In early August 2005 I sit in the front pew of my childhood church, hand in hand with my husband Ali. A frosted pink funeral program lays across my lap, a stark contrast to my flowing black dress. Years prior a member of the church said that believers should wear bright colors to funerals, that there should be few tears and wailing. A funeral should be a home going celebration, she said.
The front of the funeral program pays homage to this notion. But as I gazed at my mama’s flag-draped coffin that morning the idea of celebrating was far from my thoughts. How could I celebrate or rejoice in her sudden death? I took in everyone’s condolences, their serene assurance that my mama was resting with the Father. But none of that could cover the wailing of my eight-year old sister in the pew behind me.
My daughter had no idea what was going on. Not even eighteen months old at the time, she happily let me dress her in her new black and pink polka dot dress and patent leather shoes that morning. As I sat with Ali the fact that our daughter would never know her maternal Grandma crossed my mind for the hundredth time. This isn’t fair, I said to myself as the tears started again.
My mama loved her grandchild so much. I remembered how much help my mama provided when she first came home from the hospital, how she instructed me in the proper care of a newborn and of myself as a new mom. When my daughter was weeks old I would jump up as soon as she went to sleep, eager to complete all of the tasks I was unable to while nursing. Mama would see me attempting to cook and clean and firmly tell me to lay down. “You have to sleep when she sleeps until you go back to work girl! I know you want to be active, but if you don’t sleep now you will be exhausted”, she’d say, shooing me back to bed. I wouldn’t have been able to find my way as a new mom without her, and now she was gone.
I’m snapped out of my reverie when a younger cousin ascends to the podium to perform her part of the service. Her voice unsteady, she begins reading the lyrics to “That’s the Way of the World” by Earth, Wind and Fire:
You will find peace of mind
If you look way down in your heart and soul
Don’t hesitate ’cause the world seems cold
Stay young at heart ’cause you’re never (never, never, never) old at heart…
My aunts and uncles selected “That’s the Way of the World” as they said it was a favorite of my Mama and Grandma. I’d heard my Mama play it and sing along to Maurice White’s falsetto countless times over the years, but for the first time I couldn’t follow his advice. I remembered the way I felt when my Grandma passed away eighteen months prior, and how even that didn’t prepare me for what came next. How could I stay young at heart after this? The two people who were my world were gone, forever beyond my reach.
My Mama was a devout fan of EWF, so hearing the song described as one of her favorites was no surprise to me. Grandma was another story. In the twenty-four years I had with her I cannot ever recall hearing her utter the words of a secular song; I only heard her sing gospel. So initially the idea of her jamming along to an EWF was surprising. But today this idea it isn’t surprising. Nor does the sound of “That’s The Way Of the World” make me dissolve into tears. Instead a movie plays in my head.
The scene opens with the image of a fourteen-year old boy, skin as dark and rich as molasses and his forehead wide and flat, furiously pedaling his bike down the streets of a small Midwestern city in the 1970s. The boy has religiously made this journey to the other side of town, hoping that he might run into her. They met at a summer camp the year before and were partnered together in a canoe. While he was attracted by her smile and petite build, it was her wit and laid-back demeanor that impressed him the most. When their canoe capsized she didn’t freak out, remaining calm throughout the ordeal.
They parted ways when summer camp ended. He only knew her name and that she lived in a different neighborhood than he did. Armed with that information he started his weekly bike trips to the other side of town, hoping for the chance to run into the chocolate-eyed girl again.
After nearly twelve months his persistence finally paid off and he saw her walking. He hops off his bike and calls her name. She turns around and looks back, the recognition slowly dawning in her eyes.
“You’re Willie from camp, right”, she asks, straight to the point. “I remember you. But what are you doing all the way over here? Did you move?”
“No I didn’t move”, he replies sheepishly,”I’ve been riding my bike from my side of town for awhile. I figured I’d see you eventually if I kept coming.” She looks at him again, eyes full of curiosity and amusement.
“But you don’t even know my address!”
“True, but I knew I would find you if I just kept trying.” She smiles at him and lets him walk her home.
The molasses-colored boy and the chocolate-eyed girl would become my parents. The music of EWF takes me back to their world and that of my grandma. The molasses-colored boy would give his love and devotion to my mother for a moment in time, but he only belonged to me in the most basic sense. Our bond would be one based in genetics and nothing else. But Mama and Grandma were mine in every sense of the word. As much as their absence hurts I take solace in the fact they both loved me intensely until their last breath, and death cannot extinguish that memory.