HEARERS OF THE WORD: Attending the wake of a little cousin

Most of the little girl’s relatives figured Good Friday, already a day of shadows and tears, as good a time as ever to attend the wake of a child.
The parade of headlights snaked over the countryside. They moved north from Pontotoc County, up the hills, down the hollows, to the outskirts of Hickory Flat, to a simple Methodist Church nestled in the bend of the road like an infant sleeping in its mother’s arm.
They came to pay their respects. Good people. Men who that same evening had bought department store slacks fit for the occasion. Women who told their men what matched then stuffed their purses with Kleenex for the visitation.
They weren’t talkers but each felt the need to comfort the father, to go against their own laconic nature and to speak even though not directly asked a question. But the sight of a child in a coffin is an anvil against which words break themselves. It squelches even the tenacity of country folk to speak a word of comfort. So, silence reigned, within the church, around the tiny white coffin, just as it did outside, where men gathered in desperate circles to smoke.
Talk of food was all they could manage. “Ya’ll get something to eat? They got plenty in there.”
The father, a young man whose hard life had kept him lean, stood vigil over the little girl. He wore a white, short-sleeved knit shirt and khakis, and once every few minutes he draped his muscular forearm around the shoulders of a relative. His grip had a way of making even the hard men, those who cut pulp wood and worked on river boats, appear both sympathetic and vaguely childlike.
“We put her little stuffed monkey in there with her,” the father said to his aunt, his blue eyes misting. He passed a calloused hand back over his crew-cut blond hair, the style and color of which hadn’t changed since he was the little girl’s age.
“Ya’ll come on up here and see her,” he said, broadening the sweep of his arm.
Each person who stood beside the coffin said the same thing, that the little girl looked like she’d simply fallen asleep, that she was an angel, a doll, peaceful. Her pinkish blue lips pursed as if about to speak. She wore a white dress with lace and her dark blonde hair fell in bangs on her forehead, spilling over her tiny shoulders. She held a rose in her right hand.
Behind the coffin, near the pulpit, a video screen showed pictures of the little girl. She wore camouflage and face paint. She sat on a couch with her sisters. She laughed as someone tickled her. The images tumbled off the screen, dissolving into digital fragments as the next tumbled in.
Sitting in the back pews, old people whispered of relatives who’d come and gone earlier in the evening, introduced each other to cousins and nephews who were complete strangers.
One by one, when they’d stayed a polite length of time, the mourners shook hands and shuffled out the door. They put on their coats against the cool of the night, crunching the limestone gravel underneath their boots.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holleyat 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.

Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal