THE LITERARY MEERKAT: Howard Denson

Memorial Remarks for Pamela Boyette Claxton

Feb. 2, 2019, Fraser Funeral Home, Jacksonville, Florida

Remarks by Wm. Howard Denson III

 

Welcome to the memorial service for Pamela Boyette Claxton, who died on Jan. 24 of various ailments, including long-term depression. Permit me to function as sort of a master of ceremonies. I can’t act as a minister for this occasion since I tend to cuss too damned much. I will try to stick to a written text since it will keep me from galloping off into digression. Afterwards, you will be invited to share your feelings and concerns, if you would like to.

It is fitting that this service is on Groundhog Day, for it reminds us of the modern allegory, the film of the same name, made by Harold Ramis. As you may recall, Ramis tells of a self-centered, jaded weatherman Phil Connor who goes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. Bored to death, he virtually phones in his coverage and looks forward to leaving . . . except a snowstorm traps him and the station’s crew. The big shock comes the next day when he wakes up and again it’s Groundhog Day, and he relives that day . . .and again . . . and again until he finally gets the day right and gets himself in harmony with the world.

The Book of Ramis in our Modern Cultural Bible reminds us that we go from oblivion or whatever preceded us, to existence as a personality, and to the unknown, the afterlife for many faiths or mere oblivion for others. Unlike Phil Connor, we don’t get mulligans and do-overs until we get things right. We succeed here and there. We fail elsewhere, and that is the pattern of mortality. In another context, the clever rhetorician Marc Antony, in Shakespeare’s retelling, placated a hostile Roman crowd by saying, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Then he notes that, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interréd with their bones.” He said then “so let it be with Caesar” . . . and today he would say “so let it be with all of us, too.”

At the peaceful greenery of cemeteries, we detect names on tombstones, but we rarely see evidence of any good or evil. We may know a few of the residents of the cemetery and can say, “Here lies what’s left of a very good man, and there is what’s left of a heroine who could, in her way, rival Zena or Diana, the Amazon princess.” But the green grass has often transmogrified all those below the ground and has bestowed a respectability over them all. In “Elegy Written on a Country Graveyard,” the poet Thomas Gray was looking at what people could have been, usually with some education and opportunity. He mused about the deceased there: “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest.”

I would like to focus on the upbeat and positive in Pamela’s life, especially if you did not know her very well. First, she had an intelligence that exceeds yours and mine easily. That goes without saying. But, second, she had an ongoing love for wee creatures. One kitten she found bewildered in the parking lot of a grocery store. Another was the cat of a neighbor (long since deceased) who had her pet declawed but was thoughtless enough to let, or force, the cat to spend much time out of doors, where it was defenseless from attacks by other cars or by dogs. Pamela snatched up the critter because she was determined the cat would live a good life indoors where she could protect it. Her cat Mae was legendary. She would zip her head back and forth like Elsa Lanchester playing the bride of Frankenstein. Mae would dash to the top of drapes to make meowing pronouncements. Later Mae happily took baths with Pamela. Mae lived over twenty years. Among Pamela’s survivors should be listed the current felines. They are Tiger Lily, Cleo, Cosette, Callie, and Pinky (whose full name was Rajah Singh). She also cared for dogs, including Max, a Chihuahua-mix who would fake a limp in his front right paw and, being forgetful, resume limping, but on his left paw. Her late husband had rescued two large dogs, Bozo and Zack. After his death, Pamela slept better knowing a big dog was sleeping close by.

Her nurturing side extended to humans. As a teen, she was a Candy Striper at a hospital in Hendersonville, North Carolina. She was volunteering when there was a crash of Piedmont Airlines Boeing 727 Flight 22. It was on a scheduled flight from Asheville Regional Airport to Roanoke Regional Airport when it collided with a twin-engine Cessna 310 on approach to the same airport. Both aircraft were destroyed and all 82 passengers and crew killed. Her experiences were not those of a made-for-TV movie where the Candy Striper becomes involved in treating the injured. Again, there were no survivors. Instead, she observed the effect of the crash on hospital and medical staffers. I never asked why she didn’t go to medical school. She was certainly smart enough to do it. Maybe she told her cousin Toni Lynn or her sister, “Sudy.” Her experiences around hospitals may have trained her how to resuscitate heart attack victims. She revived her father in the back yard at Parrish Place, but he had already suffered fatal brain damage.

Eventually depression and isolation cut her off from people, but she still expressed great affection for Toni Lynn on the Trotter side and Aunt Essie, Ginger, Bruce, LaTrelle, Dawn, and others on the Boyette side. After the death of her husband John, the isolation increased, with only Michele and unofficial caretaker JoJo Hensgen checking on her regularly.

Quite athletic and taking after her mother, Pamela went on a trip with fellow bankers to the Rocky Mountains, where skiing was in season. She took to the skis and was soon exuberantly hurling down the hillside while hollering a rebel yell, “Yeee-haa!”

She had days of fun, especially with her cousin Toni Lynn and then with her sister Sudy, or Susan, or Michele as they debated, ridiculed, or admired the original afternoon Gothic soap Dark Shadows. They also liked the Spanish horror movies (which always seemed to end with someone’s head on fire in the fireplace), and the classic films of the 1930s, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and so on.

A movie from the Thirties or Forties might have this line: “Kid, you oughta be in pictures.” Pamela never made it to Hollywood, but, stretching things a bit, she was part of the Jollywood scene. Digression: Bollywood is for Bombay, Nollywood for Nigeria, and why not Jollywood for Jacksonville? Back then, amateur films were made by Ken or Cleve Hall, Marc Tyler, Tim Lawrence, Steve Sleap, and others. In one short, perhaps entitled “The Lift” or “Elevator,” she played the dignified blond professional, which was appropriate since she herself at that time was a dignified blond professional. The scene was filmed in the original Museum of Contemporary Art on Art Museum Drive, and, of course, the other passengers included one in a gorilla suit. Her sister appeared as Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast” in a film made in Boone Park and Riverside.

Many of her friends remember Pamela from Halloween parties, when she would dress up, perhaps as a witch or bride of Dracula. At one party, she was a scarecrow and was outside near the garage on Parrish Place. She was as still as a figure in a barnyard or cornfield. When another partygoer touched the scarecrow to see what it was made of, the victims screamed out in fright when the scarecrow grabbed at them. That satisfied her greatly.

I did not discuss religious beliefs with Pamela very much over the years. On a religious spectrum scale, she gravitated toward High Church Episcopalian to Anglo-Catholic to outright Catholic. She disliked it when the Episcopalians dropped the 1928 Prayer Book.

A book called The Cosmic God Cup notes several concepts of an afterlife.

First is heaven. We have pearly gates and a grand family reunion as children run over the grounds to meet their long lost loved ones.

Another concept is the essences of souls. What is positive in us rises toward the positive in the souls of others. Any negative is pulled away, perhaps downward to a hellish repository.

A third theory comes from some string theory thinkers and their multi-verse. They argue that there is no death. If we cease to exist in this universe, we slip through a portal of some sort to another dimension, where we begin another life and perhaps wonder about instances of déjà vu when we say, “Hmm, I’ve done this before.”

A fourth idea: Millions of people on earth believe in reincarnation. In the Modern Cultural Bible, we have the prophet Don Marquis and “the song of mehitabel” in archy and mehitabel. Here’s a sampling, from archy the cockroach, formerly a free verse poet, about his friend, mehitabel the alley cat. Let’s listen to her cat song:

 

i have had my ups and downs

but wotthehell wotthehell

yesterday scepters and crowns

fried oysters and velvet gowns

but today i herd with bums

but wotthehell wotthehell

Several stanzas later, mehitabel ends her song with

the things that i had not ought to

i do because i ve gotto

wotthehell wotthehell

and i end with my favorite motto

toujours gai toujours gai

 

archy concludes by saying “ . . . sometimes i think our friend mehitabel is a trifle too gay.”

Okay, Pamela, you didn’t want a memorial service, but these are really for the living. You may take comfort in the fact that at least part of the remarks dealt with Phil Connor and Groundhog Day and Don Marquis’ cockcoach and alley cat. In any afterlife, lass, we hope you continue your work as a guardian spirit for wee beasties.

Now let’s open the memorial to any remarks by others.

Thank you.

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