I’ve always been a private person, sharing my feelings with few people because I was taught at an early age that my family didn’t care about them, and if I did present a negative emotion, I would get in trouble. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” and “Get your ass off your shoulders” were heard often at our house. Even disputes with my brother that warranted parental involvement were met with the threat of the tattletale punishment.
This punishment was a literal eighteen-inch tail my mother made with braided leftover yarn in Christmas colors and a piece of white hemming lace tied into a bow at the bottom. A jingle bell was attached to the bow, its tinkle an aural reminder of my shortcomings (which were really my brother’s fault). Momma would pin the tail to the back of my shirt whenever I tattled on my brother. Usually, the threat of the tail would stop me from tattling, but sometimes, I had to wear the tail, and frequently it was when we had company. I guess Momma wanted to show what an innovative parent she was when it came to discipline.
Of course, the tail was humiliating to a sensitive little girl like me, and wearing it brought on hot tears of shame and indignation. Did it discipline me? No; it taught me the futility of telling on my brother and the danger of bothering my parents. Nothing good would come of either.
Not wanting anyone to see my humiliation and peeking around to make sure no one was watching, I would tiptoe up the stairs to my room, the tiny middle one in a series of three where I could hide and sulk alone with my ass-y shoulders. Where I could take off the hideous tail. I could escape in a book which took me to places where little girls visited secret gardens. A place where unloved little girls were rescued and turned into Cinderellas. A book where there was a happily ever after.
When things were really bad, when my cheeks were burning or when my mouth had been washed out with soap, I would imagine my own funeral, its sole purpose to punish those I felt had wronged me.
I can still see it the way I imagined it back then…
My body would be in a child-sized casket, a light, silvery-grey one carved with flowers and lined with white satin. The crib-sized pillow with the butter-colored pillowcase my grandmother had handmade was tucked under my head. Mother had embroidered little daisies all along the hemline, each perfect petal exactly the same size. I was wearing a long, lacy white dress with a square neck (not unlike my baptismal robe or later, my first wedding dress), and I clutched in my hands little purple flowers that smelled like the lilac Kiddle I had gotten for Christmas — a doll with purple hair and eyes like Elizabeth Taylor’s in a little jewel-shaped “kologne” bottle. My hands were atop a small white New Testament embossed in gold lettering that my great-grandmother inscribed and left for me the year she died. The year I was born.
The funeral home was air-conditioned, but the scorched air of the Georgia August day was no match for the window unit, so the lights were turned off, and the oscillating fans were turned on. The side room used for viewing and visitation was as dark as a cloudy twilight, the burgundy velvet curtains blocked most of the sun. One thin shaft of sunlight pierced through the curtains showing sparkly, dancing dust motes descending and ascending like angels on Jacob’s ladder.
During visitation, my grandmother’s church friends were crying and whispering while gathered in groups of two or three on the periphery of the room, eyes snaking toward my parents who were sitting in antique chairs at the head of the casket. Those mourners’ eyes and lowered voices confirmed to each other that my death was my parents’ fault. From behind the paper fans, they shared with each other that If only my parents had been good to me, had not neglected me, had believed me over my brother, had not made me wear the tattle tail, I would still be alive.
I became so good at imagining my funeral that I would truly start crying, unaware that I was actually grieving the parents and life that I needed but didn’t get.
Cancer has made me revisit and revise my “celebration of life” service to suit my grown-up preferences, including the smell of purple Kiddle Kologne. (Sorry, no Kiddie Kasket for me. I want to fertilize blackberry bushes.) I no longer think of my memorial service as a punishment for my parents, but as a natural progression – the clichéd circle of life, a real-life Elton John and Simba moment.
One recent Sunday, our accompanist played the most gorgeous piece, and after church, I asked her to play that song at my funeral. While she and I were talking about it without sentiment, others around us were shocked I was talking about “it” at all. It seemed natural to talk about my death with her. Though I don’t remember, I probably made some inappropriate joke as well.
I have a good (morbid/dark) sense of humor about death that comes from my family. Both my parents grew up on farms where death was a part of life. Both my parents talked openly about death, what they thought happened after death, and what they wanted at their funerals, or lack of funeral as my dad requested. So talking about death was a part of life, and using humor to deal with tough situations was a great coping skill to pass on to me. When my dad was dying of congestive heart failure, I would call him every day and ask how he was doing. Every day, he said, “I answered the phone, so I ain’t dead yet.” It was tragic, and it was hilarious.
Death isn’t funny to those left behind, and I imagine my friends won’t be happy that I am gone. Certainly, I hope I have made enough of a difference in their lives that I will be missed. Mostly, I hope that my life is a testimony that Christ never failed me, that childhood pain can be overcome, and that life is worth living, even when you’re dying.
Also, it’s okay to carry resentment into adulthood for the brother who caused me to have to wear that tattle tail. Just kidding…