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  • Writer's pictureThe Stardust Review

Family Spirit

by Sterling Warner

Grandma’s funeral had contained its share of theatrics. Each child approached the open casket individually and contributed to the visual spectacle. Uncle Leo threw himself prostrate on the elevated coffin, protesting love for his mom—my Grandmother. Brett came next, fell to his knees and began performed the sign of the cross for all to see, and he only stopped when teary-eyed Aunt Elvira pushed him aside and tossed a handful of poker chips in the casket. “I’d have preferred to send you to heaven with a slot machine, mom, but it’d never fit in your casket!” Everyone smiled nervously, but knew grandma’s addiction to gambling rivaled every religious bone in her body. After a few drinks, all her children would kid about Grandma’s afterlife in the big casino in the sky.

Finally, Aunt Nina, unable to surpass her siblings by word or deed all her life, didn’t say or do anything now—except faint when she reached her deceased mom—delaying the funeral procession to the cemetery for thirty-five minutes.

• • • • •

Grandma sang about the River Jordan, quoted scripture from the Latin Vulgate out of context, and crossed herself frequently at wedding receptions, particularly when people drank alcohol, loosened up, started to mingle, and began to dance. At my post wedding reception, for instance, she grabbed my uncle’s keys and locked herself up in his car because my sister got on stage and provocatively sang, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.” (Love ya, Grandma, but you never did like others receiving too much attention; my only consolation came from the fact that nobody noticed you leaving!)

After Thanksgiving meals, family members—mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, cousins all—gathered to watch the holiday NFL games. Then grandma, would enter the room and without even asking, she’d switch the game in progress to Lawrence Welk reruns. “Lawrence comes from the same town in South Dakota where I was born,” she’d announce for what seemed the hundredth time. One year, my brother and I stuck a bumper sticker with LW on it that read, “Play an accordion, go to jail” on Aunt Tess’ refrigerator. Rather than appreciate our raw, youthful sense of humor, she admonished us for unprovoked, unforgivable blasphemy of the King of the “Baby Elephant Walk.” (Yeah, right! A one and a two….)

My dear Grandma never had a clue. Perhaps it went back to her limited eighth grade education. Maybe she’d suffered a lot in her life and felt entitled to a part of ours to make up for lost time? Yet how could mom forgive her for inviting herself on my parent’s first private, romantic road trip through Canada—without me and my siblings—since they’d been married? Then, what right did Grandma have insisting that her far too obliging son abandon travel plans months in the making, and taxi her around South Dakota to all her living friends and relatives—people neither parent had ever met or would want to see again—as well as graveyards of faceless ancestors?

Another time, when she traveled to Monterey with our entire family, it never occurred to Grandma that she should have been a team player and enjoy visiting the aquarium with us. Instead, she’d pouted until dad agreed to limit our time at the aquarium to a couple of hours, so that we could spend the rest the rest of the day on a pilgrimage to as many California missions founded by Father Junipero Serra within driving distance.

Grandma had cast her spell on me since birth. At the time, my father invited her to come live with us and assist my mother with cooking, housework, and tending to the other children. Yet, it seemed every time my mother said something, Grandma either corrected her or questioned my mom’s actions, insights, and conclusions. I suppose that’s why at nine months old, when I began to speak, my first two words were, “Yeah, but!”—the very same words Grandma uttered a thousand times on a daily basis, always attempting to upstage my mother’s house hold authority.

• • • • •

Nobody recalls who tossed the first hand of dirt into Grandma’s grave—I think it was Don. Doesn’t matter, the initial gesture set the wheel in motion, and relative after relative, friend after friend stepped up to the mound, some fingering rosaries, others merely joining in on the ritual.

“You know, family ‘ought to meet for some occasion outside of funerals,” Don sighed.

“True,” I replied, attempting to appear thoughtful and reflective. “When? Where?”

We both looked around us—particularly at our remaining family elders—then back at each other and started to chuckle. “Not tonight. Well, I’ve a plane to catch—got to be at work in Atlanta tomorrow,” Don noted.

“Yeah, I was planning to skip the funeral reception too—and doubt I’ll be missed.”

Don nodded his head, knowing out of all the cousins, I’d never get involved in the forthcoming wake—a thinly veiled grief competition between our mutual aunts, uncles, and parents. “Look me up the next time you’re in Atlanta.”

Glancing back at our relatives, I grinned ironically. “You know, Don? Despite our life-long protests, in the end, we’re all a bit of like Grandma.”

“Dust to dust and self-serving?”

“Amen. Safe flight!”

Sterling Warner’s poems have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, journals, and anthologies, including IN THE GROVE, THE FLATBUSH REVIEW, AMERICAN MUSTARD, THE CHAFFEY REVIEW, LEAF BY LEAF, THE MONTEREY POETRY REVIEW, VISUAL VERSE, THE ATHERTON REVIEW, and METAMORPHOSES. Additionally, Warner also has published four collections of poetry: WITHOUT WHEELS, SHADOWCAT: POEMS, EDGES, and RAGS AND FEATHERS as well as a chapbook: MEMENTO MORI REDUX.

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