The outspoken, adorable dowager would have bellowed a Phyllis Diller cackle at that tired old joke. She gave up the ghost at age 101. A fitting exit number: rumor has it her last words were, “I always did like palindromes.”
Confirmed as the family funny lady, she often engaged in outrageous behavior solely to make people laugh. I’m reminded of the time a few years back when I knocked on her door at 8 a.m. We had planned to attend a brunch.
“Who’s abusing my door? she yelled.
“Your loving, hunky nephew. Are ya ready to go bungee-jumping?”
“Very funny. Come in, you middle-aged brat, and try not to make loud noises.”
The nonagenarian was lying on the couch in a flaming red evening gown, eyes closed, sporting what she affectionately referred to as her Liza Minnelli eyelashes.
Lulabelle had long requested that she be buried wearing that very same red dress and those Liza lashes. Plus: “Please secretly spray me with some Chantilly perfume. I want to leave the world looking and smelling bee-yoo-tee-ful. And while you’re looking and smelling at the dead lady in red, please smile. Don’t cry. Dance.”
But this particular morning, she gave out a weak grunt as I stood over the couch, peering down.
I snorted: “Oh, look at this pitiful sight! Is this a dress rehearsal for your funeral? Just to get a rise out of me?”
“No, honey,” she wailed. “I just had one too many last night.”
“Well, for God’s sake, open your eyes when you talk.”
“What do ya want me to do? Bleed to death?”
“Deception, deception,” I said. “What you actually drink wouldn’t fill a thimble, you faker. You’re always in bed by 10. You certainly did not come sauntering through your threshold at 4 a.m. all dolled up and then stagger over to the couch and pass out, as you would like me to believe. I know you, and I’ll bet it hasn’t been 20 minutes since you snuggled into that evening gown, slapped on some makeup and snapped on your Liza lashes.”
She opened her blood-free eyes, glared at me and said, “Tell me, you overgrown brat, why do you always find my scandalous claims so hard to believe? Humph! You’re forgetting the magic finger incident?”
Oh, silly me, that’s right. That was the day she walked backwards and “flipped a friendly bird.” How could I forget? I was a teenager, dutifully escorting Aunt Lulabelle across a busy street. She was recovering from an appendectomy, so we were walking rather slowly.
Suddenly, a carload of teenagers came screeching down the street and stopped on a dime directly in front of us. My heart jumped into my throat.
For a moment, Auntie calmly continued crossing the street. Abruptly, she stopped. Then slowly creeped backward until she stood directly in front of the car. With tongue in cheek, she defiantly extended her middle finger as high as it would go. The kids became hysterical with laughter. I pretended to be mortified.
Now, decades later, on the night of her wake, Aunt Lulabelle lay garishly decked out. Dead in red, with her Liza lashes attached. Serene, fur sure. But she lacked one final touch. Her Chantilly perfume.
During a private moment, I hurriedly squirted some Chantilly on either side of her head, above the ears. I guess I got carried away and squirted too much because, to my horror, the perfume had landed in a puddle inside the ear canals located directly above her earlobes. Though I freaked out, Lulabelle would have laughed this off a wardrobe malfunction. Then she’d have probably joked about putting real fun into the word “malfunction.”
Feeling like the male counterpart to Lucy Ricardo, I frantically grabbed my hanky and dabbed the perfume out of her earlobes. Whew!
But later, as people filed past her body, I heard someone gasp. Yow! One of her eyelashes had fallen onto her cheek. Like a final wink.
So, as people filed by, they weren’t mourning. They were shaking their heads, shrugging their shoulders and smiling. I could almost hear Aunt Lulabelle bellowing one of her Phyllis Diller cackles. FINALLY! Something had truly put a little fun into a funeral.
— Steve Eskew
Retired businessman Steve Eskew received master’s degrees in dramatic arts and communication studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha after he turned 50. After one of his professors asked him to write a theater column, he began a career as a journalist at The Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This led to hundreds of publications in a number of newspapers, most of which appear on his website, eskewtotherescue.com.