Thursday, October 22, 2009

The first time I saw a dead body

One could argue that the story I'm about to tell is really about the second time I saw a dead body. Apparently, family lore goes that the first time I saw a dead body was when I was about about 2 years old. My great-grandmother on my mom's side had died. My parents went to the viewing and no one thought I should be brought up by the casket at my age so in their infinite wisdom, all the fam-damily adults thought it would be best if I stayed in the back of the funeral home and be held by my Daddy-O. So I was 2 years old and being carried around at adult height and I could see over everyone, all the way to the front of the funeral parlor, and right into the casket. And according to legend, I said in a loud clear 2 year old voice "Why's that lady taking a bath with her clothes on?" And of course it was a moment when it was dead silent. And then everyone laughed and thought I was the cutest thing in the world.

But see, I don't think that counts as the first time I saw a dead body (even though that's a damn adorable Maggie Mae story). It doesn't count because:
  1. I don't remember it
  2. I saw a dead body the way we expect to see them: after the mortician had done all the funeral homey things to it and got it all dressed up and made to look like sleeping (though I don't care what anyone says, a dead person looks dead, no matter how good a job the funeral dudes do). You know, I saw it in a casket at the funeral home, with soft lighting, crying families, organ music- you know, a dead person in their natural habitat. They way dead people were intended to be stared at.
The story I'm about to tell you is about the first time I saw a dead body. And try as I might, it's unfortunately not really funny......

Do you remember I told you I had a paper route and I was the youngest kid in my town to ever have one at age 10? Well, I did. I loved my paper route. And the people were very nice to me- well, most of them were, except for Mr. James Gardner. I would always park my bike at Mrs. Greenbean's house, the first one I delivered and then walk the rest of my route, which ended back her at house. It was easier for me to walk my route because there were lots of elderly folks who wanted me to place their papers in a 'just so' spot.

I had a good relationship with most of my customers. They were pretty protective of me and worried if I was late. And not late like past the delivery deadline, but late if I didn't come past their house as my usual time; remember, this was around the time of the first big child abduction of Adam Walsh that was famous so people were always looking out for me. They left me presents all the time and nice tips. Mrs. Greenbean, as I said, let me park my bike at her house and on Saturday mornings (the only day of the week it was a morning, Monday thru Friday it was an afternoon paper and there was none on Sunday) she would fix me breakfast. There was a guy, Sam, who owned a gas station and he would give me a glass bottle of Pepsi a few times a week and he was the first person who showed me the trick of putting peanuts in the soda bottle. So, people were nice and kind. They watched out for me and in turn, I watched out for them, I guess.

One customer was an old lady named Mrs. R. The first time I met Mrs. R I was scared out of my ever-loving mind. First, she lived in a big, creepy, creaky, old house on a corner at the bottom of a hill. It was a huge scary monstrosity, painted black and it was peeling. One shutter hung askew. There was a fence around the front yard and the gate squeaked when the wind blew it, or when I had to push it open to walk up the front sidewalk to leave her paper in the mailbox hooks next to the front door. There were no flowers. The kids all said a witch lived there and the house was haunted- okay, we all saw that coming, right?

The first time I had to collect from Mrs. R I thought I was going to have a heart attack at age 10. She answered the door and was the most frightening old person I had ever seen in my life. Her hair was snow white and looked like she had been caught in a wind tunnel or like Medusa but without the snakes. She was hunched over with a slight hump. She always wore house coats and slippers and shuffled as she walked so slowly. She was the most wrinkled person I'd ever seen, with more lines on her face than a London tube map. She was old and since everyone said she was a witch and with the looks of the house, I was terrified. And it must've shown on my face because she asked me if I was scared of her and I actually blurted out why and she laughed and laughed and thought it was the funniest thing in the world. She told me she wasn't a witch, just an old lady. And to let the kids keep thinking she was a witch because they stayed off her lawn. And from that day on, Mrs. R. was one of my favorite people.

A few times a week she would be at the door waiting for me and have me come in for a snack, usually a few stale vanilla wafers and some warm flat soda but that was okay. Her house was old and dusty and dark. Her tv was new but she had an old Victrola in the corner and her phone was an ancient black rotary thing. But she liked to talk. Even then I knew she was lonely. And her voice was low and raspy like she'd had a 4 pack a day habit for 60 years, and she whispered with a Katherine Hepburn shake to it. Her voice matched her scary appearance but she was a nice and kind lady with sparkling blue eyes.

We had developed a routine. I would leave her paper in the hooks of her mail box, right outside the door and then I would ring the bell. I could go on my way then, and she would come get her paper. Since she was at the bottom of the hill, and I had to go up it, I would turn around and check to see if she had come to the door yet and most days, we would wave at each other. Sometimes, but very rarely, she didn't get the paper before I got to the top of the hill, but as a kid, I always thought it was because she might be on the phone, watching one of her 'stories' or in the bathroom.

One Thursday, Mrs. R met me at the door and told me she had a cold but gave me a quarter to get a candy bar (and yeah, that actually covered the price of a candy bar at Sam's gas station in 1980). The next day, a Friday, I left Mrs. R's paper and went up the hill, turning around to check like always but she didn't get the paper by the time I got to the top. Even now, 28 years I later I still remember wondering if I should go back down the hill and knock on the door to check on her since she said she was sick yesterday. But I didn't because I was going to stay overnight at my friend Misty's house and she was one of 7 kids so I wanted to hurry so I wouldn't miss any of the chaos that was her house.

Saturday morning rolled around and I was doing my morning delivery. I had left my bike at Mrs. Greenbean's house as usual and went on my way. I wasn't a morning person even then and I usually didn't visit with anyone on Saturday morning because papers had to be deliver by 8am and I always waited until the last possible second, so I know it was around 7:30am.

I got to Mrs. Rs house and I knew right away something was wrong because her Friday paper was still. in.the.mailbox. I stood stock still, holding the Saturday paper. I went to the front door and knocked. No answer. I rang the bell and beat on the door and still no answer. And then I did something I was taught to never do- I snooped. I pressed my face to the glass and peered inside. And that was the first time I saw a dead body, the details forever seared into my brain.

Mrs. R was sprawled on her kitchen floor, on her stomach, arms and legs akimbo, jutting out at all odd angles. A chair was knocked over and there was a yellow Melmac coffee cup on the floor. Her hair was spread out and I couldn't see her entire face, just her mouth, open and slack. And here's what I remember happening next: I ran next door to the Hoffman's and beat on the door but no one answer so I ran 3 blocks to Sam at the gas station. I was crying and surely spewing gibberish but I finally got him to understand what I was saying. I remember sitting on a stool there, holding peanuts and a cold bottle of Pepsi but not eating or drinking, while Same called 911 and he left, probably to go check himself.

I'm sure Sam's wife called my parents who came and got me and I'm sure either they finished my route or the news paper office did. I don't remember.

I do know that I would check the paper for the next few days to find out when the funeral was. Then on the day of viewing, I figured out it was at the funeral home that was half way between my house and my paper route. So on the day of the viewing, I did my paper route, when to Mrs. Greenbean's house and changed clothes (I had stuffed school clothes in my paper delivery bag) in her bathroom and rode my bike to the funeral home. I went inside and paid my respects and then went home. I never told my folks I was gonna do it or did it. I think at that time it was because I wasn't sure if I wanted to go and was afraid they would make me if I said something about it. But when I got home that night, it was like they knew. Mrs. Greenbean had probably called and told them what I was up to. Or they figured it out on their own. Either way...

For a long time I wondered if I could've saved her. I wondered if I should've broken in the front door glass and called 911 on her black phone and then done CPR that we learned from the "BAT Man" (Basic Aid Training policeman) in fourth grade, if it would've saved her. I wondered if I could've saved her if I would've went back down the hill on Friday. Now, as an adult all these years later, I know that she was dead when I saw her on Saturday morning and no amount of CPR could change that. And as for Friday.... well, who knows, right?

That was the first time I saw a dead body.


Curley said...

How scary to have that happen when you were so young.

Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,

You're right. Who knows?

That's the only thing that I worry about living alone. Who will find me?

I'm sure Mrs. R. appreciated your friendship. That was a scary situation to be in.


Maggie said...

Curley- it was scary...

Patti- you know, when I was living alone in Civilization I always wondered if I would die one of those New York deaths where no one discovers my dead body until the smell drifts into the hallway.

I should come live with you so then you'll know what will happen!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, then I'll have my own dead body story to tell!


Maggie said...

OOOOOOO you could blog from the grave- now how cool would that be!

Jimmie Earl said...

Mrs.R's daughter-in-law was the one who called and told us about you visiting the funeral home. You forgot to tell your readers that you stopped at the florist and spent your own paper route money on a rose in a vase and took it with you. Mom and I were so proud of you. By the way, I still am!

P.S. The other incident at you great grandmother's viewing was just, plain funny. Almost as funny as you and your brother and I getting the giggles at Grandma J's funeral. Remember that?

Maggie said...

JE- Mrs R's daughter in law did? Wow... I never knew.

Oh the incident over great grandma is HILARIOUS I think, and I was glad that others saw the humor in it- well, I mean as an adult I'm glad.

And I could totally write about the Grandma J funeral with the wailers, and foaming of the mouth and mom being pissed at bro and I.... okay now THAT'S a funny dead body story!!!!

Shan said...

Boy, that was a very well told story Mags. I read it in two parts like a juicy suspense book. :) And it is so sad for the 10 year old you. What a responsible girl you were with a job and paying respects to your dear old friend. So sweet.

I love the comment about the bath and I'm so glad you could provide some levity. Funerals are the absolute worst!

My brother and I got the giggles at my own grandfathers funeral because the man giving the tribute was so off in left field and just kept saying indian quotes like "Eagle feather......long pause....running paw......." and we weren't sure why he was doing it. We didn't really know this grandpa well and it didn't seem like anyone did. :}