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A Death In The Family

Al Billings

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We’re barrelling along a highway in east Texas, headed for a funeral in Mansfield, Louisiana. Cross the Sabine River, and you’re driving through a state that Napoleon Bonaparte used to own. My wife has seized the steering wheel and contacted her inner Mario Andretti, so there’s a Take No Prisoners feel to the ride.

Somehow Louisiana already feels different than Texas, smoother, sexier, easier in every way. Folks don’t walk there; they slide gracefully. But racial politics cloud an afternoon. In honor of our liberal leanings, my wife’s cousin Lee has been instructed by his mother to avoid using the “N” word on this day.

The funeral service is heartfelt, but there are congregation members who do not speak to each other. Two of my wife’s cousins look as though they’ll be departing to the afterworld very soon. I squeeze their shoulders and realize how much I like them.

I learn once again that the only way to shoot family photos is to lock everyone up in a dungeon and pistol-whip the worst offenders, but it’s no use. They’re a barrel of monkeys, and I wind up having to shoot on the cool side of the scale, rendering warm skin tones a corpse-like blue.

We’re offered the use of a beautiful old wood frame house a few miles out of town, and it feels as though we’ve stepped back in time, surrounded by 150-foot-tall pines and oaks that sway gracefully, counterpoint to the trains rumbling near town. I slip into the Mansfield graveyard and capture an image of an unknown Confederate soldier’s tombstone, probably killed during the Battle of Mansfield, and I stop suddenly, as though I could hear him breathing in the soil below.

We awake to a glorious dawn and head west. Mansfield recedes into the distance, a wall of pines evaporating into the night.

June 13, 2014 7:59 pm

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