The stoop in his shoulders stills my breath. For an instant, as my daddy rounds the corner, he is my Pop, the grandfather hunched by years of mill and farm work, the man who eventually could only find relief from the constant pain in as many cortisone shots as the doctor would allow.
I stand in the kitchen in my black-on-not-quite-as-black makeshift pantsuit, momentarily disoriented. I blink and he is my father again, salt-and-pepper beard given over entirely to salt, navy suit baggy on a frame I don’t remember being so thin.
You’ve lost weight? I ask, but am told no, he doesn’t think so.
I grab my keys and follow him out the door. We are going, on a 70-degree Saturday in February, to a funeral.
It’s for my daddy’s aunt, the wife of my Pop’s brother. Her name is Edith. She lived to be 91 and is the next-to-last of that generation, the great aunts and uncles a Sunday afternoon car ride away who lived in houses full of knick-knacks that smelled of lavender. The sisters and brothers indistinguishable to a 6-year-old, the one tall man who played checkers, the other who lived in overalls that smelled like sun-baked earth. Men and women who, through no fault of their own or basis in reality, have seemed old for 40 years.
Gas stations and the Dollar General disappear as we drive farther into the country. The land flattens and leaches color, muddling to the uniform brown of scrabbly pine trees. Mobile homes are interspersed with incongruously large, blindingly white declarations of prosperity, or perhaps just a keen eye for acreage. One house rising on a hill has a fenced-in lot with cows, miniature horses and … a camel. I squawk and stab at the window, leaving the print of my index fingertip. My father confirms my vision.
I’ve looked up directions to the First Baptist church in my phone, a navigational safeguard that proves entirely unnecessary. One left turn off the main road and there it is, brick and stained glass giving way to the utilitarian fellowship hall where lunch is being served before the service.
The wind rearranges my already unruly hair as I tug on the double doors. The smell of things fried in butter hits me seconds before the low waves of conversation. I smile and nod, as does Daddy. We’re fine, thank you, how are you. Who are you? Daddy is equally at sea until my cousin comes up to hug us. Overhead details in our chat identify Daddy, and an initial unease fades in the face of a table laden with potato salad, macaroni pie and fried chicken that I can tell just by looking is going to taste as close to any I’ve eaten since my granny died.
A paper cup of proper teeth-achingly sweet tea washes down lunch, and eventually, people mill over to the sanctuary. Sunlight streams through jeweled windows the preacher tells us are original to the 1891 structure. The pianist plays “In the Garden” as I page through the hymnal. I land on my favorite, “Just As I Am,” and I reassure myself that I remember all six verses, including the last one that doesn’t rhyme.
The mini-sermon isn’t too long-winded. The younger of the two preachers knew Edith and shares sweet stories about visiting her. We are encouraged to turn to God for refuge, asked if we know Jesus. I fiddle with the safety pin discreetly fastened under my jacket.
A sepia-toned picture of Edith as a young woman sits atop one of her handsome husband, gone to glory many years before. I see my Pop in the wave of his dark hair, though Pop’s hair is gray and thinning in my memory. I realize that my father and I, while seated several pews back in the family rows, may be the only ones with the same last name as the people in the photographs.
At the graveside service, I look at that name, carved into the granite headstone. I smile and chat politely with relatives I would not know on the street. I feel guilty and shallow. A cousin who died at 32 is memorialized nearby, and though chunks of my childhood involved his peripheral presence as I caught spring lizards and crawdads in the creek with his little sister, I’d all but forgotten him.
It’s an odd thing, family. This kind, the double helix kind, is nothing we have any say or choice about, for better or worse. It’s a familiar sweater, slightly shapeless from ill-advised hanging, waiting in the back of the closet for the chilly morning it’s remembered. Why don’t I wear this more often, we think, burrowing into its warmth, before we return it to its hanger.
Time wears away threads. My granny sewed. She made my Easter dresses and clothing for the church and, once, flags for the local high school band’s color guard. She taught me as a child, but like the piano I once played, it’s a skill I’ve neglected into rusted obsolescence.
I think of people who share bits of my blood and past, with whom I hiked mountains and haunted used bookstores, and wonder about their lives. So much fades if it’s not part of the front-and-center Facebook universe, a world so vast and so very small.
I wonder how to start stitching.
The afternoon sun is high and bright as I swing myself into the cab of Daddy’s truck and we back slowly away from the cemetery. The headstone with our name watches us go.
My fingers pick up the needle, hesitate on the keys. I think of the stoop in those shoulders that seems sudden but of course isn’t.
On the drive back, the camel is gone. I return to a hungry cat and pressing deadlines. But I see sunlight shining through stained glass. I hear the piano play.
I close my eyes and listen to the music.