Undertaker's Daughter

My life and death as spiritual path.

Location: River City, Northern California

Saturday, March 12, 2005


My dad wanted to be an undertaker from a very early age-- an odd choice and an odd choosing, this is the story. It will jump back and forth in time cause that's kinda what life is like. There is no real beginning and no real end, things loop like a giant kaliedoscope and give us pictures of all sides and all times.

Jimmy, my dad, was not born on a street. He used to revel in saying that. He was born in an alley. Of Mormon pioneers, his mother from Australia to California by way of Salt Lake City, touching two Gold Rushes in her travels, Australian and Californian. On the wide empty streets of Salt Lake City, she laid out fresh backed biscuits to cool in front of her house? tent? A 49'er offered her a nugget of gold for one. In her hard-headed Scottish pride she refused, "You can't eat Gold."

His father was converted by Missionaries from the wilds of Manchester, England and travelled across the prairies to the building of the Arizona LDS Temple. He became a scout-- was shot in the back, permanently lamed in the defense of the temple and hated Indians and Mormons from that day on. A complicated man who regularly offered a beer to the stiff-backed elders who met in his wife's bare parlor to institute the first Mormon Stake in Sacramento.

My father loved his mother beyond reason but admired his father's spunk as well, he was complicated too. Intensely religious, he never adopted the anti-alcohol and caffeine dogmas of the Church. He would have been termed a Jack Mormon if he hadn't been so wealthy and gone to church every Sunday to the end of his life. It's a practical religion, perhaps he was excoriated in private, but never challenged in public.

When Jimmy was relatively young-- maybe 10, maybe less-- he had a canary. This is where the story lacks detail.

Where does a street kid-- who plays stickball on the waterfront, prides himself as a flashy pitcher, and runs in a gang to fight Philippinos at night-- get a dickey bird, and why? It is not the sort of frivolous purchase his mother would have approved-- and I do believed she managed all but the beer money in the family. A friend of his father's long travels, or a crony from the Southern Pacific Railroad, where his dad worked?

Never mind, he loved the little bird. All his life, small delicate gentle creatures had this effect on him. He identified with gunfighters, warriors, was fond of and very good at power games, but he never hunted. Wouldn't even eat deer or rabbit. Too beautiful, too delicate. When the bird died, too fragile for the rough and ready life he lived, he decided to stage a grand funeral.

He built a small coffin, fashioned to fit the tiny body, decorated it with buttons and other stuff from his mother's sewing box, gathered flowers and a group of his friends, dug a grave in the back yard, or, more likely, a bare patch of ground near the street. And he led a fulsome funeral complete with eulogy and ceremony written by himself.

Cute, huh? Indicative of an interest in this profession, right? Well. . .

A couple of days later, he dug up the bird and staged the funeral all over again. Sorta cute, sorta creepy. When he tried to do it a third time, his mom took the scraggy corpse away from him and threw it out where Jimmy couldn't find it. He never forgot though. And, of course, he told me this story.

In my humble opinion, this could be the act of a born undertaker or a born psychopath, it all depends on the ending, you see-- fortunately, I lived in an undertaking establishment not the Bates hotel.

Humor saves a lot of things-- including one's sanity. I have reason to know this myself. And the story is not quite over.

A street kid, with more smarts than good sense and obviously way too much imagination, does not do too well in school. If he is the only boy among four sisters, well, probably there was a lot to prove and though the gang helped, I doubt it was all that serious.

Jim certainly had ample ability to prove his moxy. He had black wavy hair, deep blue eyes and though not very tall as boy or man, he was charming even then, full of personality and always ready with a joke that would galvanise the crowd around him-- there was always a crowd around him. The principal was impressed by the impression Jimmy did of him in front of the class. Apparently it was very accurate and not particularly discrete. Got a lot of laughs. Jimmy got a suspension which he used in practicing his all too accurate pitching-- at the principal's head-- with a green orange. That had to hurt. Back to the Bates Motel for a quickie.

Jimmie's well polished story about practicing his pitching just didn't play. I doubt he thought it really would, he was looking for freedom and he got it. Expelled from Grammar School. That's right, my dad didn't even finish 7th grade, let alone enter High School. His mother was mortified, but my Pop had a solution. There were other schools, Funeral College, for one thing. As long as you could read and write-- which he could, in plain or fancy english. His mother disapproved. Her tight-lipped Scottish face is one that is not felicitous in disapproval. I wouldn't want to face it.

I wonder where he got the money to go. Saved, he said. Saved from what? Odd jobs, maybe. He could have stolen it, but it doesn't run true to character, beating up other kids-- yes, from another race-- is one thing, but theft is immoral. And it is more likely a former Mormon who thought he had a fine son who could stand up for himself in any situation might provide a better answer. I think Dad stepped in and made up the difference. The pictures I have-- just a little later than tintypes-- show a man barely able to hold that respectable stone face required of the long camera exposure-- there is a hint of a grin lurking under the curly gunslinger moustache.

When James returned from College, in a real, if cheap, suit, with a profession that he put to use immediately and another ambition, political this time, his mother was much more forgiving. And, remember Jimmy was charming as well as handsome. And 18, now. A grown man.

His first election was for school board. He won. His first speech was at his old Grammar School. I wonder if the same principal was there. It would make a good story.


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