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.
Later people whispered that the first Lula
I worked as bank teller
So far as Erman knew when he came courting,
Great-grandma Griffin had 1,000 slaves,
I refused to cut the boy's pretty curls,
I gave up telling dirty jokes
Although he made me promise I'd not tell
I gave up playing cards when I was 65
Erman got meaner when he retired,
Funny how we always imitated the maid
His people always felt they were better than me.
When Erman's mother would come to visit,
Still, she knew I baked the better cakes,
My son never liked her.
I remember when Erman wouldn't buy us ice cream,
When the boy was 4 or 5,
I didn't like life much after that
I got lots of respect in my 70s,
My son once complained,
I drowned in my own fluids
At least my boy got the wooden box
First appeared in Slow Dancer [U.K.] 15 (1985):
6-9. Special American
©1985 by Slow Dancer. ©2004 by
Greenleaf had fallen on hard time and,
In the creaky darkness we
from an upstairs room. We watched
Last week, in another ghost house
In another room, a noisier haint
In the scariest room, down one hundred pounds
Don't tell me that ghosts don't exist.
First appeared in The South Florida Poetry Review
3.2 (1986): 38-39