The traditions of the East Texas funeral are in full force at Harvey Lee’s
Praying for High Stakes: A Funeral in East Texas
by BETTY L. MARTIN
Individually, in pairs, filling cars, trucks and caravans, the mourners
descended on a farmhouse in Neches, Texas, a tiny town with a dwindling
population except for that of its cemetery.
We came because there was to be another East Texas funeral with all
the trimmings. That meant a visitation of the body at the funeral home,
where we could mingle, munch on finger food and speculate on the quality of the sorrow demonstrated by other mourners.
Then there would be the funeral itself, where we would check the
merits of the preacher’s message and delivery. And, of course, we would
peek during prayers to measure the sincerity of the immediate family’s state
Any behavior deemed less than mortally grieved — including floral
displays too small or too ostentatious or a lack of moaning,
clutching of handkerchiefs or, worst of all, an absence of copious tears —
was certain to elicit whispers at the feast to follow.
Verbally and florally, East Texans liked their dead to be well-honored,
raised to near-sainthood status at funerals.
Whether they merited such honor in life was beside the point.
The East Texas funeral traditions shortly to be revisited flashed
through my mind soon after receiving the call from my
younger sister, Sue Ann, that daddy had died that morning.
My eyes were red from crying nonstop for five hours. Not
because the news was unexpected. In a coma for weeks on on his hospital
bed, Harvey Lee Woods had had so many lines linking him to life support
systems that he’d borne little resemblance to his former self. He no longer
looked like the man he had been in life: husband, father, skilled machinist,
East Texas scene painter, poet, baritone singer of Irish ballads and lover of
classical music and a bawdy joke.
Tears had begun to flow the moment I heard Sue Ann’s first
quavering syllables. Even though we had all been waiting for the news, it
still was a high-volt shock when it finally came.
“Becky, Daddy’s gone,” Sue Ann said. She quickly added, after a moan
erupted on my end of the line, that our father had died peacefully and the
funeral was to be the next day in Neches.
“Mama’s already gone to Aunt Maggie’s and they’ve gone on to the
funeral home with one of Daddy’s blue suits and tie and everything — I
don’t know about shoes. I guess he won’t need shoes,” Sue Ann said in a
child-like voice, her trademark composure shattered.
Our mama was already at the funeral home, making arrangements for
the viewing, which was to be that afternoon and evening. To mama’s
chagrin, the funeral was to be non-denominational, since Harvey hadn’t
been what anyone might call a church-going man.
“The sea and the stars are my church,” he often said. “I never feel
so close to God as when I’m out on the bay, fishing, and I look up at the
stars. Especially when I have a big red fish tugging on the line.”
“I’m on my way to Aunt Maggie’s now,” Sue Ann said. “Aunt Maggie
says we’re all to spend the night at the farm. Just immediate family, of
course. Not all the cousins.”
I threw toiletries and a few clothes — including a blue dress to
wear to the funeral, my father’s favorite color — haphazardly into a bag
and drove the nearly four hours from Houston to Neches.
I passed miles of forest on the increasingly hilly highway, finally
exiting onto a red-dirt road, passing by eight empty storefronts that had
once constituted downtown Neches. Now, they looked like a Western
movie set eternally waiting for actors who would never arrive.
Another turn onto another red-clay road and I was at the white
wooden farmhouse where my aunt lived and my father had been born. It had
grown into a seven-room house after my grandfather had
knuckled under to his wife’s frequent hints and knocked down the
outhouse to build an indoor bathroom in 1955.
I pulled my Ford Fiesta beside her sister’s Toyota Camry and
scrutinized the few vehicles she didn’t recognize.
The East Texas cousins were arriving. The gathering had already begun.
The screen door opened and her Aunt Maggie and Sue Ann
stepped out on the porch that wrapped the three quarters of the house.
More tears accompanied tight hugs and pats on the back. Inside the wood
-paneled front room, a few first, second and third cousins sat on the couch
and the upright piano’s seat near the wood-burning pot-bellied stove
turned off in deference to the summer’s heat that made flies sluggish.
They sat on mismatched chairs with lacy, hand-knitted throws
and a sofa that threatened to collapse in the middle and swallow them
whole. More hugs, more tears and then the litany of well-meant cliches that
always failed to make a dent in the sorrow:
“Harvey Lee’s in a better place now, honey,” said Aunt Maggie.
“He’s not suffering anymore, praise Jesus,” sobbed Cousin Ruby.
“He’s up there now, looking down and seeing all the love we’re all
sending his way today,” said Cousin Edna from the kitchen. “Did you
see how the clouds look like they are parting earlier? That’s God saying
welcome, Uncle Harvey.”
“Harvey Lee is probably singing in the heavenly choir right now,”
cackled Cousin Elmo. “And telling the angels how to run the show.”
I was soon on my thirtieth soggy Kleenex and twelfth cup of
coffee at the kitchen table where I sat with Sue Ann. In my mind, I could
clearly see daddy across the table in the chair where he’d sat so often,
playing the East Texas-honored domino game of Forty-Two with his sister,
Maggie, and two others in the foursome who usually alternated between
mama, me, Sue Ann and one or another of the cousins.
It began to sink in that I’d never again play Forty-Two with my dad or
would never again watch him make a flourish of his check mark signifying
his win. Or hear him be reminded by mama to place the check under the
winner’s name after he suffered a rare loss.
I’d never see again the man who loved life, who often threw his head
back and belly-laughed at the world’s ironies and idiosyncrecies.
I heard laughter from the living room as Aunt
Maggie and the cousins took turns recalling moments that attested to the
character — the humor, talent and sometimes, the temper —
of the man who had been Harvey Lee Woods.
“He refused to wear that sailor suit Aunt ‘Rene had made for him,” Aunt
Maggie said, describing her older brother as a six-year-old boy who, even
then, had a mind of his own. “Daddy was hitching up the horses to the
wagon for church and we couldn’t find Harvey Lee anywhere. Mama
finally found him hiding under the chicken coop. She gave him such a
whipping, but he still wouldn’t wear the suit, so she made him wear what
he had on — chicken poop and all.”
Aunt Maggie also remembered how Harvey Lee didn’t think it was fair
that he had to help pick cotton and his baby sister got to ride around
behind the horse pulling the cotton sack.
“I rode that sack and Harvey Lee fumed,” Aunt Maggie said. “He hated
picking cotton. I think that’s one reason he went into the Marine Corps.
That, and the Big War.”
“I remember his letter home from the Marines. No, it was a telegram,”
Cousin Elmo said. “It was during the Big War and he wrote that he’d met
the woman he was going to marry, Miss Margaret Simpson. He said
he couldn’t live without her.”
“Hell, he’d decided that the first time he set eyes on her,” Cousin Bobby
said. “He told his Marine buddy, ‘That’s the woman I’m going to
marry’ and jumped off the bus back to Camp Pendleton just to get on her
bus. Then he had to convince her to sit by him on the bus and then get her to marry him.”
“She did, though,” Aunt Maggie said, blinking back tears. “And that
marriage lasted until this morning.”
“They’re still married in the eyes of God,” said her daughter, Cousin
Edna, from the kitchen, where she was fixing food for the next
day’s after-the-funeral feast.
The aroma of cornbread, casseroles, potato salad and several fruit
pies mingled with odors wafting through the farmhouse from the back
porch. That’s where chicken, ham and beef were being barbecued by
Cousin Clyde on a giant pit Harvey Lee had built from steel three years
earlier, just before the cancer started making him sick.
I couldn’t yet openly share memories of my father, the
man who had lulled me to sleep with Irish lullabies. Who had blown up
and patched up countless flotation devices on fishing trips. Who paid for
my braces, my private school, college tuition, first and second
Gone, too, was the man who had never come to grips with my choice
of friends, boyfriends or husbands, my need to spend more than three
hours on a boyfriend’s phone call or my opposition to the Vietnam war.
I cried as I recalled what now seemed like petty, stupid fights,
removing daddy’s favored campaign candidate’s signs from our front yard
to replace them with my own candidate’s signage. Sometimes there were so
many holes in the yard at election time, the lawn looked like it was under
None of that mattered now.
Tomorrow would be the funeral. After the “dust to dust” conclusion, as
the casket was lowered into the big hole, would come the the after-funeral
pot-luck buffet. Along with food from Edna and Clyde Ray, the ladies of
the family known for their cooking skills would bring their culinary
specialties: watermelon bowls, gelatin molds and more casseroles, cakes,
cookies and pies. Lots and lots of pie.
The men would bring carving knives and those so inclined would
bring liquor in hip flasks or stored in bottles that stayed in vehicles
frequently visited throughout the afternoon and evening.
I was tempted to ask Clyde for a couple of
shots from the bottle of bourbon he was using to marinate the meat and
make barbecue sauces. No one commented that he marinated
himself along with the meats.
Just as I started another cup of coffee, I heard the
front screen door slam and the trilling voice of third cousin Freddie Lee
Woods. Freddie Lee rushed through the door as quickly as her two
hundred and twenty-five pounds could propel her, breathing like a wind
storm. Her trembling right hand held a handkerchief somewhere in the
vicinity of what I assumed to be a heart on the verge of an attack.
“Which way is Margaret planting the stakes?” I heard
Freddie Lee cry from the living room. Getting no response, she flew into
the kitchen. “Did your mama put the long stakes in the back and
the short ones in the front, or the other way ’round?”
“I don’t understand. What stakes?,” I asked.
“It’s very important that she makes sure the longer wooden
stakes go in the back and the shorter ones go in the front of the grave,”
Freddie Lee said solemnly. “That’s the only way the funeral people will
know which way to place the casket — and the casket must be facing east.”
Pulling out a kitchen chair and precariously placing her bulk in it,
Freddie Lee explained this slowly to Sue Ann and I, as if talking to a
couple of hysterics. Which, I thought, she most likely was doing.
“If the stakes are put in wrong — if the short stakes are in the back of
the grave and the long ones are in the front — your daddy won’t be facing
the right way, you see,” Freddie Lee said.
“What do you mean, right way?” Sue Ann asked.
“I mean that if the long stakes are on the eastward side of the grave
site, dear Harvey Lee will be planted backwards!”
“He will be facing the wrong way when Jesus returns to this earth,”
she said, wiping away a tear. “Harvey Lee will be facing the wrong way on
Resurrection Day and Jesus won’t see him.”
Sue Ann and I exchanged glances, then looked at Freddie Lee who
obviously was waiting for a response.
Then we burst out laughing.
“Freddie Lee,” I said. “I don’t know which way my mama
planted the stakes in the grave, but I did know my daddy. He was an
intelligent, thoughtful man.”
Freddie Lee nodded sadly.
“And I think that if Daddy should wake up on up on that Great Gettin’
Up Mornin’ and hear the trumpets of glory in back of him, he’ll soon
realize that he’s facing the wrong way,” I said. “And he will damn well turn
“Well!” Freddie Lee exclaimed, standing up abruptly, knocking her
chair into Edna, who then splattered the cherry pie she was removing from
the oven all over the oak-wood floor. “It’s obvious that
the one wrong thing Harvey Lee did in his mortal life was to have heathens
Which is why, when Freddie Lee had spread the story throughout the
mass of cousins, aunts, nieces, nephews, friends and Neches people who
just attended each funeral in search of good yarns and great food, the
clans were divided.
Some thought Freddie Lee was owed an apology from me and from
Sue Ann, some refused at the funeral to sit near us or even mama for, I
guess, having made the mistake of giving birth to us. Others
refused to speak to or sit near Freddie Lee.
Of course, this was Neches, where Hill Baptists didn’t speak to
Valley Baptists and hardly anyone spoke to the Methodists or the Church
of Christers and vice versa. The Pentecostals were considered not quite
sane, unless they were among protestants speaking about “those other
people,” the Catholics or Jews. No Catholics or Jews lived in Neches, that
anyone knew of, any more than there were Muslims, Hindus or Druids.
The congregation, too, sat in separate sides in their little folding chairs
under the little tent erected in the cemetery for the funeral. A wide swath of
empty folding chairs existed between the two groups. Even
after the funeral, many relatives vowed never to speak to me or
Sue Ann again, despite that mama had planted the stakes correctly in
accordance with Southern protestant tradition.
When Freddie Lee died the following spring, I was not invited and did
not attend. I heard, however, from family
members that twelve ushers staggered beside Freddie Lee’s coffin as they
carried her to her final resting place in the Neches Cemetery.
Three ushers had a hard time keeping their grip on the coffin
handles and slid a little, propelling the coffin to the ground ahead of
No one seemed to know which way the stakes had been placed. There
were a few bets in the family as to whether, on Resurrection morning,
God would come down to begin Judgment Day and see Freddie Lee’s
joyous face or her massive rear end.
Up in heaven, Harvey Lee was laughing his ass off.