This intimate autobiographical portrait of not just of a girl who lives above the funeral home her father Frank Mayfield runs, but of a broken family and a time and place in history, the 1960's and 1970's when things begin to change in the South, even if the views are harder to change. In 1959, Frank Mayfield moved his family, wife Lily Tate, son Thomas the peacemaker, daughter Evelyn an undiagnosed manic depressive, and second daughter Kate, to Jubilee, Kentucky from the mountains of Western Kentucky to the border of Tennessee. He finds a large house to set up his business on the bottom floors and his home on the second and third floors. He installs multiple phones so he does not miss a single death. The words, "There is a body", invoke a bit of dread in the family, especially Lily Tate who may have planned a bridge club luncheon, that she's using to find a place in society, and then have to cancel it. For the children, it means going upstairs and being quiet and not seen. But that does not mean that Kate does not sneak looks over the banister to see the way her father quietly orchestrates a funeral with only a mere look or small lift of the hands to his employees or the mourners. Frank is like a maestro in his work.
The first trouble comes when two men from the oldest families in the county come to visit him and ask why he has not bought too many concrete vaults (which surrounds the casket in the earth) from them. He says they leak and will not sell people a shoddy product. There is another white funeral home in town and they have already sent business his way and now they have made it a mission of theirs to shut Frank down. It is the Southern good-'ol-boys network and it is quite effective. Even though Frank has a young man who lives in the county to help bring in business from that area.
Help comes in a surprising place. There were no ambulances back then. If you could not get yourself to the hospital, you called the funeral home to come and get you. Frank had a separate vehicle for that, and unlike his competition, does not charge for the service. One night, Miss Agnes, a spinster who lives in the largest and oldest house in town and owns the only fertilizer dealership in Kentucky, has hurt herself and calls Frank. The other funeral director has been sending patients roses to get their business, but all Frank can afford is red carnations, which happen to be Miss Agnes's favorite flower. Her story is incredible in how she was able to go from a wealthy family in town, until her father dies, leaving her in debt, to being very rich with her own business, a rarity in those times. She shuns those who turned their backs on her when her fortunes changed, so her and Frank are foes of the same people and she decides to help him. Miss Agnes is a delightfully eccentric Southern Woman who does things her own way.
Kate's mother gives birth to another child, a girl named Jemma. Her mother is the strict disciplinarian, something she picked up from her own harsh childhood. Her father, Kate would find, is a flawed man. He has a scar on his stomach from the World War II, where he almost died. It was his brother's dream to open up a funeral home, but he died during the war. The torments from the war haunt him and he becomes a man who is not always a good husband or father.
There is also the specter of race. Belle, their black housekeeper, helps raise the kids and Kate wonders why it is OK to sit in Belle's lap at home, but she cannot sit next to her in a theater. When black students begin to finally arrive in her middle school, she goes out with one for a while. When both races find out, she is threatened by a group of black girls after school, and her parents who tell her it could end her father's business, which it would. Oddly, Frank sometimes helps the only colored funeral director with embalming or with ordering things if need be, but he still does not seem to think of them as being equal.
While this book offers a glimpse inside of the old way funeral homes worked, it is through the eyes of a child, who basically never goes into the embalming room or sees but glimpses of the pageantry of the funerals. This book looks at a family that is far from perfect, at a dangerous time in the South, a different world all on its own, and small town politics and prejudices. Kate loves her family, but comes to realize that she is not meant to stay in Jubilee, but is meant for a wider world in which to explore life. There are many who help her see this, even if her family cannot.
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She threw out most of the deviled eggs that night. What a mess they looked in the garbage: a mound of shiny egg whites smeared with pale yellow yolks all smashed together, the whole lot spattered with deep red paprika, as if they’d been murdered.
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 2)
My mother thought she was crazy. What she really meant was that Totty was different. She was different because she …was from the North. ‘Somewhere in
Michigan’, my mother said, as if it were near the Arctic.
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 27-8)
I’d become familiar with all of her church frocks; now she was draped in her new widow’s black. I felt bad for her. Sixty years, that’s’ a long time, I thought, practically forever. She’s going to miss him terribly. I began to back away, but when she raised her hands, I knew a prayer was coming and I couldn’t resist….’O dear Lord’, she whispered, ‘I just want to thank you today. Thank you, Lord, thank you, thank you. Thank you for allowing me to finally put this bastard in the ground.’
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 38)
The South is like a lusty woman who stands at the mirror and admires her own astounding beauty, a beauty that after all these years only seems to intensify with age. Even though her face has changed, she has never lost her melancholy charm.
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 369)
Most of the women in our town wore beauty-parlor hair, the kind that didn’t move in a stiff breeze because it was teased and sprayed with enough hairspray to kill a cat. No one touched my mother’s hair except Mildred the beautician. I didn’t dare and I never saw my father go near it.
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 45-6)
Belle couldn’t go with me to the movies because we’d be separated after we entered. She would be required to sit upstairs in the balcony, and I would sit downstairs. I thought this was a strange, strange rule. I couldn’t understand why I could sit on her lap at home and not sit beside her in public. I wondered how it was that she could feed me and clothe me, yet be made to separate from me when we walked into the cinema.
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 54)
We had an awful lot of God in our town. Jubilee had more churches than it knew what to do with. They came in every variety imaginable, from a one-room house, where the Holy Rollers spoke in tongues and fainted regularly, to the large, money-drenched building of the
, our church, a half a block from the funeral home. First Baptist Church
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 128)
The preacher told me privately that Mr. Sheridan would be punished in hell [for killing his two kids, wife, and himself]. But I said nothing to that, because I saw no God in the scene before me, no heaven, no hell. Prayers would not have prevented this tragedy. When the
were finally buried, for it seemed their short time under our roof was elongated somehow, I no longer prayed for bad things not to happen. I knew they would. Sheridans
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 157-8)
[On vacation] We went to a different restaurant every night and ordered exotic foods, such as lobster and broccoli and fruit drinks with paper umbrellas.
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 176)
Occasionally I tapped out a Motown tune on the organ downstairs but it sounded wrong in every possible way; hymns, possibly Rodgers and Hammerstein, but never Motown on the
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 209)
In high school Emily had been a beauty queen, a drum majorette, Miss Congeniality, an accomplished musician, and all this without an ounce of self-consciousness. She was in college now, a sorority girl studying for her master’s in education. Tall, thin, and blond, she possessed the manners and grace of a Tennessee Williams character having a good day, and we loved her.
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 230)
The seventies crept up on Jubilee and settled like a canker sore. Was it possible to hate an entire decade based on a dearth of natural fibers?
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 255)
Do you think that creativity must be fueled by alcohol or drugs?... It doesn’t work like that. People think it does. It’s tricky because at first you’ll think you have the tiger by the tail. But it will tire you out. You’ll lose and then those substances will kill creativity stone dead. Kill it, kill it, kill it.
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 281)
Cigarette-smoking, alcoholic, adulterous, and now leash-holding Big Daddy—Tennessee Williams made a fortune off men like my father.
--Kate Mayfield (The Undertaker’s Daughter p 287)