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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE FUNERAL
By David Summers

 

 

 

 



They were setting up chairs just outside the church for the extra mourners. He left the car and joined them. One of them stopped and waved him over.

“Is it David?” he asked.

“Yes” said the newcomer. “I’m David. I…I’m not sure we’ve met. It’s been so long.”

“Of course” said the man. “You wouldn’t know me. I’m Steve. Emma’s husband. It’s all right. We haven’t met before.”

“Steve.  Emma’s husband.“ David repeated carefully, committing the name and the face to memory.
They shook hands warmly.

“It’s good to meet you at last. How did you know it was me?”

“Oh, you were expected.” grinned Steve. “Emma and her sisters were talking about how you were coming. ‘The cousin’, they said. ‘The tall one’, they said.  Knew you as soon as you got out the car. It was obvious.”

“Can I give you a hand?”

“Oh we’ve got this. No problem. You go sit over there. You’ve come a very long way for it. Farther than anyone, so they reckon.”

“Please, it’s all right. It will give me something to do while the others arrive.”

“All right. Grab that stack of chairs over there.”

Together with the other men, they set up the rest of the rows of chairs.

By the time they were done, others had arrived.  Friends of the family.  Townsfolk.  People from all across the state and beyond.  Auntie Rosalie had been a much loved and respected figure.  The funeral was shaping up to be quite an event. A very sizable crowd.

“David?”

“Yes, it’s me. Is that…?  Georgia?”

“Yes, Georgia. ”

“Hello, Cousin.”

“Cousin.”

They embraced.

“I’m sorry. Everything was so last minute.”

“You are here. And right on time. Everything is fine now.”

They stood silently, taking in the size and shape of the other. The different hair and the extra wrinkles. The eyes that marked a person with the burden of years lost.

Each cousin knew the other. In moments, the new image of the other was updated and imprinted in the memory for future recall. Twelve years is a long time.

Another woman approached.

“David? Is that you”

“Yes”

“I’m Cora”

“Cousin” he said.

“Cousin” she replied and they too hugged each other. Again, they disengaged and each frankly regarded the other.  Taking stock.  Everything committed to memory.

“Emma, Evelyn, and Nell  are in the back.” she said. ”They have their hands full with the kids. You know, your other newer cousins once removed and all that.”

“Ah” said David. “I can see this is going to get complicated very quickly. I’m terrible with names.”

“Oh no worries” chipped in Georgia. “Plenty of time to make introductions after it’s all over.”

“Of course. Looking forward to it”

“Would you like to see her? Mum’s in the church. The viewing before the service itself gets underway.”

“Would it be alright?”

“Oh you dag! You are family. Of course,  it’s all right. Mum would have been very happy to know you could make it.”

She grabbed him by the hand and led him into the church.

There were only a few people inside. The pews were mostly empty for the moment.

The open coffin was just up ahead.

Standing vigil was Uncle Len.  A farmer.  A businessman.  A beloved father.  A man of solid strength and determination. Yet now, he was simply old. An old, small man burdened by terrible grief. A widower struggling to say goodbye to the woman he loved.

He turned and moved to greet his nephew.

“Oh David, thank you for coming. So very far.  So very, very far.”

They embraced.

“Uncle Len, I’m grateful to be included. Thank you. I am so sorry. I had to come to say goodbye.”

“Of course, my boy” said Uncle Len gently. “It means a great deal to us all. She would have wanted you to come.”

David slowly let go of Uncle Len and hesitantly approached the open coffin.

For the last time saw his Auntie Rosalie.

She was so tiny. A withered and small thing. Unrecognizable.

Yet it was her. There was no doubt. This was real. Aunt Rosalie was dead.

He had known it all along, of course. He had known it on the long plane flight coming here. He’d known it during the six-hour drive getting to the town.  He had known it as he saw the church and greeted family for the first time in oh so very long.

But this confirmation still had the power to shock him.

She was gone.

Tears welled up unbidden. He tried to choke them back. This was not about him. He should be strong for the sake of Uncle Len and the girls.

“It’s all right” said Uncle Len, reaching out a farmer’s calloused and strong hand. “It’s all right, you know. It’s perfectly all right. We all loved her very much”

David nodded vigorously in agreement. It was the only thing he could manage to do and not break down completely.  Uncle Len understood the words unspoken.  He was always a man generous in his strength and, standing side-by-side at the coffin, he gave it freely to his kin.

The service itself was animated.

To a packed church, the girls told stories about their mother. Stories of the land. The struggle and eventual success to build a farming empire up from the harsh wilderness. Raising daughters in nothing but a shed in the beginning.  Surrounded by scrubland. Building a homestead by hand.  Her travels around the world later in life.  Her triumphs.  Her songs that she wrote and performed, and of course, her two battles with cancer.

Sadness was an unwelcome guest here.

There were moments where the eulogy abruptly halted.

Tears of loss and pride and love.

As one sister faltered, another would come and lend support to carry on. And then another and another, until all five stood together, united.

David watched quietly from the pews up near the front and marveled at their strength. How open the the daughters of Auntie Rosalie were in their love and memory of their mother. The crowd in the church surged in response, hanging on every word.  A great lady had gone. A tough woman.  She would be remembered for a very long time.

The funeral wake was held at the local Football Club Reception Hall. It had the space and the welcome luxury of air conditioning.

The hall buzzed. Children rushed about underfoot, completely ignored by their parents.  People ate and drank and mingled.  Tables were moved strategically. Extra chairs moved in.  All had their stories to tell and introductions to make. Gossip was exchanged and little snippets of history were revealed.
Every so often, someone would pass by and nod at David in recognition or come up and shake hands.  Each face he attempted to catalogue and put a name to.

Friend or relative? Distant or near? Forgivable to forget or unforgivable to forget?

Smile now. Remain confident.

Volunteer your name at every opportunity and hope they volunteer theirs.

Suddenly he was ambushed by a grand dame of the family.

“David, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Forgive me, my memory is bad. It’s been so…”

“Oh you wouldn’t remember me. Last time we met, you were only a baby.  No bigger than my forearm. I’m Pauline, your mother’s cousin. From the Tiver side of the family. Your grandfather was a Dasborough, wasn’t he?”

“Oh yes.”

“Lovely man, he was. Died of pneumonia. You never had a chance to know him really, I suppose?”

“No, I was still a baby.”

“Yes, that would be right.  Your grandmother always had a bag packed and ready to leave him, you know.”

“Nana?”

“Oh yes. Lurl was quite the handful. She did love him of course. But it was complicated.  Ups and downs. She never did get around to getting a divorce and moving to the city.”

“I…I had no idea.”

“Oh yes.  Your grandparents had a lively time of it. Come with me. Something I want to show you.”

At the back of the hall, a projector was silently displaying pictures on the wall at random from the family photo albums. A vast array of old black and white photos, 70’s era Polaroid shots converted awkwardly to digital and wedding photos and holiday snaps from happier times. It was a huge collection.

David recognized some of the pictures, of course.  Farming homesteads owned by different parts of the family. Wedding photos of his Aunt and Uncle.  It was easy to guess a youthful Auntie Rosalie and her husband looking back at the camera with half-surprised smiles. Other photos of presumably distant relatives.  People he couldn’t place, to his embarrassment. The family was too wide and too scattered. To learn all the names and their relationship to each other and the various histories would have taken a lifetime in itself.

“Wait for it… There! That man in the photo. You see him?”

“Yes, I do. I’ve never seen that photo before. He’s a relative, of course?”

“That’s your grandfather on you mother’s side. Spitting image of you. Only in that photo, he’s a young man. Easy to see you are a Dasborough.  No doubt about it.”

David looked again intently at the photo. This old new snap shot from the past. This man he had never known. And yes, something was indeed there.  The nose, of course. Tall, lean built. There was an awkward familiarity to the features of that young man. He would have to speak to someone and get a copy of that photo for later.

Food was eaten, time passed and people eventually made their goodbyes, got in their cars and drove away. The town was very far from practically anywhere. The return journey could take hours or even days for almost all of them.

“David! I have a surprise for you.”

David turned to see his cousin, Emma. At last she was free of the children.

“You grew up at Rupara, didn’t you? It was always yours and Nana’s place.”

“Yes, that’s right. It’s where I grew up. You and your husband are in charge of Rupara now, is that right?”

“Yes, it’s ours now.  Mum wanted it that way. We’ve been fixing it up for a good while now. New fence line put up. A couple of new dams. That sort of thing.”

“I’m glad. Good to know it’s all in safe hands.”

“It’s still yours, you know. You will always be welcome there. Anytime you want to visit, you should just come over.”

“I’m grateful” said David.” It means a lot to me to hear you say that.”

“Well, that surprise I mentioned.” laughed Emma.” You’ll never guess. We were cleaning up the old place years ago and we found something of yours.”

“Oh?” said David. “What did you find?”

“Your appendix, if you can believe it.  In a plastic specimen bottle.  Labelled by the hospital and preserved in alcohol.”

“What? My appendix?? Oh my goodness, I remember that thing! I was eight years old. It nearly killed me. We got to the hospital just in time. They gave it to me as a souvenir. You still have it?? How….odd.”

“Well, yes. Couldn’t very well just throw it away after it surviving for all this time, now could we? Piece of history it is now, you see.”

“Ah” he smiled sheepishly.” Yes. My appendix of all things.”

“Plus there’s your measurements on the door frame from when you were growing up as a small boy” Emma added. ”Date, height, in Nana’s handwriting.  We’ve remodeled the house but we made sure to keep that doorframe, I can tell you. It’s all there. You’ve left your mark on that place.”

“Oh my. I remember. “ he murmured.

Rupara had been his home. Far from the city. Hills and trees, sheep and dirt roads, even a modest mountain poking up against the sky. Lonely and isolated.  Just him and his Nana for many years.

“The cedar tree at the front of the homestead?”

“Gone.  Fell over in a storm years ago. Huge monster of a thing.”

“Yes, a real giant. The apricot tree around the back?”

“Still there” she smiled.” The children raid it every summer.”

“The grape vines up at the shearing shed?”

“You remember? Why yes. Still growing wild.”

“And the swallows? They still have their nesting places under the veranda roof?”

“How did you..? Yes, the swallows are there. Every year they return like clockwork.” she said softly.

“ I can still see the place. Just talking to you here and now. I can still see it.

“Yes. Yes, you can.” She gazed at him in wonderment.

“Thank you, Cousin. Perhaps one day.”

“Of course” she replied, hugging him fiercely.

Early next morning was a farewell BBQ breakfast up on Auntie Rosalie’s farm, a few miles out of town.   Just for the family and maybe a handful of close friends before final departures. This was the only real chance to properly meet the new cousins. The next generation. Thirteen in all.

They were a cheerful lot but the focus was not on David at all. No, that was reserved for their other cousins. The cousins of their own age. They too were busy renewing acquaintances since their families also lived far, far apart.

David would have to wait his turn with the rest of the grownups.

So he sat on his lawn chair and quietly observed his small cousins at play.  Every so often, one of them would be caught by their mother or father and dragged to the breakfast table so that formal introductions could at last be made. Then, their family obligations fulfilled, they would wriggle free or beg to be excused; leaving the grownups to their boring stuff.

David made a mental note of which cousin belonged to which parents and which were brothers and sisters. It was a thankless task. He knew fully well that, while some names might stick to faces, given enough time he’d be back to guiltily only knowing of them rather than properly remembering the actual specifics.

There was one cousin who was apart from the rest though.

She was definitely interested in this stranger that her parents, mysteriously, did not treat as a stranger.

She was shy.  Shy but curious. She kept looking at him and then turning away when David, returning her curiosity, tried to make eye contact.

Her mother noticed and decided to force the issue.

She called her over.

“Mel, over here.  Come sit with your mother. Someone I want you to meet.”

Mel slowly approached, giving the mysterious stranger a wide berth.

Evelyn scooped her up and sat her on her knee.

“This is your Uncle David.”

“Uncle?”

“Well, he’s your cousin really. But..”

“But…..He’s too old to be my cousin!”

“Well he…It’s….” Evelyn frowned in confusion. “David, how does it go?”

“I did a bit of study on the terms before I arrived. I knew this question would come up. I didn’t know myself so I made a special effort and looked it up.

So…you and I are cousins. We know that. That’s the easy part.

However, your children are my cousins too. Only they are cousins once removed. Once removed in generation, you see?”

“Ah. What about second cousins then?”

“Well, if you have children and I have children, then they would be second cousins to each other.”
“Ahah, so….Mel, this is your cousin once removed.”

“Mel?” said David. “I’m very pleased to meet you. But you are right about me being too old. I am. It’s probably easier if you just call me Uncle David. It’s….just easier that way.”

“Uncle David. Hmm, ok.” said Mel and shook his hand just like the grownups do.

“Uncle David?”

“Yes Mel?”

“Why do you have a big nose?”

David stifled a giggle, gave Evelyn a significant look and then in his best official ‘wise adult voice’ sagely announced  “Well, I recently found out that would be because of your great-grandfather Dasborough. But it makes me look rather handsome, don’t you think?”

Mel was thoughtfully silent.

Then, diplomatically she asked “Mum? Can I go back and play now?

And in a flash, she was gone back playing chasey with the others.

“How are things back over there?” Evelyn asked.

“Not so bad.” he replied, helping himself to another sausage. “Things are a bit tight at the moment but I’m still hopeful I can make it work out.”

“You could always come back home to Australia. You could set yourself up here. Someone with your skills and background could do alright here in this state, for example.”

“Perhaps” he said doubtfully. “I’d like to come back home. Live at least a bit closer to you and the others.  Would have been easier when you were all girls and still all living here at your parents’ farm. But now, you are all married with children of your own. Even Nel. She’s got that new one. Clayton, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Clayton. Three months old.”

“Ah, remembered that one.”

He paused.

“When I come back, I want to come back with money in my pocket. Having done something. Been a success at something.  Buy my own home and some land perhaps.

I look at you and the girls, your parents and…I can’t tell you how proud I am of you all.”he said” You’ve all built lives for yourselves. Made good decisions in life.  Made a real go of things.

You know, when I try to tell foreigners about my home, about where I am from….I always end up talking about you and your sisters and Auntie Rosalie, and Nana and Rupara. All of it.

I’m no farmer. “ David admitted. “Your lives are not something that I can emulate.  Growing up on Rupara never made me a farmer. It was my childhood home, not my future career. I always felt destined to try something else. Not sure how it will all end up, to tell you the truth, but I need to see it though.”

They sat quietly for a while, only half-listening to the chatter about them.  The wind stirred the trees surrounding the homestead. The morning was no longer new and soon it would be time to part company.

“You were sent here as a baby, you know.” said Evelyn.

“Oh?” said David.

“There was a problem with your mother not long after you were born. You needed a place to go until things settled down. So they sent you here for about four months. You and me were almost the same exact age. Both babies. So taking care of you too was pretty straightforward. She treated you like a son.”

David turned to Evelyn in astonishment.

“As a baby? I…I didn’t know. Nobody ever told me. Four months? Here? I never knew.”

“That makes you a bit like an absent brother then, you see? Mum always wanted a boy. She ended up with a team of girls though.”

David couldn’t think of a suitable reply so he nodded dumbly. He was still trying to comprehend this new revelation.  Auntie Rosalie had always been important to him. The one he most admired. The one he liked hearing stories about.

Her and Uncle Len and the girls. As a boy, he had a dim memory of staying here for a few days.  The tennis court. The cousins that showered him with attention. The noise, the excitement and the activity.

That he knew. Uncle Len’s and Aunt Rosalie’s farm he knew. But as a baby? Long before? Here?

That was a different, hidden chapter and Auntie Rosalie was now gone.

Her loss pricked at his conscience.  He would never have a chance to thank her.

By unspoken agreement, the guests slowly started murmuring about the time and how far away all their homes were.  They got up to leave and began to make their farewells.  He too, followed along with the rest and made his goodbyes.  One last round of handshakes, hugs and wiping away of tears.

Uncle Len, the girls. The respective husbands. The younger cousins.

He hated goodbyes, preferring a discrete and unmentioned exit stage right. But the forms must be obeyed, especially at such a time and occasion.

Finally, he was in the car, driving down the long dirt road that connected to the country highway.
From there back to the city, then to the airport, then a flight to Brisbane and then, in turn, another flight far away from Australia itself.

This was…the end?

Is this how it ends? Really?

Possibly. Statistically, it was even rather likely.

Yes indeed. He might very well never see them ever again.

There was no way to know for sure. People die.  Blink twice and twenty years pass by.

All too brief.  All too fast.

Something could easily happen to him far away and, well, what could his extended family be reasonably expected to do about it? They would mourn him briefly and then move on.  He’d fade from family history. Remembered only as a slightly fuzzy photo on a projector in a hall during a wake for some other relative’s funeral, if he was lucky.

It was inevitable.

The tyranny of distance, even if he did miraculously return back home to Australia in triumph, the distance would always be the deciding factor in his relationship with his cousins and other family. After the first few hundred miles, adding on a few extra thousand made little effective difference. It was all the same relentless isolation and separation.

He looked in the rear view mirror at his family. Already they were breaking up and heading back into the house, getting out of the heat and dust. In his mind, he reviewed their names and faces.
He would eventually forget most of the details, that was certain. Yet it would not be due to lack of effort on his part.

Georgia, Emma, Cora, Evelyn, Nell, Steve, the other Steve, Stuart, Graham, and….and…Clayton! (of course) Mel and…….

Soon there was a bend in the road and the farm was lost in the trees.   

 

 

 

About the Author:

david summers

David Summers hails from Australia and has worked steadily as an English teacher in Korea for many years. His interests include acting, history and travel.  He writes stories from time to time but only as a result of persistent nagging from his closest friends


 

 

 

 

     
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