Mildred Walker could draw a crowd in life and in death.
Midday sun forced its way through large oak branches and broke into an obstacle course of beams as cars flowed into the parking lot. The family convened behind the curtain of the front waiting room while the guests filed into the chapel area. Our town’s funerals usually bring a small grieving group together, but this Saturday's service was standing-room-only.
My mama, Emily Adams, made great strides into the room and slipped past the crowd and me on her way to the organ bench. Scents of homemade cookies and starch wafting from her cardigan sweater made my stomach growl. She brushed nonexistent lint from her skirt as she scooted to the center, positioning her feet on the wooden bass pedals. With a quick shuffle of pages in her notebook, the first hum of the pre-service music began.
Porch-dwellers huddled together, dragging on their last cigarettes before the service. Hurried inhales followed by a quick aim-and-flick into the side shrubs readied the crowd. We discouraged smoking on the property, mainly because we were tired of picking butts out of the shrubs. However, after a very convincing tobacco farmer argued our business was going against the local economy by not letting folks partake in a southern cash crop, we conceded to place decorative containers for the disposal of said butts. Unfortunately, those containers then became dumping grounds for little cellophane wrappers and wads of chewing gum. Daddy put a sign on each container to solve the wads and wrappers issue. Originally, my father wanted to display a lovely sign saying, “Please place your cigarette butts in the containers. Thank you.” However, since the sign company charged by the letter and the message board would have cost more than a small coffin, the sign store attendant helped him settle on “Butts Only”. Unfortunately, some high school students in town thought it would be entertaining to borrow those signs and place them in conspicuous places around town. From the McDonald’s drive-thru to the high school science teacher’s bumper, the small 9-letter request occupied much of the teenagers in town that year. But I digress.
" Look here." Whispers cut through the smoke of burned tobacco. “Miss Selma is on the prowl again.”
Selma Gettys, a two-time widow, sauntered up the concrete walkway toward the white brick walls of the funeral home. Patent leather, red-and-white-striped heels clicked to a steady rhythm. Her ultra-feminine sway, accentuated by her tight-wire gait, drew a lot of attention. Women subconsciously crossed their arms, and men tried to look away but rarely did. A confident older woman who has taken care of herself is noticeable, admirable, and intimidating, depending on your own issues. Though she slipped onto the back row, her dark shades and platinum blonde-beyond-her-years hair made her presence anything but subtle. Expanded, red-stained lips separated to whisper a drawn-out “How do you do?” to those seated nearby. Coy smiles and nods from the gentlemen preceded by elbows and backhands from their female counterparts.
A buzz of expectancy filled the room when a motley crew of middle-aged pallbearers processed to the first two rows. White rims surrounded their hairlines, indicating a hot summer of outdoor employment and recent overdue haircuts. Three men, one by one, slowly walked forward in an unspoken procession. Subtle glances, nods, and elbows produced a silent shout of knowing, and a louder-than-necessary whisper hissed through the room. “I can’t believe they all came.”
My eyes widened, matching most of the others in attendance. Honestly, I couldn’t believe they all came either. Three marriages would be enough to cause a stir in our community, but marrying three brothers took the small-town scandal into tornado mode. Woodland, North Carolina, was about to get enough material to keep them buzzing for a month of Sundays.
Husband Number One strolled down the aisle first. Comb marks still fresh in his overly oiled hair, his eyes fixed on the box ahead. He lingered at the casket, stroked her right hand, and slipped an envelope under her arm. His freshly trimmed mustache quivered above his lower lip. A faint smile of familiarity paired with glistening hazel eyes created a countenance of sincere grieving. Today, his mauve polyester suit, yellow speckled shirt, and white leather shoes, clearly reserved for special occasions, coordinated perfectly with the large spray of mums on her casket. He and Mildred were high school sweethearts and married after graduation.
The organ music “Shall We Gather at the River” resonated through the ivory walls of the chapel. Number One took his seat and Number Two stepped forward from the double doors in the rear of the chapel like a bride presenting for her groom. A few years younger than husband Number One, his crunchy salt-and-pepper curls grazed the collar of his worn floral shirt and vintage navy sports coat. With a swagger befitting a disco champion, he strolled up the aisle, making eye contact with everyone who dared look in his direction. Folks stared until his eyes met their gaze, almost involuntarily, and then turned as if watching a dust particle floating by. A few finger-gun salutes to his friends in acknowledgment of their presence took his arrival to a new level of ridiculousness. Two redheads with notable curves flanked his lanky frame. Approaching the casket, he motioned for the tarts to stay back a few steps. He slinked to the casket, dropping his head low. The ginger-haired twins leaned into each other and cast eyes of endearment at their tender-hearted escort. With his hip cocked and his weight shifted onto his worn right loafer, nearly camouflaged by the strings of his faded jeans, he snapped two stems from the casket flower arrangement and presented them to his ladies. He slid into his place on the second bench and gazed my way with a wink. Shivers crept down my spine.
Finally, a pale man in dark clothing filled the doorway. Husband Number Three, with a little swagger, or hair oil, removed his large-brimmed, tan cowboy hat and glided from side to side to the front of the chapel as if pushing off on roller skates. He stopped at the second pew and then the first, shaking the hands of each grieving brother. He had suggested yellow mums for the casket since she always decorated her porch with them in the fall. He leaned toward the casket with his narrow chest fully covered by the Stetson and whispered something to Mildred. He had been her most recent husband but claimed to have loved her since high school, even before the first brother married her. After their union, he confessed his regret for letting his brother ask her to the May Mist dance all those years before. A quiet dignity surrounded him at the viewing. He took his place on the first pew.
As the small-framed Reverend Alden leaned into the curved microphone for a few comforting words to the family, he uttered an opening statement that, for most situations, would be harmless. He always started the same way, only changing the spot where the name of the recently departed should go. Like I said, usually harmless but this day, it was like a match in a bucket of gasoline.
“Mildred Walker knew how to love.”
Number Two expanded in a subtle stretch, raised one brow, and mumbled as if recalling a specific occasion, “Yeah, she did.” He adjusted his floral collar and looked around for recognition. Before he could even get one hand on his faded leather belt to adjust the waist of his too-tight britches, Number Three swung his right arm around with one swift movement, smacking him in the head with his cowboy hat.
“Shut your mouth and show some respect.”
Reverend Alden paused for a moment. His eyes shifted like a squirrel searching for options on a busy street. He moved forward in the service, but his smooth words about Mildred’s life couldn’t compare to the storm brewing.
“Folks, we have come here today to honor a special lady.”
Even though his brow-beating brother had already turned around, Number Two engaged his right hand into full backswing retaliation mode.
Reverend Alden turned to me with a panicked look of desperation.
“Huh mmm. At this time, Zoe Adams will share one of Mildred’s favorite songs as we honor her life.”
With one hand planted on the podium and the other making a windmill motion instructing me to move, I stood. A few more punches landed, and I looked to the pastor for assurance, but the windmill kept spinning.
“Memories, like the corners of my mind–”
Number One leaned forward to keep his siblings from proceeding with their brawl, but the gesture was mistaken for involvement instead of intervention.
“Funny, color-coded memories of the way we were.” My voice shook.
No doubt, the unorthodox “love square” had its sharp moments, but I never thought this would be one of the spaces of combustion. I should have known based on the pre-service consultation when each brother reserved a separate viewing appointment because “they’d rather be in the coffin than in the same room with those lyin’ sacks a’taters.”
Squeals and gasps exchanged when their altercation moved into the aisle, knocking down a couple of wire tripods. Mums and roses flew everywhere, including the colorful array of blooms from the local salon with “No Tangles in Heaven” glittering on its white ribbon. Mildred spent enough on maintaining her blonde locks to pay for their new addition last May. Heaven might not have any tangles, but her funeral sure did.
An off-duty policeman and part-time funeral attendant stepped forward to break up the heap of flailing limbs. Usually, he assisted in escorting grieving families to the cemetery. Today, he was escorting a family to jail. Folks were leaning in every direction, some to get away, some to get a better look.
Three middle-aged men led the recessional, guided out of a full chapel while organ music played and I wrapped up singing, “The Way We Were.”
“Memories, indeed,” quipped Reverend Alden. “We will surely all remember the day Mildred Walker was laid to rest.”
He was right.
Woodland Daily Courier
Mildred Walker, 77, was laid to rest on Tuesday, September 1, following a service at Adam’s Mortuary. Reverend Alden of New Life Community Church officiated, and music was provided by Emily and Zoe Addams of Adams Funeral Home.
In lieu of flowers, donations were made to the “Share a Smile Foundation” of Polk County, which helps people who have lost their teeth get dentures. Mildred believed no one was fully dressed without a smile. She was also often heard saying, “Nobody should have to look at rotten teeth, especially me.”
A native of Woodland, Mrs. Walker left behind a husband and two ex-husbands or brothers-in-law. While her choice of suitors was unorthodox, she thought it important to keep love close to home and not waste a good monogram. The graveside service was followed by family visitation at the Woodland Detention Center.