Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Life and death in a small town

I was sitting at the dining room table in my parent’s house when my mom broke the news. She said it in that sing-song way that small town folk do when they are sharing some juicy bit of gossip.

Did you hear that so-and-so died?

No, I hadn’t heard. So mom went on to share what she knew, with my father and youngest brother interrupting periodically to correct something or embellish on what my mom had to say.

I didn’t really know the woman who died very well, but I had gone to school with two of her daughters. One was a year behind me in school, and one was a couple of years ahead of me. In our small school, a few years difference didn’t mean much. We all knew one another. There were only about 60 to 80 people in our high school at any given time and only about 600 people in the whole town. My class had 17 people in it by the time graduation rolled around. I have a picture of all of us on graduation day in our caps and gowns. Of course not all of us actually received diplomas, but why quibble about those minor detail?

So, I knew the deceased a little and I knew two of her daughters. Of course that was a million years ago. But still, I felt some sense of duty to attend the services. I opted not to go to the funeral Mass. The reason was pretty silly. But I didn’t have any dress clothes packed in my luggage on my trip. But I went to the graveside service. Of course once I got there I saw that my shame at only having jeans with me was misplaced, as many of the people at the service, particularly the men, were wearing jeans, and presumably they had their entire closet full of clothing to choose from for the funeral since they lived in the area.

It was the second time in two years when a Christmas trip home has meant attending a funeral. Two years ago, it was the funeral for the younger sister of a classmate of mine. She died from complications of diabetes, which she contracted while we were in high school. But 35 is too young to die, no matter what the cause. I didn’t pack any dress clothes that trip either, but at least on that one I had time to get to a store and but slacks, a shirt, tie and some shoes prior to the funeral. There was no such luxury this time.

I got to the
Echo Cemetery a little early. There were a couple of other cars there, but the funeral procession was nowhere to be seen. So, after a while I got out to walk around the cemetery. I figured it would be a good opportunity to visit the grave of the woman whose burial last brought me to the cemetery. It took a little walking on the cold, snow-covered and hallowed ground to find what I was looking for, but there it was. Patsy’s grave. Fresh flowers adorned the marker. Apparently someone had thought she needed fresh flowers on the anniversary of her death, or funeral. Or maybe they were Christmas flowers. The marker looked so new and polished compared to many of the markers in the cemetery, some of which go back a century or more. Today’s headstones don’t have the charm of those of years past. Now they are flat, dull and boring, in spite of the elaborate etchings on the polished stone. They don’t have the ornate spender of years passed. One of the family plots in the cemetery features a large stone cross, perhaps 8-10 feet high, that has a woman, carved out of the stone hanging from the cross in a posture of despair. Ironically, the marker belongs to the ancestors of the woman whose funeral I was there to attend.

As I walked back toward where my rental car was parked I passed the family plot for the man who founded our little town. There was a stone for Mr. J.H. Koontz, the town father, and several members of his family, including the daughter for which the town was named,
Echo. According to the dates on the marker, Echo Koontz Miller also died in her early 30s. That seemed sad to me. Perhaps it is some small consolation that the town still bears her name so many years after her death.

In both cases, at both funerals, I ran into old friends from school or from my youth. We are all older and grayer now. It saddens me to realize that now it takes someone dying to bring us together, and then only for a few minutes. How can people who were once so central to my life – day in and day out, in school, on weekends, bus trips to away ball games and everything else that constituted life in our little town – be merely passing acquaintances? I felt somehow bad that seeing those people and talking to them made me happy in spite of the solemn occasion that brought us together.

After the graveside service there was a gathering at Echo City Hall. They city has restored a community room upstairs in the building. It was a beautiful little room, complete with a stage. The father of one of my former classmates (and first college roommate) told me the room was restored with some grant money after many years of disuse. He was amused to tell me how much pigeon crap had to be hauled out in order for the renovation to be completed. I guess it would be amusing unless you were one of the people who had to clean out the bird shit. But there were no signs that the room was once a preferred toilet for flying rats. My old school chum’s dad told me he used to attend dances in that hall in his youth back in the 1950s. He said people would get drunk, go to the dance and then get into fights out in the street afterward. Such was the cycle of events. But now, people were gathered for another ritual, one of socializing and eating at the death of a friend/family member/acquaintance. It felt good to be back in the bosom of the community that nursed me through my childhood and adolescence and gave me the basic skills I would need to make my way in the world, such as it is. Those were my people. People I once loved and revered, and who sometimes since I have belittled and loathed.

I felt at once at home in that room, and small, like the unsure boy of my youth who didn’t quite feel like he measured up. I wasn’t the most popular. I wasn’t a jock. I wasn’t a great hunter or fisherman or any of the other things that seemed to be most admired traits in my little town. It felt good to be there on one hand but there was also a nagging desire to flee too. Contradictory emotions. Incongruous, but real none the less.

But the day was not about me. It was about a woman who was part of one of the early families of my town who had died after a long battle with Muscular Dystrophy. It was about a family that lost a mother and grandmother. It was about a man who lost his wife. It was about a town in mourning, and celebrating one of its own.

I hate funerals, but I’m glad I went. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the simple things in life, the important things in life, while we still have time to enjoy them.

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