It was Saturday, February 20, 1999. The procession began right on time. The door to the brick country church had been open for an hour, since one o'clock. I had already seen my grandmother's body. She had been deceased since Sunday, but the mortician had done a marvelous job of helping her face retain its natural chocolate color.
The tiny body that looked emaciated a few days before her death was now a petite figure in a peach satin and lace dress. She did not have the usual mark of death, a lack of definition to her features. She looked as if she were sleeping, the familiar face frozen forever at eighty-nine years old. She had no wrinkles. That was not the work of the mortician. She never once had them, even at her advanced age.
Her full lips were relaxed, kissed by a bit of red lipstick. Her eyes sewn shut would have been a shock, but someone had the sense to apply some mascara, hiding the necessary touch.
I felt that she was glad to be gone from her body. She'd put in a long life. She'd escaped slavery by being born at the right time to a free man. She emerged from eleven siblings to marry at nineteen and buy a farm at the turn of the century in Jim Crow Alabama.
I studied this woman, the last of an era, the first of our family's freeborn. She would have six living children, her eldest, my mother. I thanked God for the lessons she taught me: how to make food taste wonderful, to appreciate a quilt for its warmth and its beauty, and to take as much time as I needed to make the things I cared about. She taught me that life will give you time to create the important things if you really cared about them.
I loved her for giving me life through my mother. And through my mother, she passed on a brand of wisdom that seems lost to most of my generation.
I wanted to touch her majestic high cheekbones. I wanted to stroke the shoulder length braid I'd never before seen. The silky white strands of white woven into her black hair shone under the soft light illuminating her face, and I wondered why shed kept it hidden under poorly made wigs for more than forty years.
For a brief moment, I imagined her young again. I remembered how her huge brown eyes sparkled with fiery determination as she taught me, a nervous child of eight, how to collect eggs from an ornery hen.
Someone tapped my shoulder. It was my sister. She was spooked by the open casket. I deferred to her anxiousness to leave the church.
Our extended family was assembled outside the church under a spring-like day. The soft breeze was clean, refreshing. Behind us was an endless stretch of prairie land. To the right was a smattering of gravesites. She would be buried there, next to my grandfather, close to a place that meant almost as much to her as her home. Thirty acres of land had been sold, eerily, just a month prior to her death. It had to be an omen that her time on earth was nearly over. She would want it that way; to stay close to the little country church where she'd been a member since 1929, the same year she married.
While I waited to go back in, this time to say goodbye, I talked to cousins I hadn't seen in thirty years. I wanted to hug and kiss and catch up with all of them. But the reunion was cut short. The line began to move.
The strains of a somber spiritual reached our ears. I choked right away. We proceeded up stone stairs single file. The mistress of order stood in the middle of the aisle in white nurses dress, making gentle movements with her white-gloved hands that we go to the front, wind around the first pew, and file into a seat. Once in, I was in.
Tears sprang to my eyes. The solemn hymn, "Rest Beyond the River" clogged my joy. I hurt. If I could not touch my grandmother one last time, I wanted to look her. But I couldn't even do that, for I was steadily moving toward the front pew where my mother and her three siblings were sitting.
I watched others in front of me grasp the hands of each, communicating their condolences. I expected that my sister, never close to my mother, would nod and proceed to her seat. But she grasped my mother's hand. My mother squeezed back then kissed my sister's hand. I felt a small amount of reconciliation in that moment and cried anew, hoping it would last.
I sat, prepared for the wailing that comes with southern black funerals. A few older women cried loudly as they raised their handkerchiefs in the air and waved them. Testimonials to my grandmother's love of feeding people, her way with a needle, and her dedication to her church reigned. I fell in love with her more.
Then my cousin Herman stepped up to the front of the church and read this circa 1852 poem by Erlene Stetson:
That man over there say
A woman needs to be helped into carriages
And lifted over ditches
And to have the best place everywhere.
Nobody ever helped me into carriages
Or over mud puddles
Or gives me a best place
And ain't I a woman?
Look at me!
Look at my hands!
I have plowed and planted
And gathered into barns
And no man could head me
And ain't I a woman?
I could work as much
And eat as much as a man
When I could get to it
And bear the masters lashes as well
And ain't I a woman?
I have borne 13 children
And seen most all sold into slavery
And when I cried out a mother's grief
None but Jesus heard me
And ain't I a woman?
That little man in black there say
A woman can't have as much rights as a man
'Cause Christ wasn't a woman
Where did Christ come from?
From God and a woman!
If the first woman God ever made
Was strong enough to turn the world
Upside down, all alone
Together women ought to be able to turn it
Rightside up again.
My mother spoke of my grandmother's first plane ride, of her first time in a restaurant, and her first time in a hotel, all when she was seventy years old. Then in a choked, shaky voice, she pointed upward and said that we were just looking at a shell.
I glanced at the body cradled in white satin. Applause and amens rang through the church, mine included. There were loud amens and soft amens, and suddenly the joy burst through. The celebration had begun, for we shared in the knowledge that Irma Pearl Wrenn Hutchins Foy was just beginning her life.