Nine-uh, Not Naomi
I prefer to remember Grandma as the person she was before she died, all 100 pounds of her. At the time of her death she was four-foot-eleven, shrunken by life and the osteoporosis that 13 children and lack of proper nutrition caused. She had three stillbirths. My father was one of the 10 who survived. In her heyday, Grandma was 5’9 and statuesque –– a gorgeous woman straight from the mountains who had all Appalachian features, high cheek bones and long dark thick hair. She rarely left the house without rose pink polish on her fingernails. But she had the grit to get by in life and slept with a .45 caliber pistol under her pillow if more than grit was required.
“Always let them enter the house first, then shoot because then it’s self-defense,” she’d say with a wink.
I considered her my best friend, and I visited as often as possible. I’d pick up a carton of Kool’s menthol 100’s and a 6 pack of bottled Coke. We’d split a coke, share a smoke and just chat outside on the concrete porch next to her small garden that held a trellis of roses. I loved looking at her. I looked at her and thought about how wonderful she was, still full of joy after such a hard life. I imagined her in her youth, living in the mountains and not having enough money for a kitchen table, then escaping to a new area to better herself and her growing family.
At her funeral, I knew life would never be the same without her. But the preacher made her seem so much smaller than even I recalled. When he called her the wrong name, boy did I feel it. Each muscle in my body clenched: Naomi. Naomi. Naomi. All along the pews, relatives bristled at the sound. Then my tiny Aunt Patti politely stood up and said, “Excuse me-sir, respectfully, her name is Nina Eileen. Like Nine-UH, not Naomi. Thank you, sir.”
Aunt Patti sat back down. As she sat, I could see the casket covered in pink and white roses. I thought, “What a beautiful sight to see on such a bad day. Grandma would appreciate those flowers.”
My moment of appreciation disappeared when the “preacher” jerked his head back and widened his eyes.
“WELL- You know what’s wrong with YOU people and your family?” He pointed and waved his hand. “I’ve heard it all, I know about all a’you. Your problem is you can’t just let somethin’ be, can you?”
His voice boomed over the sanctuary, as I sat in disbelief.
“You just can’t leave somethin’ alone can you? You have to pick and pick.” He bobbed his head with each pick-and-pick. “You can’t forgive each other. The inmates I talk to, even they forgive each other after they throw shit and piss on each other.”
Even as we recoiled at the image, he continued to berate our family. He spoke as if he knew us. As if he knew each of us personally, but he avoided details.
“Why are we being compared to inmates” I wondered.
Even now, I can still feel the prickly tension in the room. As the preacher insulted us, each one of us looked at each other as if to say “What the hell is going on? Is this a joke? Who is this guy?” Some of my family cried harder. Others gasped. Some stopped crying and became even more red faced, but now with anger.
Then my family all stood up in unison. At that moment we became a force that included all 55 of Nina’s grandchildren. The “preacher” didn’t expect a united front. As soon as we stood, he started to run off the podium. But he had to run toward us to get to the exit. We were the closest and most obvious escape. Down the aisle between the pews he went, and we all ran after him.
“Don’t come back or you’ll be sorry,” the crowd yelled. “Just who the hell do you think you are?”
The “preacher” got in his pick-up truck and left while yelling out his window that he “better not see us at his house” or he’d slash our tires. The warning struck me as odd. None of us knew where he lived.
In all the commotion, I looked for something to ground me. My eyes fell once more on the pink and white roses, reminders of my grandmother’s beauty and grit. I sensed she’d be proud of us for running the preacher out of the church. “Blood is thicker than water,” she’d often say, adding “but you shouldn’t take shit from anyone, even family.”
I sat back down in the pew and settled into a family conversation where I learned that this “preacher” was not ordained, but a person found in a newspaper who was inexpensive and called himself a preacher. The inmates he coached nicknamed him “Preacher.” So, he ran with that name. And then, we’d made him run when he proved to be anything but a man of God.
Years later, I think about this event quite a bit. There’s pride I feel in telling the story, and also embarrassment. I can’t help but remember Grandma’s roses, how her favorite thing to do at her age was just sit outside next to her roses, and take in their scent. She loved their sweet smell, the tenderness it takes in growing them, their beauty and their thorns. My family was the thorns that protected the rose of our family on the day of her funeral. All of us marched in the aisles, a unified stem, ready to defend Nina’s honor.
Photo Credit: Inside The Pink Rose by Henry Burrows CC BY-SA 2.0