Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pen and Paper

When I was a kid, I loved to write and receive letters.  I would find any excuse to write someone a letter, just in the hopes that I'd get one in return.  In third grade, my Brownie troop was matched up with another troop across the country in California and we got penpals.  This was in the early 80s, so there was no email or Skype . . . just good old fashioned paper and pen.  I couldn't have been more excited!  My penpal, Stephanie, lived in Long Beach -- a strange land that meant surfers and beaches and suntans.  What did I know, I'd never been to California.

Projeto 12 x 12 - Tema: Hobby
Photo by Happy Batatinha via Flickr

For years we corresponded, through the ups and downs.  She was a couple years older than I, living with her mother and brother.  Years hence, my mother had a meeting in Anaheim, not to far from where Stephanie lived, and I got to tag along.  And we met for the first time in 10 years of having exchanged letters.  But our friendship didn't end there.  It only got stronger.  In those years, long before the internet, two little girls connected with each other with only our words and nobody thought it strange at all.  In fact, I remember people marveling at the fact that we had stayed in touch for so many years and how remarkable it was that we had finally met.

In the past year or so, I've cultivated a number of robust online relationships.  Through this blog and Twitter, I've connected with a variety of people on a whole range of topics.  The D.C. area is ripe with events for bloggers and tweeters and other ways to catch up with online people in "real life".  But for some reason -- stigma, perhaps -- when I tell people that I've met friends online, it's not met with the same quaint enthusiasm as my third grade penpal -- even though the nature of the connection is quite similar.  Two strangers, connecting over something they have in common using nothing more than written communication.   The same way I connected with another little girl on the other side of the country nearly 30 years ago. 

Stephanie and I are still in contact, though not often by pen on paper anymore.  We're Facebook friends and exchange emails from time to time. For all the internet has given me, it's also taken some of the excitement out of it.  No more going to the mailbox, anxiously waiting for a letter.  Or waiting for the latest photos to arrive.  In an instant, I can see what's new simply by checking out her profile and photos.  And so it is with my new online friends . . . there's no delay.  I can find out what's going on with the click of a mouse or the sending of a text.  In fact, I expect it -- we all do.  Yes, the internet has given us a lot . . . but there's a part of me that really misses some of what we've lost.  I think I'll sit down tonight and write her a letter, just like old times, and hope I get one in return.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Boldly Go Where No Ham Has Gone Before

Every family's got one -- that one aunt who names her shoes; the eccentric uncle who talks about himself in the third person; or the granny who drinks a little too much and flashes back to her childhood in Kansas.  And we've got one in my family too.  A second cousin from the deep south is that "one" in our family.  So, what makes my Southern Cousin such a character?  Let's put it this way . . . shortly after I got engaged, SC informed me that he was not only a florist, but also a wedding planner.  He offered to "come up a week before the wedding" and plan everything for me.  In a week. During one of his previous visits, he had shared all about his nursing career.  He's had as many careers as there are letters in his name (maybe more), and some at the same time. He lives in a small town with his Momma, who he talks about incessantly, and takes care of (in between his shifts at the many jobs).  

What got me thinking about this was the recent anniversary of my grandfather's death and subsequent funeral.  In order to understand the events that transpired, you have to understand that my grandfather was a southern boy himself.  And one of his favorite things in the whole world was country ham. Whenever our cousin would come up for a visit, he'd bring ham for "Uncle Buddy" (my grandfather). During the visit in question, my grandfather was not doing too well.  In fact, he died in the middle of the week of SC's visit.  And the grand tragedy was that he never got to have his last taste of country ham.  This caused our cousin great consternation.

On the day we all gathered at the funeral home to say our goodbyes and greet the guests, the family arrived about an hour early for a private viewing.  When Southern Cousin arrived, he came in with the country ham under his arm.  One of my uncles noticed it (how could you not . . . it was a ham, after all) and asked him why he had it.  "I'm fixin' to put this ham in Uncle Buddy's casket." And with that, the collective jaw of the group dropped.  "What?" someone managed to say. "I'm fixin' to put this ham in Uncle Buddy's casket," he repeated.  And then he did.

I know people leave all kind of mementos to be buried with the deceased.  I left a tube of lipstick with my grandmother when she died.  But this is the first casket-ham I've ever heard of (and thus far, the last).  But there it was, just for my grandfather. 

I know this because while the rest of the family was inside the room with my grandfather, I was sitting in the hallway outside, as I am not one who wants to see someone's body in order to say goodbye.  While the rest of my family was in the parlor, I sat waiting.  Just then, these two big mafioso-looking goombahs in dark suits who worked at the funeral home came out and stood in the doorway.  They took no notice of me as they had this conversation:

Goombah #1:  Are we still closing the casket before the viewing?

Goombah #2:  I think so.

Goombah #1: Did you see the ham?

Goombah #2: Yeah. What are we doing with that?

Goombah #1: I'm not touching the ham. Are you touching the ham?

Goombah #2: I'm not touching the ham. 

And on they went.  I couldn't figure out why these two huge dudes, who spend all day around dead bodies were so afraid of a little ham.  Sure it was weird, but it wasn't something you didn't want to touch.  Maybe it was because it wasn't embalmed.  Maybe they were vegetarians.  Maybe it's because country ham smells worse than a dead body.  I don't know. 

Of course, I couldn't wait to share with the rest of the family the ham drama when they came out into the hallway.  A few at a time they filtered out and before going back into the parlor.  And as they did, I regaled them with the saga of the ham.  Before long, everyone was buzzing about the ham.  It was a highly inappropriate moment of levity at an otherwise somber occasion. 

The next day, during the funeral, family members got up to share their memories of my grandfather.  It was sad . . . until SC got up.  The first words out of his mouth were, "My Uncle Buddy loved country ham. . ." I have no idea what the rest of the eulogy said because I was laughing so hard, I had to pretend to be having a coughing fit.  A ripple of similarly disguised laughter went through the first few pews where the rest of my family was sitting.  This just egged SC on, "Yes.  Y'all know he really did love that ham."

The rest of the funeral was pretty run-of-the-mill, with no further cured meat appearances.  But afterward we went to where my grandfather would be interred, and as far as we know, nobody had removed the ham.  And that's the story of how my grandfather went to his eternal rest with a ham in his casket.

Epilogue:  When WH and I got married later that year, Southern Cousin came to our wedding and brought with him his momma, a case of SunDrop, and a country ham.  I guess old habits die hard.