The room is big. It is as big as a house.
It is filled with caskets. They go as far as my eyes can see.
I am four years old and it is Tuesday June 9th, 1981. My dad, the deacon of Center Free Will Baptist Church, died the previous day, on June 8th (my cousin Kim’s seventh birthday; this is something we will comment on many times in our adulthood). I am being carried in the arms of Reverend John Hardin, “Brother John,” the pastor of our church and one of my dad’s best friends. It is thirteen years and some odd months before Brother John dies.
The caskets are all dark colors– dark colored containers from wall to wall with narrow aisles winding between them. Their insides, silk/satin, are white or pastels, soft colors, some embroidered with designs of birds, trees, Jesus, praying hands. These are gentle designs, tightly stitched. These are pictures the dead will never see, but, maybe, will make the living feel a little better.
“What do you think of this one?” my mother asks me.
It is a dark blue casket. The lining, the bedding, is light blue (“baby blue”). I agree to it, or so I must have, because my dad will be buried in it wearing his dark green suit. The inside of the lid of his casket is embroidered with a willow tree and birds taking flight.
“He always said he wanted to be buried under a shade tree,” my mother says.
Johnnie A. Robinson will not be buried under a shade tree. He is buried in the corner of a large lot at Willow Mount Cemetery, across the street from the hospital where he died. This is two streets over from Gowen-Smith Funeral Chapel. Gowen-Smith (home of the big room with all the caskets) is where my dad’s funeral service is held, the place where (upon someone telling me my dad is asleep) I will beg my mother repeatedly to “wake him up.” His burial plot is one of four, side by side, because we are (were) a family of four.
I am with my mother to select a headstone for my dad’s grave. I choose the one with a picture of Jesus chiseled on the back of it. It is a double headstone: the left side my father’s, the right my mother’s. Years later, after my stepfather’s death, my mother will have an inscription added to her and my dad’s headstone. Underneath Jesus it reads: Children, Paul and John.
I do not remember the sound of my dad’s voice, his personality, his touch. I have no memories of my father in movement, in action. They are all still life photographs. The most prominent of these is from April or May before he died. It is night and he is standing on the front porch of our old house (211B Burt St.). The street light is on, he is half in shadow, waiting for my mother to take him to the hospital. When I grow up and discover Edward Hopper’s paintings, I will think of this night.
We leave 211B Burt Street a year after my dad dies. My mother’s parents (Grandaddy and Granny Woods) give her land beside them and she has a house built. This is where I will grow up. (At the old house in town, long demolished now, I have the memory of riding my Big Wheel into the kitchen and asking my mother, “Is daddy gonna die?” She was washing dishes. I do not remember her reply.)
I am five years old, on the first day of kindergarten. I cry because I think my mother is leaving me. I am an orphan now and I will live at Thomas Elementary School forever where the smell of the sewage treatment plant is ever-present on the playground. I will never see my mother again as I will never see my dad again. I am without family.
My teacher, Mrs. McDonald (who will move back to her hometown of Chattanooga at the end of the school year) does her best to reassure me my mother will pick me up at noon, once the school day is finished. Even though I am reunited with my mother every day, I still cry every morning for the first month of my school life.
I am six years old. I am in the first grade. My teacher is Mrs. Wells; she seems very old, and has a daughter with down syndrome.
Grandaddy Woods dies in December (cancer just like my dad). My mother, with Uncle Wayne and Aunt Edith, checks me out early from school. This is the first time I remember my mother telling me: “Jesus said that in His Father’s house are many mansions. He’s preparing a place for us. Your dad and grandaddy are up there now building us a mansion.”
Years later I will think, A mansion is bigger than a house.
At Gowen-Smith (once more), for grandaddy’s funeral, my cousin, Jason, and I open the door to the basement where they embalm the bodies. We make it half-way down the stairs before we chicken out and run back up.
I do not remember if it is before or after Grandaddy Woods’ burial (Willow Mount Cemetery) that I ask my mother, “If we dig daddy up and open his casket, what will he look like?”
My mother stares at me in horror and despair. She tries to answer as best she can: “Well, his fingernails would be long. His hair will be long. I think as soon as the air hit him he’d turn to dust.”
I have the image of anyone who dies as a carpenter building houses in Heaven, working side by side with Jesus. When Granny Argie, my great-grandmother, passes away in 1985, I imagine her handing nails up to my dad and granddad while they are on ladders, hammering.
I retain the image of the deceased, of the “ascended,” as carpenters. I think of it when I am an adult working in a nursing home and I experience a patient die for the first time.
I think of my family, a family of carpenters and craftsmen, building a home to house many mansions.
I am twenty-nine years old, I am working the nightshift at Glen Oaks Convalescent Center. My mother calls me a little before two o’clock. Granny Woods has passed away. I think of being four, my father being sick in the hospital, him dying, and Granny Woods and Aunt Jady (who worked at the Capri Twin Theater) taking me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Legend of the Lone Ranger.
“How is Aunt Jady?”
“She’s okay,” my mother tells me.
I finish my shift. My mother said, “There’s nothing can be done ‘til morning.”
Joy comes in the morning, doesn’t it?
I am okay until my drive home. It is the first time in my life that I don’t have a grandmother.
I think of Granny Woods as the foreman to the other carpenters.
Things will get done now.
I am forty-three years old. My dog, Barry, dies. He was almost twelve in human years. He was born Super Tuesday 2008. I named him and his siblings after the Presidential candidates and other political figures. Barry was my pick of the litter.
My brother and I dig a grave for Barry, my son helps. Barry was a big dog, he needs a big grave. We will bury him on the hillside under a tree. I pick this spot because he always liked to lay in the shade.
We wrap Barry’s body in a crisp, new tarp (blue). My mother joins us. We bury our dog after a moment of silence.
My brother, he is fifty years old, cries, as does my son, he is seven. I won’t cry until later in the night when I write a poem to try and honor my departed friend. “Some people say animals do not have souls/ But if you can laugh, grieve, and shake hands/ You’re more human than most in my book.”
I am standing alone, smoking a cigarette, watching the sun set behind the hills. The sun is shining in its warm evening glory on Barry’s grave.
I think of lines I will write later, a reworking of an old song: “I’m telling you so you know, I’m telling you so you know– Ol’ Barry’s gone to where the good dogs go.”
There is plenty of room.