A PARTY FOR THE DEAD ©Christina Maile 2019
My grandmother liked to throw parties for the dead. Over the years, she had gotten to know quite a few dead people, and they were always pestering her about this and that... what she was up to... how the family was.
So once or twice in late summer or early fall, on a clear sunny Sunday, my family, which consisted of my grandmother, my mother, and 5 brothers and sisters would pack ourselves into a stuffy Oldsmobile to be driven to one or another cemetery in Brooklyn. My father was always at the wheel, but he never joined us at the party. He’d parked the car on the cemetery road closest to whatever grave my grandmother pointed to, then spend the remaining afternoon in the car, the windows down, the door opened, the radio on.
The noise of the baseball game would loft into the air along with the rustling of the trees and the see saw of insects, as we unpacked the pots and pans of food and Kool-Aid from the trunk.
Fried chicken, white bread, potato salad, pattycocos which is a West Indian meat patty that only my grandmother knew how to make, mashed turnips, dirty rice, store bought pound cake, this and that.
The first thing my grandmother did was line us kids up in front of the particular tombstone were were visiting. It might be the grave of a cousin, a nephew, a 2nd cousin, an old uncle who was not really an uncle, or my aunt’s dead boyfriend killed in the war. Most times we children were not always entirely clear on how exactly we were related to the dead person even though my grandmother would spend time re-introducing us to them, and them to us. We’d say hi to the name carved into the slab of granite. Tell them what grade we were in. Our favorite subjects. If we liked school. My grandmother would prod us, if we grew silent. Sometimes like magic, like right after we said something, there would be the sound of a crack of a bat, a long drive past centerfield – going! going! Gone! - and the appreciative roar of the crowd would amplify our own small accomplishments. My grandmother who was always strict and angry when we were at the house seem to be a different kinder person here. She would nod her head and smile happily knowing we were learning one of the most important lessons of life, which is to be polite to the dead.
Towards the end of our recitals, she would have each of us stand back to back in order to measure how tall we had grown in relation to each other.
She was always pleased when my younger brothers seemed to be growing taller at faster rate than the girls.
Meanwhile, behind us, my mother would have spread an old cotton blanket between some graves, and arranged the pots of food, and paper plates, the plastic cups, our regular silver ware. It was such a joy for us to finally be allowed to run over and take that first cool sip of Grape Koolaid, and feel our teeth crack the Crisco shell of the moist flesh of the chicken. My brother would speed a greasy plate heavy with food and some thin paper napkins over to my father who would be now half asleep, a couple of beer cans on the car seat, already empty.
I would lean against the back of a tombstone, my stomach so full and peaceful, watching the birds and squirrels skittering about for whatever crumbs we would leave behind/.
Suddenly Duke Snider would steal second, or Campenella would strike out ending the inning, but my mother and grandmother unaware, would return to the tombstone, to garden the dust off the plastic flowers, and fleck the lichen off the stone. They would be on their knees, mother and grandmother, temporary teammates, swiping the grass clean, making the dead comfortable, talking to them of grown up things, maybe even asking for something if one closely read their hopeful expectant faces. Often if some nearby graves looked ill kept and forgotten, they would, for good luck, clean them, and call us over to carry away the debris - the brown grass, shreds of paper, and stones - to lay them under a creaking juniper. Me and my brothers and sisters would sail back and forth from the juniper tree, in and around the graves, basking in the glow of the clean plate world, while a choir of sweet voices sang about heavenly coffee and Sandy Koufax retiring 3 batters in a row.
From where I am now, sitting in this chair at this table, I can still feel those ancient days, the clouds floating on the wings of birds. And the dead reclining cozily on those clouds murmuring the secrets of life which to me sounded like the buzzing of bees, into the ears of my mother and grandmother. And there we are -we kids, dancing and laughing in our brief happiness – and how brief it would be the dead already knew in the clitter clatter of the air warming our bodies, and the Dodgers going on to win Game 2 of the pennant.