We don’t know as much about a person’s life when they leave us after living apart. Even having gatherings and meeting here and there and phone calls checkups as adults, you miss the intricacies of daily living together. We see strangers who grew close to our loved one get up and talk about the (now) “saint” who was different from the sister we knew growing up. Annie Doris was no saint, but this was her moment.
My mother had two sets of kids several years apart (another story). Annie Doris Walls was my mother’s first born (in my mother’s first set of kids). She grew up and married twice to become Annie Doris Walls Gillard Williams. We grew up calling her Doris, but most of her adult life she used her first name; something I never knew until I was older. In fact, I was well into my adult years before someone asked me how my sister Annie was doing and I said, “who?”. She was the oldest of the eight of us, and 12 years older than me.
There were four boys and four girls; children of Ruby Etoy Graham Walls. Doris obtained her nursing degree and worked at several hospitals before going into private duty nursing when full time work became more difficult. She had one son, Douglas, by her first husband, Joseph Gillard (in Cleveland, OH). Her second son, Sterling, was by her second (and last) husband, Alfred Williams (San Diego). Douglas went into the Navy when he graduated high school. Sterling went into the Marines when he graduated high school, stayed in for 12 years (three tours overseas in our current war), and has not married as yet. Doris lived her final years with Douglas and his wife, Pat (Hattie), Gillard.
At her service, Sterling (her youngest son; looked FAB U LOUS) actually talked, and so did Doug, Doris’ oldest son. I can’t believe Sterling is going on 40. He looks more like mid-twenties, but I digress. Doug (now in his 50s) looks like he’s 30-40ish. Even though I am younger than my sister, Doris, I took custody of Doug when he was in high school, and I was young and just starting my career; Sterling came to me when he was 7 years old. Both of them talked more about childhood memories than later in life. Sterling admitted later that he didn’t know much about his mother even though he spent the last 4-5 years visiting his brother’s home where she also lived.
The preacher added more levity when he talked about Doris bowling with a walker. Said he didn’t know how she did it but it took the ball so long to go down the alley that they shouted “hallelujah” when it finally made it down the end of the lane. Another thing I didn’t know about my sister, but brought a smile to all our faces.
James, my brother, eulogized her as well as he normally does at someone’s funeral. He talked about her hoarding (she would have been worthy of being on that TV show), but framed it in terms of her “collecting” things. The first time he said that, I cough-spit trying to keep from guffawing loudly. He said she “collected” Tupperware (insert laugh here) and he thinks she forgot she was supposed to be selling it. She had so much Tupperware, he said, that she stocked Sears with it. He even talked about Joe’s (her first husband) visits with Doris as if he was a nice guy, but that wasn’t the place to share the story of that phase of Annie Doris’s life. James was hysterical in his comedic review of our sister’s life. I really appreciated his words, a bright spot in a somewhat somber occasion.
I don’t view bodies. Hate that part of funerals. I’m usually the one way in the back behind a pillar. Why someone got the bright idea of having a damn lift inside the coffin which raises the body up whether or not you want to view it, makes no damn sense to me. I lost it when they opened the coffin and I saw my mother (with a different nose) and Uncle Emmett (my mother’s brother) rising slowly from the coffin and this time, I was in the front row. The face of death is always a shock to me.
Two ladies sang. The second one was actually a singer. The first one had an okay voice, but even though I knew the songs she sang, they were pretty much unrecognizable. She put so many stretches between each word (Loooooo ooo rrrr DDDDD) I couldn’t recognize what she was singing and I was relieved when she stopped. But, putting on my good hat for the occasion, I appreciated that she took time from her day to honor my sister, who she elevated to sainthood. I listened as people talked about her and it sounded as if they were talking about a stranger. They talked about how good she was to everybody, and caring; well, that part’s true, too.
Yes, she did have a good heart and sweet nature, can’t deny that. I can remember that other side that makes me giggle even now. There was that time when she almost put my mother’s then-boyfriend’s eye out with a golf club when he tried to abuse my mother. Ol’ black Dan (Newton) we called him, hit my mother and after a bout with Doris, he never tried it again. Doris had a temper few people knew about cause she was not much over five feet tall, but you found out if you crossed her. And you would never outrun her shoe, or anything else she chose to throw at you when you pissed her off. She ran the five of us like she was a drill sergeant.
When I first moved to California I lived with her briefly. I remembered when her second husband and I tried to surprise her by cleaning up the house while she was at work. Al Williams, her second husband, was a lifer in the Marines and liked things pretty neat. She had many cats and the fleas made my legs look like I was wearing ankle socks when I’d come home; they never bothered anyone but me.
Anyway, Al and I vacuumed and swept and cleaned after her many cats and dogs. We cleaned the cupboards; took everything out, washed them, and restacked them so that it was neat. He even cleaned the soot from the ceiling in the kitchen. We were so happy, sitting there waiting for her to come home and exclaim our good works, but when she saw that kitchen she went bat-sh*t crazy. I learned then her type of hoarding (I didn’t know the term for it then) made her need to see all her stuff. She started pulling everything out of the cabinets and very soon the kitchen was as messy as she liked it. She was then happy; we were not. We both sat in shock as we watched her, but never did it again.
I remember her coming to the many gatherings we had my home. She would come with containers and Ziplock bags and when she would get ready to go home you would think she was shopping at a grocery store. She never asked, she just loaded up what she wanted. She did that everywhere she went.
One of the benefits I’m understanding, of growing older and relocating is that no one remembers the hellion you used to be. I was a spitfire myself in my younger years myself (I didn’t like something one of my mother’s boyfriends said or did and responded by throwing a fork at him so hard it impaled itself into the boney part of his leg), so I guess there’s still hope for me. We didn’t allow our mother to be disrespected so men in her life with ill intentions didn’t stay long.
Sitting in the front row of a church I’ve never been to before, a Baptist church yet (Doris was a die hard Catholic, but when where her children took her), the preacher added the needed levity when he talked about Doris bowling with a walker. Said he didn’t know how she did it but it took the ball so long to go down the alley that he shouted “hallelujah” when it finally made it down the lane. Sterling (looking FAB U LOUS) actually talked, and so did Doug. But both talked more about childhood memories than later in life.
I am reminded that I don’t view bodies. Hate that part of it, which makes it all the more startling as I lost it when they opened the coffin and I saw my mother (with a different nose) and Uncle Emmett combined rise up out of that coffin. The face of death is always a shock to me, but whoever the hell it was that invented that coffin lift needs to be shot.
Two ladies sang. The second one was actually a singer. The first one had an okay voice, but even though I knew the songs she sang, I couldn’t recognize them. I appreciated that she took time from her day to honor my sister, who she knew as a saint (I didn’t know that part of her).
Service is over. It was more joyful than sorrowful and I was pretty much the only one who sniffled-cried. Rowan, my brother, would tap his eyes from time-to-time as if he was tearing up, but that was just show. The Colonel doesn’t cry in public; according to him it’s a communist plot to look weak; I got his number.
We’re headed to the cemetery. I’m once again reminded of how much all those Grahams look alike when they die. Doris looked exactly like my mom except that she had Daddy’s (Fred Walls) nose.
We’re at the cemetery and I’m about all cried out. Not loud boo-hoos, but choking back tears at special moments (like when they raised her body out of the coffin and I squealed from shock). The gravesite is a little walk from where we parked our car and I have on heels, so I’m walking on tiptoe to try to keep from sinking into someone’s final resting place. Almost lost my shoe in the process. Part of me is unhappy because my sister said she didn’t want to be buried, but her son and daughter-in-law made the decision to put her there and I will respect that. Her son, Doug, and his wife, Pat, are good people and only wanted the best for her. Funerals are more for the living than the dead, I’m learning.
At the gravesite, the funeral attendants tried to put everyone in place. Tears start coming again when they remove the temporary artificial turn covering and uncover the hole they would put her in. Looking into that hole, it feels cold, empty, godless, and I know for a fact my sister didn’t want to be in such a dark, scary place all alone even if her spirit wasn’t in that box. In my mind I’m telling her, “It’s okay. It’s only your body and you won’t need that anymore.”
They prepare to lower the beautiful coffin into that dark, dank hole and as the attendant leans over to get it aligned with the equipment, his sunglasses fall out of his pocket into the hole. My brother, James, says without missing a beat, “Man! Even in death she’s stealing stuff!”
I went into hysterics. Others think I’m crying as I hide my face behind my hands and tissues trying to keep from laughing out loud. My brother, Rowan, looked at me and gave me a frown that he learned from my mother that said wordlessly, “Keep quiet.” The Colonel was not pleased at his siblings acting up. I covered my mouth to stifle the laughter. This isn’t supposed to be funny, but I was choking and coughing back laughter. I giggled into tissues all the way through the final words with my brother, James, egging me on; he loved that. Every time he looked at me I gave in to another fit of giggles.
At the repast, my sister’s church folks did themselves proud. They served up tasty Southern cooked food and we ate heartily. As I left the line with my plate, I saw that they had separated the tables so that family was supposed to sit in the “honored” place, and friends sit apart. I wasn’t having that so I took my plate and sat with the friends. Other family followed suit and we chatted comfortably and met people who knew my sister as we sat among them.
Back at Doug and Pat’s after the repast, we shared stories and I told the rest of the family about the sunglasses falling into that hole under the coffin and we had a roll-on-the-floor laughing fit. We talked about the goods and the bad of my sister, Annie Doris. She was so much of a contradiction. I guess we all are at some level.
It’s then that Sterling said he didn’t know much about her or even why she gave him to me to raise. I took the time his mother should have done (I thought she had) many years ago and explained it to him. She was unable to provide for him and I could. I had more; she had less. Simple as that. Families shift to compensate in these situations. I shifted because she was my sister and her kids needed me. I respect the choice she made to turn them over to me because I would not have respected her if she had abandoned her children like my mother did; the whole family would have been pissed. I am honored that he still calls me Mom and I hope I have done well by him (and his brother) in all those years we had together.
We collectively recalled how, in her hey-days, she was a creative cook and she used to make us biscuits from scratch, sandwiches without crusts, and lemonade flavored by the mints growing wild outside our home in Cleveland, OH. Early in her adult life she was compulsive about neatness and we didn’t dare mess up something she straightened out.
As Doris got older, her compulsions switched to hoarding at the highest level. She liked crafts projects and once made my daughter, Andra, a pillow with her name on it that she has to this day, and a small bedside rug. She used to make little boxes out of used gift cards. Some of the young people in the family heard the story of her socking mom’s boyfriend with the golf club for the first time that day, but we laughed all over again. Sadly, I have more, and better, memories of her than her sons do, but if she hadn’t been here, they wouldn’t be here either.
When someone dies in your family, you have to redefine who you are. I can no longer (proudly) say, there are four boys and four girls, or I have three sisters and four brothers. I have to now qualify those statements with I “had” three sisters, but one died. My sister has been relegated to the past tense; had; no long “is”. Or, my mother had four boys and four girls, but one died. Or, I have three sisters, but one died. That’s the fine print that’s not on the eulogy. A subtle shift in your family structure.
Families are funny. Most have dysfunction at some level. Ours had tolerable dysfunction for the most part. No drugs or addictions to deal with, but other stuff. And all of us had a college degree even if it was junior college. Some great cooks; some couldn’t boil water. Artists galore. Singers and songwriters, musicians, and comedians. Even some crazies we have to deal with. But most of the time, we have fun. When we all get together we laugh for hours and there’s no liquor involved; I’m proud of that.
The down times, I feel, are to make us appreciate the good in life. Like my mother (who died at 94 years) we had Annie Doris for many years so there’s no reason to be sorrowful. She will always be remembered because I will always call her name. As we head home, I picture my sister and bid her farewell.
Annie Doris & Douglas (~1958)
[Originally published September 30, 2011 ]