, frustrated, in the middle of the going-nowhere burial conversation, Mother would go back to the topic of school:  “John. Ask them about school. You never ask the girls any questions. Just ask them something, John.”

He looked at her across the table with an irritated glare. He put down his fork, took a gulp of the scotch and soda that sat in front of him,  “Joanie, when was the war of 1812?”  We looked at him and then at Mother’s flushed and frustrated face. We knew we shouldn’t laugh, but how could we not, Father was funny.

Father leaned back in his chair amused at his joke, and added, “Anyway, I’m not sure North Carolina is so much prettier than Florida. What do you girls think?”

Nothing was ever resolved regarding the location of burial sites. My father died first. As the answer to the set-down patriarchal rule, his body went to his birth place in Jacksonville, Florida to lie next to his family. Mother’s health declined after that, but no longer did she speak of the burial issue. Still, the subject must have churned in her head.

“Dig up Daddy, is that what you said?”

“Yes, I’ve made a decision. I’m not long for this world. Your father and I always had such a happy time. We should be together. I want you to send his body to Corwith. We’ll continue to be happy in my hometown.”

Even though my eyes rolled at her fantasy of “happy time,” concept, I appreciated the need to cling to a positive memory. And why not?  In fact, there had been happy times.

I answered in as sweet a voice as I could muster, searching for the old memories, “Yes, I remember. I remember the two of you dancing.”

“Oh, we certainly did love to dance.”  Her voice trailed off into a dreamy memory.

I could see them, Father holding her tight, moving slowly around the living room. They were good dancers and they held on, oblivious to us and to their previous mean words.

I didn’t know how to continue the discussion on the phone and, besides, I needed to leave for my meeting on Wall Street. I could barely see out the dark apartment window, but I heard a smattering of rain. The subway would be crowded. I might have just enough time to wash my hair, then dry it under the subway fan. Walking impatiently from the kitchen to the bedroom, I said:  “Well, I’ll discuss this with Alicia and Barrett to see if burial removal is even possible. We’ll have to call Uncle Jimmie.  You know he might say Father belongs with his family too.”

“Call Jimmie and let me know. But remember, I’m your father’s wife, Jimmie’s just his brother.”

I slowly hung up envisioning a dreary black and white scene of shovels and pitchforks lifting the dirt at Father’s graveside.

The urgent calls to my sisters would have to wait until my meeting break.

At noon I phoned, relieved that they were in their homes. Each responded to my explanation with a short silence, followed by giggles. “Dig Daddy up?” Alicia asked. Barrett, who loved the word absurd, yelled it into her phone.

Later, in the early evening, we met in Barrett’s apartment and sat on the floor with glasses of wine.  Compassion, anger, then impatience.  The expression ‘Oh, for God’s sake’ ended in: “All right, let’s call Uncle Jimmie, but Joanie, you call him, Mother spoke to you first.”

Annoyed at my burden, I proclaimed, “Why can’t she call him?  It’s her idea.”

Alicia answered in a soft voice, “She’s just not capable. Uncle Jimmie has always scared her. They all scare her.”

“Okay, I’ll call, but he’ll have a fit, you know that.  Like Aunt Miggie said, as I imitated her drawl, ‘my brother Jimmie is a noisy, powerful man with whom nobody argues.’ And, just by the way, do you know what a racist he is!” I added. “One day sitting by his pool in Jacksonville, his remarks were mean as a snake.”

“Well, forget all that. Try to remember a good side before you call,” Barrett said in her steady voice.

“Anyway,” I added, “how can he be mad at me?  I’m just the messenger; it’s Mother who’s making the request.”

I thought of another memory of Uncle Jimmie. One late afternoon in New York:  he and his intimidating, glamorous wife, Lina— short for Carolina —had come to visit. I was probably five. I sat in the guest room while they had a drink. They began to argue. As their voices rose, I froze in my chair scared, staring at them.

“Quiet, Lina, keep your voice down.” he demanded.

She became angry and turned her impatience on me:  “And why are you still here?”

I cried and as I ran out of the room, I heard my uncle say,  “Why take your anger out on that sweet child. It’s me you’re mad at. And, you better quit being mad.”

The memory of Uncle Jimmie sticking up for me, plus my drained glass of wine, gave me confidence.

“Uncle Jimmie, hello….. We went on with family pleasantries until I nervously interrupted,  “I have a request from our mother.”

He broke into my digging-up explanation,  “Well… if that would make her happy,” he replied without a hint of impatience.

Bewildered, “Uncle Jimmie, I thought…..”

“You know, Joanie, marriage and family, it’s just a strange combination. Lord only knows what goes on, and I’m not entirely sure the Lord himself does know. I loved my brother —more than I can say, I loved him. But I could see your mother always felt left out. He made fun of her when he shouldn’t have. In front of us. That wasn’t right.”

“You saw that, Uncle Jimmie?”

“Oh, yes, I did, and I was sorry he did that. So, Joanie, if she wants him with her, I’m okay with it.”

Barrett, Alicia and I met again and I repeated Uncle Jimmie’s words:  ‘If that would make her happy.’

“Wants?” We repeated. What had she wanted, really wanted, all those years? We each answered with our own version:  love, protection, attention for a lovely but shy, insecure  Southern girl and, certainly to shine as Father’s only one— which she wasn’t. Now she could have him with her for keeps, buried deep in the earth next to her and in her own hometown—away from the Baker clan.

Alicia asked with ironic reverence, “Would their fighting finally stop?”

“He never wanted to go to Corwith; he made his choice long ago. Why change now?”  Barrett said.

“To move him would be playing with the Gods.”

We looked at the situation from all sides; our decision was unanimous. “No. He stays put—in his own grave.”

We didn’t end it there. We told each other that our solution was a brilliant one. We thought of a way they could be together but separate, as they had been in life.

the solution hadn’t come easily. There were moments of “I’m not sure, will the church interpret this as interruption or something like that?” Alicia asked.

With our decision sitting on fairly solid ground, I called Mother the next day. “We have an answer.”

I spoke in a quiet tone, concerned not to rattle her. “When you die, you will be cremated. Then we’ll divide your ashes between your and Daddy’s burial sites. We’ll have two separate funerals. Celebrate your lives twice.”

Silence. I waited and gripped the receiver, wondering if I was ready for a negative answer. “Are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here,” she answered in a surprisingly sprightly tone. “That would be fine, in fact, Joanie, that would be very nice.”

In disbelief, my hand reached for my forehead. “Really?  What do you mean? Are you saying yes?”

“Yes, you girls have come up with a very reasonable solution. I can cope with the Baker clan for half the year. And, that’s how I wish to see it.”

Mother died near Christmas. As she had requested, the two burials waited until spring, “When the weather and flowers are at their Southern best.”