I arrived at the tiny Episcopal church just minutes before the service. As I got out of the car, dressed in my best seersucker suit, all eyes of those waiting outside of the church shot towards me. They stood, fans in hand, in the shadow of the looming church, some shedding polite tears, others yawning in wait for the long service. The women, out of Carolina courtesy, have been filling my house with homemade fixings all week. Fried chicken, butter beans, squash casserole, and blueberry pies. The men, four of them to be exact, help me make my way inside. As we head into the sweltering church, the stuffy hotness is almost unbearable. The windows are open, but they make no difference. Spanish moss hangs down off of the massive oak trees that surround the church, blocking off any breeze that might find its way from the coast. No relief to be found for the mass of black clothing. We walked up to the front row, after nodding to the family, and there I sat. It was the first time that the show was all about me. And I couldn’t even enjoy it.
I am not a religious person. Never had much patience for it. Not that I disliked God all that much, I just never paid much mind to him, as I figured he didn’t pay much mind to me. But here I sit, in the place of the preacher; ready to give a message that no one will hear. Look at all of these people, showing up just for me. Many of them probably came just to have something to do. Not much else to occupy time in the middle of the stinking, sweltering heat of a Lowcountry summer. Eutawville people find ways of making funerals into sociables. They will have a luncheon afterwards, with sweet tea and lemon bars. They will talk about me for a while, how much they miss me, or despise me. But then the subjects will turn to the latest gossip: who has Meredith Beaufort taken up with now and where has Clarence Houston been spending his Saturday nights. They will chatter and blather until I fade out of memory. Then they will remember the reason why they got together in the first place—me—and return to their sham of a grave veneer.
But we aren’t at that point yet. I’m still sitting up here, in front of everyone. I wasn’t much in life, but I guess that’s the irony. I owned a little antique shop and had a bit of a collection at home. The life of an old bachelor, I suppose. No wife to tell me to stop buying things, I just kept adding to the inventory. The talk around Eutawville was that the shop was no longer about customers, but about the items. More shipments came in, until they consumed everything. When the store filled up, things began to make their way into my house. Soon enough, my timeworn house was spilling with Confederate medals, antebellum silver, and plantation china. The talk then shifted to my failing business: too much import, not enough export, they said. It was simple economics. My relatives would come over and complain when they thought I wasn’t listening. But I heard them. They are complaining even now.
“We have to go through his house soon,” they whisper to each other as they sit on the pews.
“It’s going to take all of us.”
“It’s going to take a bulldozer.”
They laugh to each other, politely covering their faces with handkerchiefs. Everyone around thinks they are crying.
The priest has gotten up now; all eyes fall on him with reverence. He stands and speaks over me, over them. All is silent but the booming crescendo of his preaching.
May he rest from his labours and enter into the light of God’s eternal Sabbath rest. I am the Resurrection and I am life, says the Lord.
After a while of this excited gesturing and declaration, it is time for a change of pace. The hymn singing and prayer book reading are at a close. The memorial service ends with a luncheon, as expected. Lemonade and chicken salad sandwiches. Memories and gossip. While the folk of Eutawville enjoy another afternoon together, those same four men help me back into the car. And I get paraded back to the funeral home, preparing for what’s next.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I am being taken back to that same little Episcopal church to that same little group of people to the same little graveyard that my momma and daddy and my granny and pappy are laying in. This time, there is less pomp and circumstance. It only takes one young cousin to carry me now. It is difficult to tell if it is even me in there, in that soup tureen. It was my favourite in life, so why not now? Civil War era, if my historical research serves me. General Sherman and his damn Yankees didn’t get a hold on this piece. It was hidden in the ground by someone’s great Aunt Betsy. The Yankees didn’t find it then, and they won’t find it now. Both of us go back to the earth. The family scoff at me, being buried in a piece of silver. Not even a family heirloom. But they honour my wish begrudgingly, carrying me to a resting place. I walk my last steps on this earth, into the earth. The priest says some sweet words over me. The family sprinkles the dirt I will soon become over me. They depart.
My work is done. But theirs has just begun. Recall the house?
The door creaks open, and they walk in. Shock is apparent immediately, as it has been years since any of them have dared come for a visit. Years since any of them has crossed the threshold of my estate. They marvel that it holds all of my miscellaneous collectibles. The vaulted ceilings seem to cave in beneath the weight of all of this junk. And the newspapers. Mountains of newspapers. Their musty, yellowing pages stack up to the tall ceilings of the historic home. The State. The Charleston Post & Courier. The Beaufort Journal. The silence is broken at last, as they remark that at least fifty years of papers are haphazardly strewn about my home. They don’t see the importance of this history. They don’t understand what a gem I have collected. A chronicle of Eutawville history. My life’s work in musty pages.
“Just him alone in this creaky old house with all of this stuff,” he says to his wife, my niece.
If only he knew what it was really like. I would love to have told him how much value was in each little silver trinket he was now tossing in the air. He probably hadn’t washed his hands before picking up that button that Robert E. Lee might have given to a foot soldier. I never picked it up without gloves. Disgraceful.
“And the soup tureen. Can you believe it? Not even an heirloom, just one of his favourite obsessions. He was buried in something we ate out of. Not sure I’ll be able to eat soup again,” he continues unravel the day.
He goes on and on, his hands grabbing handfuls of the precious papers and throwing them into the big black trash bag. I have measured out my life in these papers. History. My existence now in black trash bags. She silently comes up behind him and begins to help with the chore.
“Where is everyone else? We can’t possibly tackle this alone,” she says as she looks around the house.
Overwhelmed, she puts down the trash bag and begins to wander aimlessly around the house. She gazes up and around at my pride and joy. At my collection. She is taken in by the stories that have been amassed. The Victorian chaise lounge, the Tiffany lamp, the Confederate strategy map, the Edwardian dressing table, the Revolutionary war musket. She asks the same questions I did: whose, when, for what purpose?
She is pulled out of her musings by the ring of the doorbell. “At last, the rest are here!” she calls out, more to herself than her husband. The work force has arrived. Now the Deconstruction can begin. They begin to sort. Keep pile. Sell pile. Trash pile. The third pile is the largest.
“How long should this take?” asks one of them, the one that lives in New York working for fashion magazines, “I have a meeting in the city tomorrow night. I’m not sure I can stay for all of this.” The one who is her father looks sternly and says, “You will stay as long as you’re needed.”
She looks upset, knowing he saw through the guise of work. He knows that she is clambering for any excuse to leave this insignificant town. He too longed for such an excuse once upon a time. But I stopped him. His uncle stopped him. I offered him a job in that self-same antique shop, the one that seemed to offer honest, solid work for a young man. The one that could be a good start before going out into the world. He enjoyed his work there and began learning much about the world of collectibles from me. He was an eager student, more than he had been in his two semesters of community college. He worked hard for years, losing all desire to move away from Eutawville. He married, fathered children. He created a stable life here in this miniscule town that he had once hated. And then, as my collection expanded, the business began to deteriorate. It seemed to happen so quickly. Downsizing, going out of business sale, foreclosure. A man with a growing family left without a pay check, it was more than a man of traditional Southern stock could handle. And so here he was, many years later, sifting through the same antiques that had been his undoing.
As they continued to cull through my magnum opus, the third pile grew higher and higher. They worked faster as the day wore on. They made careless decisions. So much history tossed. The stories forgotten. And tomorrow, it will wait on the curb for garbage pick-up; a man will carry it to its final resting place. Dirt will rest upon it.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.