Remember how when you were a kid the funniest place on earth was church? Where you could not laugh under pain of mortal sin so you just had to laugh, even though nothing was funny except that you couldn’t stop laughing?
That held true for me too, until Grandpa Robinson’s funeral when my new laff record was set, that stands unequaled to this day. Grandpa himself was a funny guy, full of stories and riddles that went way back. Descended from a New York harbor tugboat captain, he lived in Rensselaer and worked his whole life as a conductor on the busy New York Central Railroad, so he had an eclectic take on things. He was always closer to us kids in mood than he was to the grownups around us anyway, and given his quirky sense of humor, there’s no doubt in my mind that he was behind what happened on the day of his funeral.
As this local history (being recorded for the first time here) would have it, Grandpa passed away peacefully in his sleep one night, aged somewhere in his eighties, and I and five other grandsons had been chosen to be Grandpa’s pallbearers. The oldest of us, and focus of this little tale, was Billy, an Elvis type macho ladies man, aged 17 or so, muscular and very cool; then there was I, about 15, and the other key member of the cast, my cousin Jimmy, then about 14.
The side-splitting aspect of this sad day had its seeds in the funeral service held right around the corner from Grandpa’s house, in St. John’s church, where we were all formally edgy anyway, having been plunged thus from our adolescent separateness and utter coolness into a proto-adult unit that at once not only had to function unusually in church, but to perform complex religious tasks as a cool sort of god squad. I can hear Grandpa chuckling now.
After we’d gotten through the long service without a hitch and had carried the casket to the hearse in all seriousness, the long procession of cars wound slowly through the streets to the gravesite in the cemetery atop the highest hill in Rensselaer. It must have been in February or March, because it was a crisp blue and very windy day, with especially strong gusts where we were high up beside the Hudson River, whose valley forms the great wind tunnel of the northeast that with a mere flick of a breezy whisper could carry a man down State Street hill, dangling from his umbrella.
The six of us had borne the casket to the grave, and were then assigned the task of go-getting the many floral wreaths from all the funeral vehicles that had followed the hearse (Grandpa had a lot of buddies). One by one we’d traverse the windy distance to one of the vehicles, reach up to receive a wreath that was handed down to us by a tuxedoed funeral parlor worker atop the vehicle, wrestle the bundle of flowers back through the stiff and frisky gusts to the graveside, then return for another differently shaped arrangement, all in the utmost of somber formality, as the relatives gathered and waited by the graveside… well… gravely.
On one of our latter trips, Billy was just ahead of Jimmy and I, and as he reached up in all macho readiness to manhandle one of the biggest wreaths on his own, arms wide to receive it, a very large wreath indeed – with a lot of varicolored daisies on it, as I recall most vividly – the Grandpa-driven wind ripped the wreath right out of the worker’s hands and flung it full-force against Billy’s entire body, enveloping him and his pompadour in flailing flowers, only his legs sticking out at the bottom, his arms still reaching out on either side, ready to receive the wreath…
Before our eyes, cool Billy had been transformed into a silly walking flower arrangement. Staggering rather, for he was blinded by blossoms and generally under the control of the wind, which was so devilish in pressing the wreath against him that he instantly didn’t know where anything was and his arms couldn’t find the wreath edge in all that flower softness that was wrapping itself more and more snugly around him, so he became a sort of self-contained event beneath the stark sky of that Fellini morning, a wreath of daisies dancing there before us in all formality, on legs of Billy.
From within the flowers came a petal-muffled plea that was hard to hear in all the wind, especially when doubled over, as Jimmy and I were. Tears flowing, we at last managed to turn the wreath around against the the wind and extract Billy, who then just stood there pawing at his eyes, ghastly eyes with long white, pink and purple lashes that flapped in the wind like a Mae West nightmare: from each lid hung a floppy fringe of daisy petals.
Billy had been hit by the cloud of flowers with his eyes wide open, and had no idea what was blinding him… he groped at his tearing orbs. From the depths of our own eye-rivers, Jimmy and I reached up and, one by one, gingerly plucked the daisy petals from Billy’s eyelids…’ he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me…’ it was all very formal, apart from the breaks for bentover hysteria. Then we grabbed the last wreaths and headed back to where everyone and the priest was waiting in somber graveside silence, to begin the final service…
If you’ve ever been shot out of a cannon 60 times a minute you have some small idea of what was happening to our innards as we stood there, ramrod straight, new young men beside our grandfather’s grave. Tears running down our cheeks, Jimmy and I pressed hankies to our eyes, bodies shuddering, snorting with deep emotion. And as if Grandpa hadn’t done enough already, across the open grave from us stood Billy, daisies in his shattered hair, his eyes red and teary, still redolent of flower petals. Our feelings knew no limits, really.
I remember Aunt Mary looking at us kind of funny, with a puzzled ‘they really loved their grandfather…’ look on her face, but what can you say at such a sorrowful time… Most of the folks assumed, since we cried more than anybody there, that Jimmy and I were devastated. And we were. To the core. But not with grief or loss; we were moved to a higher level.
We were appreciating Grandpa.