This weekend we buried my favorite redneck.
Many people who know me would be surprised to discover that I dearly loved someone who used to scoot across the Everglades in an air boat, not to point gators out to tourists with cameras, but to hunt them (the gators, not the tourists). Their eyebrows might shoot up to hear that I’ve seen a deer skinned and many a hog smoked. My grandfather – who was more of a Florida cracker than a redneck – gifted me with dozens of boar tails during my childhood, without even bothering to clean the congealed blood off the severed ends first. I’d wrinkle my nose, thank him, and then stick them in a drawer until our visit ended and I could dispose of them properly.
You see, I’m Southern. I’ve had kin living in one part of Florida or another for a good 150 years. I take my tea sweet and my grits cheesy. And I don’t have to be drunk for my accent to emerge. Yesterday, at my uncle’s funeral, the y’alls and fixin’ tos started creeping into my vocabulary, and my syllables began stretching out like a long country road meandering through the mountains. This is tough for a loquacious chick like myself – when surrounded by Southerners, it can take me forever just to ask for another piece of pie. My husband doesn’t know what to think about my transformation at these family get-togethers. Suddenly, he’s married to Reba McEntire, but despite this, it doesn’t make him any richer.
I’ve never been a fan of Pentecostal Southern funerals with their open-casket visitations and absence of alcohol. Having visited with Uncle Danny only a couple months before his passing, I was anxious to preserve that happy memory of him and avoid having it replaced by the image of his pale body in a gleaming steel blue box. We’d laughed and chatted that afternoon in November. He’d teased his wife, my Aunt Kay, in the way that people who’ve been married to one another for forty-five years tend to do. As my uncle had quite the sweet tooth, we’d eaten a carrot cake I’d picked up at Publix (to have attempted to bake him a cake might have brought about his death much sooner). It had been a nice day.
Visiting my Uncle Danny in his natural habitat was like visiting the Hall of Mammals at the National History Museum. He’d sit there, sprawled in his well-worn lounger surrounded by his victims: a wild boar with its tongue lolling over its teeth like a thirsty labrador; several eight and ten point bucks – the largest of which served as a hat rack for Danny’s collection of trucker caps and his solar-powered pith helmet; and an otter. Unlike the other animals, the otter was in possession of more than just it’s head and actually stood upright next to a chair, its front paws frozen in mid-air as though it should be wearing a chef’s hat and holding a chalkboard sign with the evening’s specials listed on it.
Mounted on wooden placards around the vintage 70’s paneled living room were at least eight or ten stuffed bass, their mouths gaping, gills frilled, and tails bent in final, desperate swishes. As you perched nervously on the sofa (and who wouldn’t be anxious with a dozen or more dead animals glaring at you, vengeance on their minds), each largemouth bass would watch you, unblinking, with its single, bulging eye. Every fish had a story that may or may not have been true. For my husband, whose favorite t-shirt reads “I Make Stuff Up,” my uncle was an immediate compatriot. Even though he only met him a handful of times, Matt enjoyed Danny’s stories – told in a raspy voice that tuned up into a whine as the story became less and less likely. Like everyone, my husband wasn’t always sure what to make of my uncle’s tales – were they tall or just average in height? But Uncle Danny used to say that there were only three kinds of lies:
1) Whoppers: Lies that were so outlandish that everyone knew they weren’t true. (Know how I caught that gator? I tied Junior to a fishin’ line and told him to go swimmin’ in the swamp.);
2) White Lies: The lies you told others to avoid hurting their feelings. (Nah, those cowboy boots don’t make your ass look big.); and
3) Fishing Lies: These weren’t lies at all.
As sedentary as he was in the latter months of his life (cancer sucks the life out of you…literally), Uncle Danny had always been one of those feisty, mischievous men who was quick with a joke and always up to something. Over the years, he’d operated an auto body shop, raised gopher tortoises (“Mmmm! Gopher soup is goooood,” he used to say) and, finally, ran a plant nursery with my aunt. If he wasn’t puttering around his property, puffing away on one of the cheap Grenadier cigars he stored in a box in his front shirt pocket, or eating breakfast at Granny’s Restaurant as he did every morning, then he was hunting or fishing or being a devoted friend, father and husband.
At the funeral, the pastor shared a story about my uncle that summed up the kind of man he was. There’d been a bad storm. A tree had fallen, ripping gaping holes in the roof of the church. Now, my aunt, she never missed a church service. Sunday night, Wednesday night, choir practice, Bible study – church was and is her life. Uncle Danny – not so much. He had no problem with his wife and son’s devotion to their church but, for him, that was time that could be better spent doing pretty much anything else. However, the day after the storm, the pastor and a couple other members of the church were struggling to remove tree limbs and repair the damage before the rains came again. Suddenly, a ladder banged against the roof and a man’s head rose above the roof line. As the pastor recounted, “This was a man I didn’t know.” But Uncle Danny knew all about him and, more importantly, had been informed that help was needed. So he was there.
On the surface, it may have seemed that Uncle Danny and I were very different people. He was a Tea Party Republican and I’m a bleeding-from-every-possible-orifice liberal. He shot animals with a rifle; I shoot them with my camera. Rural life felt natural to him, whereas I start to break out in hives if I can’t throw a rock and hit someone while blindfolded. He drove a pick up truck with a horn that sounded like a duck call. At least, I think it was a duck call. I mean, how would I know? I drive a hybrid. My ringtone is “So What” by Pink. Uncle Danny watched fishing shows; I watch shows about nerdy physicists who are obsessed with super heroes and video games.
But at our core, we were extraordinarily similar. Both strong-willed, religiously rebellious and prone to humor in uncomfortable situations, I’d swear we shared genes even though he was only my uncle by marriage. At the cemetery, the folding chairs meant for immediate family members were covered in a bright blue faux fur. I kept thinking that if Danny had been alive, we’d be giggling over the fact that it looked as though someone had skinned Cookie Monster and his entire family in order to cover those chairs.
Over the years, Uncle Danny was confronted by many people about everything from his hunting to the manner in which he raised his hunting dogs (outside, in a cage – they’re work animals, not pets) to whether or not he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Up until the very end, this last question was the one which consumed Aunt Kay’s pastor, so much so that his entire funeral sermon focused on Danny showing up fashionably late at Heaven’s Gates, waiting until the last second to become a Christian. While he may have finally done it because he sensed his life had grown shorter than a Kardashian marriage, or to make Aunt Kay happy, I suspect it was the only way to get the pastor to talk about something else. Regardless, much was made of Uncle Danny coming late to the dance, which was a disappointment to me. Though I’m sure it pleased him that his wife and son were certain he would one day see them again in Heaven, I doubt he would have wanted the rest of the congregation to know about his personal struggles with his spirituality. I doubt he would have wanted them to know he’d caved. Because, like myself, Uncle Danny was wholly unapologetic about who he was and what he believed.
My aunt told me that Uncle Danny had wanted jokes and laughter at the funeral, but I can’t say I heard much of either. At one point, while the coffin was being lowered in his grave, I stood with my family watching solemnly. Aunt Kay and Jason embraced one another, their eyes bleary with tears. For some reason, I felt an inexplicable need to sing “Amazing Grace” in order to break the heaviness of the moment, but I didn’t. I feared that it might be one of those situations in which I started singing…and no one else did. I’d be left trailing off and then everyone would talk about the weird niece who began belting out a hymn at the graveside. You know, stealing the grave-lowering thunder. The fact that I only know the first verse of “Amazing Grace” could have also been problematic.
The most difficult part of the day for me and my husband, however, was it’s start – the open-casket visitation and the funeral. Even though I knew the body in the casket was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt with a trucker cap resting next to his bald head, it felt as though an intruder masquerading as my uncle was in the sanctuary. I couldn’t look. From my second row seat in the “Family Section,” I could just make out a nose peeking out above the white satin and I didn’t recognize it. When I hugged my aunt and cousin at the front of the room, I averted my eyes from his body, burying my head into their shoulders and focused on squeezing all my love and sympathy into their bodies.
At the beginning of the pastor’s sermon, he mentioned Uncle Danny’s penchant for jokes. Smiling to myself, I felt the anticipation grow inside of me as I waited for the pastor to launch into a few of my uncle’s classics. But he didn’t. “I was gonna tell some of his jokes, but y’all knew him. You already know all his jokes,” he said. But at that second, I couldn’t think of a single one. I still can’t. It’s as if when he died, they went with him into that cold casket. C’mon, just one joke, I begged the pastor mentally. I was certain that one would serve as the chink in the proverbial dike and the rest would come flowing through. I never got my joke, though. Uncle Danny took that last laugh with him.