Up the road a little bit from my house there was a log cabin, old as the mountains that surrounded it. The people who lived there seemed very old to me, too, and the man, Uncle Will, had been bed ridden for several months. I used to go with my Granny Ninna to visit them. We'd take them a mess of fresh greens, or poke sallet, or sometimes beans, but always cornbread. I was the one who carried the cornbread, wrapped in the best kitchen towel made from a feed sack. That was my job, carrying the cornbread.
They were no kin to me, but in those days, little kids were often taught to call neighbors Aunt and Uncle, it was the respectable thing to do.
One winter, word came that Uncle Will was very sick. It was the middle of the night, and we were awakened by Uncle Will's son, Ed, knocking loudly on our back door. They wouldn't let me go with them, my dad and my granny, so I stayed at home with my mother. They said it wasn't fitting that a little girl watch as an old man lay dying. I could not sleep the rest of the night, waiting as I was for his soul to pass over my house on its way to heaven, as I'd been told a soul would do when someone died.
During the night he must have passed, though I never saw his soul on its way to heaven. The next morning when I went in for breakfast my granny was stirring up a pot of shucky beans and Mama was baking cornbread.
"Where's my oatmeal?" I asked. I couldn't start a morning with beans and cornbread.
"Uncle Will died last night. We're fixing beans and cornbread for his visiting," said Granny Ninna. "Your oatmeal will be ready soon."
"Is the food for Uncle Will's soul?" I asked.
"Here's your oatmeal, we'll take you to see Uncle Will tonight when they get him ready."
"Ready for what?" I asked. I'd never seen a person who was no longer living.
"Ready for his funeral," they answered.
So I waited all day, watching the road, watching the sky, not knowing what I was watching for, but knowing I didn't want to miss whatever it was. I could smell the shucky beans simmering on the stove.
That night Ninna and I got all dressed up, ready to go to the viewing, which wasn't really the funeral, I learned. The funeral would be held the next day. We were walking to Uncle Will's house, where the viewing and the funeral were to be held, often the custom in my region during that era. I got to carry the cornbread, Granny Ninna carried the shucky beans.
My heart pounded in my chest and my hands were shaking so hard the crackle of the brown paper bag that held the towel covered cornbread seemed as loud as thunder to me. I was taking food to feed Uncle Will's soul!
There were people crowded into the front room, and the only light came from the fireplace. From the door I could see the glow of the fire on Uncle Will's face. He was lying in a big wooden box that was placed on two low tables, one on each end, and he was wearing a white shirt and dark pants. His face looked red as the fire shadows that were dancing on it.
The people moved aside, forming a walkway into the room, and a path directly to where Uncle Will lay. Somebody took the pot of shucky beans from Granny Ninna's hands, nobody noticed the bag of cornbread I held in mine.
We walked closer to the box where Uncle Will lay sleeping. All was quiet in the room, except for the sobs I knew were coming from Aunt Liss. Granny Ninna held my hand, and in my other hand, I held the cornbread. We walked closer to Uncle Will.
And even closer, I could see the flame shadows dancing on his face. He just looked like a sleeping red faced Uncle Will. I tugged on Ninna's hand to ask her where Uncle Will's soul was, and if it was still there inside him, and when was it time to feed it, but Ninna was paying her condolences to Will's adult children, Polly Sue and Sonie Mae, so she didn't notice me.
I stared at the only part of Uncle Will I could see very well at that close range, his nose, glowing red in the light from the fireplace. The nose sort of took on a life of its own, seeming to twitch with the bounce of the flame shadows. After awhile I heard Ninna say it was time for us to leave.
I was still holding the bag of cornbread.
Ninna turned and started toward the door. I tugged at her hand, but she was murmuring something to Aunt Liss as she walked past her. By then, the cornbread was all I could think of. That cornbread was supposed to be for Uncle Will's soul.
I turned back to Uncle Will while Ninna was talking to Aunt Liss. I slung that bag of cornbread overhand and it landed just beneath Uncle Will's bearded chin. And stayed there. I was spellbound by the look of that brown paper bag sitting so close to Uncle Will's mouth, the firelight dancing on it. Nobody else seemed to have noticed, but I was quite proud of my aim.
Suddenly I was pulled out the door, just as I heard Aunt Liss cry out, "Oh Lordy, Will, don't leave me!"
I reckon I'd finally loosened the soul right out of Uncle Will's body what with my well aimed cornbread, because right then, looking up at the sky, I saw a shooting star. I just knew it was his soul on its way to heaven.
It was many years before I was taken to another viewing or funeral. I don't remember being asked to carry anymore bags filled with cornbread. And it was years before I realized there was a big difference in a child's perception of life and death and that of adults.