A gnarled index finger pointed to the pile of papers at the head of the table. "You can finish all that in the mornin,'" he told us matter-of-factly. "Now, tomorrow," the knotted pointer turned toward us, "you need to take the red car down to the car wash and make sure you vacuum it out." As he finished his verbal list of to-dos, he took a few steps left to the end of the enclosed porch, his weathered, sandpaper palms gripping the small brass knob. I followed him to the door, intending to close it behind him.
"Goodnight," he called to the house as he left.
"Goodnight, Grandpa," I called back.
He stopped and turned toward the slit of light escaping the door jamb. "Goodnight who?"
"Goodnight, Uncle John!" I quickly gasped, hot tears rushing to my eyelids.
"What did you say, sweetheart?" Grandma cooed softly as the door clicked shut.
"Nothing!" I breathed hotly, tucking my head low as I quickly passed her and marched back into the house.
He had been with us all day, I knew: coming in from his work at two that afternoon; suggesting we follow him into town and pick him up at the local mechanic's; riding along with us as we posted notices for Wednesday's service. I could see his face in the rear-view mirror as we drove, observing his tanned, leathery complexion and deep wrinkles. He even picked on me for my poor driving skills with his deep, thunderous voice.
Just like Grandpa, I kept thinking. All day I had tried not to make the comparison, willing myself to see this man as my uncle and deliberately remember where my grandpa was--and now I had slipped!
"It's to be expected, sweetheart," Grandma told me later, when I finally confessed what I had said. "He is so much like his daddy."
I had a chance to see my grandpa inside the chapel the next day--at least, what was supposed to be him. A much thinner, yellowy-pale mannequin lay in one of Grandpa's nice church suits at the front of the room, a strained, thin-lipped frown playing over its somber, lifeless face. Glancing at its very bald head and neatly folded hands, I noted Grandpa's tanned sunspots were on the mannequin, too. I gripped its right hand and squeezed it, but it didn't squeeze back. Instead, the hand sat motionless and stiff in the mannequin's lap, abnormally soft and hairless under my touch.
This is not Grandpa, I thought as I quickly released my grip. Grandpa's hands aren't that smooth. He's worked in the fields with cows his whole life. His hands can't be that smooth! His coarse fingers would have caressed my cheek while his voice would have called out, "How's my girl?" No, this is not my grandpa! I wanted to shout to the polished figure in front of me.
As I moved away from the glossy grey-blue casket, I took mental note of which family members were present: me and my twin brother, Jason; the three cousins, Amanda, Lane, and Abbie; my Aunt Stephanie and Uncle John; Mom, Dad, and Grandma. I knew my older brother Chris wouldn't be joining us; but in his and his wife's stead, my Great-Aunt Patsy and her nephew Lynn had come all the way from Georgia. That made a total of twelve, which meant that only one family member was missing.
At any moment I expected my grandfather to saunter in with his noticeably limping gait and wide, Denture-filled smile. "Hellooh, Sweetheart," he'd call to Grandma, his hands spread wide to cup her face. He would ask us what all the cryin' and fussin' was about. And then, with the patient gentleness of a lifelong teacher, he would swing around to greet everyone gathered, beginning with his grandkids.
"He was a hands-on grandpa," my grandmother had told me fondly as we had sorted and mounted pictures for a memorial collage earlier in the day. As she said it, my eyes had rested on a picture of my older brother as a ten-year-old boy standing on a stool to match the height of his grandfather, gnarled hands outstretched to pull his face close. Yes, Grandma, I had thought as I studied the scene, indeed he was.
We were all gathered in the chapel that night to await the arrival of the man of the hour, it seemed--just the way it had felt the last two days on the farm. Grandma and I had sat around talking or run errands in town or visited with family from next door, waiting for Grandpa to finish his work for the day and come in from his leases and hay fields. "It just feels like he's out checking his cows," I confessed to her, "and he'll come in when he's done." Except that this time Grandpa didn't come back in, not to the farmhouse and not to the quiet chapel.
That night, I waited in one of the cushioned metal chairs as one-by-one, more than 200 teary-eyed men and women from the Somerset community came to offer condolences to my family and to bid a respectful farewell to the man who had become such a pillar of faith-in-action for the last fifty years of his life. The stream of mourners poured into the chapel from 5:30 that night until well past the viewing's scheduled finish at 8, each life touched by his weathered, craggy hands. The gathered crowd was a testament to the manifold spheres of influence that my grandfather had possessed.
"Goodbye, ol' body," I heard Uncle John address the mannequin, clapping the back of its yellowy, right hand as we began to leave the funeral chapel at the close of the viewing. And to the living, he added, "We know he's not in there anyway."
"We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body
and to be present with the LORD."
2 Corinthians 5:8