Goldie Bennett of Tuttle, Oklahoma was one of the few people I knew personally who regularly had her hair treated with bluing. Washed, bluing-ed, rolled, teased, styled, sprayed, and… good for another week. Goldie was my great-grandmother. Her son Frank married my grandmother Emma Lee a few years after Emma Lee’s first husband passed away. Frank was a joker. Goldie was stoic.
Well, Goldie was generally stoic. She did have her moments. Take for example my wedding day during the summer of 1985.
The scene: Family photo-taking after the ceremony is all a-whirl. As the photographer worked through grouping after grouping of the bridal party, the groom’s party, grandparents, uncles, and aunts, Goldie waited patiently on the front pew.
“Grandma Bennett, it’s your turn,” someone cued from the midst of the hubbub. She slowly rose and moved to her position in front of the communion table, turned around and waited. A few jokes came from the onlookers. “Goldie, where’s your smile?” “C’mon, Goldie, this is a happy day! Smile for the camera!”
Goldie hadn’t moved and neither had her facial muscles. This wasn’t unusual, however, as Goldie had a face that quite frankly reminded me of The Grinch. I loved my grandmother Goldie, make no mistake about that. But young children tend to get signals from their elder’s faces, and the vibe she generally sent the world was one that uncannily resembled Grant Wood’s famous “American Gothic” painting. No, not the female. Put an older woman’s hairdo on the farmer holding the pitchfork and you’re getting close to her expression.
“Goldie, you better smile. You don’t want Kelly’s picture album to have you frownin’ now, do you?” came a third comment. Goldie hesitated, her face staid. “I AM smilin’,” she replied in her small, elderly voice. The crowd was probably trying to decide just how to respond to her insistent statement when all of the sudden her lips slightly twitched, a small sparkle showed in her eyes, and she chuckled…just barely. I have to believe she was laughing at herself because she knew good and well not one wrinkle on her cheeks had moved. The tiniest crack in her aging face coupled with her retort was worth a family punch line for years to come.
“I AM smilin’” is still repeated to this day, any time we get the chance. And it almost always gets a laugh…much bigger than that one offered by Goldie, but not nearly as special.
Eleven years and many more trips to the beauty parlor later, Goldie had her portrait taken again. This time she was ninety-eight years old. Lo and behold, another smile. This one was bigger than my wedding day. I have a feeling that someone in the room really knew how to make her laugh. Not only is her joy recognizable, but this time she’s smiling with her entire face. I love this picture.
Two years later, Goldie died. She was ninety-nine years, 364 days old. As I recall, there was a very long 100th birthday celebration held at the Tuttle Senior Citizens Center the day before her actual birth date. That night, she went to sleep and didn’t wake up. That party must have worn her out, or perhaps she figured it just didn’t get any better than that.
A few days later, the funeral services took place at the Tuttle United Methodist church, just north of the High School parking lot. I had been in the building a few times growing up, primarily for piano recitals. This time, I was sitting in the “family section” listening to a young preacher deliver the eulogy and what turned out to be a fairly long sermon-type discussion. I curse the day I decided to be a high school speech teacher because it’s now impossible for me to listen to any type of sermon without outlining in my head.
A general church service goes something like this: Introduction (get the audience’s attention), transitional statement, then provide the thesis. A three point sermon generally takes place about 80% of the time. Point one, transitional statement. Point two, transition, point three transition, wrap it up with a bow and start the alter call. Communion meditations are generally one point thoughts, as are “time for the money-talk” deliveries. This style, of course, may only be indicative of my particular denomination, but I have a feeling it’s a little more universal than the Independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ community.
The problem was, however, that as I sat there I realized the preacher had no outline. I was occasionally turning my neck to glance at my children or my Grandpa Frank who was visibly upset; I looked to my right and periodically checked on my mom, dad or brother…but mostly, I was listening to the most confusing sermon I had ever heard in my life.
Transitional statements didn’t exist. The poor youthful preacher wrapped his second point and started repeating his first. By the time he had covered four points and began to wind down, I was feeling a sense of relief almost unmatched by other life experiences. If this sermon didn’t stop, I was going to laugh. And that, I knew, would be the worst thing I could possibly do.
All of the sudden the preacher took a breath, he referenced his first point again, and looped back to point three. Pressure began to fill my head and cheeks. Oh my Heavenly Lord, I was going to do it. I was going to giggle, guffaw, laugh, or at the very least make some sort of leaking noise as I sat dead center in the pew, sandwiched in by four or five family members on either side.
“Aaaannd, we HAVE to remember all the good Goldie did…she was SUCH a good woman…” Oh. My. Goodness. He had left the sermon and was now returning to the eulogy portion of the service, delivered before he ever began the sermon. Why!? Why was I paying attention to this outline that was beginning to look like a labyrinth in my head? Almost before I knew what was happening, my shoulders jerked a couple of time and a stifled snort-laugh escaped out of my nose. “Cripes!” The word echoed in my head. I was gonna blow.
I started wracking my brain, thinking about puppies getting hit by cars, children being harmed by society’s ills, the saddest book I’d ever read…ANYTHING to get my mind off this sermon when I felt my mom touch my arm. “Honey, I’m sorry….” She patted my arm as I began to realize she was comforting me because from her perspective I was probably trying to contain my sadness and had snorted as a result from crying.
“Dear God, get me out of here!” I screamed in my head as my shoulders began to shake double time. I lost it. My body shook with convulsions, which then in turn, caused my mom to hand me a Kleenex, convinced my grief could not be relieved. I stood up. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I spewed as I clamored over her legs, desperately trying to get out of the pew and OUT of the church. I tried suppressing the laughter that was now coming out of my mouth by making it sound like sobs. I have no idea whether or not my “sobs” were perceived as such. All I know is that I had tunnel vision and could see nothing but the back of the church: an escape for my desperate situation.
I finally found the bathroom, went in, and spent the next 90 seconds verbally releasing what I had so failingly tried to hold in while in the sanctuary. I heard the door open. I quickly swallowed the next noise on deck in my throat.
“Kelly, are you okay?”
I don’t remember who it was. All I know is that my voice, although it was probably about an octave higher than normal, afforded that dear person a small, “I’m fine. Thanks very much.”
“Well….Okaaay,” the sing-song-y voice replied. They left. Thankfully.
A few more giggles escaped. I sat there on the stool, trying to stop sweating for another two to three minutes. I don’t remember the end of the funeral, walking by the casket, or who I rode with to attend the graveside service. All I remember is feeling a massive load of guilt for having laughed uncontrollably at my great-grandmother’s funeral. I didn’t make eye contact with the pastor one time during the graveside service. I didn’t DARE revisit what I had just experienced.
I don’t even remember if I told my mother what was going on. I may have been too embarrassed. Or maybe I did.
I have told my husband and children, and they probably punctuated the conversation at some point with a little, “I AM smilin’” just for good measure. Of one thing I am certain. If the dead “roll over in their graves” when their grandchildren or other family members buck tradition or do something horrific, I didn’t even give Goldie the chance to get into the ground. She probably rolled over in her coffin.
But maybe, just maybe, there was a slightly delayed twinkle in her eye once she’d finishing shifting her position.
A late note to this post. A friend of mine mentioned that this was like “The Giggle Loop” and proceeded to share this link with me. My response to her comment is, “Yes.” It’s pretty much exactly like that. Bless you, Brittany, for providing a term and a definition for…the Giggle Loop.