I’ve had a busy week. I’ve gone to three funerals and a family reunion. Sounds vaguely like a movie title, doesn’t it? But I learned a few things as always.
It’s true that you can’t pick your relatives but you can choose which ones you hang around. If you want, you can even turn friends into relatives of a sort. And you can make relatives your friends.
The first funeral was all too soon for a woman a little younger than myself. I didn’t really know Janet Dixon that well but I did bump into her at a couple of church functions. She appeared in worship one day a year or so ago sitting with her parents and wearing a jaunty pink baseball cap to hide the effects of chemotherapy. Right off the bat she established an easy going intimacy that made her special to everyone who spent as much as five minutes with her. I set out to attend her funeral and find out by listening to the eulogy what made her so special. I never made it into the funeral.
I got to the church an hour early and the parking lot was already full. I had never seen this before: a packed parking lot an hour before a funeral. I saw that the nursery already needed extra help so I ended up doing nursery duty instead of the funeral. Afterwards, I moved into the kitchen to help with lunch. The church kitchen filled up with the usual roster of people who have “worked” the kitchen so long and so often that most of us knew our jobs well. If anyone called for the pink bowl we knew exactly what they were talking about. Royanne Ramsey, who I call “Mother” Ramsey is the undisputed Queen of our church kitchen. If there is a moment’s confusion you just ask Royanne.
As the lunch died down into the cleaning phase and most of the mourners had left we fell into that relaxed mode women achieve when they know the busy part is over. We lapsed into conversation. I got a fork and stood talking to a couple of women while we shared a bowl of leftover fruit and a bag of potato chips.
Later that same day some of us drove to Restland for the funeral of Jack Hutson. Jack was a member of one of the founding families of our congregation. I had known his sister well. I had the good sense early on to adopt Maurine Bickle as one of my spiritual mentors and still think of her today as a model for my life. We went to show our love and respect for Jack and his family. There was no giant tidal wave of grief. There was no shock. Eighty-four is a good age to die.
I sat beside Doris and Jim Barker until Donna Harris came to sit between us. In front of us were Pat Tripp and Dana Dunlap. I give this seating chart because the six of us do not sit near each other normally in worship. Like most churches, we have a strict and unofficial seating chart. But we know each other well from sitting together on committees and passing in the hall and, yes, working in the kitchen together.
We six don’t have all that much in common except that we’re Presbyterians. We’ve watched each others’ kids grow up. We share a common tradition of worship. We know when to say “Amen” and when to clap for a song and when not to. One of our greatest and most underappreciated ties is that we occupy a sanctuary together during the Confession of Sin when the room gets so still you could hear a pin drop. It’s one thing to sit silently and confess to God; it takes on another dimension when you notice the other side of the pew is just a still as your own.
So here we are with each other in a kind of serendipitous seating, not stricken with overwhelming grief, just thankfulness to God for a life well-lived. There was about fifteen minutes for us to visit and gently tease each other before the service. And the love I felt for these five sisters and brothers in Christ was so overwhelming that I turned to Donna and couldn’t help but blurt out “God, I love these people.” Donna knew exactly what I was saying. “So do I,” she said.
A couple of days later Beaven and I attended his cousin’s funeral. Jimmy was another man whose time had come on schedule. Only a month before we were at Aunt Doris’ funeral when we realized Doris was the last of the aunts and uncles. The next to die would be within our generation. It was starting to hit close to home. And now, somewhat on schedule, the oldest of the cousins had died.
At the end of the service Jimmy’s sister and her family suggested we meet at a Starbucks to extend our time together. We are one of the families who often lament that we only get together for weddings and funerals. That wasn’t always so. The grandparents’ house used to be a required stop for Christmas and Thanksgiving afternoon. And at various times everyone had worked together at the family bakery. Even if you didn’t work there you would stop by for various reasons during the week.
At Starbucks we were able to resume our relaxed conversation. We started with talk of water wells and computer problems. The conversation eventually drifted to memories of the family bakery in Dallas. Els Bakery sold bread to grocery stores for over 60 years and all the cousins had their own memories of what went on inside the bakery. Some remembered eating the parker house rolls right off the conveyor belt or going in on Sunday night to make the yeast for the salt rising bread. Some remembered the frightening wrapping machine that someone always threatened to wrap a grandchild in. Everyone remembered the coke machine that only family was allowed to take the key and open the door to get a coke without paying. We were taking a trip down memory lane and everyone there had some sort of memory to share.
Bill Moyers explained what was going on when he was in a similar occasion at a family funeral in Oklahoma thirty years ago: “We were looking …. for landmarks to share again after years of separate journey. And in ordinary places while there was still time we found them.”
My last family event was a reunion of sorts for the Mehaffie family on Fathers Day weekend. For the first time Terry had his brother, his 3 sons and everybody’s kids. Only one niece and one son was missing among over thirty people. It’s a special treat to count myself among them because I’m not actually related to any of them. Terry is my father’s second wife’s third husband. Don’t wear yourself out trying to figure that one out, just accept it. It will make it easier to understand how I ended up with two brothers with the same name. (“This is my brother Don and this is my other brother, Don.”) And if it took a little effort to become part of the Mehaffie family I can say it was worth it. I like these people. I genuinely like them. I would pick them for friends.
We spent time catching up with the Louisiana bunch who landed on their feet after Hurricane Katrina displaced them for a couple of weeks or so. Terry, Jr., the car salesman, found business booming as soon as they went back. And now the second phase is just around the corner. The “second phase” is folks who need a more dependable car in case they have to evacuate. Then I got to meet Terry’s nieces, one of whom lives and works in New York City in the neighborhood of ground zero.
In all of our conversations I reveled in not only the stories that make them interesting but in how normal they are. I won’t bore you with the details here but the family I grew up in before my mother died was anything but normal. That’s why I’ve developed the ability to make family where I find it. But it was a nice change to take family this week and discover what good friends they can become.
For friends who attend worship together on a weekly basis and do the dishes together after a church supper, it can be easy to maintain the ties that bind us into a family. For blood or legal relatives who live distances apart, it takes a little work.
It’s worth it.