Somehow death and suffering draw me to the keyboard and compel me to lay thoughts out on paper—or screen, as it were. Maybe that makes me a morbid person, but I prefer to think that loss drives me to evaluate those really important parts of my life: the relationships with those I love. I lost a friend last year, a strong man of fifty-three whose end came way too soon and way too fast, and then I heard of my aunt’s declining medical condition on the same day. Only Esta remained at that time, the last sister in my father’s family of ten children. Daddy entered glory first.
One flower arrangement at his funeral fascinated me, and at such a young age and suffering so huge a loss, I must have needed the distraction. It was a ten-spoke wagon wheel with a simple ribbon that said “Brother.” One spoke lay broken.
I wish I had more memory of my father; he passed away when I was only nine years old, and he had worked so hard in that last decade of his life as a lay pastor, farmer, and tile contractor, that I just don’t remember much. I do, however, remember his radio program. Often, I would ride with him to the radio station in the late 1960’s, and he’d have me sing into one of those chunky old mics, live to his radio audience. I thought every kid grew up singing on live radio or on stage in front of churches full of people. He had us singing wherever he could, and I loved it. He wasn’t a perfect man; he had his flaws, but he was my father, and his heritage mine. The loss on that wagon wheel arrangement represented a weakness, a break that made that wheel less strong than before.
One after the other we lost great men and women over the years. After Daddy, we lost Uncle Buddy and then Edward Lee. Both hard working men, tough old birds who fought in World War II, they always had stories to tell and a bellowing laugh that filled the room. Edward Lee, after stomping his feet on the doormat—I’m not quite sure why he did that other than that I’m pretty sure Aunt Poss would have reamed him if he tracked mud into her house—anyway, he kept us spellbound for hours on end telling stories about the brothers in their childhood. Apparently, he and Buddy would wear thick jackets and shoot bird shot at one another as one got a head start across the field before the other started shooting. On one occasion, Buddy couldn’t figure out if he had actually been shot or not. The story probably wasn’t nearly as funny as the telling, but I cherish the memories, sitting in Aunt Esta’s family room, listening to the stories of my father’s family and imagining myself there watching it all unfold. Edward Lee cleaned and manicured the family cemetery one day long ago in preparation for a funeral. The man who had purchased the family home and lived there for many decades lay on his deathbed and requested to be buried there, even though he wasn’t related. Worn out from the labor, Uncle Edward Lee went home to nap and never woke. He prepared the cemetery for his own burial and ended up there before the man for whom he cleaned it…
I’ll never forget that bellowing laugh of his.
While Joe and Edward Lee were big strapping men of strong stature, Bill was the real scrapper. As a matter of fact, years after my father’s death, I learned that my dad tended toward the mouthy—shocking to all those who know his children, I’m sure! He would routinely spout off at folks beyond his means to defend himself against, knowing his faithful brother would swoop in and finish the fight. In the VA hospital a week before he died, my father reportedly told Bill this one fight he’d have to finish for himself. (Tweet This) They were very close. Bill had a softer side though. I came to know him as the baby whisperer after taking my colicky newborn to a family reunion. He had the touch and quieted her like I never could. We lost Bill to a heart attack suddenly, and our hearts broke that day. Yet another spoke weakened that family wheel.
After getting married, I moved to the Tidewater area of Virginia near Aunt Iceline. I never met a woman more frugal than Iceline. My cousins Martin and Joyce made sure they took care of her very well, but she never took advantage of their generosity, at least that I could see. I remember walking into her kitchen one day and seeing her wash off a paper plate and hang it to dry. She offered a window into a time long gone; Iceline represented a generation of people who had very little but made much of the things that really mattered. (Tweet This) Her children never lacked for love in the tiny home I only heard of myself, and their photos filled the homey brick ranch I will always remember off Indian River Road in Chesapeake. We spent many hours visiting in her living room as she painstakingly crocheted granny squares for her latest afghan or counted stitches in a baby layette for some beautiful new life—my own son’s layette from Iceline still rests in his memory box… another broken spoke.
Grace entered heaven’s gates next. I’ll forever remember those chilly mornings slipping through that cold porch, racing to the kitchen where she’d let me sit on a stool and watch her cook breakfast or sometimes even let me help. How that dining room table must have groaned under the weight of bounty meal after meal as she hosted a house full of family! These days I find myself forgetful and think of Grace because she bore the chaos of a busy mind with humor and…well… grace. One cousin reminded me recently that as we washed Grace’s dishes following a meal, she would have us reset the table instead of putting them away. She’d say, “Oh, someone else will happen by and need to eat, and we’ll be ready.” Another spoke weakened when we lost her.
Lucille’s passing felt like the family was robbed. As the youngest in the clan of ten children, to have her faculties compromised and watch Vern, David, Sue and the kids struggle so much seemed wrong. I see her character in the life of my own baby sister—a strong, confident woman, unafraid of moving to parts unknown and beginning a life and career away from the safety of family. Her love of adventure and passion for personal growth inspired confidence in ourselves. She was a feminist in the truest sense: not an overbearing screeching activist, but a woman who worked hard and took chances and spoke her mind without apology.
Bertie perhaps I knew the least, but when I asked my siblings to share what they remembered, one reminisced that she always doted on her children. She wanted them clean & dressed properly. In short, they were the apple of her eye, and we watched the fruit of that labor of love as the tables turned and they became her caregivers. We heard of their visits and of their care for her needs, and we knew that love, that commitment, had come from years of her own nurturing in their lives. In short, she reaped well what she sowed in their hearts. At a recent reunion, I witnessed her tender spirit in the eyes of two of her three children as they spoke of love and family with tears welling. Again, a spoke weakened that wheel.
While my father became the minister in the family, Uncle Albert was the sober and devout gentleman who apparently preached to the animals to prepare himself for ministry—I pictured Reverend Doolittle as I heard Uncle Edward Lee tell the story. While he may never have held a full-time position in the church, Albert ministered everywhere he went with his quiet, kind demeanor and generous spirit. This ministry played out at the Jamesville Christian Church for most of his life and in his heart and home every moment of every day. He left behind three beautiful children all leaving their mark behind in the generation that followed. I see the heart of her grandfather in Michelle’s care for her own family, and passion in Jason’s love for his new little one. Albert’s example lives on.
Today as I look back on these precious lives, I reflect on that flower arrangement, and the one spoke last to leave this Earth. An entire generation that seemed so strong and unmovable has indeed all moved heavenward now. We watched each spoke as it broke the hearts of those left behind, and today I celebrate the final one.
Because of the way I move around the kitchen and my bold personality, my mom used to call me Esta when she observed me cooking. She knew better than to get in my way and even said it wasn’t safe to get in the way of the whirlwind when I switched into Esta mode. I’ll never forget watching Esta tear through the kitchen in her bra and girdle, yank out a drawer, and catch an ice pick in midair as she raced to the bathroom to rescue my sister from a locked shower door and burning hot shower water. It seemed, at least in my mind, that Esta could do anything she set her mind to. A bit over a year ago now, she fought cancer, infection, and residual effects from multiple strokes. We knew her body was weary, but we also knew she fought a good fight and would leave this life with hearts breaking at her absence. She, like all her brothers and sisters before, would leave a legacy of love and care, lived out in her children and grandchildren, whether they were hers by birth or by marriage.
Upon reflection, I’ve decided that my thoughts about the wheel have erred. For every spoke that went missing in this world found its way to a new wheel in eternity. With each heartbreak as we all stood beside graves dug in grief, Daddy added a new spoke, each one making that wheel stronger, and now they stand together again–finally home.
…and that’s the view from My Front Porch.