"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Funeral Of Annie Cain– A Dress With No One In it

The minister began his eulogy quietly and respectfully.  “We are here to remember Annie, a woman of intelligence and good nature; a woman of particular rectitude and responsibility.  She was one of a kind, and will be remembered.  We are here not to mourn her death but to celebrate her life – a life like all, unique in God’s eyes, but unique among her colleagues and peers”.

Here the minister paused and nodded his head to a woman in the front row, inviting her to come to the pulpit. “I never met a woman who worked so hard”, she began.  “Annie was never put off by anything – not John…”, smiling at an older man in the back row, “nor Delilah…”, nodding to a youngish black woman sitting under the banner of St. George, “or even Harry…” Annie was remembered as a whiz with contracts and fast at proposals, and her cute, disingenuous snookering of the competition was famous. “The Angola bid…who can ever forget that one?”.  Laughter, smiles, and luckily no homilies about her premature death, those she left behind, a reminder to all that the end can come any time any place like it did to poor Annie, walking down the 5th floor corridor to the Ladies Room and dropping over dead before she hit the floor.

“Annie was never late for a meeting….Tell me people, was she ever? And always the one to turn off the lights.  The Department will never be the same without her.”

And so the service went, one colleague after another lightheartedly reminiscing about Annie’s good humor, her diligence, her never-failing support and consideration; yet not one speaker went beyond Annie’s office doors.  No one talked of her in any other way but congenially and warmly.  Yes, she was all that her colleagues said; but no more?   Why had they all persisted so deliberately in casting her only as a good bureaucrat, a loyal colleague, and a model employee?

Of course she was nothing like the friendly drone described at her funeral service.  She had a real life, lovers, indiscretions, a troubled family.  She could be needy, demanding, unpleasant, and irresistibly coy – all pretty much the same, more or less, as anyone, just configured differently – but what was there to anyone other than a reconfiguration of oddities, tics and peculiarities inherited from Grandad Alphonse, her own father; or the depressing house in Haver’s Quarter where she had grown up, failure at school but trained as nurse at a time when nursing took most young women; success at her new profession thanks to a particular gentleness with patients and a dexterity which made the best out of the worst. 

Peter Townsend met Annie on a business trip – in an Angola only just recovering from a two-decades civil war but barely at that.  Crime, civil unrest, social dysfunction without law and order, infrastructure ruined or in decay, and a population now made up of ex-combatants on both sides who only knew killing as a profession.

Image result for image luanda peninsula restaurants

Perhaps it was because of this chaos, insecurity, and uncertainty that they became lovers – a common enough circumstance among expatriates on mission to unfortunate places – or because the time and occasion was right.  Being in a war zone readjusts morality. Deceit is not what it is back home.  Precariousness does wonders for emotional and moral liberation.  Michael Ondaatje wrote this in The English Patient:
There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lovers enter the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in a new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire.
Image result for images the english patient

Or perhaps Peter and Annie would have been attracted to each other anywhere.  Or elements of all these.  The romance of travel, the excitement of war, the absence of anything familiar or reassuring and the unavoidable likelihood of physical danger or death, or something fine and attractive in each of them, found like Almasy and Catherine in Ondaatje’s story.  His characters might have been together in London or Paris, but it was the desert which not only brought them together but made the relationship happen.

Peter never loved Annie.  He was married and she wanted no involvement; and he admitted that their two years of illicit romance in her apartment in Adams Morgan, the occasional weekend on the Bay were too perfect and uncomplicated to stress by commitment or anything more than affection.  She loved him although she knew that the relationship would go nowhere, and until the day that she dropped dead in the C Building they were a perfect couple.

After twenty minutes listening to the weird anecdotes of her colleagues at her funeral service, he left.  The woman described from the pulpit bore no relationship whatsoever to the woman he had known.  Annie Cain was not unusual, particularly unique, or distinguished.  She was indeed a poorly-paid nurse, a Washington bureaucrat, and a willing and helpful colleague; but the bits of Alphonse, the rages of her father, the moronic antics of the boys in 9th grade, a sexuality inherited from her libertine Aunt Tally, and just making it through 35 years made her whole greater than the sum of her parts.  It was this particular uniqueness that was so absurdly absent at her funeral.  The woman described could have been anyone.

John Updike in Rabbit at Rest writes of the same strange disconnect:
The Minister talks of Thelma as a model housewife, mother, churchgoer, sufferer.  The description describes no one, it is like a dress with no one in it…Harry sits there beside snuffly Janice in her policeman’s outfit thinking of the wanton woman he knew, how little she had to do with the woman the minister described…
Image result for images rabbit at rest

Perhaps this awkwardly arranged, familiar scenario must be be played as written.  No one wants to get personal at a funeral.  Better to let the dead stand on their perceived or contrived merits and leave it at that.  Everyone can reflect on the departed in their own way.  Or is it that ordinariness gets in the way of insight.

Thornton Wilder in Our Town says just this.  Grover’s Corners is an ideal place to live, to grow up, and to raise children.  It is ordinary, but polite and respectful.  There is nothing shameful about the butcher, the grocer, and the pharmacist, nor anything to criticize for sameness.  ‘Uninspired’ is not a term to describe Grover’s Corners.

Image result for images our town wilder

As the townspeople of Grover’s Corners die and look down on the town the left behind, they realize that this ordinariness of which they were so proud, kept them from an appreciation of life itself.  Before they knew it, their short lives were over, and they could barely remember what they had done or how they had felt.

Peter never got over the funeral of Annie Cain.  He got over her death, but not the way she was remembered.  Did so many people really only see an empty dress? An ordinary, unremarkable life? An invisible person?

Like most of the rest of us, Annie Cain left few remarkable traces, forgotten by all but our closest families and except for amusing anecdotes at Easter Dinner, erased from history.  Peter thought himself particularly fortunate for having loved a woman no one else got.  It was his own perennial Christmas gift.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.