My father passed away on November 23, 2009. On the same date a year later, my husband and I flew to Monroe, Louisisana, my family home town, to plant my father’s ashes in his native soil. It took the Thanksgiving holiday to enable all the scattered siblings and cousins to collect in Monroe for the mini-reunion that my sister planned around the keynote event – my father’s final concession to a force greater than himself; who even knew there existed such a thing? I thought all the gifts from my father had been delivered prior to his passing, but he had saved three for this final parting. He must have known I would need them.
I was anxious to get back to my home town and see my siblings and other family, but I had enjoyed a whole year without having to deal my father, and to finally be on this journey was stressful. I could not ignore that the trip was in large part about him. I was distracted and moody all day of our return travel, and wrote that off to subconscious anniversary-itis, but I was stunned when I burst into tears as the plane touched down at the Monroe airport. I had to cry until whatever was expressing itself was spent. Afterwards I was still upset; it felt like I was going to have to face my father one more time, and I did not want to go there.
I looked after him for almost ten years. When he was 76 and seemed not to be doing well on his own anymore, I convinced him to give up his long time home and independence and move hundreds of miles to a house around the corner from me. That was when we began our careful dance with his dementia/psychosis which slowly evolved over the next 10 years into a crippling choreography of mutual sadness and pain. My father had been a passionate and expert dancer in many styles, but I had to lead in this dance, while pretending all the while only to follow. His moves were about trying to stay on his cognitive feet while his illness conspired to trip him at every turn. My moves ranged from covertly propping him back up whenever he stumbled to side-stepping his hurled objects and expletives. A year after his passing, I needed for the memory of that dance to go away.
It was Tuesday when we arrived in Monroe. Wednesday and Thursday were balmy days in the 80’s, full of family and food, especially Thanksgiving. The atmosphere was fun and easy and I was relaxed. Friday, our cemetery day, dawned windy and a sharp 38 degrees. An unwelcome anxiety woke me that morning. We had no particular schedule; it was just my siblings and I and two cousins who were going to do the deed; no service of any kind, as per my father’s request. I asked my sister if we could just go and get it over with and then all retire to some warm, steamy diner for a comfort food wake. She said there were no such places that would be open the day after Thanksgiving. She was heating up cinnamon buns and pigs-in-blankets for breakfast. I never eat those kinds of things, but I ate some, and they made me feel more anxious. As we were mobilizing to leave for the cemetery, I opened a bottle of red wine and poured a jelly glass full; it was fortification against the cold, I announced, but that was definitely the lesser part of it.
The Liberty Hill Primitive Baptist Cemetery is a 20 minute ride out a little two lane highway, then another 10 minute ride down a small road that runs through remote woods and small farms. It is located between Farmerville and Sterlington in Union Parish. It is where my mother’s side of the family is buried, dating from the 1850’s. The delta land all around there is flat as a pancake, but the cemetery is on little hilly rise, making it literally a heightened place. As we wound down the small rural road the first of my father’s parting gifts arrived – the white mule.
My play, The Picnic, is set in a small Louisisana town like Monroe. The main character goes looking for an old country cemetery where her family is buried. She has not been there since a child and only remembers the landmark for the turn-off being a white horse standing in a field on the right. Forty years later, she drives along, sees a white horse in a field, turns right, and finds the cemetery. I had not been to Liberty Hill Cemetery in perhaps 30 years myself, and had never driven there, so I had no memories of how to get there, landmarks or otherise. As we drove along, suddenly on the right side of the road was a small pasture. Standing in the middle was a white mule. A little further past that on the left side was another white mule in another pasture. A backup landmark in case I missed the first one? A small bubble of coincidence-wonder was growing in my mind, edging out some of my anxiety. Note to playwright; change the white horse to a mule – more evocative. Parting gift Number 1 – thanks, Daddy.
We buried my father’s ashes next to those of my mother and the whole time I tried to float above the scene, to not become emotionally engaged in what was really happening. I wanted to be past this, big time. Due to the cold, we did not linger and quickly got back in our cars to go home. As we stopped at the little two lane highway which led back to town to the left, I looked right and saw, not 50 yards down the road, a low slung, tired looking building with a sign which read “50’s Diner”; a few cars in the parking lot indicated that it was open. Here was the diner I had longed for since early that morning. It took some pressure to get my sister to turn in that direction and actually pull into the lot in front of the diner. It did look a little less than appetizing, but it was an open diner and I was determined. When we walked inside a menu board greeted us with a picture of Elvis, the specials of the day, and a list of a dozen available homemade pies. The place was warm and redolent of fried food and baked sugar; a more perfect balm for my sad soul could not have existed that morning. Sure, it hadn’t been redecorated in twenty years, and probably not dusted too well in five or ten, but it was heaven at that moment. I had the pulled pork sandwich with sweet potato and jalapeno fries and a big fountain Coke; perfect comfort fare for a Southern wake. Parting gift Number 2 – thanks, Daddy.
Everyone enjoyed the diner food and the cozy atmosphere. Whatever pall I had felt hanging over the morning was lifted and we all chatted up a storm. I was happily listening to something my cousin, who was sitting across the table from me, was saying, when my gaze wandered to a countertop behind her. Propped up there among some pretty awful geegaw junk for sale was a book; it’s title read “Smith Family Recipes.” Smith is our family name. The cookbook was a self-published weird conglomeration of a certain Mrs. Smith’s favorite recipes, and exemplified the best of white trash cuisine. Most of the ingredients in almost every recipe came out of a can, except for the grated cheese and the marshmallows. Ro-tel tomatoes figured prominently. There were recipe contributions from some of Mrs. Smith’s extended family; one of these called for a trip to McDonald’s for a happy meal. A picture of Mrs. Smith showed her to be a grandmotherly type, maybe even a distant backwoods relative – who knows? In my same play with the white mule, a grandmother’s recipes figure prominently as a throughline of family culture and memories, and as I sat there with my family enjoying some not-quite-so-trashy Southern favorites, I recognized my father’s third gift: that I was in the right place at the right time – a warm Southern diner on a frigid cemetery morning.
These personal parting gifts told me that my long journey with my father was officially over. To calm all my fears, he had provided coincidence, comfort food, and a cookbook to take home as a reminder that although he was gone, he had not forgotten me that morning. The sweet potato fries were an extra little bendiction, and maybe even a belated Daddy nod of thank you.