I was eleven when my nonie died.
My parents decided that my sister and I were too little to deal with prolonged knowledge of her illness and only told us three months before her death that she had cancer. I remember where I was when my father called me inside to hear the news of her passing – standing in a four-foot-deep trench I’d been laboring over with my best friends, Tom and Mike. We had some notion that such a trench would help us capture one of the bullies in the neighborhood. What we would do after his capture, however, was a mystery, but that didn’t matter. The trench took weeks to dig and that was really the point of the exercise.
I don’t remember my reaction in the moment. I remember returning to that trench with my friends and having distant awareness that our trench was the exact shape and size of a grave.
We traveled to Mississippi where the family gathered. I remember feeling strangely detached and confused. I tried to understand. I knew death was sad. It was an ending and if the television was correct, there would be wailing and uncontrollable sobbing.
I waited for that to hit me and while I waited, I explained it to my little sister who, at the age of eight, was surely more lost than I was. It made me feel better.
“Rosie,” I said, “tomorrow is going to be a very sad day. People might not smile. We’ll have to be quiet.”
This was my way of preparing her (and myself) for a day with no laughter and no play. But when that day came, there were smiles everywhere I looked. My aunts and uncles smiled, my parents smiled, all the distant relatives I didn’t remember and couldn’t keep straight, they all smiled. They laughed and hugged and traded stories for hours. My favorite was the story of Nonie letting the horses follow her into the kitchen for a quick apple so long as Poppy wasn’t around to see.
It was many years before I would come to understand funerals. In fact, it was many years before I would attend another. I came to understand the sobbing and the wailing, I came to understand the laughter, and I came to understand how family weaves and unweaves itself around theses shades of sorrow.
Late this November, one day after I turned thirty-two, Poppy passed away.
This time, I returned home with equal parts sadness and anticipation. I knew there would be tears and difficult moments, strained throats and messy noses, but I also looked forward to seeing the aunts, uncles, and cousins who live all across the country.
I expected the reunion to be good. I expected it to come with surprises and stories and all the awkward moments imaginable. And it did. But it also came with moments so touching and humbling that I hardly knew how to react.
One of those moments was on the day of the funeral. After the service, the church had prepared a meal for the family and we all filed over to the gym to feast. I stood to the side with a few of my cousins, letting others go through the line first. One cousin, who I’ll call J, studying the buffet table, said, “Those better not be Chick-fil-a nuggets.”
This was a surprise. Of all the cousins and as far as I knew, I was the only one that fell in the LGBTQ spectrum. My cousins, all younger than me, didn't have to care that the church was serving food from an institution that actively takes an anti-LGBTQ stance and funds anti-LGBTQ causes. They didn't have to care, and yet, they did. They all did.
Cousin J went to the table, plucked one from the platter, and tasted it with the results we feared.
The rest of the cousins collectively sighed and as we moved through the buffet line, every single one of them walked quietly past the nuggets and instead filled their plates with potatoes and salad.
It was a quiet resistance and I marveled at the cousins I hardly knew all making that choice.
When my uncle sat at our table with a small pile of nuggets on his plate, no one said a thing. At least, not while I was there. I left the table at one point and when I returned, noticed that my uncle had pushed his nuggets to the side of his plate and didn’t eat a one.
I thought I knew about funerals. I thought I knew that they were for the living – for mourning and remembering and moving on. But they’re also about discovering who we are now and how we fit together as pieces of a family.