DUNEDIN — At Curlew Hills Funeral Home, the family gathers to hug and share stories. They sign the guest book and admire old photographs of Bessie Lou McCullough petting a puppy and lying carefree in the grass with a bow in her hair.
Mrs. McCullough, who had two kids and several grandkids, died Tuesday. She spent years battling diseases and bouncing back with vigor. She lived 90 years.
In her casket, Mrs. McCullough wears a pink dress with squiggles. Her husband, Willard, who died 11 years ago, once bought it so she'd have something pretty to wear at Easter. She requested that dress for her funeral. She wanted her husband to see it again when they reunited.
During her life, Mrs. McCullough didn't care for funeral homes because she didn't like considering finality. But she admired the job of funeral directors and the service they provide.
Today, the Curlew Hills directors wear crisp black suits. They are quiet and calm. They usher people to parking spaces, greet guests and stand by the door.
They make Mrs. McCullough's family comfortable to mourn.
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Bessie Lou McCullough was raised in Kentucky, where nothing came easy. She walked to school in wool tights that "itched like the dickens," she once said.
She moved to Dunedin in 1938 and helped her brothers run their convenience store and restaurant. She was timid and polite.
At the restaurant she met her husband, a handsome young man who delivered produce to the store. They married and built a home in Dunedin. She held the flashlight while he hammered nails.
Their first baby, Rosemary, had an enlarged heart and died at two months. Later, Mrs. McCullough would see stories of miracle babies and modern medicine and wonder if Rosemary could have survived in a different day.
She had a son, Ron. And despite an ensuing bout with rheumatic fever, she gave birth to a daughter, Bonnie. As a mother, she spent most of her time in the kitchen, where she invented songs about washing dishes and slicing tomatoes.
Her son remembers waking to the sound of his mom pounding country fried steak with a mallet at 6 a.m. When she made coconut cream pies, there was always a miniature one for her daughter. Sundays meant big hams and chickens.
With her children grown, Mrs. McCullough decided to earn money to fix up the house. She didn't have the confidence to apply for a secretarial job, but Dunkin' Donuts was hiring. She worked there for 18 years, saving limited edition doughnuts for her grandchildren and remembering everyone's favorite flavors.
She found inner strength when her husband died. She'd rake the lawn and move furniture. When her family stared, slack-jawed, she'd say, "I just shimmied it."
She ate dinner with her family at Olive Garden and Cracker Barrel. She didn't want them to know her vision was failing and she could no longer see the menu, so she began ordering chicken fingers. She knew they were on most menus.
She hated the hospital because, in her mind, the cooks there didn't know how to steam vegetables. When blood transfusions, cancer and a broken hip caused pain, her daughter supplied Tylenol. Politely, Mrs. McCullough accepted the pills. But the next day, they were still in her pocket.
• • •
Mrs. McCullough used to visit one Curlew Hills funeral director on weekends. But she always stayed in the car outside the funeral home, and he'd come out to talk. He knew she didn't like to go inside.
On the day of Mrs. McCullough's funeral, this man shakes hands, smiles and shares his own memories of her. He is quiet and calm. In control, but his eyes are vulnerable.
He knows exactly what she wanted in a funeral. Flowers on the prayer card because she loved gardening. A spoon in the casket, because she loved dessert. It's his pleasure to make it happen, he says.
His name is Ron McCullough.
At 3 p.m., the service begins. He moves away from his colleagues and goes toward the casket draped with pink flowers.
He joins the family and says goodbye to his mother.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.