Casket Shopping with Grandmother Tolitha by Laura Raphael

I’m not afraid to die… I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen

In “Macbeth,” after one of the bloodiest scenes of murder, mayhem, and madness ever enacted on the page or stage, William Shakespeare immediately gives us its polar opposite: a drunken porter telling jokes as he pretends to answer the door to Hell.

The porter’s speech is short and filled with earthy observations that still make us laugh today (for example: alcohol “provokes the desire but takes away the performance”), and it’s clearly designed for comic relief. And yet – it’s Shakespeare, after all – the humor also underscores the depth and darkness of the earlier scenes. This light-after-dark blend allows the audience to consider the larger ideas of the Scottish play without drowning in the dark-only aspects of bloody hands and decapitated heads.

Almost 400 years later and an entire continent away, in his masterpiece The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy continues this grand Shakespearean tradition. In scene after scene, character after character, Conroy perfects the art of combining dark and depressing with pee-your-pants funny, ping-ponging between hilarious and heartbreaking until you’re not sure if you’re laughing through your tears or crying between your giggles.

Take one of my favorite scenes: casket-shopping with Grandmother Tolitha.

The grand-matriarch of the Wingo family is Tolitha, a wickedly smart woman who travels the world and then returns to South Carolina to die. She is so certain that death is around the corner (because of what a fortune teller had earlier predicted) that, despite being in perfect health, she drags her grandchildren to the funeral home to pick out her casket. And not just pick out her casket but test it, too. As she crawls into one and stretches out, a neighborhood busybody drops by, sees Tolitha, and assumes she is dead. The busybody questions the children and then offers them chewing gum because “it helps you not to cry and freshens your breath.”

Conroy continues…
“As she handed a stick of gum to Luke, my grandmother stopped her by reaching out and grabbing hold of her wrist. Tolitha, sitting erect out of the casket, then took the piece of gum, unwrapped it, put it in her mouth, and lay back down in her casket, slowly chewing the gum.” (p. 221)

The busybody runs screaming with fright out of the funeral parlor. Tolitha and her grandchildren run out as well – but screaming with laughter.

Death and chewing gum – what a perfectly strange and weirdly, wonderfully human mixture Conroy creates in this scene!

The Prince of Tides is almost 700 pages of just such funny, twisted, painful, wicked, wonderful, heartbreaking and hilarious characters, reflections, and stories. Shakespeare would be proud.

*A version of this column appeared in the Tulsa World on September 9, 2012.


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