by Bill Schubart
Jeeter’s friend Zephyr invited him to his mother’s memorial service in the Methodist church basement. He knew Jeeter had run out of venison, winter was setting in, and Jeeter’s meager garden plot was now frozen solid. What little Jeeter hadn’t picked and eaten, shared with ravaging critters, or stored in the garbage can beside his trailer that he used for a winter freezer was now frozen in the earth.
The church ladies always turned out a fine meal of casseroles ranging from the ever-popular mac and cheese with hot dog slices and hamburger goulash, to the less popular “Cheese Whiz broccoli,” a mortar-like dish made of frozen broccoli florets, Minute Rice, and a jar of Cheese Whiz.
Jeeter asked Zephyr what a “memorial service” was and Zephyr explained that memorial services sometimes replaced the old-fashioned funeral with its open casket, weeping family members, flowers no one could afford, and carryings-on by the minister. It also cost nothing.
“Kinfolks jess gather ‘roun fer a good meal and rememberings of the dead person.”
“But I din’t know your mother,” Jeeter said.
“That don’t matter none, she won’t mind and there’ll be lots a’ good food to eat and Floyd may bring a pint a hooch for us to git through our sadnesses. You jes’ come, listen, and eat some good food. It’ll be fun.”
Jeeter considered his friend’s invitation and agreed to show up Sunday afternoon at two.
Jeeter busied himself around his trailer, piling the moldy hay bales his neighbor Len had given him around the perimeter of his leaky trailer to keep the cold out.
Jeeter associated church-going with black, so when the time came to go to church, he donned his black coveralls, started up his cranky snowmobile and headed off to the church. He forgot to unclip the battery-minder he kept on the snowmobile’s battery so it would start and, when he got to church, found the battered charger dragging behind the snowmobile as he parked near the outside entrance to the church basement. Most events not involving prominent church-goers were held in the basement because of the cost of heating the spacious church upstairs.
Although fluorescent lights flooded the room with a cold blue light, it was warm inside and the room smelled of the kind of food Jeeter liked best but only ate when someone spotted him a meal at Marge’s Diner. He spotted Zephyr and took a chair next to him.
“Thanks for coming, Jeeter,” Zephyr said, “Folks is gonna say a few nice words about Mom and then we get to fill our plates and eat some warm food.”
“But I din’t know your Ma, like I said.”
“You do’an have to say nuthin’, jess listen to the others and do’an fidget. Floyd’s got some hooch, we can have a sip later outside.”
The minister welcomed the few townsfolks and said enough about Mrs. Tindall to make clear to all he’d never met her. He then invited tributes. After a long silence, Martha Moadley, daubing her eyes with her hanky, said what a kind woman Minnie Tindall was and how she’d always sought her advice about what brands to buy at Patch’s Market where she’d worked for 37 years. Del Smithers mentioned how he’d always had a fondness for Minnie and told how she’d helped him with his “learnin” when he was having trouble at school.
The kind comments continued for half an hour. Then Zephyr stood up and talked about his mother’s patience raising a “hellion,” which made everyone laugh, and about her patience with his father who had worked at the asbestos mine in Eden and liked his drink. Then Zephyr invited those assembled to step up to the counter, grab a plate and enjoy the warm food. He thanked the two aproned ladies beaming from behind the counter.
About four, when everyone was full, people paid their respects to Zephyr and bundled up to return home. It was already dark outside and the temperature had dropped into the single digits. Jeeter put on his Johnson Woolen Mill jacket, gathered up his charger and stuffed it in his pocket. To his relief, the snowmobile started and he headed home in the waning light.
At home, the fire in his barrel stove had died down and the trailer was chilly. He threw some logs on the fire and turned on his favorite radio station to listen to country songs about drunks, lost loves, and bandit-heroes. He thought about the memorial service for a while and then fell asleep, thinking how sad it was that Zephyr’s mother wasn’t there to hear all the kind things said about her. His last thought was whether people would say such nice things about him after he died.
Deep in January, Jeeter ran into Zephyr at Ron’s Texaco where he’d gone to refill a five-gallon can with kerosene for his heater. The small woodstove only heated the living room and the overseer of the poor had sent someone out to repair the trailer’s kerosene furnace so Jeeter could have heat and hot water again.
“Ya know, much as I ‘preciated the hot grub, what I really loiked ‘as what people said ‘bout-cher Mom. Still puzzlin’ on how sad t’was she wan’t there to ‘ear it all.”
“Maybe she was,” said Zephyr. “Who knows?”
“Ya, but I mean bein’ there an’ all to hear all ‘em kind words. I been thinkin’ on how I might have me a ‘morial service, but before I’se dead. Whatcha think?”
“‘Morial services’s for the dead, not the living, Jeeter. ‘Sides, people only say nice things ‘bout you after you’se dead and buried.”
Jeeter sniffed at this.
“I still loike th’idea of havin’ me a ‘morial service while I’se alive and can ‘ear all ‘em noice things said ‘bout me.”
“Well, go ahead and have one and see who comes and what they say,” was Zephyr’s reply.
“Mebe I jess will,” pouted Jeeter.
The news of Jeeter’s planned memorial service spread quickly among the townsfolk. He chose a date in late January and let it be known to his few pals that those wishing to come and pay their respects should come to his trailer and that he’d have some pan bread with rabbit gravy and a gunny sack full of stale popcorn the local theater owner had given him. Floyd promised to bring any unexploded jugs of sap beer.
Townsfolk’s reactions to Jeeter’s plan varied. Jeeter’s exploits were a source of endless amusement and storytelling to some and, to others, a flagrant illustration of moral turpitude and ignorance.
As Jeeter’s best friend, townsfolk let Zephyr know what they thought about his having a memorial service for himself – good and bad. But it soon became apparent that enough people wanted to come so that the service could not happen in Jeeter’s cramped trailer.
Zephyr asked Pastor Glenn if he would consider letting them use the church basement for the affair. Although Pastor Glenn worried that the whole matter of a memorial service for the living bordered on the sacrilegious, he agreed to pray on it. Besides, Jeeter wasn’t one of the flock.
As the date approached, Zephyr told Jeeter that enough folks wanted to come so Pastor Glenn had reluctantly agreed to let them use the church basement for free, but that they’d have to arrange for their own food, as he could not ask the good ladies of the church to volunteer their time for such an irreligious event.
When the day came, Jeeter donned his black coveralls and put on his father’s oversized “church coat,” the jacket-half of a 60-year-old wedding suit that hung over Jeeter like a collapsed pup tent.
Zephyr made it clear that Jeeter was to “play dead.” He didn’t have to pretend he was dead but he should keep his mouth shut and just let people say their piece, whatever it was.
Jeeter brought a cast-iron frying pan of pan bread with rabbit gravy and his gunny sack of popcorn. He was surprised to see Elise from the church social committee and Dolly, his third-grade teacher, behind the counter warming casseroles they had brought and setting out plates of quivering red and green Jell-O salads.
Zephyr indicated a seat in the corner for Jeeter and whispered to him to “hush up and do’an say nothin’.”
Folks began to file in. A few brought dishes they set on the counter separating the seating area from the kitchen. Jeeter and Zephyr were both surprised when several dozen townsfolk had taken seats, some out of good will and others out of curiosity. The biggest surprise came when Pastor Glenn descended the staircase from his vestry, wearing a white stole, and began to address those assembled.
“We’re here today to celebrate the life of Jeeter who’s lived among us for 47 years and shows no sign of leaving us soon. Some among you may have mixed feelings about that, but I suspect those who do decided not to join us today.” The audience tittered.
From his corner seat, Jeeter beamed as Pastor Glenn recounted some of the exploits familiar to many of the townsfolk: his unplanned trip to New York in a windblown cardboard ice fishing shanty, the buck he got with his pickup in deer season when his brakes failed again, and the time he tied himself to his pickup so he wouldn’t fall off the roof as he repaired a leak and Lou drove off to the store with Jeeter in tow. He praised Jeeter’s ingenuity and perseverance and his willingness to make do in hard times. He then invited the assembled to share their memories of Jeeter.
There was a long silence. Dolly, had come out from the kitchen and taken a seat with the others. She recalled what an energetic and compassionate child Jeeter had been, always helping kids on the playground and intervening when child’s play got too rough or when one of the older bullies ganged up on someone weaker. She recalled his answer when she asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up and he answered, “hunt, fish, and trap.”
Millie Langevin recalled Jeeter stopping by the side of the road where she had skidded off into a snowbank in her Rambler American. Jeeter had taken a log chain, crawled under her car, hooking one end to the frame and the other end to the frame of his pickup and, after several tries, succeeded in hauling her back up onto the road. She was crying with gratitude and offered to pay Jeeter to which he responded, “I’d take a ciggy if y’ave one, and, oh, a match.” Jesper, the Swede, told how his beagle had been lost for two days and it was Jeeter who found him up near the beaver pond in a leg-hold trap, freed him, and carried him back to his owner.
The stories of Jeeter’s inventiveness and willingness to help a neighbor out continued for almost an hour and finally Zephyr stepped forward, holding a coffee mug of sap beer, which he had replenished many times, and asked the crowd to pray for the repose of the soul of their friend Jeeter. Folks smiled and bowed their heads.
“Wait, I ain’t dead yet,” howled Jeeter and the hall erupted in laughter.
Zephyr continued, “Long live our friend Jeeter!” and the assembled all cheered.
Back in his trailer, Jeeter, Zephyr and Floyd finished the last jug of sap beer and reminisced about Jeeter’s memorial service.
“Ya know,” slurred Jeeter, “I moight ‘ave ta do that ‘gin sometime. Nice ta ‘ear all ‘em noice things said ‘bout me.”
Bill Schubart is a frequent commenator for Vermont Public Radio, where this piece first appeared.