Friday, August 21, 2009

Stag Funerals & Pine Needles

I’ve attended funerals by myself before. As a 37-year old markedly and unfailingly single woman, I’ve done almost everything there is to do by myself, including going stag to a funeral.

Going to a funeral stag is unlike attending any other rite of passage alone. Going to prom stag can be done as a social protest. Going to a wedding stag can be an attempt to hook up with an attractive stranger from the other side of the church aisle. But going to a funeral stag is only done out of necessity. Because unlike a wedding, prom or even a company holiday party, if you don’t have a significant other likewise invested in a particular funeral, you really can’t go trolling for a last-minute date.

Another way that attending a funeral stag is different than those other types of events is because kind people go out of their way to make you feel like you’re not alone. Choosing to be solo at a prom takes a lot of concerted effort to maintain your look of lone superiority and that really cannot include meeting new people. Going to a company party by yourself usually means being the third wheel to an office friend and his or her bored spouse or getting to know the bartender pretty darn well. And if you’re alone at a wedding, you’ll either end up scoring big time or sitting at the kids’ table by yourself while everyone else laughs their way through the chicken dance and electric slide. Moreover, the worst part about being stag at a wedding is the number of times you have to answer the question: “so, when will we dancing at *your* wedding?”

But at a funeral, nobody is worried about your love life. There’s an almost tranquil sense of collective loneliness. Because mourning is an individual experience, even the in the closest families, members mourning the same loved one in the same room each feel that loss individually. So, even the largest funeral congregation is really just a gathering of lonely people. So, when you’re alone at a funeral, oddly, you’re part of the group.

So, while technically I had flown by myself to North Carolina to attend a funeral alone last week, I was hoping that once I got there, I would feel like a part of a group, or to be more specific, a family. I went all that way to say goodbye to the man who called himself my “father-in-law“. Although, this was not a legally recognized familial position, he had wanted to be my “father-in-law” and called himself that. Just because his son never got around to asking me to marry him before he died didn‘t keep him from assuming that position in my life. And I love these people like they were actually my in-laws and probably more than many people love their real in-laws. So, there was no question that I needed to be there to help support my “mother-in-law” at this time.

I felt confidant about my decision to spend the money on the trip across the country until I landed in Raleigh and called to tell my mother-in-law and whoever was already gathered at the house that I was on my way. But the phone was busy. No problem, I thought. She must be talking to somebody else. So, I picked up my luggage and headed to the rental car shuttle. I called again. The phone was still busy. Okay, I thought, she’s still on the phone. Fifteen minutes later I was settled into the rental car and about to start the two hour drive to Lexington and I called again. This time it just rang and rang and rang and nobody answered. So, I tried her cell phone, which she rarely uses, and it went straight to voicemail. Now, I was starting to get worried. Maybe they forgot I was coming. I set out on the highway and proceeded to call both numbers every ten minutes throughout the drive. The cell phone always went straight to voice mail. The home number was either busy or rang with no answer. Maybe they weren’t expecting me. Or maybe they didn’t want to see me. Were they avoiding my call? I was feeling abandoned out there on the highway as the sun was setting on a state I’d never been to before. And I was relieved that I had insisted on getting my own hotel room instead of staying at the house. Even though I couldn’t get in touch with anyone, at least I would have someplace to spend the night.

The rain storm started about a half-hour before I got to the hotel. There’s nothing quite as lonely as being in a hotel room, in an unfamiliar place, with nobody to greet you, during a rain storm. Even though I was really feeling unwelcome and questioning the trip at all by this point, I mustered my courage, looked up directions to the house on my blackberry and set off in the rain down Route 8, a rural, unlit, two-lane road with no shoulder to speak of. The speed limit was 40 mph, but I was driving about 20. Unsure of my directions, destination and the wet asphalt, I slowed down at every country lane, and every driveway that looked like a country lane, looking for any street sign that would indicate I was headed the right way.

Along the side of the road there were all kinds of hand-written signs advertising just how the recession has hit this part of the country. People were selling fresh eggs from their chickens, fruit from their trees and quite a lot of guns and ammunition. Was that legal? I wondered. Why hadn’t I googled the North Carolina gun laws before I came? Was it possible these people angrily passing me in their trucks as I crept along reading signs were also carrying guns?

One sign in particular captured my imagination more than the others. Unprofessionally written with a thick sharpie, it sat conspicuously underneath one of Route 8’s extremely rare street lamps, reading only two words: PINE NEEDLES.

Without any other information, I don’t know whether the sign meant that the pine needles were for sale or were free for the taking. Moreover, I have no idea what someone would want with a bunch of free pine needles, let alone why anyone would pay for them. My experience with pine needles comes from my childhood in California. They were abundant during camping weekends. Dry ones were fire hazards and fresh ones always stuck to sleeping bags and ended up in my hair. At the beginning of December, we used pine needles to decorate Yule logs as an annual craft project in Sunday School. But at the end of December, pine needles were an undeniable sign that the Christmas tree was dying. They were supposed to collect on the old bed sheet wrapped around the tree, but ended up stuck in the carpet anyway where even a vacuum had trouble picking them up.

Driving down Route 8, I felt like those advertised pine needles. Unwanted and useless, yet glaringly announced by a sign under a bright light. Here I was everyone, hard to miss, inching down the road, headed to a place I’d never been before, not knowing if anyone there wanted to see me, or if anyone was there at all. I felt simultaneously obvious and unwelcome. I was a big sack of pine needles about to be dropped at a front door and somebody will just have to figure out how to get rid of me.

After some time and a couple of wrong turns, I found the street I was looking for. And after some effort and a lot of squinting in the dark, I found the address. To my surprise, the porch lights were on, the front door was open and there was talking and laughing loud enough to be heard from the end of the long gravel driveway. This was not a house where nobody would answer the phone. Why hadn’t they answered the phone? Surely they really had been avoiding my call.

I cautiously made my way from the rental car to the front door, suddenly wishing I had a flashlight for my safety and a gift for my “mother-in-law”. Why hadn’t I thought to stop at a gas station and buy flowers or a bottle of liquor? And why hadn’t I googled the North Carolina liquor laws before I came? It wasn’t too late. I had service on my blackberry even out there. I could get back in the car, look up a nearby store and come back, so that I wouldn’t arrive empty-handed. Even if they didn’t want to see me, who wouldn’t want to see a nice bottle of booze or wine the night before a funeral?

But it was too late. I heard the squeak of the screen door opening. Someone had seen the headlights in the driveway and was coming out to investigate. “It’s Rebecca!” the female voice shouted back into the house. “Rebecca’s here!” Was she happy to see me? Or alerting the rest of the house as if in a horror film to either arm themselves or run for cover?

No, believe it or not, they were all happy to see me. I was greeted with strong-armed hugs and poorly aimed kisses that landed nearer to my chin and forehead than to either cheek. I believe this was the result of the many empty beer and wine bottles scattered about the kitchen. Those who knew me already exclaimed, through the confusion of their beer goggles, how beautiful I looked. Those who I was meeting for the first time said how wonderful it was to put a face to the name. Or in the case of those who had heard my NPR piece about my deceased boyfriend - their deceased nephew or cousin - how wonderful it was to put a face to the voice.

After the excited greetings had settled down, the questions began: Where had I been? Why hadn’t I called? No. Nobody had been on the phone. Yes. They had been waiting for my call. Which led to a fast-forward Benny Hill style race around the house (minus any saxophone playing or toplessness) to find the busy signal culprit and cause of my anguish. But no, none of the phones were off the hook. Everything seemed to be in working order. But wait - somebody had turned the cell phone’s ringer volume down. And wait - someone had apparently slammed the door on the way back from getting beer in the garage and knocked a rarely-used wall phone down from the wall. Everyone but I looked accusingly at one particularly soused family friend who agreed it must have been her fault. And with the mystery solved, I felt welcome, except for the fact that there was no red wine in the house. But I had a beer. And I had my hugs. And I felt at home.

The next day, as I got ready for the funeral in my hotel room, I noticed that last night’s rain had turned into an actual storm. I also noticed that I had only brought open-toed shoes with me. I was about to introduce myself to a Catholic church full of strangers with muddy, grass-soaked toes. But before the service began, to my own surprise, while voluntarily manning the guest book, I had actually known - or at least recognized - many more people than I expected. Sadly, the reason why we were familiar to each other was because we had all attended the other funeral four years earlier. But while those are still difficult memories for me, recognizing people actually made me feel even more a part of the family. After at least a half-dozen people have said to you, “I’m so glad to see you again… even if it is under these conditions,” I couldn’t help but feel connected to a familial history. I belong, I thought, even if it is as an indelible memory in the scenes of their tragedies. And nobody had even mentioned my inappropriate footwear.

After the funeral and a buffet lunch where I barely ate anything, the family, including me, headed back to the house. There were so many people this time that instead of even trying to learn names, I just smiled a lot, and tapped people on the shoulder on the rare occasion I needed someone’s attention. Mostly I stayed in the background, drinking glasses of Jack Daniels and ginger ale, playing with dogs, making trips to the outside coolers for more beer and refilling bowls of potato chips. Mostly I was trying to look occupied while keeping others from wanting to give me plates of food or talk too much about my dead boyfriend. This part was particularly hard considering the many photos of him and the display of his medals, certificates and personal belongings right next to the kitchen table.

But then something interesting happened. It appeared that three family members - a son, a son-in-law and a grandson, I think, but don’t quote me - were setting up in a circle in the living room with three acoustic guitars. I thought perhaps they had prepared a performance in honor of my “father-in-law”. Perhaps a beautiful, strumming version of “Cat’s in the Cradle”? So, I took off my shoes, sat down on the floor by the coffee table, set my sweating glass of Jack & Ginger on a coaster and settled in for the performance.

With the first song, which was something I didn’t recognize, I realized that this was no performance, but rather an impromptu sing-a-long. I had no idea that I had been welcomed by a family with the kind of musically talented members that can enliven any gathering with spontaneous music. As they moved from song to song - even taking requests yelled-out from other rooms - different people joined in singing when they knew the words. A few songs in, I knew the words to “Norwegian Wood,” so I trepidatiously moved a little closer to the guys with guitars and sang on the verses and added harmonies to the choruses. Nobody gave me confused glances or the full-out evil eye, so when it was over, I moved a little closer still and hoped that maybe I would know the next song, too.

As the guitarists strummed and brain-stormed, somebody suggested they play something with a straight ahead rock-blues feel, to which the obvious leader of the group responded with: how about “Route 66” in G? And without thinking, I excitedly blurted out: “That’s my song! And my key!” Everyone looked at me, so I quickly explained that I had been singing “Route 66” with bands for over ten years and, serendipitously, I sing it in G. Without a pause, the group leader smiled and said, “well, great! It looks like we’ve got a lead singer on this one. We’ll give you a few bars and you come one in.” Sitting there on the living room carpet, leaning back on the floor with one hand and holding my drink in the other, I sat in that family circle and belted out a song I’ve been carrying in my proverbial vocal pocket for most of my life. But rather than feeling like I needed to perform, I felt like I was sharing myself and being accepted by others.

We made it through the tune top to bottom two full times, including a few guitar solos and a big finish. By the end, almost everyone had moved into the living room and their applause was full of familial affection, outright praise and even a little surprise. Somebody shouted out that I sounded like Shirley Bassey, which was a lovely compliment, and others asked if I had any CDs they could buy. This would never happen while singing Christmas carols at my parents’ house, since amongst my real blood relations, everyone knows that I sing and that I don‘t any CDs for sale. But here my singing was mostly a revelation. Except for the fact that my “mother- and father-in-law” had come to see me perform twice in Las Vegas, bringing me flowers and accolades both times. And at that moment, I could hear my “mother-in-law” bragging to nobody in particular, “see, I told you how talented she was,” and I felt so pleased that I could make her smile and give her something to be proud of on the day of her husband’s funeral.

The guitar-playing trio asked me to keep singing with them, but I just told them to keep doing their thing and I’d join in on harmonies and such if I knew the tunes. Mostly I didn’t, but that didn’t matter to me. But as people were getting ready to head home, I did get to lead a rather rowdy version of “King of the Road” that almost everyone joined in on. Oddly, this was part of the regular set I did with a swing band back in the late-90s and I’d always felt a little uncomfortable singing it while in a vintage cocktail dress. But in my black sundress and bare feet, sending family off, encouraging them to drive home safely as the rain was finally letting up, it seemed like the most appropriate, comfortable and fun song to shout out with this tipsy - or in some cases very drunken - post-funeral group.

A little while later, I headed back to my hotel, as well. I was staying in North Carolina another two days, so there would be plenty of time to spend with this family. But at that moment, after two long days and several sleepless nights, I wanted some time to reflect on my own, write for awhile and hopefully go to bed early. I drove the rental car back toward Route 8 and took a left toward town.

Soon I came across the “PINE NEEDLES” sign, but this time there had been something added to it that I couldn’t quite read. I found a place to pull over, turned around and went back to investigate. In the bottom left corner, someone had added a piece of paper that read: “DEER CORN APPLES”. Was this advertising three separate things: deer, corn and apples? Or was it just one thing, a rare variety of apple: the deer corn apple. Or maybe it was two things. Either a type of corn - deer corn - and a general variety of apple, perhaps a red delicious? Or else they had deer available and something called “corn apples” which could have either been a type of corn or a type of apple that maybe deer enjoyed eating?

I got back in the car and started laughing to myself as I debated all of the possible meanings of this sign. And then it occurred to me that I definitely no longer felt like that unwanted, useless dead pile of pine needles. Now I felt like deer corn apples. Maybe I wasn’t immediately definable. Maybe my place or purpose was suspect at first. But, in the end, I was interesting, useful even and people were glad I was there. I’m still not sure what “deer corn apples” actually means and I don’t really want to know. Because I have my own definition for it. Deer corn apples are me, going “stag” to a family funeral in North Carolina.


  1. Rebecca, that was an amazing story, which made me smile...I'm glad you found such comfort in your 'family' sounds as if they found such comfort in you. Hugs my friend :)

  2. Love this story. I can just see it, every moment.
    OF/NF JG