My dad’s family had moved to Ft. Pierce during the mid 40s and had, as the Bible advised, increased and multiplied. So, working for Dr. Raab was interesting for a number of reasons, not least of all because the town in which his office was located was so small. Such as it was, it then followed that between my actual family and the people my family had introduced me to, it was not uncommon to encounter any number of prior acquaintances in the day-to-day life of a veterinarian’s office at any given time.
Unsurprisingly, the history of my family in Ft. Pierce was as marked by bad spots as any: divorces, bastard children, legal run-ins, and the general competitive ill-will that comes from doing well as citrus growers and morticians. Indeed, being in the undertaking business itself brought about the standard array of queries and odd relationships that will come from preparing and burying friends, relations, and Jews in a small southern town. The lattermost being because, well, traditions hold strong and, being the only funeral parlor in a town of five thousand that was available to both Gentile and Jew, it was a source of some unpleasantness.
by Joe Yates ‘11
I was born late in the family history of both our trades. My grandmother sold our last grove, which happened to consist of white grapefruit, several years before her death because it was proving unprofitable. And as such things go, the price spiked two months after the sale went through to a record high. As for undertaking, well, what had once been a small franchise of parlors down the east coast of Florida in the 60’s and 70’s, had shrunk back to two. My older cousin, who had briefly attended a school for mortuary science, had decided it wasn’t for him. And no others were trusted or willing following my grandmother’s death.
Despite this, I seemed unable to escape this whole family habit of tending for the dead at a vet’s office where sometimes as many as six animals might be euthanized in a day. Then I, lineage that I have, would bag them and put them in the kind of big, white horizontal freezers out of which one often scoops bait or ice. There they would wait, black-bagged and stiff, until the pet cremators came around on Tuesday to fish them out. Then the beloved pets, or sometimes just a stray that had turned up worse for wear, would be incinerated and returned in a suitable receptacle for those who might wish to keep an artifact.
On one day at Dr. Raab’s, when I was not yet speckled, flecked or otherwise befouled with animal fluids, I was encouraged to work up front. This meant interacting with owners, and flirting with the girl at the counter awkwardly in my scrubs. She was older, more confident, and completely out of my league, but one must pass the time.
So, in this way, I ran into Wally Poynter to help him as he had brought in his dog, Pokers, to be put down. Pokers, who had been older than dirt even in my infancy, was a German Shepherd and Black Lab mix. He was as scrawny as he was old, and clearly worn out by whatever it is that wears out the dog of a Presbyterian minister in a South Florida town. Always shaking and slinking. I don’t recall having ever seen him run. He looked like a horse with a swayback, all shoulders and haunches, no spine.
Wally had essentially been a grandfather to me growing up, always at the little dinner parties and family gatherings, saying the prayers before meals, playing songs on my grandmother’s piano, and winding my grandmother and aunts’ grandfather clocks. He had nearly been my grandfather in true legality, in fact. He courted my grandmother for the entirety of the span in which our lives overlapped. For while he would bike back down Indian River Drive to his own home at a decent hour. He would then, after everyone else left, or he thought they had, bike back up. A small man, with short cropped white hair and beard, usually in a white polo shirt and pastel shorts, a pallid figure sometimes seen biking beneath the live oak and cabbage palm.
But he didn’t recognize me at the vet’s office, or chose not to at least. She refused his proposal on the grounds that she had married three times, not because she was fickle, but because they had all died while married to her. She felt herself to be a black widow of sorts, and so sought to spare him despite how much she cared for him. Or ,that’s what the family said to me anyhow.
Then, when I was about 12 years old, she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Things as they were, Wally proposed again and she accepted. But, as she had also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she promptly forgot that she had accepted. Not terribly unexpected as she would confuse me with my forty-year old uncle or forget she no longer had a car. Indeed, even as the sole surviving proprietor of the funeral home, it soon became apparent that accounting was no longer the best thing with which to entrust her.
But regardless of all her failings and forgettings, Wally was crushed. Since her death he faded out of the family’s life and gatherings. The piano lay quiet and out of tune, the clocks remained unwound. His diminishing led me to think of her funeral a couple years before: the family business taking care of its own, me being a pallbearer with my cousins and uncles, the withered rose that still sat on my bookcase in Tampa.
These thoughts ran through my head as I carried my near-grandfather’s dog back to the freezer—limp, and very light for a dog of his size. I wondered if it was congenital, this death-apathy. Certainly I missed my grandmother, and in the years since I have better realized what an amazing woman she was, but I had no need to mourn at the time. Of course, I was young, it put me in shock, I didn’t understand, and so on. It all amounted to make me feel uncaring and low. But I like to believe, as I recall laying Pokers among the others in the freezer, that it is bred into my family. That working as undertakers, morticians, funeral directors, coroners, or mortuary science majors, whatever, perhaps one better understands innately the natural passage from life to death. Maybe just by being born into this family, I already understand better than most that I will die out of it as well.