By Pamela Wright
Maybe he hadn’t seen the hearse. The oncoming headlights were barely visible under the glaring eye of the July sun.
“You can pull over up there,” I said, pointing to the shoulder of the road.
My date turned to look at me from the driver’s seat, his brows raised in surprise. He had recently moved to Georgia from one of those boxy states somewhere in the middle, and we’d been set up by a mutual friend whose judgment I was beginning to question.
“Wait, why would I pull over?” He looked at me like I had just asked him to stop at a liquor store so I could hop out and rob it at gunpoint.
“There’s a funeral procession coming.”
“Do you know all those people?” my date asked.
“No, I don’t know those people. When you see a funeral procession, you pull over. And turn your headlights on!”
I had witnessed this gesture of condolence for the whole of my then 20-something life - it never occurred to me he hadn’t.
“There is no way in hell I’m turning on my headlights and pulling off the road because of some dead dude I don’t even know.”
The traffic had nearly ground to a halt courtesy of all the other drivers who were raised right, so we were only going about three miles an hour on a two-lane street.
“Fine,” I said. “If you won’t pull over, I’ll just get out right here.” The car lurched to a stop as I reached for the door handle.
“Oh, my god! My pops was right — all you people down here are crazy. I never should have moved from [boxy state somewhere in the middle].”
I wanted to make him understand, but the words stuck in my throat like they were coated in molasses. Instead, I scrambled out the passenger door and stood on the sidewalk until the tail lights of the last car in the procession had dimmed in the distance. I wished I could have told him about another car, another funeral, on another sweltering summer day some 20 years before.
Step, ball-change. Step, ball-change. Step, ball-change.
I mouthed the choreography as my tap shoes moved silently against the back of the driver’s seat. There must have been a driver. One of the uncles was probably behind the wheel, but in my mind’s eye I was alone in the car.
Step, ball-change. Stomp.
As soon as I came down the stairs that morning and saw Daddy’s screwdriver next to my dance shoes, their taps removed, I knew I’d be made to wear them. It was barely August, too early for new school clothes, and I’d outgrown last year’s Sunday shoes. It was bad enough I had to wear the itchy white tights; my pink ballet shoes would’ve made more sense.
Step, step, step, step, ball-change, ball-change, ball-change, ball-change, ball-change.
My small feet moved frantically against the leather seat. If I danced fast enough, hard enough, maybe I could make the car go backward in time, to before I learned two things that shook me to the marrow of my 8-year-old bones.
Sometimes, daddies cry.
I was never going to see my brother again.
Though barely 13, Randy was practically a grown-up in my eyes. Tall and broad- shouldered, he had our mother’s green eyes and our father’s athleticism. As the only two children in the family, we squabbled sometimes because there was no one else to fight with, but secretly we were proud of each other. When he thought I couldn’t hear, he bragged to his friends about all the books his scrawny baby sister read. On the playground, I regaled envious classmates with tales of my brother’s football triumphs, of touchdowns and interceptions, how the crowd roared at the sound of his name:
“And taking the field for the Riverdale Junior High Spartans, number 52, Raannddyy Wriigghhtt!!!”
Sometimes, he let me carry his gear after the game. I’d trot behind him, grasping at the Riddell helmet and dirty cleats, prouder than if I’d been bearing Miss America’s crown and sash.
As Randy’s funeral procession snaked its way slowly toward the cemetery, I noticed one car after another pull to the side of the road and pause, headlights burning feebly against the blistering midday sun. At a stoplight, I saw an old man standing stock-still on the sidewalk, a straw hat clutched in his hands. I felt a stirring in my chest, not unlike the feeling I got when Randy loped onto the football field. I turned in the back seat and watched the old man until he disappeared in the glare.
I thought all those people knew Randy.
For all we have gotten so very, very wrong in the South, we get dying right.
Death is the great equalizer. It matters not who a man was in life; maybe he had pulled a child from a burning building, maybe he had set the fire. Rich or poor, respected or reviled, the occasion of one’s burial is marked with great ceremony and solemnity. Or at least it was, once upon a time.
When death claimed a member of the community, a woman of my grandmother’s generation would have immediately donned her apron and set about the business of preparing “funeral food,” no matter how tenuous her relationship to the deceased. Within hours, the kitchen table of the bereaved would groan beneath the weight of steaming pans of cornbread dressing, cast-iron pots of chicken and dumplings, yard after yard of pies — sweet potato, buttermilk, and pecan. Much of the food would have been pulled from freezers, prepared in advance for just such an occasion.
Men of even the most modest means would pull a severe black suit from the back of the closet, where it had gathered dust since the last funeral. Ladies refreshed their best hats with bits of ribbon, and children bore the discomfort of Sunday shoes with little complaint, even on a Saturday afternoon.
And when encountering an oncoming hearse, a motorist would, as reflexively as Pavlov’s dog, pull the car to the side of the road and turn on the headlights. If on foot, one would remove any headwear and stand at attention until the final car in the motorcade had passed.
Just because a gesture is small, it is by no means hollow. These acts are profound moments of human connection, silent acknowledgments of the fragility of life and the inevitability of grief. In these moments, we say to our fellows, “I see you. At this, the worst time of your life, I see you.”
But these customs have languished, and few, it appears, regret their loss. I’ve seen mourners in cargo shorts and flip-flops. I fill my own freezer not with funeral casseroles or homemade pies, but with Lean Cuisine and Swedish vodka. And much like my boxy-state date so many years ago, most drivers don’t pull over for funeral processions. It is as if our better angels have been frightened away, fearful of being ground beneath the heel of modernity, swallowed up by an increasingly depersonalized society in which condolence cards have largely been replaced by emails and sad-faced emojis.
I attended the funeral of a neighbor not long ago. The man had been much admired in life; a long procession of pickup trucks and sedans dusted with the red dirt of a relentless Georgia summer crawled toward the cemetery. The sun beat down like the whole of the southland owed it money.
As I approached the gravesite, I passed a young man of maybe 16 standing on the sidewalk. He stood as still as a statue, shoulders squared, rivulets of sweat streaming down his face. An Atlanta Braves cap was clutched in his hands.
I watched him in the rearview mirror as I drove away, standing at attention under the withering afternoon sun. As his image faded from view, I could have sworn I heard the rustle of wings.