Smiley’s Fedora

She should have known when she saw the fedora balanced on the edge of the open casket. She didn’t want to be there. Not because she didn’t like wakes or funerals—who does? But because she never liked the guy—the one in the coffin—her father-in-law. 

Oh, I guess you could say he was an okay guy. I mean, he provided for his family, and he never killed anyone. But was he a nice guy? Heck, no.

Maybe it was because he had a miserable childhood, or he hated his mother—who knows—but life to him was one big, onerous, serious business. Really serious. Laughter, sports, games, jokes; he couldn’t tolerate any of those things. When kids playing stickball in the street saw him pulling into his driveway they would yell, “Here comes Smiley!” and scatter.

He was of medium build, a somewhat stocky man, and no matter the weather, hot or cold, if he wasn’t wearing his work clothes, he wore a three-piece suit, wing-tip shoes, and that fedora.

Let me tell you, he was one strange, mean, and scary dude. He didn’t trust the government, believed that people were out to steal his small business and that there was a small, powerful cabal that ruled all world governments. And two of his favorites: electromagnetic waves were being used to control peoples’ minds, and bag ladies were CIA agents. He shared his opines only with family, usually at the dinner table, and any rebuttals were met with ugly arguments that left everyone eating in silence, leaving only the sound of tapping forks on plates. Actually, that was the sound almost every night. Silence was always the best option. 

So, yeah, she never liked the guy.

His other daughter-in-law shared the same dislike for the deceased and had no trouble telling him just what her Irish temper felt fit to say. One time he called his wife by her first name, and without missing a beat, his daughter-in-law said, “Gee, I thought her name was ‘Stupid’ since that’s all you ever call her.”

Badda boom!

But let’s get back to the wake and funeral. 

At the wake, his wife commanded a presence beside the coffin. Even in her 90s she was striking––her face, her stature, her fashionable clothes—everything about her. She was tall, erect, fair complexioned and hair coiffed perfectly (kept blonde by her bi-monthly salon appointments). But putting that hat on the coffin? It was like he was still watching and controlling everyone.

 On the morning of the funeral, the hearse and limo were idling outside the funeral home entrance awaiting departure; the pallbearers––the four grandsons––were waiting in two cars directly behind the limo. One grandson was in the first car and the other three were in the second vehicle.

The two thin, elderly funeral attendants escorted the immediate family to the limo. The widow sat in the rear seat, between the two sisters-in-law and her two sons sat in the seat facing her.

A sudden quick-moving spring snowstorm had moved in earlier that morning, and big wet clumps of snow were blowing sideways. The quiet, respectful, decorum of the funeral attendants broke down as soon as they shut the limo door; they ran back and forth between the hearse driver and the funeral procession cars giving last-minute instructions and attaching the car funeral flags. Back and forth, back and forth, and using hand gestures. No one in the limo could hear them, and the sisters-in-law shared a barely perceptible smile while watching the pantomime performance.

 Directives given, and by then sporting frosty white hair, the attendants got into the limo, and off they went. All sat in silence listening to the thrump, thrump, thrump of the windshield wipers. Breaking the quietude, the widow suddenly announced to no one, “I’m going to paint the kitchen cabinets white. I never liked their color. He wouldn’t let me paint them.” Thrump, thrump, thrump.

The snow kept blowing as the funeral procession made its serpentine way to the church. The church entrance driveway was a steep arching curve, and as they approached the driveway, the hearse sped up to make it up the hill. The limo followed suit, fishtailing ever so slightly. Not wanting to alarm his hard-of-hearing mother, one son leaned forward and whispered to his wife, “There’s only one car behind us.”

With the hearse and limo parked in front of the equally steep church steps, the funeral attendants got out and opened the doors to the limo. All exited, save for the widow. The priest, who one sister-in-law thought looked like the Pillsbury doughboy, was waiting at the top of the steps for the casket. “The boys aren’t here; we need to wait!” said the sisters-in-law. The funeral attendants got all worked up again. “No, we have to start now!” True to form, the bold sister-in-law turned to the funeral attendants and the priest and said, “You can’t wait? How many funerals do you have after this one? We’re waiting for the other three pallbearers.”

The widow was oblivious to all this. Still seated in the back of the limo, she was thinking about replacing the scraggly privet hedge in the front of her house and maybe buying a new dishwasher. Yes, she would do that—and she did. But I digress.

After about five minutes of waiting, the priest said it was time to begin the funeral. The two funeral guys, the two husbands, one grandson, and the hearse driver carried the casket up the steep steps. The attendants—looking like a twenty-pound turkey would be a challenge—strained to hold their side of the casket. Reaching the level area in front of the church doors, the men placed the casket on the rolled device which unbecomingly is called a “church truck” and the priest draped the funeral cloth over the casket.

Dignity restored, the sons helped their mother up the stairs and escorted her down the aisle. The daughters-in-law followed, with one muttering not-so-nice thoughts.

The funeral mass began, with still no sign of the grandsons. About ten minutes into the mass, a hideous scream came from a woman sitting behind the family. An elderly man was slumped against the woman’s shoulder, and his face was pasty gray. “He’s dead, he’s dead!” she screamed. A doctor and a nurse in attendance laid him down on the pew and began CPR. The nurse did compressions, and the doctor checked the man’s airway and pulse. The female church deacon who had been assisting the priest, came over to the scene and stood on the opposite side of the pew from them and kept waving her hands over the nurse’s hands as she was doing chest compressions. “Move away,” the nurse ordered, then the doctor and nurse quickly moved the stricken man to the middle of the center aisle and continued CPR.

 Now while that was going on, another character in this story emerged. She was the daughter of the deceased. She was ornery and difficult and had arrived at the church by herself––slipping unnoticed into the seat next to the bold sister-in-law. Everyone’s attention was on the drama unfolding in the center aisle when the daughter began yelling in an Edith Bunker-type shrill voice, “Give him oxygen, given him oxygen!” The bold sister-in-law, who didn’t realize who was screaming into her ear, instinctively turned her head and yelled back, “Stop it! They don’t have any oxygen! Can’t you see that?” Any other time that exchange would have been met with an all-out verbal, profanity-laced brawl of a response (she was a lot like her father). The sister-in-law, realizing who she had just screamed at, froze, and the daughter? Realizing…well, who knows what she realized, but thankfully she shut up.

 Meanwhile, the three grandsons were hopelessly lost. They had been following the hearse and limo, and at the first set of traffic lights, the hearse, limo, and the first pallbearer’s car had proceeded through the red light (as is the protocol for funeral processions), but the grandsons stopped at the light, lost sight of the limo, and took a wrong turn with all the remaining funeral cars following suit.

Realizing they were lost, the boys began pulling over into parking lots and driveways, calling 411and asking the telephone operator to help them find directory listings of Roman Catholic Churches in the area that began with “St.” (411 was the real-time, real-person equivalent of a Google search in those days). Each stop meant four or five cars also pulled over to the side.

 Back at the church, the EMTs had arrived. The casket was pushed to the side, and the priest instructed everyone to go to the back of the church and wait while the doctor and the nurse handed the man off to the EMTs.

 “Why are we all standing back here?” the widow kept asking her son. She was confused and her son did his best to explain the situation. Shocks delivered, the man was revived, put on a stretcher, and wheeled out the side door. A firefighter escorted the wife to the ambulance. Everyone returned to their seats, the casket was moved back to the center aisle, and the mass resumed.

By now the grandsons had found the church. The ambulance had just left, but as soon as they pulled into the parking lot, they saw the remaining firetruck and police cars. They all leaped out of the car, and one boy shouted, “Oh my God Aunty’s gone on a rampage!”

They ran in the side door of the church and saw everyone—calm? What had happened? It was not the time to ask, since one son was approaching the lectern to begin his father’s eulogy. It was a fond and loving remembrance—and very, very long. When it seemed never to end, the sisters-in-law turned to each other and simultaneously whispered, “Who’s he talking about?”

It was still snowing when the funeral was over, and the hearse and limo had to descend the equally steep decline of the driveway. Sure enough, the hearse was going down the hill—sideways—and heading straight for a large tree!

 The hearse hits the tree; the casket falls out, cracks open and the fedora rolls out onto the street and is run over by a snowplow—only, that’s the movie ending.

 Since this is a true story, I have to tell you that didn’t happen. The hearse did slide sideways down the driveway but managed to straighten out just before hitting the tree. 

The rest of this story came together later that afternoon when the immediate family gathered at the widow’s home and re-told the events of the day as they experienced them.

The three lost grandsons were surprised to hear about all the CPR drama that had unfolded before the EMTs arrived, and the family discovered that the shrill-voiced daughter actually had brought a date to the funeral banquet. But the story doesn’t end there…

 As the afternoon turned to evening, a firefighter who had responded to the 911 call knocked on the widow’s back door. He said his parents lived upstairs and the man who had been taken to the hospital, and who was now resting comfortably in the hospital was his father.

He said his father’s stubbornness probably contributed to the heart attack since his father had insisted on entering the church through the front doors––climbing up all those stairs.  

Tired now, and recalling the remains of the day, the daughter-in-law realized, however improbable, that yes, she should have known he would try to control events from the “other side,” and there most definitely would be drama.

Yet, for a man who never smiled, that fedora signaled one of the funniest, most bizarre funerals ever.