Uncle Willy thought funerals were a silly waste of time. “When I die,” he was fond of saying, “just put me in big baggie and set me out with Wednesday’s trash.” But Momma had insisted on a proper burial.
Little Julie Cahill wriggled in the pew like live bait on a hook. “Sit still!” Momma scolded her, giving her thin leg a swat.
Julie couldn’t. The air conditioning had broken down and now the chapel was growing oppressive. Perspiration trickled down the shallow gutter of her spine. “It’s hotter than the hubs of Hades,” thought Julie, using one of Great Uncle Willy’s favorite phrases. She didn’t know what a hub was, but felt Hades described the chapel real well.
From behind the pulpit, Pastor DeWitt’s heavy voice swung like a pendulum, rocking the congregation into further lethargy. Glancing about the steamy room, Julie noticed several people had nodded off, while the rest furiously fanned themselves with memorial programs.
“Momma, isn’t it nice so many people are paying their respects to Uncle Willy?” Julie whispered.
“Hmmmpf. They’re only here so they can pay their respects to the memorial luncheon,” Momma hissed. “Now hush up!”
Pressing her lips into a thin line, Julie stared at the aluminum casket. It looked like a big tin can. She could imagine Uncle Willy looking around inside and saying, “What am I? Pork-n-Beans?” The thought of him suddenly brought her close to tears. The roly-poly old heart of gold was really gone. There would be no more funny Willy words and no more bone-crunching bear hugs.
She doubted Momma would miss him. She said he drank too much, called him a hopeless dreamer. But Julie had loved his crayola dreams. She remembered last week when he sailed through the front door, wearing a rubber band smile and waving a fist full of brochures. “Hey Jules, your Uncle Willy’s goin’ to Hawaii!”
He hula danced over to Julie, lifted her up and plopped her down next to him on the sofa. He spoke excitedly about a paradise with sapphire seas and brown-skinned island girls, the color of coconuts. His breath smelled like cough medicine.
“That’s where I’m goin’ first,” he said, stabbing a crooked finger at a photo of a crescent beach, fringed with palm trees. “I’m gonna plant my toes in that warm sand and wait for the sea to come kiss my feet.”
Uncle Willy never did get to Hawaii. In fact, his feet never got farther than Ernie’s Bar. He was stiff as a rake before someone noticed him, face down in a bowl of beer nuts.
Poor Uncle Willy. Julie sniffled and began to weep. As she wiped her nose with the back of her hand, her mother tapped her shoulder and handed her a Kleenex. Julie thought she glimpsed a hint of tenderness in Momma’s bone dry eyes.
Her mother hasn’t cried—or laughed her beautiful laugh—since Daddy left town with a flame-haired waitress. It frightened Julie to see her once gentle momma became granite-faced and darkly moody, like a thundercloud in an apron. Uncle Willy reassured her that Momma still loved her. “Her heart’s harder than a tick’s back, Jules, because that’s her way of protecting herself after the powerful hurt your daddy done her. It’s only temporary…she’ll mend.” Willy gave her a bear hug and promised that with prayers and a little time, Momma’s heart would be “soft as a beagle’s ear”.
There would be no more Willy bear hugs to sustain her as she waited for “beagles’ ears” and the sweet music of her mother’s laughter.
Someone sniffled beside her. Julie noticed Momma’s eyes were now rimmed with black, gritty smudges.
She touched her mother’s thin, rough hand.
Momma yanked her hand away and used it to spank the air in front of her flushed face. “Lord, I’m thirsty! Hope this temperature ain’t an indication of which direction old Willy is going.”
“Momma, he can’t have sinned good enough to pass muster with the Dev—"
“Hush, child!” She gave Julie’s leg a pinch.
Julie rubbed her tender thigh and thought, “It’s going to be a humpty-dumpty day.”
“Let us pray,” commanded Pastor DeWitt.
While some people prayed for Willy’s soul and others prayed for a quick end to the soggy service, Julie prayed God would soften Momma’s heart so she could laugh again. Then she glanced at the casket and smiled. Bowing her head, Julie prayed, “Lord, let there be hula dancers in heaven. Amen.”
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