Pulling Over

When I met Russ, he was living with the Smedley family in Hot Springs, Arkansas. June Smedley had been his high school English teacher, and she and her husband Bud invited Russ to move in with them during his senior year when Russ’ parents moved back to California. He was virtually adopted– he absolutely considers Stuart and Kim his siblings, and my children have grown up with Mama June and Daddy Bud as grandparents, and the rest of the Smedley aunts, uncles and cousins as blood family. Gammie was June’s mother, and we buried her last week in Arkansas.

Gammie’s procession left the Caruth-Village Funeral Home in a stately, well-organized manner, heading down the driveway then making a right onto Highway 7. We all turned on our headlights and fell into line. The hearse in the front contained her casket, which was a lovely shade of mauve; what my Mom always calls ‘ashes of roses.’ There was a lavish spray of baby pink roses across the top of it, which I could just barely see through the curtained window of the hearse.

We all agreed it had been a perfect service– sweet, honest and touching, with just the right amount of Smedley family humor. My favorite moment was when grandson Stuart aptly described a hug from the ample-bosomed Gammie as “being attacked by two giant marshmallows.”  There was a video showing a montage of photos from Gammie’s life, proving just what a striking beauty she had been in her salad days, back when she was feisty Faye Wilson, the hardworking single mother of two. You certainly couldn’t tell by looking at the picture of the dimpled white-haired, ever-doting grandmother and great-grandmother on the funeral program that she had a colorful past that included multiple marriages and a (brief) stint as a Hot Springs cabdriver! She was always such a Southern lady, with her Snow Babies collection and those snappy hats that she wore to church. Like all of my favorite women in the world, she was a study in contrasts.

Gammie was almost 94 when she died, and had suffered a series of strokes that left her in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed and unable to clearly communicate. Her daughter June drove the short distance down the road to the nursing home every evening to put her to bed, and she had regular visits from grandchildren and friends. She was the family matriarch, but none of us wanted her to remain here trapped in a body that she couldn’t control, and she was more than ready to see her Jesus. So the funeral chapel’s pews were not filled with stricken mourners, but with people who  gathered to celebrate her life and send her on home with love. Her grandson-in-law Todd sang beautifully, Gammie’s favorite Scriptures and a poem by her son Lynn were read, and grandson-by-choice Russ gave a heartfelt eulogy. At the end of his remarks he opened the floor up to anyone who wanted to say a little something about Gammie, and there were a couple more stories that produced some welcome laughter and caused some Kleenex-dabbing at teary eyes. It was everything a funeral should be.

After the service, as the girls and I walked through the lobby on our way out to the car, I spotted a little display on top of a coffee table next to an easel containing photos. The table was filled with handmade doll furniture that I immediately recognized, because Madi and Charlotte have a set just like it–

Gammie meticulously crafted a set of this furniture for each of her grandkids. I wish I had gotten a better picture of it– can you tell that is a piano and bench in the back on the left, with the lamp on it? And there’s a television set and a telephone, too! My girls LOVED it, and played with it for years– of course we still have it, safely tucked away for my grandchildren to enjoy some day.

Through the lobby, and across the parking lot to our car. The drive to the church cemetery outside of Malvern would take a little less than an hour, so we settled back into our seats for the ride. Stuart Smedley also happens to be the county coroner, so he turned on the flashing lights of his big black official vehicle and led the way. A number of county sheriff cars with their lights on also escorted the caravan as it wound its way down Highway 7, to Highway 5 and then over the cutoff to the interstate. It looked like a state funeral for a dignitary of some kind.

I don’t know if this is the custom where you live, but here in the rural South oncoming cars pull over to the the side of the road when a funeral procession passes. It’s second nature to me when I’m driving, and I don’t really give it a lot of thought. But as we drove down those Arkansas country roads, surrounded by fields, farms and piney woods, the sight of car after car pulling over to the shoulder of the road to acknowledge our passing was very moving to me. Some of them turned their headlights on, too. It was such a show of respect, as if the occupants of all of those vehicles somehow recognized that the fact that Gammie was no longer on this earth was indeed a loss that deserved to be noted, and honored. I felt tears welling up in my eyes, and I wished I could stop and thank each and every one of them, and tell them what a piece of work our Gammie was, how much she loved to laugh, and how well she loved her family. I wanted to tell them Stuart’s line about the marshmallows. I wanted them to know that though she was an old lady in a nursing home, crippled and silent, her passing mattered, to so many people. And she would never be forgotten.

The graveside ceremony was brief. There was a lovely prayer by Scott, another grandson-in-law, and then the funeral director stepped up to say that this may have been one of the best funerals he’d ever been a part of, and thanked the family for being such a pleasure to work with. We drove just about a block away from the church cemetery to a well-known local favorite- the restaurant at JJ’s Truck Stop. They’d been given advance notice, but I think we kind of overwhelmed them, as they hustled around shoving more tables together to accommodate the people that kept streaming in the door. We sat with my brother Jonathan, my sisters Liz and Carolyn and Carrie’s husband David– I had not expected them all to come, and was so proud of them for making the effort. June walked around the room hugging people and visiting with the out-of-towners. We were a noisy bunch, with lots of laughing and teasing and storytelling going on. Phones were passed around as we shared pictures with each other of family members who couldn’t come, and duly noted how good everyone looked and how much their kids had grown. And of course we made jokes about how very ‘Arkansas’ it was of us to have the après-funeral gathering at a truck stop.

It took a couple of hours, but finally everyone had been served, the dishes were cleared, the merengue pie was finished. We filed out to our cars, taking a few last pictures, calling goodbyes across the parking lot. We headed back to Bud and June’s house, where the closest friends and family would gather and continue the party. We talked about how well the funeral had gone, mentioning who we were surprised to see there. In true Southern fashion, June’s kitchen island was completely covered with pies, cakes and desserts that neighbors had brought over. We laughed some more, told more stories, and finally, reluctantly, called it a night and left– full and satisfied, in every sense of the word.

That night as I lay in the dark bedroom of the little house we had rented for our stay, I closed my eyes and pictured those cars pulling off the road onto the shoulder, one after another, patiently sitting there waiting for the funeral procession to pass. With that simple gesture, they allowed themselves to be inconvenienced for a few moments to pay homage to a stranger– a woman whose life-force was mighty, whose spirit could not be contained by that ashes-of-roses coffin we were following out to the graveyard. It was a final grand gesture.

Gammie would have loved it.


8 Responses

  1. LindaB

    I see by her picture that your Grammie was a beautiful woman——strong, steady, resourceful. Makes doll furniture and drives a cab! I think I love her! And she leaves an incredible legacy—-a family that sticks together and loves each other! What a moving account of her funeral and life, Tori!

    We all owe the Smedley family a debt of graditude for adopting and nurturing our favorite gospel singer early in his life when he was adrift. June Smedley is a saint in my eyes! Russ’ inclusion in this sweet family is no doubt a “God thing”! The perfect gift from a good God. Perhaps, without their support and love, we never would have been blessed with “Trumpet of Jesus”!

    Our funerals up here in the north are similar. We pull over too, if not, we get a ticket! And people bring food to the stricken family’s home……or put on a dinner at the church. But the truck stop funeral meal is a first for me! And I suspect the knitting grandmother cabbie would have loved it!

  2. JanetB

    Very touching, Tori. There just ain’t nothin’ like a Christian funeral, is there? (Love the marshmallow analogy…been there!)

    The thought that I’m struck with is – See, this is why we have the rituals!
    My husband, Dan – who just turned 50 – lost his 85-year-old best friend last week. Elmer was diagnosed with a brain tumor (no symptoms up until his collapse) about a month ago; he had been in a nursing home since then. And there was no funeral…no visitation…no memorial…nothing. Elmer was cremated and will be scattered over at the old farm – where he and Dan “played” together nearly every Saturday for the last decade – sometime in the spring.

    Dan has been like a lost puppy this last week, the poor guy. And I just keep thinking that not having a service was a big mistake. For one thing, all of this happened so quickly; one night, Dan talked to Elmer about their plans for Saturday…the next night, Elmer was in the hospital. And for another…it’s like Elmer’s life has become an afterthought. I mean, it’s a big deal when someone is born – shouldn’t it also be a big deal when they die? Elmer was here, but now he’s not…and we’re just moving on without even pulling over alongside the road to acknowledge that. How empty is that?

    My mom died 6 years ago today. Like your Gammie, she was a force of nature. (Emma invented the word “obstinate.” Really.) My cousin, Tom, preached her funeral. The last 3 weeks of Mom’s life, Tom came to the nursing home every afternoon to sit with her – and to bring her a lime slushie from Sonic. And every day, they argued over Tom paying for the slushie. (That was SO Emma!) After Tom told that story, he put his hand on her coffin…”I love my Aunt Emma…but she’s not here. She is risen!” That was my favorite part.

  3. Barbara M. Lloyd

    Beautifully written, sweet Tori…..and my dear Linda, you said it all for me. I don’t think I will ever again hug a young-un that I don’t think about my..er, marshmallows suffocating them. Thank the Lord I’m only 5′ tall.

  4. Cynthia

    You will all be in my prayers; death really is a two edged sword; you wouldn’t bring them back for love nor money; because you know they’ve fought the good fight, it’s just that when you get right down to it, we realize we’re a selfish lot, we cry for ourselves because we are left behind, and we miss them.

    I was doing just fine till I read the portion about the cars pulling over; then the tears fell, it makes one proud to live in the south doesn’t it.

    When I buried my dad in “93” we brought him back down to Clay Co. in Southeastern KY; to lay him to rest in the family cemetery; on top of a hill that had @ one time been part of the original farm. We too had cars w/ lights on pulling off to the side of the road, but what struck me most, and broke my heart in a good way (very touching) were the neighbors on the road where dad grew up. Old men and women who remembered a toe headed young boy running up and down the gravel roads and playing on the swinging bridges that crossed Sexton’s Creek.
    They came out onto their porches and front yards; the men dressed in their bibbed overalls removing their hats to place them over their hearts, because they could see the flag draped casket inside, and the women in their shirt dresses and aprons, waving a dish cloth as he passed by. It was as if they were reclaiming one of their own.

    Those same precious souls filled the old house w/ more food than anyone could possibly eat; and as I was told several times that day, “I know you’re hurtin’ Honey, but ya gotta eat.” I believe that some of the best family reunions take place @ southern funerals.

    While reading I remembered what I was taught as an impatient child sitting on the side of a hot dusty road on one of our regular trips down from Cincinnati. I asked why we had to stop and pull over; and mom said it’s out of respect, there’s a body in there that Jesus loves enough to raise up on the last day, and it’s the least we can do to acknowledge that they graced this old earth, and were loved.

    Thank–You for sharing the love your family has for your Gammie; and for allowing all of us to step off onto the side of the road and acknowledge a fellow sister in Christ.

  5. tori

    LindaB: Girl, I tell Russ and Bud and June (and anybody that will listen) that the Smedleys are the reason Russ and I are still married– they gave him a living example of a healthy, normal, functioning, loving family at a very crucial point in his life. Love them so much.

    JanetB: I COMPLETELY agree– there IS comfort, closure and a real purpose in those kind of rituals! No one’s life should feel like an afterthought after they’re gone… I think that’s why strangers showing respect moved me so much– Gammie was so much more than just an empty bed at the nursing home, her life mattered to so many people. I will pray for your husband for the loss of his friend– what a sweet friendship!

    Momma Lloyd: OK, the marshmallow comment made me laugh HARD! You would have loved Gammie– she was your kind of woman!

    Cynthia: That image of neighboring farmers and their wives standing on the porch and coming out into the yard to honor and ‘reclaim’ your dad just undid me! What a beautiful picture of love and connection… And your wrote it so beautifully!

  6. blondie

    Thank you for this, sweet Tori. I am so grateful to the Lord for the gift of being placed in this family. It’s remarkable to think about – I tend to want to bow and scrape and mumble, “I’m not worthy,” over and over.

    I, too, was touched and humbled by the show of respect demonstrated on those Arkansas roads. I had to resist waving a “thank-you,” to everyone we passed.

    I miss my Gammie, but I’m positive I’ll see her again and I know her mighty life-force lives on in each of us.

    Love you, girl.

  7. tori

    blondie: I’m so sorry you were already in the States for a sad reason, but I am SO grateful that you were all there for Gammie’s funeral. I wish I could have crammed in one more visit and hug before you guys left… I love you and Todd and McKenzie so much– you are some of my favorite gifts in being a ‘bonus Smedley’!

  8. jonny

    Thanks so much for this entry Tori, and thanks Cynthia for sharing what you did as well.

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