It was an overcast day at the graveside when we laid my wife’s mother down. The sky was the color of Quickrete. And it was hot. Grown men had sweat marks on the seats of their Sunday trousers. Ladies were fanning themselves.

Welcome to a funeral in South Alabama at high noon.

I led my wife beneath the tent while she clutched my arm tightly. I released her, kissed her forehead, and stood behind the casket, willing myself not to cry.

I had one official job today. To sing. I was supposed to sing three hymns. My friend, Aaron, drove all the way from Montgomery to accompany me on fiddle. And I was already choking up before things began.

Anyone who knows anything about singing knows that you can not sing if you are crying. Your throat closes up and you sound like a frog with laryngitis.

When I glanced at the mass of good people standing around the tent, things weren’t looking good for me. My chin began to wobble. My vision went


“Pull yourself together,” I was muttering quietly.

The preacher was in good voice. Brother Andy brought a Methodist message that made your heart feel good and sore at the same time. If there has ever been a funeral homily delivered with more humility and grace, it happened somewhere in Galilee.

Then it was my turn. The preacher gave me The Nod. The fiddle began playing. And it was time. The moment of truth.

I cleared my throat.

I opened my mouth and did my level best to sing “Amazing Grace” without messing up. And in this moment, I couldn’t help but remember the first time I ever sang at a funeral.

I was 10 years old. It was my grandfather’s funeral. My mother had wanted all six verses of “Amazing Grace.” Six long, arduous, hard-to-learn verses. She gave me one week to memorize them.


We rolled into Brewton, Alabama, midafternoon, a few days before the funeral visitation. Brewton is wife’s hometown. We are burying her mother soon.

The sun was bitterly hot. It was 101 degrees outside, hot enough to remind you of all those Baptist brimstone sermons from your childhood.

We drove past the town sign with its Kiwanis, Rotary Club, and Lions Club badges. “Home of Alabama’s Blueberry Festival,” the sign says. We passed the downtown’s proud brick storefronts, the lamp posts with hanging begonias, and the old stone church covered in ivy.

Meantime, my wife was telling me a funny story about her mother. By the time we were pulling into the bed and breakfast she wrapped up the story by flicking tears from her eyes.

“Lord have mercy,” she said, as I held her in the silence of our car. “She’s really gone.”

Lord have mercy.

It’s been a sobering week since her mother died. Since then, my wife has been telling lots of stories.

Losing a family member is a full-time job. There are gazillions of

details that need sorting out after someone departs. There are no idle moments before a funeral.

The irony is, after a loved one’s death all you want to do is hide and lick your sores. But you can’t. You must spend your hours painstakingly deciding on things like floral sprays and who will make the deviled eggs for the wake.

And the whole time you keep getting overwhelmed with this unusual urge. An urge you’ve never had before. You are in “historic preservation” mode, you have the urge to tell stories.

We left for dinner that evening. The dinner was held at the old family house on Belleville Avenue, an antique columned home where my wife’s mother spent her childhood.

My wife took one look at the old house and another fifty stories bubbled to the surface.

We walked inside. The heart pine…

Youth Dew bath powder. That was her scent. It was her trademark.

Before she died we used to tease her about her fragrance powder because all little old ladies wear Youth Dew. She was one such little old lady.

You always knew when her shower had finished because the entire downstairs would smell like that unforgettable Estée Lauder classic. Eau du Granny.

And now that smell is gone forever.

When she died, she took the whole era with her. That’s how it works. When an elderly person passes, we lose a period in history.

We didn’t just lose an old woman. We lost all the American women who dusted themselves with smell-good powder. We lost women old enough to actually remember wearing white gloves to go to the IGA.

We lost all those motherly reminders to sit up straight, not to hunch, and to chew your food exactly thirty-two times before swallowing.

We lost a generation of homemakers who brought deviled eggs to Little League practice, made pretzel salad for Boy Scout meetings, watched Perry Mason

on Saturday nights, and kept an ashtrays on the nightstands beside their Bibles.

She was the best of her kind. She was a period in culture. And her bath powder shall be smelled no more.

After all, young women aren’t going to start wearing bath powder. No way. Most young people have never even heard of such antique finery. Not to mention, big perfume companies rarely include fragrance powder products in their lineups anymore. It’s just not hip.

Neither are pearls. She always wore pearls. Women like her wore strings of cultured pearls for attending PTA meetings, or for mopping the kitchen floors. It’s just what they did. So goodbye pearls.

And goodbye, Nat Cole records. Goodbye, era of songs with lyrics written by lyricists who had a basic grasp of the English language. Goodbye, music that wasn’t expressly about sex.

Goodbye, Frank and…

You’re a single mother. Your name is Deidra. Your wallet has three bucks in it. You have an old Visa gift card with a balance of twelve dollars left. That’s your story.

Something bad happened to you today. It wasn’t because of anything your did. It happened because you’re in your late-thirties and things like this happen to people in their late-thirties. It’s a fact of life. Teenagers work for cheaper pay than you do. So your employer hired a teenager and cut your hours down to one day per week. Management’s way of firing you.

You reacted. You let your manager have it. You called him an awful name. You wish you could take it back, but…

You don’t wish this very hard.

So now you’re crying in your car. You wipe your face. Then cry again. You go to pick up your kids. You are waiting for the most important things in your life to exit the free daycare. You’re trying to figure out how you’ll tell them you lost your job.

Meantime, you sort

mail while you wait. Power bill. Water bill. Cell phone bill. Cable. Insurance. It never ends.

Daycare lets out. Your kids run toward your car. There are kisses, hugs. You notice how tall your oldest is. Your nine-year-old colored a picture. They learned about elephants today. Elephants, Mom. Elephants.

They talk loud and happy. They have no idea that your life is on the rails. They have no idea that you struggle to feed them.

You’re thinking about what’s inside your refrigerator for supper. A few slices of bologna, half a liter of Coke, old carrots, two eggs. You look in your purse. The gift card. It’s not much, but hey, it’s dinner.

You drive to a pizza buffet. The cheap one where they leave the pizzas out all afternoon until the cheese becomes Club Med for bacteria. It’s only six bucks for…

Waffle House was slow. It was late when we pulled in. We needed hash browns. Stat.

My wife and I walked into the arctic air of the tiny restaurant and slid into the same side of a booth without speaking. Her face was tear-stained and raw. She had a dehydration headache from crying.

There was no music overhead. Which was odd. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a musicless Waffle House.

The waitress approached. She could tell something was wrong by the way my wife was dabbing her eyes.

“You okay, hon?” the waitress asked, handing us menus.

My wife nodded.

We ordered drinks, then my wife leaned onto my shoulder and tried to pull herself together, albeit unsuccessfully.

I held her and said, “Sssshhh” because this is what my mother used to say whenever I cried over a skinned knee or a busted lip. Mama wasn’t actually shushing me, I suppose it’s just what you say when a loved one sobs into your shirt.

We came to this Waffle House almost immediately after the undertaker

removed the body of my mother-in-law from her house.

It was surreal. Two men from the funeral home arrived with a stainless-steel gurney. They wore dark suits and did their jobs flawlessly. We removed my mother-in-law’s wedding ring. We fixed her night shirt. They transferred the decedent with dignity, then parked the gurney in the hallway for final farewells.

The placid remains of my wife’s mother were covered in an old quilt. It looked like one of those patchwork quilts your great-great-granny sewed back in eighteen-hundred-and-whenever. Weird what you notice during important moments.

Saying goodbye was tough. Worse than I expected. I don’t care how strong you are, watching a loved one leave home on a mortuary stretcher will break you. Until that moment, it hasn’t hit you yet. Until you see them go, it’s not real.

The men in suits rolled the…

Dearest loved one,

I know you think I have died, but I’m not gone. Death is just a four-letter word—although you might want to double check my math on that one.

Do you remember how in high-school science class your teacher talked about the first law of thermodynamics? Yeah, me neither.

So let me refresh your memory. Your teacher told you that energy could neither be created nor destroyed, but only transformed. Well, I get it now.

Nothing dies, not really. And that’s not religion, that’s science talking. In fact death doesn’t technically exist—at least not the way you think. Only change exists. Only transformation exists. Particles get disorganized, then reorganized, then re-re-reorganized.

But death? Nope.

Take flowers. They wither and become mulch, which then becomes topsoil, which then becomes minerals, which then becomes pH and soil salinity. Then, these elements reassemble themselves to become the building blocks for new flowers. On and on it goes.

Or how about water? Water forms clouds, clouds make rain, rain gathers in rivers and lakes only to be used

in swimming pools, iced tea, kitchen sinks, and vodka gimlets. Water then evaporates to become more clouds.

Now I ask you. Does that sound like dying?

Or maybe you can think about it like this. Long ago, when trains still ran through small towns, children would often run to the depots and watch the trains come and go. Do you remember those days? Children would marvel at the mighty engines with their clouds of steam and sounds of diesel and steel.

Then, it happened like this: Passengers would climb aboard. The train’s doors would close. The coach would disappear over the horizon. All those people vanished in a mere instant.

But were they gone? No way. They were just unseen. Death is like that.

I am no longer seen. You cannot touch me, but I am here beside you. I am still your dad,…

The time was 12:13 p.m. when Mary Finlay Martin quit breathing. I was holding her hand when it happened.

The silence that follows death is overpowering. It was the loudest silence I ever heard. Like a hurricane of quiet, swallowing the world.

At first we said nothing. We simply looked at her body. Then the crying started. My wife’s mouth fell open but no sound came out. And I was still holding that slackened hand.

I stared at that hand for a long time.

Mother Mary was my mother-in-law. She was my friend. She was my comrade in troublemaking. She was my drinking buddy. Most guys aren’t all that crazy about their mothers-in-law, but I was.

She was every elderly woman you’ve met before. You’ve known hundreds of Marys in your lifetime. Maybe thousands.

She had the Merle Norman face, the Estée Lauder scent, and the Talbots clearance-rack wardrobe. She was everything marvelous about the unique brand of female who inhabits the Southeastern United States.

Her hair was snow white with hues of violet. Her voice

was Vivien Leigh, her eyes were Natalie Wood, her personality was Shirley Temple.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you she was a saint, because that would be untrue. And anyway, saints aren’t fun loving people like she was. Saints sit far away like statues. Saints belong in flower gardens and in ornate basilicas. No, this woman was real. And she was something else.

She was equally at home in a Civic League meeting as she was sitting on a deer stand. She could dance in a juke joint; she could host a Methodist banquet that would’ve made Emily Post look like a hack. She was fun. She was quirky. And above all, she was ours.

But right now as I look around her house, I see nothing but orphaned objects.

I see a supper table without an owner. I see a…