Saturday, July 14, 2012
Mom and I were standing on the tiny front porch of our three-bedroom house in the country, taking it all in like a drive-in movie. The roof over the porch gave us little protection against the rain that was now coming in sheets straight at us. We gathered our rain ponchos closer around us as we watched in awe the wonder of a spring storm in the Midwest.
We were practically giddy.
I loved these times with my mother. I always felt closer to her—she felt so far away most of the time. But, when we watched the storms gather, when she pointed out to me the clouds that looked like they were forming into funnels, or on clearer nights, when she took the time to point out the constellations for me, I got caught up in her excitement, and felt impressed by her knowledge.
I also was awed and somewhat alarmed by her bravery in facing the elements, be it nature’s storms or roller coasters at the amusement park.
As often as I witnessed my mother ‘s adventurous spirit, I was continually startled when she stepped outside the box my child’s mind had put her in. Quiet, reserved, wise, talented, all business, emotionless, stern, and distant are words I usually would use to describe her. Words like fun, dare devil, adventuresome, joyous, carefree, irreverent, humorous never came to mind except when we were out on the porch.
I also recall the time, during a particularly rainy day of camping, when she gathered all five of us little ducklings wearing our ever-present rain ponchos. Declaring she was tired of being cooped in a tent all day, she led us to the playground where we all swung and played in the rain with her playing right alongside us.
Then there were the times we went to a campground by Lake Michigan. There a path through a small thicket of woods that led straight to the ragged shore where we would each lean against one of the boulders and let the Great Lake hit us with furious waves, laughing uproariously at every assault of water.
Now at nearly 78, my mom’s spirit seems more and more subdued every year. She says she’s tired of travelling, that she’s seen about everything she wanted to see and done most things she wanted to do, and now it’s time to stay closer to home.
I’m trying to understand this newest stage of my mother’s life, but I fear much of the life that was in her, and expressed itself only on occasion, is dying too young. I’m afraid she’s given up too much too quickly.
Then again, I’m not used to her actually looking and acting her age. And, admittedly, I don’t live in her body or see things through her eyes. But I want to see that spark in her eyes, hear that lilt in her laugh, watch that spirit of adventure come out and play with my spirit of wonder again. I’m not ready to act my age.
My mind used to be so agile. I could take in complex ideas and break them down into simple concepts. I could hold multiple thoughts in my head at one time—even carry on two or more conversations simultaneously. I was quick with a quip, adept at a clever turn of phrase, and had a vocabulary that ran wide and deep.
Often I would try them in various combinations out loud in public speeches and sermons, in conversations with friends, when making a point in a group discussion. I would use them to punctuate the stories of my life and the lives of those I encountered. I would write them down in stories, essays and articles for public consumption—hoping the readers would enjoy this new dish I offered as much as I had enjoyed crafting it.
I became a wordsmith. And, as I’ve been rewarded often for my expertise in this craft, I’ve continued these practices throughout most of my life. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in the process of writing something, of developing a new story, or whipping up a new image to present for the reader’s or listener’s palette.
But since the stroke…since the infection that caused the stroke and destroyed my mitral heart valve in December 2008, I’ve lost some of my agility with words. My ability to put words and phrases together has slowed. Just as I lost my ability to walk great distances without the assistance of a cane, I no longer have the energy or the stamina to continually craft stories in my head.
Words don’t come to mind so easily, as often, they don’t roll off my tngue as eloquently. Sometimes, when I try to talk, to make a point, or tell a story, I can’t find the words I’m seeking. When I read out loud, the words trip over my tongue as though I have marbles in my mouth. The words sound garbled to my ears.
I feel self-conscious and become embroiled in shame and the need to apologize for my clumsiness, for the mess I’m making of this craft I once felt so confident about.
In fact, wordsmithing—storytelling, or leading people to laughter, tears, encouraging them to ponder new ideas and see things from a different perspective—this was the one thing I could count on to make me feel good about myself; the one thing at which I excelled. And it was one of the few things for which I was consistently rewarded by others.
It was my identity. Now I don’t know who I am.
To be continued…
We haven’t kept it a secret, but neither of us went around proclaiming it, either. I guess that’s just the way our family is. I mean, we knew we were related, why would we need to announce it?
It was nice to claim a bit of family, a touch of home miles away from my family home in Central Indiana. There is such a thing as a familial short hand that exists when even extended family members talk to each other. We had a shared genealogy, an overlapping history. We knew each other’s ‘folks,’ we were ‘kin.’ I’ve often said the two places you can’t lie about your age—or hide from your past—are family reunions and class reunions.
I’d known Floyd and his family all my life. The Franks extended family get together annually at a Franks/Cobleigh family reunion. (Cobleigh was the family name of Floyd and dad’s great-grandmother Franks.) We also tended to see each other at family funerals.
I got to know the Sherry family better once I lived here. We travelled to reunions and maybe even a funeral or two together. I got to know Floyd and Virginia’s four kids, Sylvia, Diana, Ed and Jim, my second cousins. I even started getting to know the third generation of Sherrys when the grandkids came along. We had some family dinners together and even went to the same church.
I’d had no idea they were so musical until I saw them perform at the church on special occasions and at other local events. Three generations formed the Sherry Family Band. The musical gene must have come from the Sherry side.
When I came back to Eureka in 2009, after a 12-year absence, Floyd was already sick. In the beginning, there was optimism about his recovery, but he experienced some setbacks that made the end seem all too near.
Not that he talked about it, much. That’s a family trait, too. We don’t tend to dwell on ourselves or share personal information. (I’m somewhat of an exception, having shared family stories in this column, my blog, and in sermons. I guess there’s a storyteller in every family.) We try to minimize both our achievements and our difficulties.
Shortly before he died, Floyd stopped by my apartment at Maple Lawn. He had Diana with him. He said something dismissively about the kids thinking they needed to come by more often. He thought it was nice of them to visit but not necessary. I could see in Diana’s eyes that she thought it was. I knew the other kids did, too.
When I asked how he was doing, he said he was feeling as well as could be expected. Said he had lived a good life, and he was ready to go. Upbeat to the end.
When he died in January, Virginia said the family would be planning a memorial service for sometime in the summer. From time to time, when the kids were visiting and came with Virginia to church, I heard about the fun they were having planning the event. And now the time was finally here.
I found a seat on the aisle on the right side of the room, and had a pretty good view of the proceedings. There was a long row of chairs to my right, where most of the family sat with their various instruments, waiting their turns to play a piece in tribute to their father, father-in-law, grandfather and uncle.
It was clear the family had put a lot of time, energy and love into this service, which was in two parts—the solemn, sacred service of memorial, and a lighter, more joyful celebration of life.
The first part was a beautiful service. Rev. Jennie Churchman spoke eloquently of a life well-lived through family stories sent to her by Virginia, their children and grandchildren. Son-in-law Mark Phillips read several scriptures and readings, sharing bits of Floyd’s story as he went.
Because Floyd had let it be known that he always wanted a New Orleans style funeral, the second part was more upbeat, even fun. The Sherrys were joined by Bill Anderson, Tony Corpus and Randy Crump, who added drums, trombone and an oboe, if I’m not mistaken, to the mix of brass instruments, violins and piano. I noticed a few other instruments too, played by a niece, a daughter-in law and a granddaughter-in-law—a flute or two, an accordion, and maybe some others.
They began with a processional of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” The musical group walked down the center aisle wearing the Sherry Family Band uniforms of black T-shirts and slacks, some of them wearing hats, others carrying umbrellas. They began by playing slowly and solemnly. Then they broke out in a raucous, joyous, and boisterous version of the song. We all felt the solemn atmosphere melt away to one in which laughter was not only OK, but expected, sat back in our chairs to enjoy the concert.
Toward the end of Rev. Jennie’s eulogy, she shared a story about the
Sherry Family Band, which played at every family gathering and vacation they could. It was the last ‘concert’ they had together, and they had played into the night. Exhausted, some of the younger folks wanted to call it quits for the night. Floyd said, “We can’t quit now, we haven’t played “When the Saints Go Marching In!”
“That’s OK,” said one of them, “There’s always next time.” But the next time never came.
So, as you might have guessed, “When the Saints Go Marching In” was the recessional. They played and sang, we sang along, and, donning
their hats and picking up their umbrellas, they marched out still playing it to thunderous applause.
I imagine Floyd was playing and singing and applauding the loudest. Good-bye, Floyd, see you on the other side.