(Note: all names, some occupations, and some familial connections have been changed so that I can be freely transparent about their quirky and extremely entertaining family dynamics!)
Cousin Gertruda was most decidedly the reigning matriarch of her branch of the family tree and she was a remarkable woman. Born in a log cabin on land that was leased from the Pawnee Tribe of Eastern Oklahoma, she was the oldest daughter of her family. She was one of the sweetest, most sincere, most responsible, most loving people in the family. We could always rely on dear old Cousin Gertruda anytime anybody was in trouble – she’d pitch in and help people with hardly a moment’s notice. She was extraordinarily generous, almost to a fault, sharing whatever resources she had on hand with those in need. In terms of being an authentic Christian woman, wife, mother, and business partner, she was “the Real Deal” as a great human being.
Originally, Cousin Gertruda was the remarkable wife of a World War II pilot whose plane was downed in bad weather over the Southwest Pacific and his remains weren’t recovered until decades later. Even though the community urged her to give up hope about her late-husband and accept that he was dead, she persistently held out hope that he would be found alive. Therefore, she conducted her life in accordance to her convictions that he was living. She was true blue to her late-husband even though the military declared him dead 22 months after his plane was lost. She even wore her wedding ring from him for 4 years afterwards, telling all potential suitors that she wouldn’t date them because in her mind he was alive and she was still his wife. This incredible loyalty and virtue was something that her second husband highly admired and he freely admitted this was what attracted him to her. His name was Engelbert Tomas Jonas Humperdinck, Sr., better known in the community as “Buck” (I admit that I just “made up” this name from those of two romantic male singers in the 1960s; but the real-life “Buck” had a similar name). Being a gentleman, Buck (who was an electrician running their family’s own business) bided his time until she was ready to move on with her life and begin a family again.
It so happened that Buck and Gertruda were my mother-in-law’s and late father-in-law’s next door neighbors. My mother-in-law became quite attached to Gertruda and they mutually depended on each other for so many things. This relationship between Gertruda and my mother-in-law lasted through the family storms of my husband’s younger brother dying at age 4 of leukemia, and then my in-laws split up and divorced -- even though this was a time when divorce was practically unheard of in the US. But Gertruda stood by my mother-in-law throughout thick and thin, even giving my father-in-law a severe tongue-lashing over the divorce. Conversely, when Buck had cancer and was dying, my mother-in-law was always available to help Gertruda and Buck in every capacity.
As you can imagine, it was quite a blow to my husband to find out this close cousin/former neighbor had died, so we re-arranged our schedules to be able to attend her services. Cousin Gertruda and Buck were very active in their church, and the church ladies there prepared a dinner “out of respect for the family”. We dutifully presented ourselves at the church dressed in appropriate funeral attire at their specified dinner time with my mother-in-law in tow. But when we entered the Fellowship Hall, we were greeted by no one but Gertruda’s pastor. The hall was filled with friends and relatives of Gertruda’s and Buck’s youngest son’s family who were gaily and exuberantly visiting as if it were a cocktail party. When our somber trio walked in, they just glared at us like we had landed in the parking lot from the moon. We spied my brother-in-law and his son sitting in the back of the hall along with another close cousin, and all three of them were already eating, so we decided we would join them and do the same.
Soon, we had filled up a couple of tables in the back with relatives of Gertruda’s two older brothers and male cousins, and nearly all of us had the last name of White. But the family related to Gertruda's and Buck’s youngest son, Engelbert T. J. Humperdinck, Jr., who went by “Bert”, just ignored us like we were the janitors there to clean up afterwards. Soon, Bert’s son (Engelbert T. J. Humperdinck, III, who went by E.T. when he was a little boy, and who then decided he should be called “Black Bart” as a teenager since he was a “rodeo star” who always wore signature black cowboy garb) made his entrance to the hall in the most flamboyant manner I’ve ever seen – then, he started “working the room” like he was a politician or a celebrity. To be honest, I hadn’t seen E.T./Black Bart since he was 5 years old; he never spoke to me then, and to this date, he still hasn’t spoken to me. But I thought this grown-up version of E.T./Black Bart looked like a skinny, starving televangelist complete with an Elvis Presley pompadour hair-style. He was wearing the loudest, most obnoxious, western-styled, black-and-white plaid suit I have ever seen! (I mean, the design of the fabric was so distracting and ugly, I couldn’t even notice if he was wearing a tie!) Later, my brother-in-law and I joked that E.T./Black Bart looked more like a rodeo clown than anything else!
Now, my brother-in-law’s family and our Cousin Floyd’s family are the only family members who currently live on a farm and raise cattle. My brother-in-law runs cattle on one side of the road where half of the old family farm was located, and Cousin Floyd runs cattle on the other half of the old farm located on the other side of the road! It would be safe to say my brother-in-law’s family and Cousin Floyd’s family are what I’d call “real cowboys”. (Only they don’t dress everyday like the ones in the old cowboy movies. Western clothing, boots, and hats are too expensive to wear performing real cattle ranching chores when beat-up blue jeans or overalls, an old T-shirt, and a free ball cap work just fine. Washable sneakers are generally the best footwear to have around a lot of cattle!) I’d even agree to Cousin Gertruda being a “real cowgirl”—when her grandparents owned the farm, they had many productive dairy cows, so she and her younger sister, Cousin Frieda, had to help with the milking.
My late father-in-law grew up on this family farm as a “real cowboy” though, and he was the first true “rodeo-er” in the family – he started performing in rodeos earning a little extra money at fairs and local rodeo events. Bert, the son of Gertruda and Buck, got the rodeo’ing bug from my father-in-law who taught Bert everything he knew. Then when E.T./Black Bart was growing up, Bert and his wife (Priscilla) were extremely indulgent of their son developing into a serious, competitive, close-to-a-pro-rodeo personality (hence the need for a “badder” sounding cowboy name such as “Black Bart”). But the funny thing was, neither Bert nor E.T./Black Bart ever grew up or lived around cattle – after all, Buck and Bert were electricians! Bert had one rodeo horse just like my father-in-law did, but E.T./Black Bart grew up having had a stable full of fine horses for use in his rodeo’ing hobby. But, no cattle – the only other animal that was ever around was Buck’s favorite pet collie!
E.T./Black Bart’s trophy wife, Rhoda, sashayed in dressed-up in a black cowgirl dress decorated with little white beads and sequins. She kind of appeared like Dolly Parton from the movie “Rhinestone”, complete with what was clearly a blonde wig teased up into a big hairstyle laden with excessive hairspray. It looked flammable, and I was glad we were inside a church where nobody could light up and smoke around her head. In tow were all their “kids”, ranging from age 22 down to 6 months old. I didn’t really count how many children the two of them had because the younger kids who could walk were running all over the Fellowship Hall wreaking havoc, co-opting into their horde whatever stray children (who previously were behaving well!) they encountered.
Several minutes later, E.T./Black Bart’s much younger sister (by at least 20 years), Stormy, entered the hall. I didn’t even know she existed – I think the family didn’t want to talk about how she came along so late in Priscilla’s life! She just slowly “ambled on in”, bow-legged like she had just gotten off a horse. Stormy looked absolutely comical, with her long, stringy, bleached-blonde hair that badly needed touching-up at the roots, and wearing her black cowboy boots with riding heels (these are about 1-1 ½ inch taller heels than regular boot heels to better grip the blades of the stirrups hanging from a horse’s saddle). She had on a youthful outfit of black tights, a black T-shirt, covered over with a colorful, large-patterned Navajo print poncho adorned with an impractical 1 ½ foot long fringe. Her poncho kind of resembled the one worn by Clint Eastwood in the movie “High Plains Drifter”, but the graphics on the poncho were definitely the wrong tribal designs for the area! The poncho and T-shirt were both barely long enough to fully cover her torso; if she reached up to hug a taller relative, it was almost indecent. She walked in all smiles, but when she saw E.T./Black Bart, she locked onto him in a bear hug shrieking, “Bart! Our Mi-Maw is dead! She’s dead!” while shedding a few dramatic tears.
(“Mi-Maw” is an endearing name for a grandmother in Oklahoma, and it is about the most ludicrous grandparent nickname I’ve ever heard!!)
About this time, the ushers for the funeral were handing out the “service programs” for the funeral which feature a nice photo of the deceased on the front, the order of the songs and speakers for the service, and the names of all of the participants. My mother-in-law took one look at Cousin Gertruda’s picture, and she started crying. Then, Cousin Gertruda’s sister-in-law, Aunt Leota Pearl, also started sobbing while trying to speak of the dearly departed, and her speech was incomprehensible. While Aunt Leota Pearl’s female relatives gathered around her to give her comfort and support, I noticed all of the relatives (male and female) named White slowly backed away from my mother-in-law as she became more and more hysterical. “Great!”, I thought, “It just figures!”
So I offered to go find some tissues for my mother-in-law because she used every previously unused, spare napkin on the four surrounding dining tables. I collected a box of tissues from the sanctuary, then headed back to the Fellowship Hall to attend to my mother-in-law’s tears. Her face and especially her eyes were swollen from crying, and it looked like she was developing dark circles around her eyes which resembled those of a raccoon. I decided to get some ice to put on the swelling for “damage control”. So I walked over to the counter where tall styrofoam cups full of iced tea or ice-water were standing. I then dumped out all of the water from one cup into a nearby sink, placing my fingers over the mouth of the cup to strain out the ice. Then I wrapped the ice in a couple of napkins to make a face-sized compress. I heard one of Priscilla's male relatives protest when I dumped out the water -- that "somebody might have wanted to drink that!" -- but I ignored him.
Soon, my mother-in-law stopped crying and the ice in the compress definitely soothed her eyes where she wasn’t feeling the need for tears to cleanse her eyes from the almost grit-like irritation that comes with heavy crying. Her eyes lost some of the puffiness and her face almost returned to its usual shape. She expressed a few words of gratitude for the efforts.
We were then told by the funeral director to line up and to promenade with dignity into the church’s sanctuary while mannerly taking our seats in the first five rows of the church reserved for “the family”. As we entered, we noticed there were a very large number of flower arrangements sent to the funeral in Gertruda’s memory, and I was touched by this last gesture representing how much people really loved Gertruda. I didn’t get to sit with my husband – my mother-in-law latched onto his arm as if he were her escort to a dance, and then Aunt Leota Pearl latched onto his other arm. Following Leota Pearl was Cousin Frieda, Gertruda’s younger sister, and I couldn’t bring myself to butt in-line ahead of Frieda. So, I got stuck in the pew behind them sitting by myself.
Next, Gertruda’s pastor, Brother Glock, got up to give the message. In his rambling diatribe (it really couldn’t be called a sermon, because it seemed impromptu and “off the cuff”), Brother Glock revealed he was Priscilla’s cousin, and that Brother Glock and E.T./Black Bart grew up together as close cousins and best friends. Then, in a weird moment of “spiritual mysticism” (for lack of a better term, because I don't think it even happened), Brother Glock described a “vision” that he had of Gertruda and his mother standing together in heaven with angelic beings surrounding them. Then, he really blew the service and literally shot himself in the foot!
He said, “In death as in life, my mother, Vivian, and Gertruda are the best and closest friends ever, and they will forever be worshipping the Lord together.”
My mother-in-law suddenly forgot where she was and shouted, “No!! I was Gertruda’s best friend! I was the only one who’d go see her every Sunday afternoon!”
Then Aunt Leota Pearl cried out, “She was not only my sister-in-law, but she was MY best friend. She was really another sister to me!”
I heard strange sounds like a high-pitched whine combined with a sob and then a wheeze coming from some other woman in the back of the church (who obviously thought she was Gertruda’s best friend). Frieda leaned over and loudly hissed, “Look you two! I’M her sister, and NOBODY was closer to her than I was!” Another woman in the balcony who was about Gertruda’s age then burst into loud sobs. I just wanted to sink into the sanctuary’s carpet and hide there for the rest of the day!
If that weren’t enough, E.T./Black Bart got up to give the only scheduled eulogy of his “Mi-Maw”. Oddly enough, during the first half of his eulogy he didn’t talk about Gertruda -- he talked about his parents, his younger sister, then his wife and numerous children where he insisted that his immediate family members were all “cowboys” and how proud he was that they all loved rodeo’ing. He referred to himself at least three times in the eulogy as “this cowboy”. Everytime he said that, my brother-in-law and Cousin Floyd (the real cattle ranchers who were both pallbearers, wearing traditional black suits, sitting together on a front pew) would start laughing to themselves silently. Only, their upper bodies were shaking so hard from trying to hold in their laughter that the whole pew where they (and the other pallbearers) sat shook like a molded gelatin salad! E.T./Black Bart then lamely closed by telling of the night before his Mi-Maw died when he “made a date to watch” television with her. I thought, “After all she did for others, is that the best he could say?”
Ironically, the soloist sang an old hymn called “It Is Well With My Soul” whose lyrics emphasize accepting all the trials and tribulations of life. The pastor was still red-faced about how his message was interrupted -- I couldn’t tell if he was mad or embarrassed, but I don’t think “It Was Well With His Soul” how the funeral went. When we all got to the graveside at the cemetery, Brother Glock only had a few sparse words to say, and then asked us to pray together. Then the cocktail party-like atmosphere amongst Bert’s family members that had permeated the Fellowship Hall earlier that afternoon suddenly resumed. I needed time to reflect on the day privately, so I walked over to my little brother-in-law’s grave (the one who died of leukemia at age 4) and paid my respects. Walking back to the temporary tent set up at the newly dug grave site, for the first time all day, I felt like Gertruda and Buck were walking beside me.
I thought that they both had lived their lives with hearts overflowing with love for everybody, and they treated anybody they knew with the deepest regard and respect. Gertruda and Buck truly lived the “Golden Rule” of Christianity – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It wasn’t just Gertruda who was such a genuine person, but Buck was the same way as well. It was only fitting because they were such true soul mates. I thought how amazing it was that they both were “the Real Deal” – to the point where it seemed each lady close to Gertruda thought that she was Gertruda’s “Best Friend”. And how sweet it was of Gertruda to never let these ladies know that there were other “Best Friends” in her life – Gertruda made each one feel like they were the most important friend in her life.I can't think of a finer tribute to Gertruda than that!