Ms. Ella and Benjamin
by Margie Shaheed
"It's rainin' it's pourin' the old man is snorin'
You don't have to go to church to see God because Him and Her was all up in here tonight! Ms. Ella decorated the bar with large white balloons and shiny gold streamers. Small white candles lined the bar and the tables had been covered in white cloth. Her play brother, Benjamin had gotten eaten up by the streets the year before. A single bullet to the head. BANG! It was over just like that!
The party was a way to mark the first anniversary of his death, host a benefit for his surviving parents who are elderly and poor, and to honor the memory of a man who was loved by many. Ms. Ella gift wrapped two empty shoe boxes to hold donations, and she requested guests to wear all white because she deeply believed folks had a better chance of receiving angels if they came in with pure hearts.
Benjamin, who was a numbers runner, had been a good man and a loyal friend. He owned a small tobacco shop not far from the bar. Although he wasn't a big drinker he could be seen there regularly after he had closed up his shop usually talking politics, a subject off limits to most but it was the fuel that stoked his fire. He had a lively sense of humor, and he liked telling a good joke. Every Christmas he donated fifty turkeys to needy families. His generosity endeared him to the community.
Ms. Ella set up a special place at the bar for him—it was his regular seat by the window. He liked sitting there because he could see everything going on in the bar while he simultaneously held court. As she worked setting up the bar, she played Mahalia Jackson's, Soon I Will be Done with the Troubles of the World. The lyrics coupled with Mahalia's warm contralto tones perfectly set the mood she was trying to create for this evening's affair. She sang along with the recording as she poured a double shot glass of Crown Royal, placing it on a stiff white napkin alongside a crystal vase of white carnations. Ben's obituary and a poster-sized sign framed by a solitary string of white Christmas tree lights hung on the wall above his chair. The sign read: We love you Ben. May you Rest In Peace.
Ms. Ella had just finished setting up the food tables when Ben's parents arrived. His father's face was contorted with pain and he trembled. His mother's eyes were downcast and glassy. The dreadfulness of having to bury one's own child was etched on their faces forever. They sure did look like a pair of milk chocolate angels though, all dressed up in white, each one holding the other steady. Shortly thereafter, guests started filing in one by one, each in joyous reflection of their own mortality. A jazz singer accompanied by piano serenaded the blues away. After she played the first selection, Don't Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me, she told the audience that the famous poet, Langston Hughes had requested this same Duke Ellington composition be played at his own funeral. Talk and laughter buzzed at a low hum. People drank as usual but everybody was on their best behavior. The room was transformed. It harbored no space for fights or disagreements.
Folks stopped by to greet Ben's parents and to stuff dollar bills into the shoe boxes. Before the food was served, Ms. Ella took the microphone and asked that everyone pause for a moment of silence followed by prayer:
"Lawd, we thank you fo' Ben's life. We are grateful, Lawd
She reminded the audience why they were there. Not to be sad or to lament over the death of a brother but to celebrate his life by focusing on the good, and that by living their own good life, in spite of its winding roads, they would become better people for themselves and for others. With that she invited folks to come forward to say a few words about Ben—to speak their peace into the atmosphere.
The first person to speak was Ben's buddy Willie Johnson. Slightly nervous, he spoke about how Ben always brought laughter into the bar with him. It was as if he carried a bottle of it in his pocket. He remembered the last joke Ben told him and said he wanted to share it with the audience so that he too could bring laughter into the bar as his friend had done so many times:
"The story is tole dat a man had three sons. His first two sons were strong, handsome, and smart. His third son he had great concerns over cuz he was weak, ugly and dumb. As he lay dyin', he grabbed his wife's hand and lookt her straight in the eyes and said, Tell me the truth. Is our third son our son? His wife squeezed his hand and lookt him straight in the eye and answered, "our third son is your son." The man closed his eyes and died. His wife let go of his hand and said, "Whew! Ah'm so glad he did not ask me about the first two!"
The room filled with laughter. And, people kept coming to the microphone testifying and sharing stories about a life lost. When the last person finished speaking, Ms. Ella thanked everyone for coming. She motioned for the DJ, who had been waiting in the wings to pump up the music. It was time to get this party started.