Funeral Fun dé Mentals!
Updated: Sep 11
Benjamin Luke, my grandfather, was 25 years old when he married Mary McElwaine in 1913. They began their life together working a farm and starting a family somewhere near Warriors Mark, Pa., and celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary as a retired couple in 1963. Sadly, after many years paralyzed by a stroke, Grandpa Ben died in March of 1965. Mary survived him and died of Alzheimer's in her early 90s several years later.
When I was born in 1952, when they lived on or near Buckhorn Mountain, and by the time I came to know them, grandpa Ben had already suffered the stroke and was paralyzed and unable to speak, so I never had the pleasure of hearing his voice.
But, besides being a farmer, I learned that he'd worked in the coal mines of Cambria County and as a laborer for the Pennsylvania Railroad in the Altoona car shops thereafter. He and my dad's father knew one another from working the mines together, and eventually, my mother and father met on Buckhorn and married in 1931.
In the picture (left), Grandma Mary is standing between Grandpa Ben and her younger sister, Hope. The first of their seven children are in front, the eldest being my mother, Emma (6), with her two brothers, Paul and Harry. The picture is taken at the farm. (c1920-21) Others born later are Johnny, Jimmy, William (Bill), and David.
On Saturday, March 8th, 1965, the day of Grandpa Ben's funeral, the temperature in Altoona was below freezing. The city was its usual black and soggy mess it was every winter, and the weather that day made attending a funeral in the hills near Ashville all the more problematic.
Grandpa Ben died Tuesday of that week, it was snowing, and temperatures on the mountain would likely be below freezing. Still, a simple case of cold weather cannot postpone such things. We would attend the graveside ritual, regardless, but first, we had to get there to be there, and we had to be there to attend. So come death or castration, we were going, no matter!
My mother, Emma, whom I mentioned earlier, was a loving soul who put off getting ready until the last possible moment, regardless of the occasion. In fact, Cristopher Goulianis, of Crist's restaurant, on 12th Street, her once employer, used to call her 'Dagwood' because she was always dashing into work three minutes late.
Consequently, she treated the day of her father's funeral without prejudice. Some relative or another was soon to arrive to carry us to the funeral, and in true Emma fashion, we both had yet to begin dressing. Yes, even at the ripe young age of thirteen years, I was truly my mother's son, and it was at this moment that I discovered the two-year-old suit I was to wear was ironically two sizes too small.
To what do I attribute the fashion faux pas? Do suit trousers shrink as they hang, waiting to be worn again years later? Perhaps not enough death in the family, or If he would have died when I was younger, perhaps? Or maybe my mother failed to respond to the flood of unsent invitations we never receive to those imaginary formal affairs that never happened? Otherwise, I might then be better prepared.
In any case, I was literally...coming up SHORT! The pants were two inches above my shoes, and the crotch pulled so tightly that you could clearly see my middle name. To get the trousers buttoned I had to suck in my stomach so far that it hit my spine! In fact, if one didn't know better, they would possibly think I was a female smuggling peanuts in my panties. Or perhaps a boy that was severely deformed.
Besides my sudden change of gender, to cover the unsightly gap between shoe-top and trouser hem, I strategically slipped on a pair of bright red socks, bringing the focus of my fashion endeavor much lower. Then, to complete the ensemble, I donned the matching suit jacket with sleeves that perfectly mimicked the trousers' two-inch shortage. In normal circumstances, the shorter sleeves would have smartly shown my shirt cuffs, that is, had I not worn the short-sleeved shirt that belonged to my older brother.
"Don't worry about it; you will have a coat on over it anyway," mom shouted, "Just get dressed, they'll be here any minute!"
The real topper to the ensemble was one of Schulman's fashionable clip-on neckties. The tie was made for a six-year-old, and being thirteen, I found barely reached my belly button. It wasn't so much the length of the tie, however, as it was the size of my neck. That was the real issue.
Brother's shirt was so large that there was a full one and one-half inches of space between my neck and the shirt's collar. The clip-on tie only served to exacerbate the gaping misfit. On the bright side, I'm sure that this feature alone drew more attention than all the others combined, including my full-frontal feminine anatomy crease of the trousers!
Together, mom and I successfully recreated an ensemble straight out of a 1955 Little Rascals movie, and I thought I looked really spiffy! Right down to the unpolished shoes she had found for me somewhere, i.e., both a right and a left! But wait, there's more!
Having not visited a barber in quite some time, we slicked my hair back with (you guessed it) petroleum jelly. Now, jelly may be great on toast, perhaps, but Vasaline should never be spread on your head! Do you know that I learned that very same day, that if snow lands on Vasaline, it won't MELT! It just piles up and up, causing people stare at you when that happens!
So, with that final touch added, I looked like one-half of the Laural and Hardy team; all that I lacked was the derby bowler hat!
In heaven's mercy, at least nobody was taking pictures!
As our ride sat patiently in front of the house for who knows how long, we finished our final primp. Finally approaching the car, the rear driver's-side door opened from inside to show us to our seats. Despite gallantly holding the door for my mother, she pushed me in ahead of her where I was to be pressed tightly between her and a relative that looked like two, maybe three, relatives, all inside the same clothes!
She was a biggun! OMG! She had an entire cosmetic counter on her face, and she was talking full speed as she opened the door and never paused, not even to acknowledge our presence! This is where the fun begun...hahaha! I don't think so! Whereas outdoors, it was a freezing 10° or less, the very temperature for which I wore the heaviest parka I could find, still, inside the car, the temperature change to 140° was almost instantaneous. Again, OMG!
Packed tightly between two heavily perfumed and easily chilled women, the discomfiture quickly set in, and within seconds I was sweating like a cat in a kennel. The grease on my head was softening, and I swear, it began to sizzle as it dripped down behind my ears. I was frying to death in a Hudson. My arms were trapped, I couldn't pull my hood down, and at the same time, I was severed at the waist and crushed in the crotch by pants that would barely fit a newborn. Then, my feet went numb (and it wasn't from the cold)!
Packed into some model of a '1950s era I-don't-know-what car, maybe a Hudson, I was suffering a heatstroke while trying not to breathe the perfumes of five fur-wrapped women that were tripping my gag reflex; this purported to be one of the worst funerals (or events of any type) in my entire life, and this was only the beginning of the fifteen to twenty-mile joy ride over Buckhorn mountain.
As we embarked upon this fine wintery day, my soul cried out: "Angels and ministers of grace, defend me!" And, I had yet to read Shakespeare, so I must have been channeling!
Whereas I was supposed to be mourning the loss of my grandfather, I was now even more so mourning the possible loss of my manhood, regardless of how great or minuscule it may become. I still swear on my morning toast that I would, today, have a voice deeper than James Earl Jones had it not been for that day, in that car, with those women, and wearing those pants!
As we set off, I saw that Auntie Mary Walruspuss, another relative whom I did not recognize, even without tusks, was driving the car! I stared at her jowls and turkey neck, jiggling like Jello every time she turned her head to talk to us in the back.
"Oh, Emma! Is this your son? What a handsome fella! I can see he's grieving for his grandfather, just look at the pain in face!"
"IT'S NOT MY FACE THAT HURTS!" My brain shouted as I squirmed beneath the sweaty, greasy parka.
Departing from 1626-14th Avenue (my mother's 100+ year-old house that is still standing today), we descended 14th Avenue hill and turned to the right, onto 18th Street. Heading...what? North? Possibly! We drove up toward Redhill in the direction of Buckhorn and points beyond. In any case, we headed UP and over Red Hill to a place I knew not where. I just wanted to be there already!
Sadly, from my perspective, stuck in the middle of the back seat, I could see the road ahead was well cleared of snow and ice and safe to maneuver, leaving me to realize that mine would be a slow, painful death from asphyxiation by hot perfume gas, rather than a sudden and tragic death like crashing into a large tree or something more pleasantly instantaneous!
Auntie Walruspuss was also a very 'slow' and 'cautious' driver, meaning we should make the fifteen-mile or so trip in no less than an hour or two, during which I expected, or perhaps hoped, to be unconscious most of the time.
As we broached the top of Red hill, having spread from my feet upward, I was now numb from the waist down, and my underwear was so soggy I was no longer certain it was from sweat! On a positive note, at the rate I was perspiring, my suit should fit perfectly as my body would have possibly shrunk two sizes by the time we arrived.
Besides my legs losing all circulation, the relentless heat pumping into the cabin of the car, and the odor of the five women who basted themselves each with a different perfume, was made nauseatingly worse by Auntie Jabberjaws who could not stop talking. Irritatingly, she would blabber something into the air, presumably at the diver, and then turn and speak directly into my face as if seeking my support! Holy SMOKE-BREATH! Her mouth could gag a maggot! Lovely! I am now protégé of Auntie Dragon-Breath Jabberjaws, and the trip has only just begun!
My brain screamed: "Somebody, please open a window, or strangle me!"
Remember, this is the 1960's so there were no road improvements as yet on route 36. Consequently, as we rounded the Devil's Elbow the road appeared frighteningly narrow as a sudden fog instantly enveloped the car. As we ascended, the thicker the fog became. Not to mention that the thicker the fog became, the more confused Auntie Walruspuss became until the two were unnervingly syncopated in their thickness. She obviously had no idea how to drive in fog.
Within the first quarter-mile or so past the elbow, four of the five women were now driving the car with Auntie Walruspuss holding the wheel and taking orders the best she could. She kept jerking the wheel left and right, and left and right, trying to figure out which side of the road she was on. Twice we nearly ditched because she thought the white line at the road's edge was the centerline. Our only salvation came in the form of yelps of fear from the other women as weeds and bushes suddenly loomed in front of them.
"NOTHING SHALL KEEP US FROM OUR QUEST!" I heard in my head as I closed my eyes and thought of my very own funeral, most likely a tiny box with a puddle of Jim at the bottom.
Shouting above the sound of the heater motor, the car engine, and three women all talking simultaneously, Auntie Jabberjaws colossal body leaned forward so she could provide driving directions directly into the ear of Auntie Walruspuss. In doing so pressed my mother and me so tightly together that I was afraid I might have to be delivered a second time!
Emma (mom), by the way, was very stoic and sat in silence with one hand on my leg as we prayed for instant death instead of a lengthy hospital stay and years of recuperation. ("Damn the torpedos! Full speed ahead!") It was about that very moment that Auntie Jabberjaws grabbed my coat and jerked me across her lap, throwing me like I was a rag doll against the passenger door. Presumably, she needed access to the center of the seat for a better view of the road and a clear path for shouting driving instructions.
Once again, I silently prayed: "Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!"
Somehow, we survived another couple plodding miles up the highway, when suddenly, as the saying goes, all hell broke loose. Out of the fog came a large sedan, headed directly toward us, and instead of moving out of the way, Auntie Walruspuss stopped dead in the road as if she wanted to ensure that the oncoming car couldn't miss.
From my vantage point, I couldn't see a thing in front, but, well, judging from the screams, I was somewhat able to draw some conclusions, ergo, at least now we ALL had wet underwear! Blasting its horn steadily as it passed, Auntie Walruspuss, assuming that she was once again on the wrong side of the road, stomped the gas peddle to the floor and made a hard right turn. One line, two lines, no more lines...CRUNCH! A VERY LOUD CRUNCHING SOUND as the car tipped over on its side.
How Many Funerals Can You Have In One Day?
The ditch directly in front of Smithmeyer's Restaurant, at that time, was likely only three or four feet deep. At least deep enough for the car to turn entirely on its side when it entered. Salted snow, dead weeds, and dirt were crushed against the outside of the passenger door window, and I was crushed against it on the inside.
Aunty Walruspuss, in her panic, did not realize that she was at the crossroads of Wopsy cutoff, aka Skyline Drive, and with the other women all yelling simultaneous and conflicting directions, Tuskless Auntie Walruspuss did what she thought best to avoid further on-coming traffic. Consequently, our journey came, then and there, to a very abrupt halt at the most perfect point it could possibly happen!
Suddenly pinned, as I said, against the passenger door with the weight of a very full-figured woman AND my mother on top of me, I was blind to everything that happened. And, I might add, completely confused and barely breathing with the topsy-turvy, troll-haired Auntie Jabberjaws frizzy gray hair covering my face.
With what little breath I was able to draw for those many moments, my nose was filled with the rancid smell of Aqua Net hairspray and cheap perfume. She also taught me what a wine grape feels like having the juice stomped out of it as she struggled to bring herself into some sort of upright position.
The crash was less of a collision and more of a quick slip/slide into the ditch so that the car's damage and our injuries were negligible. That is...if I didn't expire before someone extracted these women from on top of me. Fortunately, a few of those folks breakfasting in Smithmeyers Restaurant witnessed the unique parking skills of the driving but tuskless Walrus (coo-coo-cachew). They immediately dispatched help to the scene of the disaster.
(In fact, if you visit that intersection today, you will see a much different situation than ours. Today, there is no ditch, the road is widened, and Smithmeyer's is long gone!)
Of course, I had no idea where we were, and hearing the doors (now far above me) being opened, and feeling a pleasant and most welcomed rush of cold air, it surprised me that Sergeant Preston of the Mounties was so nearby. "Don't worry, Nell!," I could hear him shout. "I'll save you!" Within minutes I was looking up the skirt at one of the most expansive bottoms I've ever seen in my entire life, and happy to say it was clad in an assortment of female devices.
As I stared at what looked like the Hindenburg floating above me, a sudden chill ran through me at the thought of that colossal bumm dropping...hurtling back down on top of me like a giant bag of cottage cheese, crushing from me what little breath I had left! Panic swept through me and sent a little bit of pee down my leg, and I'm sure I let out a weak and worrisome scream!
As the final vestige of ankles and shoes disappeared and all the ladies were extracted, the door slammed mercilessly shut, trapping me inside. As I left my position against the cool relief of the unbroken window, I stood and tried to reach the door handle above me. Then, without warning, the door swung upward once more. Peering down at me was a small head stuffed into a plaid hat with furry ear-flaps. I immediately heard banjo music somewhere off in the distance as a similarly clad arm reached in and grabbed me!
"So, there you are! Yer mother said she might'a forgot somethin. Nobody even seen ya layin down there!"
He grabbed my wrists and lifted my 80-pound body up like he was jerking an umbrella from behind the seat. Looking me up and down, he asked if anything was broken or injured. (Not unless you can claim a damaged ego.) Still soaked with sweat and now shivering in the frigid cold, he led me away from the upturned car with a huge hand on my shoulder as if I might try to escape.
Inside, I tore off the parka and attempted to turn my clothing back to its near-proper position. Everything felt twisted and undone after the squishing and tumbling and being jerked from the car. Now I was shivering in my sweat and, who knows what kind of wet pants, as we sat at a table safely inside the restaurant.
While someone made necessary phone calls, mom and I had coffee and doughnuts. It wasn't long before somebody from the funeral home, not too many miles distant, was there to collect us and finish the journey. A larger vehicle, less heat, and fewer people carried us the last four or five miles in relative comfort.
Regarding the funeral itself, I recall the funeral home with the hushed voices and overpowering scent of flowers that helped ease the trauma of the perfume-riddled car.
Grandpa Ben appeared waxy and swollen, almost unrecognizable in his appearance that showed obvious trances of cosmetics and maybe even lipstick. 'Was he gay'? I wondered. Still, I recall very little about the graveside part of the service except that it was freezing and seemed to take most of the day. At last, it ended.
The snow that gathered on top of my greased head slowly melted and ran down my neck as we were driven to my grandparent's home (pictured right) for a final gathering of food, friendship, and condolences.
Presumably, all funerals are somber occasions, but it is rare to attend a funeral with the uncertainty of yourself surviving! Making it, not just a funeral, but a trauma you'll never forget in more ways than one.
Still, we made it to where we needed to be, and I was personally happy for having a very limited number of grandparents for which to attend such things.