The Old Grey Mare

My neighbor Ray, who collects flip-flops for me to reuse as siding, has been finding specimens so stylish I suspect they are from Japan.

Ray has got a new little dog, Chuy, pronounced Chewy, which is either a slang term for male anatomy or the Mexican nickname for the name Jesus, depending who you believe. The little guy has lifted Ray’s heart after his wife’s passing, and it’s a joy to see.

I always wished my Grammy had a dog or kitty, some nice critter to make her feel needed, while bombarding her with the insistent love that can sometimes outclass and outlast people.

“The old grey mare ain’t what she used to be,” Grammy told me recently, “but I’m still existing quite well.”

The destructive beauty of Washaway Beach means that it can either be a comfort or an amplifier, an accelerant to existing loss. The wind howled, the power went out, and Roberta and Dave’s house was about to fall in the ocean.

Roberta was ready for it to go. It was alternately being squatted in, looted, and trashed. She and Dave are living elsewhere in town now. This past weekend, Roberta got her wish. But it’s hard to celebrate these passings.

The song “St. James Infirmary” lays out the instructions very clearly. “Get me six crapshooters for my pallbearers, a chorus girl to sing me a song, and a red-hot jazz band to play over my body as they carry my coffin along.”

No coffin. Burn and scatter me, in the ocean, here. Yes on the jazz band. The other stuff would be OK, too.

I did not recognize her.

I hoped to find a pair of those shoes, the Naturalizer slingbacks with a heel. An Italian woman, she drove her 1970 black Olds Cutlass in those shoes, pure muscle. She wore them in snow. She was an astonishing cook, but made it look effortless. She always dyed her hair and kept herself up. But she was a passionate gardener too, connected with the natural world, and would grow flowers and fruit and tomatoes big as your head. I thought I would recognize her gardening hands, at least.

She was ferociously independent and separated from my grandfather, a quiet man who worked on cars, not, I think, because he was a bad guy, but because she needed to live alone.

He left the house in Butler, Pennsylvania to her when he died. When my brother David and I were kids, she was the resident manager of the Letterman House, an apartment building in D.C. that didn’t allow children. That place was our playground, an enchanted labyrinth of stairwells and elevators, the roomful of keys, the boiler room, the storage room of abandoned furniture, the roof! The pool was a den of sun-leathered, smoking old women who especially hated us, shrieking and splashing in their pool.

She moved back to Butler in 1983. The house is on an acre of land, and her gardens were magnificent, like you could never have in a D.C apartment.

She resisted getting older with a ferocity that alienated people, as it began to show up as orneriness and sheer stubbornness. I never saw her after she started walking on a cane and stopped dyeing her hair. I traveled east, only to have her refuse to see me, twice. After that I came to embrace the telephone.

She needed help, living alone at 94, but hated needing it, and would attack well-meaning helpers. She absolutely refused the “I’ve Fallen and Can’t Get Up” button seen on TV.

She fell.

The hardest part is what we’ll never know. Did she have a heart attack and fall down the concrete basement stairs, or did she fall, lying there hurt, knowing no one would find her, until the fear stopped her heart? But some wanted the funeral conveniently on Monday, a holiday, and decided to skip the autopsy.

We needed to be the jazz. Her name was Ella, after all. My brother David plays many instruments, but hadn’t touched his clarinet in 21 years. “Bring it,” I said.

In the hotel, in about ten minutes before people started complaining about my trumpet, we figured out our arrangement. The job of the jazz funeral band is to lead the passage from sorrow to joy. The happy music part is known as “cutting the body loose.”

David explained to the crowd at the cemetery: “In New Orleans jazz funerals, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’  is played two ways. First we’ll play it slowly because we’re so sorry she’s gone. Then we’ll speed up the tempo, because we’re so happy she’s in heaven. I think you’ll be able to tell which is which.”

We began with minor-key mournfulness, the clarinet sweet and sorrowful, haunted, and then we began to fly. And then my cousin Michele, an eccentric musician who was recently a victim of Grammy’s wrath, started belting out the words. “OH WHEN THE SAINTS! COME MARCHING IN!”

“Michele thought she was on Bourbon Street,” my cousin Sylvia joked.

She was. We were. We cut Grammy loose.

In the kitchen, in the garden, is where I will find her.



About washybeach

Washaway Beach This Week is a blog by photojournalist Erika Langley. See more work at
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