People handle grief in different ways. Some take dignified comfort in the sympathy of loved ones to make peace with the situation; others wail and howl until their pain finds a measure of relief in expression. Still others maintain a stiff upper lip and soldier on bravely.
That was my family. “Watsons don’t cry,” my sisters told me sternly when my father died. The tone of their voices told me they were absolutely serious about it. It wasn’t a playful joke or a riddle; it wasn’t a dare. You by God did not let a single teardrop fall, especially in front of people outside the family – oh, especially not then.
Don’t let anyone see you cry. Crying is a weakness. We don’t do it. We don’t allow for weakness. That is what I was told, and as a nine-year-old child I blindly followed orders.
I never really understood the reason, nor who started it. I strongly suspect my sisters picked it up from our stern, unblinking Grandmother Watson and she from untold generations of equally stoic Muskogee Creek Indians. What, did open mourning somehow lessen the hard armor we were supposed to have built around our tender hearts? Did expressing grief make us physically weak or humiliated beyond repair? How did strangers gain such power to drain us? Did this denial of emotion start on the Trail of Tears or was it something that developed in more recent times? Evidently I would let the family down if I mourned, so I tried hard to maintain that valued stiff upper lip. I’m pretty sure we all privately mourned but to one another we did not cry.
Twelve years later, our oldest sister died in a parachuting accident, a terrible occurrence that did not return her to us except in an ash-filled canister. By then we were all adults, yet The Code was still in force as strong as ever. “Watsons don’t cry; don’t let these people (at her memorial service) see you cry,” my sisters chided.
“Why not? I’m in mourning,” I protested.
“We just don’t do it,” came the stubborn reply.
My mother tried to hold in her grief over the loss of her daughter, her sweet precious first baby girl. Her expression at the memorial was a stone mask but the tears streaked down her cheeks regardless. Well, that was different. She was Mama. Not only that, she was only a Watson by marriage and therefore not to be held completely accountable to the Don’t Cry code.
I… I guess.
Eleven years later, Mama passed away from cancer and pneumonia in a swift and deadly combination. My brother Joe alerted me to come home as fast as I could as Mama didn’t have long, but within an hour he called back to tell me, take my time. She’s already gone.
Mama made it known to us that she did not want be ‘on display’ at the funeral home, and instead be cremated. The nursing home sent her to the funeral home for such arrangements and while transportation happened, our aunts and uncles all insisted to need to view her. They were all born in the early 1900’s when viewings and sitting with the dead were an essential part of the grieving process. That generation even had the awful practice of kissing the dead one last time. No wonder Mama had objected.
But Mama would not have wanted to stress out her elderly siblings any further, so to keep peace in the family Joe gave in to their elderly protests. The funeral directors hastily assembled something appropriate – a cloth-covered bier and Mama in a simple blue dress, her lower half covered in draped cloth. Mama’s face was unlined; her life’s earned wrinkles relaxed to the degree where she was hardly recognizable to me in death. Mama never wore makeup in her life except a little lipstick but in death she wore an odd pink blush on her pale high cheekbones and her lips were an unnatural cherry red. The funeral home did what they assumed was best but in Mama’s case, it all rang false.
Joe and sister Lela and I were on hand to meet the relatives at the funeral home door, and Lela accompanied one of the aunts in. “Ohh, look at Georgie. Doesn’t she look natural,” the aunt cooed as she stroked Mama’s arm.
“No, she looks dead,” Lela said shortly. Now you must realize, Lela was always the tactful one of the family and had a lifelong habit of deferring to elders. Not that day, however. Watsons Don’t Cry and furthermore, Watsons Don’t Like It When The Deceased’s Wishes Are Not Honored To The Letter. Our Watson aunt did not take offense to Lela’s reply. Watsons also have a tendency to be brusk during times of stress and she knew it as well as anyone.
More aunts, uncles, cousins, their grandchildren… and then a neighbor slipped in and then some people Mama used to work with slid in, and before you know it the funeral home parlor and front porch were knee-deep in people she knew from our hometown and workplace. Word must have flown around that small town that Miz Watson’s viewing was that day and people were curious to come in and view her (to see how much age had stolen her looks or some damn thing I suppose) which was something she adamantly DID NOT want.
My brother and I had the funeral director shoo people out and shut the door. We explained to the gathered crowd about Mama’s wishes and that we only intended for our elderly relatives to have a final goodbye. Thankfully the crowd dispersed, disappointed that their morbid curiosity had not been satisfied but they weren’t going to protest to a family so tight-lipped and stern-looking. Watsons Don’t Cry. Watsons Intimidate the Shit Out of Curious Folks.
Nine years later, brother Joe lost his fight with cancer. Embittered by the knowledge that a blood transfusion might have saved him if not for his entrenched belief in the cult known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, I could not work up any tears at the time. The kids and I made it to his bedside only hours before his death and we stayed to attend his funeral. I helped my sister-in-law with the arrangements which kept me busy doing something useful. I was so angry at the stupid Witness policy I had no need to hear “Watsons Don’t Cry.”
Watsons shouldn’t die needlessly either, so play that record until it wears out.
I cried later over the loss of my bookend, my brother. We never debated politics or religion because we felt it was up to us to keep the family communicating together if we could, so we kept a united front of mutual family support. I tormented myself wondering if debating religion might have eventually changed his mind about being a JW, might have encouraged him use his bright intellect to reason his way out of the confining box of erratic religious conformation. Well, never mind; it was too late. He was gone and it was time to cry.
It doesn’t bother me to cry. I don’t think it bothers my remaining sisters to cry now, either. Loss is grief and grief is pain and when I’m in pain, I cry. I don’t give a damn about stiff upper lips and I could not possibly care less if some random yahoo sees me get emotional. There is nothing wrong with emotion. There is no reason to cut oneself off from feelings. Other people’s opinions on what they assume of me, will not weaken me. I am strong enough to allow myself vulnerability for in that vulnerability I draw the greatest strength: love.