Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sitting Up With The Dead

I recently went to a family reunion, my mother’s side of the family. Each year in late June, what remains of the clan gathers in a small community southwest of Fort Worth. I am closely related to some. But with others the branches split so far back in the 1800’s that I lose track after the 3rd or 4th cousin by marriage explanation. The core group of relatives in this community descended from my great-great grandfather. His brothers and sisters spawned these other folks, only a few of whom look and sound like family. But, they seem genuinely committed to maintaining the tradition and, I suppose what they see as a link to the Old West. Not that this side of my family had much to do with the Old West. They rode horses and had a few cows, but mostly they were hard-scrabble farmers who came to Texas after the Civil War. Some were lucky enough to secure good bottom land along the Brazos River, but most ended up with land best suited for scrub oak, cedar brush and prickly pears. The area gets less rain than places only a day’s ride (on horseback) in three directions. Go further west and you better be into raising goats.

My grandfather was one of 15 kids (Methodists taking the Lord’s instruction to be fruitful and multiply quite literally.) I don’t remember the order of birth but my grandfather was in the first five. All but one are now passed on. The lone survivor was number 15, an eighty-eight year old aunt who was only a couple of years older than my mother. They grew up more like sisters than aunt and niece. Her mind is sharp as long as you don’t inquire about anything that’s happened since 2000. The closer to the present time the worse it gets. But the farther back you go, the better.

My aunt recalled when my mother died back in ’98 which led her to speak of other deaths and other funerals. The only present day reference she could muster was noting how fortunate they were to now have some gas wells around there to fund upkeep on the cemetery. To the extent that any royalties are left over is evidenced only by new improvements to the community church, once Methodist, now staunchly Baptist.
As she spoke of deaths and funerals, one of the old men sitting nearby recalled when family members dug graves for the departed kin. Back then they did not take their dead to the funeral home. They dressed them in their Sunday best and laid them out in the house. While the young men dug the grave, the family waited for more relatives to arrive; sometimes taking a day or two, but never much more, especially in the summer months. There was too much farm work to be done and dead bodies ripened quickly.

Lacking the proper filters, old people and children just talk about whatever comes to mind. And on this day, my aunt wanted to talk about “sitting up with the dead”. The fact that we were attempting to eat our Sunday dinner was of no consequence to her. She told of how folks would sit up around the clock with the dead body. One lady there with us, in her 50’s and married into the clan somehow, commented how that showed so much love and respect for family and that she couldn’t imagine people today making such a sacrifice. My aunt shook her head and laid down her fork loaded with green beans.

She said, “Love and respect had nothing to do with it. Someone had to be there to keep rats and mice from eating the body. And in the summer time with the windows open, cats would come in and eat the person’s face off if you weren’t watching.”

A few of us had heard of “sitting up with the dead”, but I don’t think any of us had ever heard that it was for the purpose of keeping vermin and critters from eating the body. No one knew what to say. I just started laughing and said, “That is great. I’d never heard that before.”

My aunt smiled and replied, “Well, that’s the truth.” Then she looked at me and asked, “Now tell me again, who are you?”

Before I could ask for more details, my wife managed to change the subject and soon my aunt was telling stories about playing paper dolls with my mother when they were little girls. She even remembered who I was and commented that she could not believe that I came out of my mother’s body. That comment made me put down my fork. Could we just go back to talking about cats and rats and sitting up with the dead?

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