Aunt Ruth died at a most inconvenient time. She had the sense to know better, but she still stopped breathing on the second morning of the 1904 Revival. What kind of person goes and dies during Revival? And on the second morning at that. No, a considerate person on their deathbed would wait until at least the next to last or last night of Revival to die, because having a funeral during Revival Week is about the closest thing to impossible as there is.
When Granny Beckett heard about what Aunt Ruth had done, she was none too pleased. The pastor, naturally, was busy as a field hand come harvest what with keeping the Revival preachers company all week. Pulling Brother Madison away from his hospitality ministry for Ruth Bledsoe’s funeral was tantamount to horse thievin’.
Everyone knew Aunt Ruth died during Revival just to spite Granny Beckett. Aunt Ruth never once went to Revival on account of Granny Beckett convincing Aunt Ruth’s beau to join the army to fight the savage Indians out West. Rucker Cargle died at Custer’s Last Stand, and Aunt Ruth never could forgive General Custer or Granny Beckett. Why, Granny Beckett might as well have shot and scalped Rucker Cargle herself for how much Aunt Ruth hated her.
Every year when Revival came and the tent went up, Aunt Ruth dressed in mourning clothes and kept the shutters closed. Eventually, folks stopped telling Aunt Ruth to forgive Granny Beckett, and, in time, a handful of other folks spurned by Granny Beckett joined Aunt Ruth for their own sort of revival. Mama never would tell me what went on at Aunt Ruth’s Revival, but I bet they had a heap more fun than we had down at Granny Beckett’s Revival.
I was seven years old when Aunt Ruth died. Mama told me about it when I came home from school at lunchtime. Usually, I had to take Aunt Ruth her lunch—five soda crackers, a slice of cheese, an apple, and a glass of milk. When the counter was bare, I suspected something had happened, so when Mama told me Aunt Ruth had died, I just nodded my head and sat down at the table to eat my lunch.
Mama had me stay home from school after that. She told me it wasn’t respecting the deceased to learn your times tables when they were trying to make their journey to the Hereafter. She told me to change into my plainest dress and sit in the parlor. Folks would be coming soon.
So, I put on my plainest dress and sat on the sofa in the parlor and waited for our company to arrive. My plainest dress was brown, and I hated it. None of the other girls had to wear a brown dress to church, but I did. It was made from the left over material Mama had used to make Aunt Ruth’s curtains. Aunt Ruth wanted brown ones, so they’d keep out the daylight better when she rested in the early afternoon. Mama dreaded making those brown curtains, and she bought extra so she could make them full and maybe a bit less depressing to look at. Aunt Ruth hated them. She had Mama cut off the extra fabric and made her make me a dress that was so ugly I cried through the whole fitting ‘til Mama accidently poked me with a pin and started crying with me. I stopped crying then and tried to make Mama feel better about the ugly brown dress and how mean Aunt Ruth was to make her make it for me. I told Mama she was a true saint if there ever was one. She stopped her crying then and told me not to say such things.
I suppose it was fitting that I wore that dress the day Aunt Ruth died.
Folks started showing up real soon after I sat down in the parlor to wait on them. Like most every small town, news in Whitestone traveled fast. So fast, that Granny Beckett was the first person to knock on our door. Mama burst into tears the moment she saw Granny Beckett standing there on the porch holding her own pot roast Junie put on that morning.
“Sweet child.” Granny Beckett put the Dutch oven on the sideboard in the hallway and just held Mama for the longest time. “Tabitha, it’ll be alright. We all know she’s gone to be with the Lord.”
I watched them from the sofa and wondered how Granny Beckett could come visit Aunt Ruth after how poorly Aunt Ruth had treated her all those years. Even at seven years old, I knew I wouldn’t go visit my sworn enemy after she died. No ma’am, I’d let her rot.
Once Mama calmed down, she took the pot roast to the kitchen, and Granny Beckett came to sit down in the parlor with me. More folks started showing up, and before I knew it, we had a whole dinner spread out on the kitchen table that could feed half the town.
Granny Beckett talked about Aunt Ruth like they’d been lifelong friends instead of sworn enemies. She spoke so nice and kind about Aunt Ruth that I wondered if maybe she thought a different Ruth Bledsoe had died that morning. Most everyone I saw that afternoon hadn’t said hello to Aunt Ruth in my memory, but they reminisced about her just the same as Granny Beckett. Someone—I don’t remember who—even suggested that Aunt Ruth be buried next to Rucker Cargle, seeing as how they would’ve married if he hadn’t died. When that idea floated around the room, Granny Beckett started to crying almost as hard as Mama had.
Oh how everybody swarmed around Granny Beckett and consoled her. She went on about how she’d only told Rucker Cargle to join the Army, because she’d heard a direct word from the Holy Ghost. She’d been commanded by God to tell Rucker Cargle that he should serve the Lord in the United States Army, so she’d told him what the Lord wanted of him. She never expected he would die at the hands of a red Indian. She would’ve told God to find another man if she’d thought that would happen.
While she went on about how brave and handsome Rucker Cargle must’ve been the day he died, I sneaked into the kitchen and ate half a dozen of Mrs. Josslin’s sweet pickles before Mama caught me. She swatted my behind and told me to get back in the parlor with the company before she switched me good. I snatched another sweet pickle on the way.
About 2 o’clock, the undertaker arrived. Mr. Bitten took special care of Aunt Ruth’s body. He laid her out real nice in her finest dress with a single yellow rose he’d brought from his own garden. He added a bit of rouge to her cheeks so she wouldn’t look so pale and combed her hair so she didn’t look like she’d been laying in bed for ten years. His assistant helped him move her body to the parlor where they put her on a table the pastor and the mayor moved into place.
Granny Beckett started crying all over again when Aunt Ruth came into the parlor. Half the women in the room started weeping with her, and their men patted their shoulders and told them to calm down, it’d be all right, Miss Beldsoe was with the Lord.
The visiting went on for hours and hours. I thought by supper most of town had come by to pay respects, but they hadn’t. Surely, I thought, everyone would go on to Revival, but folks kept coming ‘til it was black as ink outside, and Granny Beckett stayed through it all. She welcomed folks like they were walking into her own house, which left Mama to arrange and rearrange the dishes in the kitchen so many times she started to look mad with grief.
After the last visitor, Mr. and Mrs. Lemon, left, Granny Beckett put Mama to bed. My daddy wasn’t home that night. He’d gone to Tyler on business and wouldn’t be home for another week. Mama was spittin’ mad at him about going out of town during Revival, but he left just the same. So, Granny Beckett put Mama to bed and came back downstairs where I was still waiting to be told what to do in the parlor.
“We will sit up with her,” Granny Beckett informed me as she closed the parlor doors.
I stared at her for the longest time. I knew better than to question my elders, so I nodded my head and said, “Yes, ma’am.” I hadn’t the faintest idea why we would sit up with Aunt Ruth when she was dead enough already, but I stayed in my seat by the window just the same.
Granny Beckett sat down on the sofa across from me and folded her hands in her lap.
The minutes ticked by on the mantel clock. I figured we ought not speak, but I wasn’t certain and wanted to know why we were sitting up with a dead body so bad that I finally asked, “Granny Beckett, I mean no impertinence, but may I ask a question?”
She gave me a smile I’d never seen before. “Yes, child.”
“Why are we sitting up with Aunt Ruth? She’s already dead.”
“We must keep the cats out.”
“Out of what?”
“They will disturb her.”
“But she isn’t…awake.”
Granny Beckett sighed. “The cats will disturb the body if they find a way to come in here.”
I still didn’t understand what she meant, but the way she spoke put an end to my questions.
We sat in silence until I drifted to sleep. It was so late, and I’d never been allowed up past nine o’clock before. I couldn’t help myself. I nodded off in the chair by the window.
I dreamed the most awful dream. The cats – we had two, but in my dream there were a dozen – scratched through the parlor door and rushed Aunt Ruth’s body like a pack of lions. They tore at her body, clawing at her eyes and stripping her baldheaded. Just before I woke, a black tabby cat stared at me with her yellow eyes. She was gnawing on Aunt Ruth’s left hand.
I woke with such a start, Granny Beckett jumped up from the sofa and grabbed at her heart like a gunshot had gone off.
I ran to Aunt Ruth’s body, tears streaming down my face, and shouting, “Get ‘em off of her! Get ‘em off of her! Them devil cat’s are gonna eat her up!”
Granny Beckett stopped me before I knocked Aunt Ruth’s body off the table in my blind madness. She slapped me. “Stop it!” she hissed. “Stop it!” She slapped me again.
I put my hands on my cheeks. No one had ever slapped me before. Mama always smacked my behind, and Daddy came at me with his belt. I didn’t know the humiliation of having a person strike your face until Granny Beckett, bent over me with her eyes all dark and fiery, slapped me with the same indignation she would slap a mule.
I sat back down in the chair by the window and dried my tears on my sleeve. That ugly brown sleeve. I looked at it through bleary eyes and missed Aunt Ruth more than I ever thought I would. I hugged myself and silently wept, wishing Granny Beckett was dead.