Epiphanies at Uncle Harold's Funeral

DIANE FANNING

August 13, 1992|By DIANE FANNING

I was just 13 on that sunny day in 1963 when my 21-year-old Uncle Harold was thrown from a pickup truck to his death. Family harmony also died that afternoon. The instrument of Harold's demise was his brother-in-law, Burn. In a drunken stupor, he had driven the wrong way up a one-way street, causing the ensuing collision.

The members of this 13-sibling family were scattered far and wide from California to Massachusetts to Germany. They all converged in Baltimore to pay their last respects, filling the houses of those who still lived here. Overfilling my house, as a matter of fact; I had to move next door for the duration.

In the evenings while bunking with my 15-year-old neighbor, an aspiring beatnik-communist, I was introduced to Joan Baez, Buffy St. Marie and Peter, Paul and Mary. I read Karl Marx, Fanny Hill and numbers of beat poets.

In the mornings, I learned the varieties of fried eggs. No two uncles wanted eggs the same way. One liked them basted in butter, another fried in bacon grease. Another insisted on once-over-light. Just about all of them wanted a perfectly whole, runny yoke surrounded by a perfectly and completely cooked egg white -- not an easy feat for a novice.

Among all these egg connoisseurs one uncle requested a broken yolk, ever so slightly scrambled into the edge of the egg white and cooked hard. He ended up with all my mistakes. At the time, I didn't think he knew that. Looking back, I do believe he planned it that way.

Of course, the uncles also wanted big mugs of coffee to wash down those eggs. The mistake I made was setting a steaming mug in front of Uncle Ed, the Mormon from California. That earned me a lecture about polluting my body, the Temple of God, with that evil stimulant, caffeine.

Uncle Harold was a Navy man, and I remember uniforms and American flags as a backdrop to the unfolding drama of the funeral. Muttered whispers of disapproval rippled around me as the presence of a certain woman became known. I heard hesitant movements and a gentle sobbing that built to a keening wail. The unknown woman suddenly rushed forward and was prostrate on my uncle's closed coffin.

Dark-suited men gently grabbed her and led her away. She was disheveled, her clothes tawdry. Her face was tired, worldly, defeated.

My heart was pounding. Who was this woman? Why was everyone acting so disgusted? Why was her sorrow treated with disdain? Why was the most obviously heartbroken person at the funeral being led away in disgrace?

The muttering voices around me explained.

''Just a whore from The Block.''

''He had one in every port.''

''What a disgusting display!''

''She's just sorry she lost a customer.''

Part of me wanted to stand up and scream in her defense, ''Even a whore can fall in love!'' Another part of me wanted to run to this Mary Magdalene and wrap my arms around her. Instead, I dutifully kept my seat, quietly trying to understand the adults who had taught me to ''do unto others as you would have them do unto you'' and ''let those among you without sin cast the first stone.''

Later, at the graveside, a Baptist minister said the final prayer. He expressed the hope that Harold had, during his fatal flight from the pickup to the roadside, asked Jesus for the forgiveness of his sins, and that Harold was now rejoicing in heaven rather than suffering in hell.

At this, my Mormon uncle launched himself forward to the graveside, looked the preacher in the eye and shouted: ''How dare you? There is no such place as hell, and I am deeply offended that you would desecrate the memory of my brother and insult every member of this family by suggesting he could possibly be there.''

A moment of tense silence followed until the cowed minister was able to intone diplomatically, ''Let us all take a moment for silent prayer.'' When the air was clear, the preacher said ''Amen,'' and we all shuffled off to get on with grieving for Harold.

For me, the entire week was a turning point -- an epiphany. I learned volumes about life, death and the fine art of frying eggs.

Diane Fanning is a free-lance writer living in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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