The prompt for the latest episode of R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast asked that we use the month of September and the picture below in our setting. Richard snapped the photo of a statue of Edgar Allan Poe near Emerson College where he’s in studying for his MFA.
My story inspiration
This may be the first non-fiction entry I’ve written for the podcast. I was struggling to find some way to incorporate Poe into a story. A couple of days before the due date, I found out I would be attending a funeral. Somehow, I knew a story would find me there, and it did. 😉
You can also listen to me reading my essay on episode 70 of R.B. Wood’s podcast.
I attended the funeral of a friend’s mother recently. As this short tale is based on truth, let’s just call her Elsa, which is not her real name. Because Elsa died outside her country of birth, there was no one in attendance from her generation. It’s likely most of her friends would have pre-deceased her anyway. Everyone at the intimate ceremony was friends with her daughter, who like most of us were in our fifties or early sixties.
Earlier that September morning, I read interesting factoids about Edgar Allan Poe to inspire a tale for this podcast. Unlike Elsa who passed away just shy of her ninetieth birthday, Poe died at the young age of forty. To this day, the circumstances of his death remain a mystery. Though intriguing as that is, what struck me was that his enemy, a rival author, wrote Poe’s lengthy obituary, portraying him as a drunken, womanizing opium addict who based his darkest tales on personal experience.
Thankfully, funerals are a rarity for me, but the timing of it did arouse my curiosity. Perhaps it’s Poe’s recurring theme of death in his writing which made me think of the coincidence. Whatever it was, the thought of the libellous obituary written for him stayed with me as an old priest prepared to speak at Elsa’s funeral. He approached the lectern carrying a piece of paper in one hand and a champagne flute of golden brown liquid in another.
It was not yet one in the afternoon, but the alcohol had been flowing for some time.
The priest reminded me of Harry Dean Stanton, only smaller in stature and with the same tired, deep-set eyes and weather-beaten appearance of the actor’s later years. Stanton was 91 when he died only a few weeks ago. The priest looked 101. Maybe that’s why I felt comfortable with him speaking to us as if we were his children. After all, we were the kids in that room. He spoke eloquently about the importance of mothers and what they gave to their children—the gift of life, praise, and discipline.
He raised his glass and toasted Elsa before taking a long sip. Only a few of us were holding a drink, but we all mimicked raising a glass anyway. From where I sat in the back row, I saw friends look at each other and smile. Like me, they probably didn’t know what to make of this man.
The priest stood confidently addressing our small group and waxed lyrical about friendship. Friends are important, he said, and hopefully, unlike him, we don’t all meet our friends in cheap bars.
He took another sip of his drink.
Wide-eyed, the woman beside me turned to me, “What is he drinking?” she whispered.
I shrugged. My best guess was bourbon. And like her, I found this man’s honesty and self-deprecation strangely admirable.
The priest continued.
“Because I wear this collar, it’s my job to comfort you,” he said. “I’m a man of god, after all, much to the chagrin of the bishop.” Several people let out a boisterous laugh. Like a slow-leaking balloon, the words of the priest deflated the tension in the room. When Elsa’s daughter got up to pay her respects with a moving speech, she revealed how her mother married a much younger man in her father. The short but touching tribute left several of us dabbing away tears after she finished and took her seat.
The priest resumed his position behind the lectern. With the timing of a seasoned comedian, he looked at Elsa’s daughter and said, “You didn’t tell me your mother was a cradle robber!”
A collective gasp filled the room.
The pejorative term was said without an ounce of malice. His words were not delivered in the same vein as the obituary for Poe. They may have shocked us, but there was no ill intent behind them. We laughed even as we cried.
When the service ended, several of us expressed how we wished this priest would live long enough to deliver our eulogies. In his dry-witted, surly manner, he had endeared himself to us, seemingly without even trying.
The words about Poe upon his death damaged his legacy for almost a century until they were proven to be false. This realization, coupled with my recent funeral service gave me a newfound respect for those who must encapsulate a person’s life with merely words.
Words have the power to deceive, to hurt, and to heal. How we choose to use them is a testament to our own legacies.
Thank you for reading and/or listening. Feel free to leave a comment or question. Feedback, whether good or bad is always welcome.