Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Funeral in the Country

I attended a funeral a few weeks ago, an increasingly common occurrence in my life. I knew the deceased, but not well enough to really expound on the quality of her life and legacy. I won’t even mention her name, because these are my private feelings and I’m just not qualified to speak with authority about her or her family. Many things about death are public, but I think most of the most important things are private.

I knew all of her children (there are eight) and most of their spouses—some just by sight, some through business or social interaction. It’s fair to say I was friends with one or two. One once worked in my small western wear store many years ago; another two or three were my clients when I had a CPA firm. I have bought goods and services or transacted business with a couple more. I’m not sure the rest of the children would recognize me on the street. I state all of these non-qualifications because they matter to what I am about to say. These are thoughts more from an observer than a participant. I went to the funeral expecting to pay my respects to the deceased and her family.  But I received much more than I gave.

As the family filed into the Cowboy Church, I tried to get a glimpse of the children I knew but had not seen in a long time. Then something changed in the big sanctuary. It wasn’t the music; I think it actually stopped; it wasn’t anything anybody said. For me at least, it was as if the family brought not only their sorrow, but their shared memories of happiness, sadness and hardship and it filled the big room with an aura that went to the ceiling, settled, and gently spread itself on all of us. Yes, I know that usually happens for close friends when families enter at the beginning of a service. But that’s why I mentioned those non-qualifications before. It surprised me when the warm feeling settled on me and I felt a sense of reverence and awe.

I don’t know how many were seated before the family entered, but I would guess there were at least three hundred, probably more. The family filed in for a long time, eight children, nineteen grandchildren and thirty-eight great grandchildren, the obituary read. With spouses, the immediate family had to be close to a hundred. Now, the church was not only almost filled to capacity with people, it was filled with memories.   
The children and grandchildren told stories of a fun-loving and just plain-loving wife, mother and grandmother. By the time the service was done, the family had succeeded in bringing together a Church of Christ pastor, a Mennonite choir, and the Cross Trails Cowboy Church, a Southern Baptist Outreach.

As I heard the eulogies and stories, I felt that a strong message was being conveyed, that there were many lessons to be learned from this woman’s life. Yes, I know there are lessons we can learn from every life, but something special was conveyed to me that day. Maybe it was because of my country upbringing and the culture I revere and love. I’ll bet my hardscrabble—tough times—raised in poverty upbringing with just about anybody and raise them a plate of red beans and cornbread. You can only beat me if you had parents who did not love you. On that score, I was a rich boy. This woman’s children probably also suffered more than their share of deprivations, but they were also raised rich on love. 

Another thing. I’m country and proud of it and this funeral made me even prouder, because I think it’s fair to say that this woman, her husband and most (or all) of their children were and are country, too. And they are justifiably proud of it. I know at least one son is cowboy to the core. I hardly recognized him without his hat. He’s figured out how to make a good living doing something he is good at and loves.

And look at what this country couple accomplished. Eight children. I have no way of knowing, but I’ll just bet they didn’t start out to raise eight. One was on the way or had just been born when the husband was reported killed in the service of his country. That turned out not to be true, of course, but he did lose an eye. Can you imagine the pain of loss she endured until he was discovered alive? And what about his sacrifice, loss and pain?

Those of us who have raised kids or are raising them know the financial burdens and the tremendous time involved in raising two or three (yes, the rewards are greater than any sacrifice), but eight? Times were tough, but they raised them all. That meant that the children all had to pitch in and help with their own upbringing and I’ll just bet that is one of the reasons this family is so close. After the kids were all grown, the family managed to pull together a fun-filled family reunion every year, diligently attended by most of the descendants and a few dozen of their closest friends. This couple showed that you don’t have to be rich or famous, urbane, or even sophisticated to make your mark in this world, to have a positive impact. They showed that in the beginning, during the process, and at the end, it’s all worth it. What a legacy and lesson for us all.  


Doc Turner said...

AME Funeral, 1968, Commerce

We had a tiny sweet little black woman that helped keep our house. Mom had to drive down into the "Norris Community" or the holler, as it was commonly known in that Non-politically correct era.

Our friend died after a brief illness. I very much wanted to go to the funeral, which was at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. As I recall, it was mid-summer.

The tidy white painted churh house was packed. As I recall, I was the only white face in the crowd. There were five, count them, five choirs which performed enthusiastically. There were three ministers who preached with great force and eloquence in that peculiar sing-song cadence that black preachers of any worth had down to a science.

Purple robed attendants ran with fans and smeliing salts any time some sister was overcome with grief, call out loudly as she stood, then fainted dead away.
The funeral was an all afternoon affair. My seldom worn tie and jacket were begging to be removed. My fan, provided by Grundy Funeral Home of Greenville Texas had a scene of the Last Supper on the front. But no amount of fanning seemed to stir the hot, humid air.

I knew the end was nearing when the casket was brought to the front of the auditorium next to the deacons' "Amen Bench." I had not ever then, or to this day, seen a hot pink crushed velvet casket. We respectfully filed by the cakset, then formed two lines outside through which the casket was wheeled.

We walked the short distance to the cemetery where the graveside service began. It was only forty-five minutes or so.

I have never forgotten my friend. Nor will I forget the funeral at the AME Church.

Tracy McQueary said...

I absolutely loved your article today. I did know Rogene Swinson and you nailed it. She was not only an icon in the Fairlie community but one of the sweetest women to walk the planet. She made a major impact on my family and we feel very blessed to have known her. Again, great job!

Tracy McQueary