There is no denying that at the center of memoir is an unreliable narrator. As I wrote yesterday,”Working with memory is even less faithful than fiction. There is nothing to google or investigate. Sure I can ask a brother or two, but I don’t remember any of them standing with me in that short hallway between the kitchen and my father’s den.” In memoir you stand alone, even if the subject of your work is the whole lot of you, you have only yourself to corroborate with.
As I plunge further into my own murky and dark past I have only my instinct to rely on; here the tenants of fiction and non-fiction collide, for they are both born of the creative spark that ignites my fingers across the keyboard. Beyond that they deviate.
What possessed me to start on this investigation of Corrine’s past? Not sure, but it hit me all of a sudden during her funeral service like I’d been planning it for centuries, like it was cast in the divine tablets themselves. As irony often functions in life, it was at her funeral when I realized that I knew far too little about the person we had gathered together to bury. I, along side several of my siblings and mother, sat in a very hot New Jersey Pentecostal church. It was 2008. Our white faces iridescent as oyster shells among the diverse congregation who filled every other pew. This too is part of the irony of my story. To be part of one race yet feel more myself within another’s. I’m not sure if that is part of being raised by a nanny from South Carolina, whose anecdotes about her colorful early days with Big Daddy and Big Momma incited pure envy in me or the way her gospel music got into my marrow and buoyed me whenever I felt in need. Race distinction felt more like an act back then: Corrine only donned the starched uniform and its servile mantle when certain company was around; otherwise, she was more powerful than anyone in my house. She could throw me into remorse with the slightest shift in her eyebrow or cause me to laugh an entire rainy afternoon away with her smile. Now Corrine Kelly Lewis lay in a white coffin at the foot of the altar.
In my white world, the deceased is waked the day before the funeral. There, in the decorum of the funeral home people drift in and out in hushed solemnity. Corrine’s coffin lay open, and all who entered the church came up the right side to say their last farewell before finding their seat down the middle aisle. On the day of her funeral I wasn’t a child. I have already lost one parent to cancer, after watching his proud form wither. Death, I thought, I knew, but on this occasion, I was glad for my mother in line with me. She faced death and grief as one does when faith commands all your beliefs, head-on.
The church grew hotter as the crowd swelled beyond what the seating allowed. Still the line continued from out the open door. You see, we were about to bid farewell to a great one. When finally the last few were coming forward, there was commotion, and a tall lean man began up the center aisle straight for our Corrine. Walk isn’t the right word. At times it looked like a run and other times he stopped, he had a sporadic gait that seemed to be going sideways. He wasn’t alone. His brother steadied him. As they passed our pew I saw an anguished face, lined with grief, and tears, and sweat. These two had been our playmates for many childhood years while Corrine worked in my parents’ home. Seeing their anguish caused a ripple of tears in our pew as well as all over the church. Then, in the last few steps, he threw his brother off in a mad break and in the same instant threw himself into the coffin on top of her, her flowers, her adornments, and within seconds men and women alike surrounded the tableau gently prodding him away. Our tall lean man rose and raced out of the church and the funeral director closed the coffin.
There was a wave of whispers, for this tall lean man was to be the organist for today’s service. Who would lend accompaniment for the choir? The soloists? We watched from our pew as one clergy member counseled another, until it was decided they would attempt to begin the service without him.”
Only a draft, but isn’t that what all our creations will ever amount to? Drafts of this grand production called life.
With the help of my small but so wonderful writer friends, I proceed, praying that all those bright stars who have gone to the great beyond before me will continue to guide my story, their story, the only story I can tell…