Archive for February, 2013

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.


To Be Honest

Yesterday I told a hard truth to someone I care about.

It was hard for several reasons. I knew that the person I was talking to would get really, really angry at me if I said this truth out loud to them. I have seen them deal with other people who spoke up about things they didn’t want to hear, and it wasn’t pretty. The usual modus operandi was a swift and brutal severing of the friendship– point blank and on the spot. Sometimes this person came around after a few days or weeks (or years) and the relationship resumed on some level, but not always. So yesterday when I paused and took several long, silent seconds on the phone before speaking Those Words, I weighed the cost. Was it worth it? Was I truly prepared for the reaction? Was I finally at the point where I simply could no longer keep nervously pretending everything was normal? Because not only was there an elephant in the room, it was rampaging through the house, flattening the furniture and threatening everything in its path. But once those words came out of my mouth, in my voice… there was no going back. They could not be unsaid.


There are consequences to keeping silent, too. My nickname among my friends is “Switzerland,” because I am always the one who wants to stay neutral, work towards agreement, find common ground. That’s not necessarily a bad trait, but for weeks now I have felt less like Switzerland and more like a dishonest, peace-at-any-cost coward who was NOT HELPING the situation by avoiding what I knew would be a horribly unpleasant confrontation. I have danced around this hard truth, daring to come as close to it as I could, then retreating when I felt the push-back. I’m not proud of that. That’s not who I want to be.

So, I told the truth.

My worst fears were realized, of course. My words were met with an immediate, stinging insult, then a dial tone. Within the hour I received a text informing me of a decision that I knew was supposed to cause me panic and pain– but to be honest, instead caused me to feel a wave of relief. I know I did the right thing, though that doesn’t make it any easier. I know I can’t control the other person’s actions, though part of me hopes this is a wake-up call. And I also know I may have just lost a dear friend.

Can any of you guys relate? I could sure use a couple of “Yeah, that happened to me once” stories right about now! Please feel free to weigh in…

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