Saturday, February 27, 2010

My cousin Barney is a liar...(Re-run for Jeff's birthday)

(Today's Kimberly story was "told" to me by Jeff Easter, one of my dearest, funniest friends. He has made me laugh on some of my saddest days and cry from laughter on some of my happiest. The other character in the story is my friend, Barney, who was always my family's version of 911, and a pretty funny guy in his own right--that's him in the picture. I love them both. I'm re-running this story in honor of Jeff's birthday.)

"It's an easy job. All you gotta do is answer the phone."

I should've known better. After all, my cousin Barney is a liar.

I should've paid attention to the chill that ran up my spine as I thought of the shadowy, casket-lined rooms and the pre-recorded, macabre organ music piping out strains of "Rock of Ages." I don't even like that song. Nor do I care for the smell of carnations--the funeral bud of choice among lower-income Southern mourners.

What if I got trapped in the embalming room? Or had to touch a dead person? Doesn't the Old Testament speak against such things?

But, Barney kept assuring me, "All you gotta do is answer the phone!" (At that point in his vast and sundry career, Barney was apparently serving as Messmer Funeral Home's human resources director.)

Truth be told, it was sort of expected of me. I was a 16-year-old Harden, and working for Mr. Messmer had become a rite of passage for us Harden men.

Besides, I'd make three dollars and fifty cents an hour. I'd be rich!

So, I said "OK, I'll do it."

My boss was Mr. Messmer himself, a kind and portly man who had earned the trust and, therefore, the newly-passed members of most families in the Kimberly-Warrior metropolitan area.

My first assignment was the Thursday night viewing for the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor. The plan was for Mr. Messmer to greet the grieving family, get them settled in and then leave me to "answer the phone."

At 5 o'clock sharp, the mourning Taylors arrived en masse. There were tall Taylors, short Taylors, fat Taylors and skinny Taylors. There were ugly Taylors and foxy Taylors. Taylors in suits and Taylors in overalls. There seemed to be a thousand Taylors, all packed into the small confines of the parlor, which was unchangingly decorated in faux-wood paneling, naugahyde chairs and crushed-velvet drapes.

Shortly before 6 o'clock, with Mr. Messmer long gone, a steady stream of grievers began arriving to pay their respects and to comment on how "natural" Mrs. Taylor looked--yet another reason Mr. Messmer was the regional undertaker of choice.

At four minutes past 6--I noted the time because it was my first official duty--the phone rang. "Messmer Funeral Home," I said, with a sudden swell of manly-Harden pride.

"Who's dead?" screeched the voice on the other side of the phone.

Somewhat rattled by the irreverent inquiry, I blurted back, "Mrs. Taylor. She's being buried tomorrow. Thanks for calling." And hung up.

Just then, a wiry Taylor woman, with a trail of what appeared to be dried snuff running down her chin, marched up and informed me, "There ain't no toilet paper."

As I sat there, blinking at her snuff trail, the only thought I could muster was, "Is that my problem?...My job is to answer the phone. Barney said so." But Snuffy just stood there, chewing on something, clearly expecting me to solve the encroaching toilet paper crisis.

Well, before I could get up out of my chair, both phone lines lit up. "One minute," I signaled to Snuffy....And there it was again...that screeching voice. Only this time it was angry and crackling, insinuating that I had hung up on her.

After repeating the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor's arrangements--twice--I finally began making my way through the sea of grievers in search of toilet paper...all the while doing everything I could to avoid "Snuffy," who had stomped off in a huff while I was dealing with Screecher.
As I maneuvered toward the mystifying no-man's land of the ladies' room, carrying an armload of toilet paper, I remember thinking, "I could be at home watching Gilligan's Island."

Now, for some unfathomable reason, Mrs. Taylor had chosen to pass in late July, the very apex of the Great State of Alabama's annual inferno. Each time the doors opened to welcome the seemingly endless tide of friends, neighbors and church "family," the evening's hot, humid blanket rolled in with them.
Who was this woman? How could one gain so many admirers in one short lifetime?

But, apparently, Mr. Messmer's air conditioner was no respecter of persons and, on that Taylor-congested evening, it decided to give up the ghost. Within seconds of its final, sputtering, lukewarm puffs, I was sweating life a farm animal.

Right then, one of the short Taylors in overalls reached out and grabbed my arm, practically shouting, "I been lookin for you everwhere. I think there's somethin wrong with that-there air condition."

"Ya think, Shorty?" was what I wanted to say...right after a much-needed cussin fit.

Instead, I strived to assume the kind countenance of a funeral home director, which seemed to work so well for Mr. Messmer, and told Shorty, "I'll see what I can do."

By this time, the smell in the over-Taylored parlor was a hot, cloying concoction of body odor, perfume, spearmint gum, Aqua Net and those blasted carnations.

I wound my way back to the desk where both phone lines were blinking...holding my breath and loosening my suffocating necktie.

And...I kid you if on cue..."Rock of Ages" began piping through the speakers. At that moment, I would have gladly traded places with the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor.

As I sat lines still blinking...the ugly truth hit me. I couldn't call Mr. Messmer. I couldn't fix the "air condition." I couldn't stand on my desk and shout, "Will all you people just please go home?"

We were and those sweaty that stinking, hot place of death. Hell took on a whole new meaning.

At 8:35...with just 25 minutes to go...I thought I saw the proverbial light at the end of the proverbial tunnel...until I realized it was just a reflection off the sweaty forehead of the rapidly-approaching, panicked-looking Taylor woman.

"May I help you?", I reluctantly asked. To which she responded by covering her mouth and speaking to me in low, hushed tones, as if we were sharing some long-held secret.

"Umh," she began. "I really don't know how to...umh...tell you this. But, you see, Mrs. Taylor is my sister, and...well...y'all have too much 'stuff' up there," she stammered, gently patting her own well-endowed chest area. "Could you possibly take a little out?"

What!...Could I what? That was definitely NOT in my job description. I had never touched a live woman's chest...I was certainly not about to touch a dead one!

"I'll tell Mr. Messmer," I spewed, as I took her by the elbow and ushered her out the door.
Forget Gilligan's Island. I'd rot in the Jefferson County Jail for murdering that lying, no-good Barney before I'd ever do this again!

By that point, I had shed my tie and jacket--a certain violation of Messmer's employee policy. (Good thing I'd listened to mama and put on clean underwear because the pit-stained, blue Oxford was the next thing about to be shed.) But, just as I began unbuttoning it, I happened to glance at the clock and noticed that its little hand was on the longed-for 9. "Thank you, sweet Jesus!"

Thankfully, one endearing quality of Southern mourners is that, except for the few disturbed outliers who threaten to fling themselves into their loved-one's casket for the night, they know when to call it a day. (After all, the food's back at the house.)

So, at 9:01 sharp, the tired, hungry Taylors began emptying the foodless, inferno-like parlor. By 9:05, everyone was gone...except for me and the newly-passed, newly-endowed Mrs. Taylor.

After tucking her in for the night, I snapped off the organ music--how could Rock of Ages possibly be playing again?--and, with neck hairs standing on end, beat a hasty path through the shadowy, casket-lined room and out the back door to sweet, blessed freedom.

....My cousin Barney is such a liar!
For everything there is a season,
a time to be born and a time to die....
a time to cry and a time to laugh....
a time to grieve and a time to dance....
(from Ecclesiastes 3 NLT)

The Night of the Nub (Jeff's Birthday Re-Run)

The following story originally "debuted" on the blog in January 2009. But, in grateful tribute of the countless times my friend, Jeff, has made me laugh, I'm re-running it for his birthday. (FYI: That's him dressed as the "Sheik of Arabic"; the other "characters" are my buddy, Mike Wooten, as  scarecrow-clown; my brother Kevin as Super-COG; and Phillip Roper as...well, I guess a grease-monkey :
Jeff and I grew up in Kimberly, AL, a small SOUTHERN town about 25 miles north of Birmingham. We grew up in the Church of God, those days...meant pretty much everything but going to church and eating was a sin!

But, man, could we eat! And, COULD WE SING! (Now, before you think I'm making fun of anybody or anything, you need to know I'm deeply, truly grateful for how I grew up. It's part of who I am. Some of my best, funniest, happiest memories are because I grew in a small Pentecostal church in a small southern town.)

And, as I said earlier, "We could sing!" My friend Joy and I had earned a reputation as "wedding singers." One wedding we sang at required that Jeff (pianist extraordinaire), Joy and I rehearse on a Wednesday night at an even smaller Pentecostal church. This little church had prayer meeting every Wednesday night, which, unfortunately, we weren't late enough to miss. As soon as we came through the doors, the pray-ers invited--OK, insisted--that we come join the prayer circle.

Well, chicken that I am, I got right in the middle of Jeff and Joy and grabbed their hands, leaving them to grab the hands of praying strangers. (A prior experience at a nursing home had left me a reluctant hand-grabber. But that's another story for another time.)

So...Jeff reaches for the hand of the man standing next to him, only to jerk around and look at me with THE MOST SURPRISED, PERPLEXED LOOK"What do I do now?" So I look over and realize that man doesn't have a hand...or an arm for that matter!

But before either of us could say a word, the man literally hollers to Jeff, "Just grab the nub, brother, just grab the nub!"

Now, how can you pray after something like that? Unless you count unable-to-stop-laughing as prayer.
Come to think of it...maybe God least at times. Who knows, maybe He laughs with us everytime we remember "the night of the nub."

I love how C.S. Lewis talks about such "frivolous" things as laughter:
"It is only in our 'hours-off,' only in our moments of permitted festivity that we find an analogy (of Heaven). Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for "down here" is not their natural place. Here they are a moment's rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven."
"On your feet now—applaud God!
Bring a gift of laughter,
sing yourselves into his presence."
(Psalm 100:1-2 The Message)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Pell City Cabin

Writing about Mimi's cabin in Pell City brought back SO many memories of that place...and always of her. She bought it for us--for that pile of nieces and nephews who never even knew how blessed we were.

That's her standing on the deck of the cabin, which overlooked Logan Martin Lake. I'm bettin' she was aiming for my little brother. But he swears she was aiming at squirrels.

Many summer weekends were spent at that A-framed cabin. The year Uncle Bill got the boat, we thought we'd died and gone to summer camp. He even let the older boys--Kenneth and Gary--haul us all over that lake. Several cousins even learned to ski behind that boat. I tried...about 7,842 times....but, we've already discussed how me and any type of physical activity never got along.

Our days at the cabin were divided between the lake and community pool, which had a slide AND a diving board. Almost every day, we'd hold "diving" competitions--working and working until we had perfected the can opener, the banana split, the cannonball. Or...we'd see who could survive "the most painful belly flop ever". Then...with stinging red bellies...we'd walk back down the gravel road to the cabin where Mimi's coca-cola cake would almost always be waiting.

My cabin memories of Uncle Bill involve him driving the boat or fishing from the dock, or working on projects around the cabin. In fact, the funniest cabin memory ever directly involved one of his projects.

Late one night, us cousins were hanging out in the living room. Mimi was in the room with us, but she was single-mindedly focused on exterminating a family of wasps who were competing for cabin space. And Uncle Bill was working on a project in the loft. One of the cousins (can't remember who) had brought their tape recorder, and we were taping each other singing, making bodily noises and other stupid stuff like that. In the background, Mimi was shouting instructions to Uncle Bill about what she wanted him to do about the wasps, and the tape player recorded her voice crystal-clearly. So, when we started playing  it back, Uncle Bill thought Mimi was repeatedly shouting at him.

At first, we couldn't figure out why he was getting in such a huff up in the loft. Then, one of the brighter cousins figured it out. So...of course...we had to let Mimi in on the fun; then we kept rewinding the recording, and Uncle Bill kept yelling from the loft, "WILMA, I SAID I HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME!"

Well, after three or four rewinds, Uncle Bill was apoplectic, us cousins were quietly snickering and Mimi...well... she was doubled over on the floor laughing at Uncle Bill's increasingly loud responses to her pre-recorded instructions.

When Mimi finally let him in on the joke, he chuckled (sort of)...but not as much as us cousins and not NEARLY as much as Mimi, who could hardly quit laughing long enough to explain to him WHY she was laughing.

And that memory...of Mimi laughing so hard that tears rolled down her face...of me...of us together...being a part of such still...somehow sacred.
We laughed, we sang, .

we couldn't believe our good fortune.
...God was wonderful to us;
we are one happy people.
And now, God, do it again—
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So that those who have tears
will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So that those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing
(Psalm 126:2-3, The Message)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Talladega Nights....

So...last week my friend Jeff posted a picture of himself on Facebook. (As you can see, I stole it.) What was funny about this particular picture is the completely unrelated, wide-ranging comments it generated. When I got to the end of the 80+ comments, I felt like I had just played that game where the person at the front of the line whispers a sentence in the ear of the next person--but can only whisper once--and by the time the person at the end of the line has to say the sentence out loud--it's nothing at all like the sentence whispered by the first person.

Don't get me wrong. The comments were FUNNY. They conjured up memories of Jeff "marrying" Pam Nail on the steps of the Kimberly First Baptist Church at the ripe old age of 10ish, only for her to ask him for a "divorce" shortly after the ceremony. Then, they dished up reminders of another old friend, Joey, blazing a trail through all three Nail sisters at one time or another.

And...all would have been well and good and funny if everybody had just stopped right there. But, NOOOO...after that "thread" of comments, everybody insisted on getting a bit meddlesome.

Eventually, their comments reminded me of yet another Kimberly Church of God (KCOG) Youth Choir story--one that, to this day, includes some of the funniest words my mama ever uttered--almost as funny as the time she asked the Sunday night church crowd to pray for her because her doctor had told her she was "a walking bombshell."

The story goes something like this: The KCOG Youth Ensemble--a smaller, more portable version of the KCOG Youth Choir, led by the incomparable Sister Marla--got invited to sing at "a young evangelist's" revival in Talladega.

(OK...OK...for all you meddlesome Facebook commenters...I'll admit to a brief, albeit-now-embarrassing courtship with that "young evangelist," which--I kid you not--started when I went to "his" revival at the Sumiton COG with another "friend," and this young evangelist called me out of the audience to pray for me. Looking back, I have no good reason as to WHY I ever went out with him. Well, that's not quite true--as Brother Gump says, "Stupid is as stupid does."...Anyway, I quit dating him after he told me "God" had told him that, if I would marry him, God would heal him of cancer.)

But...God is merciful, and that young evangelist didn't die....After he disappeared for a few weeks, he arrived back in Kimberly--healthy as a horse, wearing a bowler hat and carrying a shiny, black cane. And...he started dating one of my best friends--no one could ever accuse us Kimberly girls of not knowing how to share.

Now their courtship led to the more-portable KCOG ensemble being asked to sing at this young evangelist's revival in Talladega. Because of the distance, my mama decided that, instead of driving all the way back to Kimberly after the revival service, we would all stay at my Mimi's cabin in Pell City. So, we sung a few classics, the young evangelist preached...and called out a few more young ladies for prayer. Then, we all piled into our cars and headed to Mimi's cabin...that is...all of us except the young evangelist and the good friend.

Anyway, every once in awhile, between eating and laughing, one of us would pipe up and ask, "I wonder where the young evangelist and the good friend are?" (That was before the days of cell phones and, at that time, the cabin didn't even have a landline.)

Well, about 1 a.m. in the morning, my mama decided she had waited long enough. So, she put her shoes back on, grabbed the keys to our Wildcat, and we went out looking for the lost evangelist. Not knowing where else to start, she headed straight for the Talladega pastor's parsonage, located next to the church.

On the way to Talladega, the rest of the search-and-rescue-party were put on notice to "keep an eye out for that little -------." Upon arrival at the parsonage, mama pulled up the gravel driveway, got out of the Wildcat, and knocked on the front door, shouting as she knocked, "Knock, Knock! Knock, Knock!" I can only imagine what that pastor must of thought when he turned on the porch light....(Suffice it to say that, at first, mama had to talk to him through the storm door.) Perhaps that's why those of us still in the Wildcat could hear my mama's next words--words that have become immortalized in Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir lore: "PASTOR, YOUR LITTLE EVANGELIST HAS ONE OF MY GIRLS!!!"

But, alas, the startled, bleery-eyed pastor was as ignorant as mama about the missing evangelist's whereabouts. So...we left. Not knowing where else to look, we headed back to Mimi's Pell City cabin. Of course, mama would slow down whenever she saw headlights, scouring for any sign of a bowler hat.

Well...just guess who showed up shortly after we got back to the cabin? Yep, the young evangelist....with the good friend.

(Forget the cancer--it's a wonder that young evangelist didn't die at the hands of my mama that night.)

These days, that young evangelist has his own talk show that airs on his own TV network. (I'm afraid if I ever watched that show for more than 20 seconds, I wouldn't be able to fight the urge to call in and ask, "How's your cancer?")

More importantly, the good friend found a good man. (She reminded me that I had also dated that good man a few times.)

But, that's OK...I found my own. Eventually. It took awhile. Mistakes were made, tears were shed, heart was broken. But...he's worth it.

The first time I heard the following words, I wished with all my heart I had written them for my good man. They are exactly how I feel about him:
I set out on a narrow way many years ago
Hoping I would find true love along the broken road
But I got lost a time or two
Wiped my brow and kept pushing through
I couldn't see how every sign pointed straight to you
Every long lost dream led me to where you are
Others who broke my heart they were like Northern stars
Pointing me on my way into your loving arms
This much I know is true
That God blessed the broken road
That led me straight to you
I think about the years I spent just passing through
I'd like to have the time I lost and give it back to you
But you just smile and take my hand
You've been there you understand
It's all part of a grander plan that is coming true
Now I'm just rolling home
Into my lover's arms
This much I know is true
That God blessed the broken road
That led me straight to you.
("Bless the Broken Road" by Rascal Flatts)

Ironically, that bowler-hat-wearing-cane-toting young evangelist gave me some of the best marriage advice I ever heard: "What you do to get 'em, you do to keep 'em."
"And we know that God causes everything
to work together for the good of those who love God
and are called according to his purpose for them."
(Romans 8:28 NLT)