Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paying Respect

I didn’t notice the little boy at first. I was sitting in the front row of the church, fixated on my grandpa’s coffin, and the boy was somewhere in the very back. Even when the service ended and we all filed out, I still didn’t see him because I was embarrassed that I was sobbing while having to walk past all the firemen from my town, who were there for the funeral in uniform, honoring my grandpa who had been the Fire Chief for many years.

We left St. Aloysius Catholic Church, where my grandpa had also served as an usher until his multitudes of cancer became too much for him to get out of bed, and his family and friends got into their cars to head out to the cemetery. My grandpa’s coffin was loaded into a hearse and my grandma rode along with it, led by a police car and a restored antique fire engine.

My dad turned the lights of our car on, which is standard procedure in a funeral procession, but the chilly and rainy October day might have necessitated it anyway. People stopped to stare, as they do for any funeral procession, as we drove down Madison Street toward Highway 12. The cars moved slowly, slow enough that a young boy, perhaps ten or eleven, could keep up with our progress on his bicycle.

I was old enough by that time, eighteen and had just started college, that I didn’t feel that this boy was my peer. I didn’t recognize him and didn’t give him much thought. The old fire engine would be a draw to any kid, and I didn’t think that his pedaling alongside our group was anything more than a child interested in a fire truck.

When we got to the cemetery, we gingerly stepped out onto the fallen leaves and wet ground. The casket was placed onto the little elevator that would eventually lower it into the freshly dug hole after everyone left. The family and closest friends of my grandpa then gathered around the coffin once more while the priest said a few more words. My grandma and her three daughters, including my mother, linked arms and stood closest to the coffin. A huge profusion of red carnations was draped over the casket. After some final words, someone in uniform, standing apart from the group, was given the signal to give my grandfather a final gun salute in honor of his service in World War II. I remember the first of the three-volley salute, the way it blasted through the air with violence, upending the quiet, reverent moment and causing my grandma to jump in fright. It was also then that I noticed the small boy, who had followed all the way out to the cemetery on his bike and was standing off to the side.

When the final words of prayer were over and my aunt had distributed red carnations to each of grandpa’s female relatives, the funeral goers moved back to their vehicles. As the young boy was getting ready to get back on his bike, my grandma approached him.

“Did you know Doc from the river? Were you one of the kids who would fish with him sometimes?”

“No, ma’am,” the boy answered, holding his jacket tight around him with his head bowed. “I just came to pay my respects.”

“Well, thank you,” my grandma replied. We walked back to the car and she mentioned that she had also spotted him in the church.

As is tradition, the funeral and grave-site visit was followed by a potluck in the church basement. We all headed back into town and gladly trooped out of the rain and into the cozy basement. A series of tables had been set up along the walls with more casserole dishes than I had ever seen in my life. The other attendees hung back to partake in the feast until my grandma had gone through the line first. But she saw the boy, who was lurking alone in a corner, and encouraged him to get a plate of food as well.

Once we all had gone through the line and sat at the tables to eat, the room became loud with the buzz of everyday conversation. I was sitting kitty corner from my grandma at the table and watched as one person after another came up to her to tell her they were sorry. There are not  many words that can be said on this topic, besides I’m sorry and thank you, and every time it felt awkward and made us all teary. When the priest came up to talk to my grandma, she asked him, “Do you know who the little boy was?” By this time he had eaten his fill and disappeared. The priest said he did know him. He attended funerals of the townspeople on a pretty regular basis. I remember the priest half apologizing for this, and also conveying the message that the real reason he came to the funerals was because of the hot meal that was served afterward.

I took a lot away from that day. Besides the red carnation that dried long ago and has now been sitting in my closet for more than twenty years, I received a deeper insight into the human condition, from those who were at the center of attention that day and those who were at the periphery. My grandpa had a great life, with a remarkably kind wife, three beautiful daughters, a successful business, an active life in the community, and a peaceful refuge found in the surrounding countryside. But his life didn’t start out so bright. His father died before he turned five years old, leaving just his mother and baby brother. The little family struggled to make ends meet, including distilling their own alcohol during prohibition and bootlegging into neighboring states and running from the notorious competition. Somehow my grandpa still managed to be salutatorian of his graduating class and go on to open an ice cream shop with his younger brother before starting his own electrical company. But it would have been possible to imagine him, around the age of ten or eleven, attending funerals of people he didn’t know, all in search of a hot meal.

My grandpa as a little boy

My grandpa ("Doc") and his little brother ("Shimmel")

My grandpa during his Fire Chief years


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