Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And always remember, you have the power to change how your story ends. That last chapter is all yours.
Cornelia Hale had been sick for a good long while, and that was the solemn truth. She’d been pent up in that fine house on the hill since her dear Jim up and died, with nothing and nobody but her money and memories to tend to, and one ain’t nearly as valuable as the other.
Cornelia had always been uptight and conventional, always minding her manners and putting her white shoes away after Labor Day. That’s how good girls behave if they want to marry well and be respected. And at sixty-seven, she realized that her prudence hadn’t earned her anything but sorrowful glances and loneliness. So in her last days on the hill in that big fine house, Cornelia figured she’d just about had enough. And she was sick, and that was the truth of it.
She’d bought herself a casket long before she ever had need of it, right after her dear Jim had passed on. It was the prettiest casket she’d ever laid eyes on, with rose gold trim and blushing coral silk lining and an ornate pillow with the finest scalloped lace. It would make a fine bed for a conventional widow’s long sleep.
Oh, they wouldn’t miss her, she knew, not her ungrateful Jimmy Junior or his two boys, both as ingrate and hard-boiled as their daddy. She’d wished and prayed for a daughter, but the Good Lord had not seen fit to bless her with one. Instead she got that miserly son and those two savage grandboys, the only living relatives set to gain her meager fortune when she passed on. And oh how they always mocked her with that awful name they called her. Granny Corn! they’d holler when they visited from Dayton. Hey, Granny Corn, give us a dollar! Granny Corn, fix us some biscuits! Granny Corn, when you die off, this big fine house will be ours!
But she couldn’t just die off without a fine wake like her dear Granny had back in Kentucky. Cornelia was just a small girl then, and folks had come from miles around and sat up with her granny all night long by lamplight, and the church ladies brought more food than Cornelia had ever set eyes on. Her dear sweet daddy played the fiddle and folks talked and sang and even danced in the company of her poor dead granny. As direful as it was, that wake was one of Cornelia’s best old memories.
Now Cornelia didn’t have a soul she’d call a friend in town except Esther, her maid of more than a decade, and Esther was just about the kindest woman Cornelia had ever known, an absolute angel on loan from Heaven. Esther could whip up the finest bread pudding that Cornelia had ever tasted, and she kept the Hale house clean as a whistle and the hardwood floors shining and polished like new money. And Esther was just about the only woman in town that didn’t hold a grudge against Cornelia for taking Jim Hale off the market and stealing him away from the rest of them. Oh, her Jim had been a fine catch back in their glory days. He’d had a bouquet of girls in town to pick from and he’d gone and married plain ol’ Cornelia.
But she’d never been a fool, and Cornelia knew good and well that her dear Jim had carried on with quite a few gals from that bouquet. She’d told Esther about how Jim would sneak off in the evenings, claiming he had some paperwork to do down at the store, and would soon after be parked in the driveway of Loveline Jenkins down on Suffolk Avenue. Loveline was the one that got away, Cornelia supposed, and maybe Jim had regretted marrying so young and had mourned the carefree days of his youth so much that he sought out pretty Loveline when his ordinary life was just too much to tolerate. Cornelia told herself that she felt sorry for Jim, God rest his soul, and he’d been a hard working husband and a good father to Jimmy Junior despite his taste for Loveline and a flowerbed of others like her.
Esther had never married. She was round and plain, even more unremarkable than Cornelia. At least Cornelia had her height and slender figure going for her, never mind the plainness of her face or the bump on the bridge of her long nose. Cornelia could pass for a woman half her age from a rearview perspective. She filled out a bathing suit as well as Jimmy Junior’s snotty Yankee wife, and she’d seen the appreciative glances she’d gotten when she and Jim would vacation down at Myrtle Beach, from men and women alike.
Cornelia hadn’t seen the ocean in the ten years since Jim had been gone. She had often dreamed of the repose she’d found there at the water’s edge, how the salt air had invigorated her senses and made her feel like a girl again, the way she did before Jim Hale had swooped her up in a furious hurry and made her his wife. She couldn’t for the life of her figure out why he’d chosen her instead of Loveline. She figured it was the way she’d looked in her bathing suit, and perhaps he’d not looked much at her long face and hawk nose at all, and he’d only seen the rest of her, as men tend to do.
Now Cornelia had insisted she didn’t want an obituary in the newspaper; she had always thought it was awfully tacky for a lady to tell her age and share her business, no matter if she’s dead or not. But in a small town, folks know you’re dead before the devil does, and thanks to Jim, God rest his soul, Cornelia knew firsthand just how fast bad news gets around. Instead of a somber funeral, Cornelia had wanted a good old fashioned wake at her house, just like her own dear Granny when she had left for Heaven.
Esther promised Cornelia she’d have the whole shebang catered and folks could sit up with Cornelia and eat ham biscuits and drink iced tea and even dance a jig on the porch if they felt the notion. Esther had called the funeral parlor and had that fine casket delivered to the house. She made all the necessary calls to Jimmy Junior and the church ladies informing them of Cornelia’s demise and how her mistress had wanted an old fashioned wake at the house, and folks would be welcome to come by from three until nine, seeing as how most people don’t keep late hours anymore and it was beyond Cornelia to inconvenience a solitary soul on her behalf. And by the following afternoon, baskets of flowers and pots of chicken and dumplings and tins of casseroles galore lined the long table in the Hale dining room.
Cornelia was laid out in that fancy casket right there in the sitting room, her elegant hands clasped in repose over her chest. A veil of pink chiffon was draped over the open lid to shield folks from looking too closely at her hawk nose and plain features. She was still proud, dead or not, and Esther had made sure her mistress would not be glared upon too harshly.
Folks from town and beyond came calling to pay their respects to poor Cornelia Hale. They all walked by her casket and commented how good she looked and what a nice touch the pink veil was and, good Lord, they hadn’t even known the poor thing was sick.
Oh yes, sweet Cornelia had been sick for years, Esther told them. Sick of loneliness and small mindedness and running into Loveline Jenkins at the supermarket. Sick of looking at the same old walls in the same old rooms and hearing the same old stories about Jim, God rest his soul, and how wonderful he was when she knew good and well they were just saving face. Most folks ain’t smiling; they’re just showing their teeth. Yes, Cornelia Hale had been sick a good long while. But Esther didn’t say any of that. She’d just nod and wipe at her eyes with her handkerchief.
The grandboys stood in silent tandem by all those casseroles and nitpicked at the ham and stuffed handfuls of creamy pastel butter mints in their pockets. Jimmy Junior’s snotty wife gave them an earnest look of contempt and they shoveled the mints back into Cornelia’s Royal Albert china bowl.
Jimmy Junior straightened his tie and discreetly asked Esther where his mother kept her will and where she put the title to her Coupe de Ville. Esther replied that she didn’t know, and it wasn’t a lie. Jim left all their arrangements with Delaney Snodgrass, Esquire, who at that very minute was helping himself to a heaping plate of Esther’s famous bread pudding where he sat all fat and smiling on Cornelia’s wrought iron glider out front.
Old Man Davis from down the road fired up his fiddle, and before too long there was a whole soiree of church ladies clogging with bare feet out on the porch. Esther couldn’t recollect that many folks ever coming to see Cornelia in all of the ten years she’d stayed on with her. Old Man Davis took a flask of ‘shine out the pocket of his overalls and hollered a prayer for Cornelia into the great yonder, took himself a healthy sip and passed the flask around like the good Christian he was.
Now ain’t it somethin’, Esther thought to herself. Ain’t it queer how a death will bring folks out of the woodwork. Life is as fragile as Cornelia’s china bowl full of sweet butter mints. Ain’t it somethin’ how folks will only celebrate your life when you’re dead and gone.
Esther pulled those rotten grandboys aside and told them how, in her day, folks used to sit up with the dead and carry on until the wee hours of morning, and good Lord, wasn’t Cornelia’s wake just about the best party she’d ever seen. She told them about the time she’d gone to a back yard funeral years and years ago, and it had been mid-summer and hot as blue blazes, and the dead man in the pine box was sweating like a mule. The preacher kept wiping sweat off the dead man’s brow, and that was the truth if Esther had ever told it. And if it wasn’t a horrible enough sight to see, just maybe that poor man had come to after he was buried, whatever affliction that he suffered long worn off, and he realized too late that he was in the ground, and no preacher left to wipe his sweat away.
And hosts of other dead people, like Cornelia’s granny, and other poor souls that had started to reek and turn. They sat up with them, too, all night long by the light of oil lamps and starlight while the church elders sang their direful dirges and the kin women wailed, and they put the children on pallets on the floor right next to the coffin. It was to keep the rats and vermin from gettin’ to the deceased, Esther told them.
The grandboys stood there with their mouths agape in disbelief, and Esther watched on as they ran to Cornelia’s casket and gawked at her, waiting for a jerk or a bead of sweat. But Cornelia didn’t move behind that pink veil or reek one iota. One of the boys reached out and laid his hand on Cornelia’s, and when hers didn’t move, he jerked his back quickly.
“We’re sittin’ up with Granny Corn!” he hollered and they both grabbed a handful of those coveted butter mints and rushed out the front door in a swoop of a hurry.
In the last moments before sunset, Esther thanked everybody graciously and politely ushered them out. She reminded them that Cornelia didn’t want a big fancy funeral, and she wished to be buried privately. Jimmy Junior told Delaney Snodgrass, Esquire, that he’d be calling for the will first thing in the morning. Delaney tipped his hat and gave Jimmy Junior a sideways grin. Old Man Davis placed a sprig of jewel weed and a rambling rose in the casket with Cornelia and whispered that he’d always thought she was the handsomest woman to ever grace the hills.
As the Hale house cleared out, empty except for Esther and Cornelia, the evening sun lit atop Clinch Mountain and cast high mournful shadows in the twilight of Cornelia’s perfect wake.
It was then that Cornelia decided to open her eyes and throw that pink chiffon veil out of her face and rise up out of her deathbed. She straightened the creases out of her dress and got herself a healthy woman’s portion of chicken and dumplings and went out to sit on the porch with Esther.
“I’m the handsomest woman to ever grace these hills,” Cornelia exclaimed.
“And won’t folks be glad when they find out you ain’t dead at all!” Esther said.
Cornelia licked her spoon and studied on Esther’s words. “In the mornin’ when Delaney tells Jimmy Junior I traded the house for a condo in Myrtle Beach, I don’t figure he’ll be glad at all.”
“He’ll get over it,” Esther said with a chuckle.
“I’ll send him a postcard while I work on my tan,” Cornelia said and flashed Esther a grin.
The two of them sat there on the porch in the falling dusk, basking in the afterthoughts of it all. Oh yes, memories were much more valuable than money. And Cornelia had plenty of both, and gumption and moxie to boot. Maybe that’s why Jim had married her after all.
Nobody would believe it, Cornelia knew. They’d make a ghost story out of her and call her crazy. But all legends end up between some pink veil, she knew, in a mist that blurs the truth from tale, and one day those rotten grandboys will tell their own spoiled young’uns about the time they sat up with Granny Corn, who laid alive and well in a pretty coral casket for over six hours and attended her own wake.
In the silent cloak of the night, Esther and Cornelia loaded down the Coupe de Ville with suitcases and umbrellas and sweet smelling suntan lotion. Cornelia figured she’d be the best looking dead woman to ever walk the sands of Myrtle Beach. Esther and Cornelia laughed and talked and sucked on handfuls of pastel butter mints until they saw the morning sun rise up from the Atlantic.
Copyright Anna Wess, 2016