“Jeff, look at all those dead people on the side of the hill. Look at ‘em, quick!”
THE YEAR was 1997. I sat in the backseat of a tiny Toyota Corolla with my perfumed, slightly purple, mostly silver haired Granny Hamlett as my neighbor. She was seated directly behind my dad at the wheel whose eyes searched for fellow road warriors and interstate truckers to shake his head at.
“None of these sonofabitches can drive,” my dad would often say whenever we ventured on a road trip of any length far removed from the mean streets and bustling roadways of Phenix, Virginia.
My mom rode shotgun, her long fingers indented in the side of the seat cushions holding on for dear life. She’d press an imaginary brake pedal whenever a big rig ran up beside us. Her chest would fill with air and her back straighten.
We were coming off 81 en route to Radford to visit my sister at college. She had just moved in about a month or so before; or, as I like to refer to this period in my life, “The Year My Mother Was Sad Everyday and Blamed Me For Everything That Happened at the House.”
Also, it was “The Year the Charlotte County Police Were at My House Almost Every Weekend Blaming Me for Shit I Didn’t Do, Which In Turn Made My Mom’s Sadness Even More Dire.”
“Where? Say what?” I said to my grandmother as I removed the headphones to my Walkman.
“Up there,” my grandmother pointed, starting to laugh. “Look at ‘em.”
A lush green cemetery sat in the distance on a hillside about two hundred yards from the highway. Unnaturally green ornamental wreaths were perched on black stands and red flowers and yellow flowers adorned the simple gray tombstones. There was silence on the hill; but in the car my grandmother dabbed the corners of each eye with a tissue and shook with laughter. She had tickled herself.
I suppose I was expecting zombies or something because I scanned the tombstoned hillside with the very real possibility of seeing a hoard of dead people in tattered clothing standing (or perhaps sitting), sort of hanging out casually on a Saturday morning, looking at passersby from their vantage point.
“You… I can’t believe,” her voice trailed off.
But there were no zombies in sight.
Her mascara ran down her blushed cheeks.
“I can’t believe… oh goodness… I can’t believe you looked.”
August 4, 2016. We make our way up Proctor Street behind Main, past the old white house, past Biro’s Inn, a place which was a mystery to me as a child and still now. As the hearse makes the turn into the cemetery drive by Drakes Branch Presbyterian Church, the memory presents itself.
“What are you laughing about?” my wife asks.
“My Granny. That time she said, ‘Look at all those dead people on the hill.’”
My wife had heard the story numerous times. Any time we pass by a cemetery I say to the kids, “Look at all those dead people.”
“Where, Daddy?” they respond, looking.
And my wife, in turn, shakes her head.
My family’s sense of humor seems to bewilder my wife at times. Perhaps some would say it ventures into inappropriate territory, and occasionally, borderline morbid. You’d have to know my family. It’s one of the things I love most about our individual and collective personality—the ability to find humor in everyday life, and even death, if done in a particular manner.
If I ever want to smile, I think of my sister laughing. Once she starts, there’s no stopping that train.
My dad was the same way. He used to come home from work with stories that would make a dog laugh.
“Let me tell you what this bozo did,” he would say.
And he’d get to cackling like a hyena.
He started so many sentences this way.
When my dad was dying from leukemia, some of his old work buddies stopped by my apartment on Pantops in Charlottesville to visit during his furlough. My dad had lost about 40-50 lbs. by this time. His arms were sticks and his face sunken in a bit when he wasn’t swollen with fluid. The belt he wore I had to pop an additional hole in the end with a corkscrew so he could tighten his pants further.
“Trying to get back to my old Army boxing weight,” he said. “And did you know my teeth were so big?”
If you put my mom, sister, and me in the same room together, there will be uncontrollable tears brought on by laughter in no time flat.
When my Papa Hamlett was dying, quite literally on his death bed, he passed gas audible to all in the room. Releasing gas, along with the death rattle in the throat, is very common at the end. My sister was sitting on the edge of the bed down by my Papa’s feet.
“Jennifer, was that you?” he laughed.
My sister turned a smidgen red with embarrassment and then held back a sniffle.
About an hour later I had my finger on my grandfather’s wrist. It was cool to the touch now, his pulse weak and fading. A few minutes later, nothing.
My grandmother had an interesting sense of humor. As a kid, I used to visit her at the Charlotte Gazette where she worked.
There was a man by the name of John Hoppe who came in to the paper’s office to visit often, and he had what is called an electrolarynx from smoking too many cigarettes. Whenever he talked, he had to push a button at his throat.
The first time I met Mr. Hoppe at the Charlotte Gazette, my grandmother said after he had finished speaking, “He’s not actually part robot.”
When my grandmother died, my sister posted a hilarious status update on Facebook with a photo of her son and Granny together. It read:
Granny loved Bentley, and I’m sure she thought she would never see the day I had a child or got married for that matter. And I know this because she told me. In fact, she handed me a $100 bill a few years back and said, “Here. All the rest of them have gotten married and I’m sure you won’t, so I just want to make sure you get your money too.”
That comment annoyed me at the time but for some reason I now think it’s hilarious—probably because it just sums up her personality!
Jaunita Tharpe Hamlett, my grandmother, was a strong woman. She was the first female mayor in Charlotte County, Virginia. Drakes Branch was the town, 1986 the year. She held the position until 2002. I was proud of this fact when growing up. I still am. I was with her once when Governor Doug Wilder paid her a visit. Wilder was the first African-American elected as governor of Virginia and the first African-American governor of any state since Reconstruction at the time. I skinned my knee on loose gravel running back to her car to get an ink pen that day at the administration building parking lot in neighboring Charlotte Court House.
“Do you know who this man is,” she asked me. “You’ll want his autograph.”
And while my grandmother was no Democrat, and she would tell you as much, she, like Wilder, was a bit of a trailblazer.
Thirty years from 1986 when my grandmother was elected mayor, America is finally at the point where it’s seriously considering a female president. Even eight years ago, people had doubts as to a female running the country. Not me. I know from my grandmother that a woman can do just as good a job as any man—even better perhaps.
I wasn’t sad when my grandmother died. That statement may sound insensitive or uncaring, but it’s not. I loved my grandmother. I didn’t want her to suffer—and she was suffering. I’m saddened that my mom, aunt, and uncle no longer have any living parents, but I, too, know they are glad their mom is out of her suffering.
Her mind began to leave years ago. Dementia is a terrible disease. The disease rapidly progressed over the last year, particularly the last six months.
Sometimes she would wander through town and its outskirts and someone who knew her would see her and drive her back home if they could convince her to get in the passenger seat.
Back home, I’m not sure how she didn’t manage to burn down the house. It was so hot in there from the propane heater which was cranked up to its highest setting.
The day she moved to the dementia facility, she told my mom she was glad to go. “She was scared” living at home by herself. I think she was ready to leave, not just from her house but from the world. Her bags were packed and she was ready to see Garland again. They hadn’t seen each other in a while.
The day my grandmother died, she was scheduled to move to a new facility closer to home. It was a place she once said she never wanted to go.
“Even in death, she had the last word,” the preacher said at her service. “She didn’t want to go there and she wasn’t.”
“I just thought about that day,” I said to my wife as my grandmother’s final resting place came into view. “I guess this being a cemetery is an appropriate setting for that thought to rush in.”
Even in death, she got the last laugh.
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Photo: Fons Heijnsbroek. “Burgundy landscape with trees in the meadow.” Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0
Correction: The man with the electrolarynx was John Hoppe, not Spanky.