One October afternoon in 1965 my formidable paternal grandmother JoAnna, whom I knew only as Big Mama, lay down on her couch to take a nap. In one corner was a large timepiece, and on another wall hung a large oval frame around the image of my grandfather Santa Anna Watson, a rather dashing-looking man with a cool appraising gaze. The rest of the room hosted old furnishings she brought there after he died, from Hughes County where their ancestors settled after the Trail of Tears. There wasn’t a flat surface anywhere in the room that was not graced with a crocheted doily, and on every tabletop sat a small collection of perfumes and lotions from a lifetime of celebrating Christmas and Mother’s Day. It was Old Lady Decor at its most dreadful.
My cousin Tommy Joe found her there when he stopped in to visit, and he could not awaken her. Big Mama was born deep in the nineteenth century and passed away in her sleep eight decades later. In her time she knew a lot of people, so naturally the funeral at the Muttloke Church was standing-room only. Even in death Big Mama commanded an audience and got it. Uncle Dave lived in Idaho and traveled down to attend his mother’s funeral, the only time I ever met him and the first of two times I ever spoke to him. That first time, I said “Hi.” I was seven and not that gifted with small talk.
People dressed in their Sunday best, and we children were pressed and shined within an inch of our lives. We were to be on our best behavior, Mama told us sternly; no funny stuff. You must honor your grandmother by good behavior toward guests. People I did not know approached me to tell me how sorry they were at Big Mama’s passing. I did not understand these words at first. “Passing” sounded so light for such a deeply affecting event in my family. To this day the cooing term “she passed away” does not soothe me as I suspect it should. She didn’t simply ‘pass.’ She DIED. She shook this mortal coil; she breathed her last; she took the A-train to Gone. It wasn’t a passing thing. It was a rock-solid, irreversible foray into forever.
Her death hit my father hard, which strikes me now as curious. She had not been the kind of mother a fellow could go to for comfort. She was bitter, still bitter that her husband, the calm visage in the oval portrait in her front room, had been a serial flirt and had fathered children other than hers. This bitterness was unfairly transferred to her sons, especially Papa whose behavior was flippant but not especially wrong. Despite her demanding behavior toward him, Papa loved his mother and losing her hurt deeply.
The pleasant aspect for Papa was seeing his elder brother David again, and they and Uncle Tom had a wild reunion of catching up. When Aunt Virginia and Aunt Hattie arrived there was a little more banter until the surviving Watson children took their respective broods and headed for the Muttloke Church for the funeral services. Their sister Aunt Lela had died several years back in an auto accident and was buried in local cemetery with her husband’s family, against the wishes of the Watsons. The Watson siblings were determined that Big Mama would rest beside Santy in the family cemetery in Dustin.
The service was entirely spoken in Muskogee, and I was freaked the hell out. I did not understand a word of all that keening and wailing from friends and family from “the Old Country” as Virg and Hattie called Hughes County. All those stern-faced Indians staring down at me frightened me badly. When Muskogee is sung, to me it takes on the quality of a good set of bagpipes. That sound crawled up my spine but I was too intimidated by all the strangers around me to run. I wanted to cry but my sisters elbowed me sharply in the ribs and uttered that ultimate Watson edict: “Watsons don’t cry.”
No, Watsons don’t cry. They’ll bitch, they’ll issue harsh ranking and belittling bon mots, they’ll chop up a nice hefty Word Salad to obfuscate the issue; hell they’ll even shut down entirely before one single betraying tear will escape their eyes. Don’t cry and let strangers believe you weak. Don’t cry and let family know you can’t take it. Fight it, but don’t be obvious. Take the fear from your face, halt the trembling lower lip. Dam up the tears before they fall. Your goddamn family pride is on the line, kid. Don’t screw it up for the rest of us.
After the hair-raising service we immediately got into cars and rode to our old homestead in Dustin. The home itself was gone, gone since Santy died of throat cancer in the late 1930s and Big Mama gave up the ranch. But the cemetery was there, in the center of a cattle pasture among a knot of trees. It was unkempt back then, tall weeds adorned the less-tended graves and spooky headstones of long-dead distant relatives stood as sentinels to welcome the new arrival. A large red gash in the earth had been dug for Big Mama’s coffin and I took my place in the lineup to watch the box get buried.
The singers once more yowled with pain and agony of loss as they sang something in the native tongue. I put my hands over my ears and trembled, and Mama tucked me closer against her legs so I could cling to her for comfort. Mama was a Watson by marriage but she was also Papa’s fifth (or sixth?) cousin in the Creek clan. She knew the code of Watsons Don’t Cry because her family also had the We Don’t Cry thing. But Mama knew that all children cry so she let me bury my face in her soft side and dry my eyes.
We returned to Big Mama’s house, where tables were simply loaded down with food. As with most funerals, people from all over brought covered meals for guests to eat at the reception. As with most Watson funerals, a large party developed and everyone had a marvelous time despite the sadness of the occasion. It was not unusual for a mourner to chuckle at a story, glance around and say, “Where’s old (whoever), they’ll get a kick out of this,” only to realize Old (Whoever) was the unwilling guest of honor and the only thing they would kick was the proverbial bucket.
In that peculiar ritual of bringing food to the grieving, respects were given in the form of salads, appetizers, entrees, sides and desserts of all descriptions. It was sunny outside; long tables were lined up along the side of her house so the dozens of people who came back to the house (some remained in Hughes County) could serve themselves easily. Inside the house, family members could grieve in private if they had to. This was acceptable. Watsons must not cry in public. In private Watsons could lower the floodgates – unless you were a member of my particular family and had sisters who would not even let you do that easily.
It seemed strange to wander around that old house, that tiny weathered-sided, moss-covered house, knowing that mysterious stern old woman would no longer return to it. I suddenly missed her, despite not knowing her well. She tried to treat me kindly even if it was because she assumed I was so abysmally thin I would die soon. Perhaps this kind of sympathy was considered wasted on older people, but for a small child she must have felt it was fitting. I wandered out to her now-exhausted garden, turned brown in the October air. I strolled to the chicken house, careful to avoid stepping in anything I didn’t want to take with me in a closed car. I crossed the back yard and climbed the large weeping willow tree along the streetside fence. From inside the ribbon of pale green leaves, I watched as people walked among the groups of guests and food-laden tables, sharing memories about my grandmother and the events she saw in her long hard life. This place was Big Mama’s home. I expected her to appear any minute, encouraging people to fill their plates and eat some sofke and hot chow-chow. It didn’t seem right to be there and not have her on hand.
I returned to the front porch and heard Uncle Tom swapping stories with Papa and Aunt Hattie and Aunt Virginia and the mysterious Uncle David. They were rascals in their youth, far more daring and trouble-making than I had ever imagined. No wonder they waited until her death to tell these stories. In the deepening evening as their soft voices chuckled and reminisced, I decided the Keening Indians took Big Mama to the sky after all, since some of those stories should have made her spirit come roiling back to life with a peach tree switch in hand.
Papa was determined to build his mother’s grave house. In many American Indian tribes, grave houses were a necessity from several points. It gave the spirit a place to dwell before ascending to the Great Spirit. It gave family members a place to gather, and it marked the grave. Last but not least, it protected the interred body from being dug up by wild animals, something that had to be taken into account in the not-so-distant past.
He started the process the next spring, after good paychecks and a stretch of warm weather set in. I ventured out to watch, wishing again that I was a boy and could help him. He saw me, and I suppose the look on my face said what my lips did not dare. “Come over here, Baby Cat,” he invited. “You can be my helper and hand me the nails.”
I stood beside him almost every session, holding the sixteen-penny nails or keeping a board steady as it was sawed. This grave house would be the culmination of all he wanted to give her in life but never had the chance. No mere slatsides for JoAnna Watson! Papa used 2x4s to make a 2’ x 6’ house, a foot tall at the sides and 3’ at the apex of the roof. The roof would be green and the wood painted a proper bright white. He explained to me why there was an opening near the roof on one end the house: that was for the soul to go through when she was ready to leave the Earth and go up to heaven.
“Is there really a heaven?” I asked, needing this vital question answered by my hero of heroes.
‘Yes,” he said so firmly it left no doubt. Perhaps the forceful answer was his way of chasing away his own doubt, but I took it as the absolute truth.
The peaked roof would have shingles. Some grave houses sported wooden shake roofs, but Papa was determined to give his mother the best in death. He covered the little rafters with plywood, then as any roofer/carpenter would, he put down a layer of roofing paper, followed by green asphalt shingles. I handed him roofing tacks, impressed with the mystery of death and its properly heeded appointments.
Oh, the musical notes of sixteen-penny nails driven into wood! The firm clean smell of freshly cut pine boards! The heavy musk of asphalt flaps violated by small fat nails! These things remind me of a host of memories today, but mostly I recall the look of sad satisfaction as my father worked. She would not see his efforts on earth but he hoped she saw it in the afterlife and be pleased.
Apparently Papa decided the baby was pretty good company after all. He took me with him into town the next time he needed more nails at the hardware store.
Every hardware story in the 1960’s possessed the faint scent of creosote hanging in the air, from the seldom-needed eight-by-eight rail ties stacked in the back of the building. The premiere scent was the heady smell of freshly cut wood, seconded by the curious undertones of linseed oil and varnish. Sawdust tickled the nose and fat wide pencils waited in bins for carpenters like my father to select a few. The nail bins never failed to fascinate me, the wide sheet metal holders gaping open like a dragon’s mouth, filled with nails and screws of all types and sizes.
To an impoverished child, the sight of a large amount of anything is as close to riches as he might get. I thrilled looking at all those hundreds of nails, the number of different types enough to chase their names out of my mind. Two-penny, four-penny, sixteen-penny – not many modern children understand what any of that means, which is the cost for a hundred nails of that particular size. Thanks to improved production values the prices changed but the names remained, a holdover from days gone by.
I enjoyed watching the lumberyard man dip his metal measuring spoon into the big bin of nails and put those chosen nails on a scale. I thought that bin would never be empty, and the notion pleased me because that meant we were sure to return. He poured the nails into a small paper bag, made like but much smaller than the sacks at the grocery store. Papa glanced over the tools and tested the balance of a few hammers before deciding the one he had at home was the best.
Our task done, Papa drove to local alcohol entrepreneur Belle Woods’ house to treat himself to a jar of moonshine. I waited quietly in the car, as Papa did not want me to go in with him. He emerged a few minutes later, a jar of clear liquid in hand.
“This is Kickapoo Joy juice,” he told me, borrowing from his favorite comic string Lil Abner. “It’s just for grown-ups.”
“When I’m grown up, can I drink it?”
“I hope not,” he muttered, and ruffled my hair in reply.
We stopped by Tallent’s Grocery, a little store on the highway just before the turnoff for Gypsy Corners. It had everything a store needed, in about half as much space as the ones in town boasted. I knew where the bread aisle was, where the meat cutting station was, and which shelf held the potted meat and canned tuna, for these items were staples on the kitchen shelf at home we called ‘the pantry.’ As always, I admired the autoharp gathering dust on a table in the middle of the store. I wanted that instrument, its sleek polished wood glistening under the store lights and its metal strings gleaming with the promise of a lovely tone. It was easier than a piano or so I was told; all one had to do was press a button and strum the strings, and lo! It was time to sing “Wildwood Flower”! But it cost far too much – $75! – to ask for. Seventy-five dollars was an enormous amount in Gypsy Corners, which was the main reason the thing still displayed a For Sale sign. Papa caught me wistfully gazing at it. I did not ask for it aloud.
“Baby Cat, I tell you what,” he said. “You came with me when none of the others wanted to come with old Papa. So I’m going to get you a soda pop all your own. You have to drink it all up on the way home because I can’t get one for everyone. It’ll just be between us guys.”
Us guys! Oh, this was indeed a red-letter day! Maybe I wasn’t the younger boy he had wanted as a bookend son to his daughters, but that phrase meant the world to me. Never mind that my siblings didn’t want to come along because it was likely he would stop at Belle Woods’ and moonshine made Papa drunk. Papa was a sloppy drunk who yelled until he felt sorry for whoever he yelled at, and then felt sorry for himself for his own transgressions. I didn’t know all that at the time. I simply believed my sisters did not appreciate a fine ride on a fine day.
As we rode home from Tallent’s I drank the tingling syrupy ice cold Coke from the supple curves of its bottle. Papa sang for his own amusement since we had no radio, his questionable tenor wandering the musical scale like a nomad. The gravel road flashed by faster than I thought it would, past the Adair’s and Morton’s house, past the pasture where a coyote’s paw was still firmly affixed to a fence post. Some unknown hunter had hung his prey up on the fence to skin it and left it, perhaps so he could continue hunting. When he returned he took away the carcass and the pelt, but left one foot. Over time the foot withered until it was almost indistinguishable from the scrawny fence post that held it. It served as a reference marker for our family, as in – “The car got a flat tire about three pastures west of The Paw.”
The road was straight and kicked up dust. The county roads were getting blacktopped but such sign of civilization had not reached our road yet. Just before we pulled into the long curving driveway to our house, blocked by a screen of trees the whole way, Papa stopped the car. I hastily finished my soda pop and pitched the empty bottle out the car window, an acceptable practice at the time. Papa winked at me. It was a rare day, a day in which my father spent time with me, just me, and even topped it off with a treat. If my errant gender had me separated from that special place in his regard, then this moment would freeze in my memory as the most precious of my young life. The man I looked up to most in the world had finally glanced down and realized I existed among his half-dozen children.
My hero would never lose this shine.