Learning How to Grieve

by Louie Crew

© 1993, 2004 by Louie Crew

When I moved to Beijing I began to understand All Saints Day, and why we Americans prefer its Pagan antecedent, Halloween.   It's at All Saints Day that Christianity comes closest to being an Eastern religion.
Only very late did I learn how to grieve.  I was 45 years old before I ever lost anyone close to me, and I had not even seen older members of my family grieve.  Only one of my grandparents lived long enough for me  to witness my parents' grief; and that grandparent was not close to anyone  except my aunt.
So I had never grieved until 1982, the year both my parents died,  six months apart.  I was an only child and we three were very close. I learned to grieve all alone, and I learned badly.
From this distance I can understand why people in earlier times set aside periods of mourning.  My parents used to joke about such a notion, as if it was silly to require grief for set periods.  They considered themselves liberated from such ancient traditions, and considered their grief, like their love, more freely chosen, more spontaneous, and hence more sincere.
I now wonder whether they were right.  I wonder too whether their  ancestors set periods of grief to make it last artificially, as my parents assumed, or whether they set periods of grief so that the community would tell people when to stop, when enough is enough.
I had a difficult time learning to stop.  For over sixteen months fierce mourning was my hourly portion.  I masked it well enough; but not inside myself.  I could not cry outwardly. Inside, I rarely stopped.  So great a void went out of me.
Early one mourning, about 1 o'clock or so, I was awakened by the sounds of a woman crying in the apartment just below mine.  Slowly, steadily she wept, deep, deep heaving weeping, and although I did not know her, did not know the cause of her weeping (indeed, had thought the apartment still unoccupied), I began to weep too, my cadences with hers.  For at least four, maybe five hours, we wept, sometimes responsively, sometimes in  unison.  And then I slept really soundly for the first time since my  parents' funerals.
I later learned that my heaving companion was a peasant woman whose son had killed himself by accident.  While he had been chinning on the soccer  goal in the wee hours, the goal had fallen and chopped off his head.  The school kept the whole matter hush-hush, lest the government take action against the leaders, and they had not told the me, the only foreigner who lived there.  When the peasant woman came all the way from western China to the funeral, the gave her the fancy apartment reserved for foreigners, the only ones besides the president's to have hot water.
I am grateful for my Chinese partner in grief.  She helped me to  close my grieving and get on.

At All Saints Day, I like again to visit these dear people.  Earlier this  year I visited Alabama for the first time since I buried the second of them. Ernest had packed notes in my socks, in my underwear, in my brief case, to make the trip easier, "I love you.  Oh what joy there is in loving. Oh what peace you will find on this trip home," says one of them, still before me, signed with a drawing of himself.

On the day the conference ended, I rented a car and drove, drove, drove, first from Tuscaloosa in the western part of the state to Montgomery in the center, and had dinner with a cousin and her husband, the only two members of my family.  From there I drove through terrible downpour up the low ridges on the eastern part of the state, pretty much the reverse route Andrew Jackson had taken when he moved downstate on this same ridge to fight the battle of horseshoe bend.  I reached Goodwater in Coosa County and took the side road, now with a named street sign added only within the last 20 years, saying Clay Street (Ernest's  surname:  did someone know?) and came to that front porch where I had played monopoly every summer when I visited my grandmother.   On this same porch my father, then only 6, had once cowered watching all the local Klansmen in hoods, in 1911, calling out to his father:  "Louie! Now you come on out here.  You have to do your part!  We have citizenship to take care of!"  And Louie, my grandfather, had said, "John Dean,"  addressing his brother-in-law, who lead the pack, "you know you have no  business doing anything for which you are afraid to show your face!"   My dad's eyes must have nearly popped out as he watched, and years later he  recalled his surprise when his father had called out the name of each man in the Klan, in spite of their coverings.  Of course, we later realized, that as president of the bank, he had lent money for almost every horse or wagon in the crowd, and identifying 200 people or so was not that big a fete.

I turned around in the driveway under the same pecan tree that had shaded the porch then and had shaded it for my monopoly games, and as I drove  back down Clay Street, the bright red clay of those parts had the road awash in rusty blood, as I made my way to John Dean's old house, which seemed closed.  Had Patti, his daughter and my father's first cousin, died?  She's 82.  Her mother would have been pregnant with her the night her father led the troop to Louie's front porch.  I drove round back and found the light on at her back porch, where as a small child I had played with lard cans in diapers.  In one picture my parents like the most--one which I destroyed when I inherited the family album, I was squealing because the  little girl in the picture, her niece, was trying to take away the doll  carriage from me.

Patti answered the door in a whisper and urged me in out of the rain. She clearly does not have much time to live.  She is lonely.  "You can't find colored who will work like Lilly," she said.  "Is Lilly still with you,"  I asked.  "Yes.  But not much help now, since she's 78 too.  But she's all I've got."

When my father was still alive and very sick, Lilly and a girlfriend of  hers had driven the 64 miles from Goodwater to Anniston to see him, and  I happened to be there.  As we moved back to her car when they left, I told her, "I want to show you the picture of the person I married."

"Miss Patti told me bout him," she said, eager to see his picture.

"Purty colored man," she said; "Did Eula see him before she died?"  she asked as she looked at him approvingly.

"No, only his picture.  They still don't want him to visit,"  I said.

"Hmp." she said.

"Eula said she had shore brought me up right!" I said.

"Yes," Lilly said, and added, "you two be good."

"And you drive carefully," I said.

"Want to look at my Christmas things?" Patti said, catching me in a daze of memory.  She had moved to the door to a part of the old porch now closed  off and winterized.  Inside, she showed me boxes upon boxes of ornaments,   all her ornaments.  As we moved back inside through her dining hall, it  seemed she had four huge silver services, each a rival to the other.

"I outlived them all," she said, "and buried them all."  She never married. Is she?  I thought to myself; but it seemed unimportant.  We were not  close.

That other Louie had raised his boy not to be close to her brother Dean or to his father, John. When Dad was in college, Louie had called him to say, "John took Dean to his first lynching last night; he will never be the same again."  He wasn't.  He was a hate-filled and bitter man all his life.  I remember visiting him once at his office in the  auditor's office at the state capitol building.  He was angry at the world. His face looked hard as shoe leather.

I started to ask for a Christmas ornament since Ernest likes to collect home-made ones.  But I decided to bring him moon pies and olives stuffed with Jalapenos instead.   We don't need any memorials for the KKK on  our tree.

"Thank you for coming to see me," she said.

"Yes, mam," I said.  Though almost 60 myself, I know my place in this  ancient rib-backed culture.

I edged the rented car nawth, up the most desolate of county roads.  I decided not to stop in the gully where Ernest and I still own a few  acres for which we pay only $16.64 in ad valorem tax per year to Mr. Luker, Coosa County's auditor.  It's the last of some land a man gave my father when he couldn't make payments on a car he'd bought from Dad's Chevrolet dealership just before the Great Depression.   Dad later sent me to prep school on money from the better plots.

It didn't seem important to go to Anniston, my birthplace.  Nobody there is related to me; and it was too late to wake up my Latin teacher; and I could not find out where they had buried Mrs. Jackson, my surrogate black mother.  Around 10:30 I reached Gadsden, Mother's hometown, and  checked into a motel.  First I drove to the cemetery.  It seemed to have shrunk.  I remembered it as twice its size and in a fine old neighborhood. Ambulances shrieked around me when I went to check it out before going to the motel, just to see what time it would open.  I was there at 7:10 the next morning.
I opened the letter which Ernest had tucked away in my Prayerbook with instructions that I read it only at their graves.  In it, he addressed them:

         I'm glad you came this way:  your love has brought love to us.  The ways of life you both gave to your son live on in him today.

         You gave him no hiding place down here!
         I rejoice in the Lord and give thanks to him for bringing you this way.  And for giving me the love of your son, Erman Louie Crew, Jr.

                                          Your son Ernest

May the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them

Luti of the Alabama Belles/Erman Louie Crew, Jr.


Lula Gaines

They named me for the pretty lady
   who ran the silent picture show, 
but people always said as I grew up,
   "Your five older sisters
got all the looks in your family."

Later people whispered that the first Lula
   wore her red professionally.

I worked as bank teller
   and memorized a thousand dirty jokes
to win people's attention. 

So far as Erman knew when he came courting,
   Daddy was the respectable "Mister Johnny,"
even when the depression ruined his sawmill.
   Now 45 years later even in this quiet place
I fear someone might have told Erman
   he married the bootlegger's runt.

Great-grandma Griffin had 1,000 slaves,
   but my son turned queer
and married a black man
   who was real sweet and did not force
his way in on us in our old age.

I refused to cut the boy's pretty curls,
   but when he was 4,
his daddy sneaked him to the barber.
   The next year, Dorothy nextdoor
gave him his first candy bar,
   and he fattened just like me.
For a long time he and his daddy blamed me.
   I remember later when they sang,
"Praise it, praise it, all the little children,
   Food is Love, Food is Love."
That was when the boy went to prep school,
   read Freud, and mocked Sunday School.

I gave up telling dirty jokes
   back when he was in high school and scared,
telling me what he'd done with the boys
   who came to spend the night
when Erman and I went off to watch
   Alabama beat Auburn at Legion Field.         

Although he made me promise I'd not tell
   his father, I had to.
Erman said the phase would pass.
   I started reading the Bible straight through,
and did so for 35 times 
   in as many years before I died. 

I gave up playing cards when I was 65
   and gave up smoking at 70.
God must not have been impressed,
   because nothing changed.

Erman got meaner when he retired,
   and I was always embarrassed 
when the neighbors could hear him yelling at me
   after he had lost something
and needed someone to blame it on.
   He could always work me though.
If we were at a picnic and the wives
   said each could make his own sandwich,
he'd smile sweetly and say to me,
   "But, honey, you can make a sandwich
more betterer than I can."

   Funny how we always imitated the maid
whenever we got really intimate.
   I named Eula "Belle" 
just so strangers wouldn't confuse us,
   but then even friends 
started calling me "Lula Belle."
   Then I liked it when folks would ask,
"Is this Eula your sister?"
   "Yes, the only difference is
that one is black and the other white."
   I resented it when Eula died 
just as I began the hard work of wearing out.
I called Erman my "Rock of Gibralter"
   and he could fix almost anything, 
if you were willing to wait for three months. 
   I loved him but still resented him 
                 for treating me like a little girl.

His people always felt they were better than me.
   I was the only child in my family never to divorce,
but he reminded me that noone in his ever did.
   Even so, his grandfather deserted his grandmother,
and his other grandmother kept snuff in that can
   Erman still wouldn't let me remove from her clock,
even after she'd been dead for 60 years.      

When Erman's mother would come to visit,
   she always wrinkled her nose 
before she tasted, as if my spaghetti-and-cheese
   was not sharp enough or didn't have enough butter
in the bread clusters on top.

Still, she knew I baked the better cakes,
   and would always ask  for what was left
to carry it back home with her.

My son never liked her.
   "They're so rural," he complained.
Even when they moved from Coosa County
   and bought the big house in Birmingham,
        he emended:
"Big frogs can't quit croaking at the ocean."

I remember when Erman wouldn't buy us ice cream,
   and I drove the child and myself,
the two of us on the front seat of the Chevy
   fussing away till the child screamed,
"Someone's in the back, Mother!"
   Erman's bald head rose up cackling
like a ghost, him having run out the back
   just to scare us.

When the boy was 4 or 5,
   he used to lie in the bed with Erman and me
and we would all play.
   Erman would say, "Now which of you two
deserves a whipping today?"
   and each of us would point to the other, laughing.
Erman would lovepat both of us.

I didn't like life much after that
   till I grew old.
Erman was always saying 
   that he was going to buy this
or going to buy that,
   but he went bankrupt instead.
I left the country club
   to take up bookkeeping again.

I got lots of respect in my 70s,
   because I demanded it.
I'd call up the power company
   and the bank manager
to complain if a bill was too high
   or a clerk had been rude.

My son once complained,
   "Anyone who reads as much as you do
should have better things 
   to do with her time
than to keep up with who is taking 
   whose parking place in the lots
behind the apartments.
   But I got him told,
reminding him that when he gets to be old,
   he might find that friends neglect him
so much that he'd be glad
   to have a parking lot to keep up with.

I drowned in my own fluids
   the way Daddy did.
It was very painful.
   I kept wanting Erman and my son
to get in the bed with me
   like old times.
They said my mind wandered.
   I doubt it.
I was just hitting bedrock.

At least my boy got the wooden box
   that I had requested
and wouldn't let anyone see me.
   No more can  they talk 
about the bootlegger's runt.
   I even managed to get Erman and me both
right next to Daddy,
   cause my family had the bigger lot,
and our cemetery has perpetual care.

--Louie Crew

First appeared in Slow Dancer [U.K.] 15 (1985): 6-9.  Special American 
Issue.  Used my Chinese penname, Li Min Hua.

©1985 by Slow Dancer.  ©2004 by Loiue Crew


Ghost Houses

Newly licensed we drove those kids 
      not yet allowed to drive
out to the antebellum house
      old man Greenleaf had
deserted off the main road.

Greenleaf had fallen on hard time and,
      rumor had it, 
had even taken to burning for firewood
      a whole wing of
his larger decaying mansion downtown.

In the creaky darkness we
      initiated our charges.  One of us
would bang a door stealthily
      and another would slip away
by a back passage to


from an upstairs room.  We watched 
      other guys laugh
to mask their fear. It was better than
      Frankenstein at the drive-in.

Last week, in another ghost house
      twelve miles away
the father of one of those boys did not
      know me, as he gobbled
in one mouthful two pieces of cake, an apple,
      and a banana.
Twice a week his keepers find him
      in the woods wandering aimlessly.
But he does not recognize his own son.
      Once this man carved
stone angels to mark the exit for others.
      His son has had to sell 
the family memorial business
      to pay the nurses.

In another room, a noisier haint
      beckoned from her lunch,
rattling a spoon on her tray
      to assure that this visitor
would stop to observe her
 laughing and shaking mindlessly
in her wheelchair before the pretty nurse.
      Forty year ago,  she whose shadow
now sits and rattles, gave me
      my first phonograph record,
"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree 
      with Anyone Else But Me,"
and the flip side,  
      "Johnny Got a Zero Today."

In the scariest room, down one hundred pounds
      to only ninety-three,
my father took three minutes to pull himself
      to the rail of his bed.
"Son, I can't commit suicide,
      and it seems I can't die naturally,
      though I have tried for months.
The pain is deeper now.
      Please understand.  Pray
that I die before morning.
      I love you."

Don't tell me that ghosts don't exist.
      I have been to the ghost houses.
I have seen the ghosts.
      I know.

--Louie Crew

First appeared in The South Florida Poetry Review 3.2 (1986): 38-39   
under Crew's penname,  Li Min Hua. © 1986 by South Florida Poetry Review.  © 2004 by Louie Crew,