Monday, June 25, 2007

How to be a human: a Palmer memorial service

I’m on the board of a local organization, and we board members got an e-mail that the executive director’s sister had died suddenly. The staffer let us know that there would be a memorial service the following week, and it would be a nice show of support for the E.D. if we would go. I’ve lived here 4 ½ years and I guess I haven’t yet attended a local funeral or memorial service. I’ve been to a high school graduation (loud, wild, and not the organized, dignified affair I was used to in the Midwest), and I crashed a wedding because I had heard they are often quite different here in Alaska. (Ok, I had just started going to a new church which is still my church now, and the pastor’s son was getting married. Everyone in the church was invited. I hadn’t met the son yet, but went to see what their wedding was like.) This memorial service was different from the graduation and wedding, but shared a lot of characteristics that felt very Alaskan.

The notice of the service had asked folks to forego florists’ arrangements and just bring fruit jars of wildflowers and a food item to share afterwards. The service was held in Palmer’s one large public space, the historic train Depot, right in the center of town. As I stepped in and got in the long, long receiving line, I saw so many faces I knew who I didn’t know were connected to this family, this recently deceased young woman. I chatted in line with two previous employees who had worked for our organization and who had come back to be present for Executive Director at this service. I couldn’t yet see into the main open space because of the crush of people. The vibe was warm and peaceful, people coming together. As we reached the family, I thought about what it meant to meet the mother of the woman I know and mother to the deceased sister, me just someone who knows this Executive Director from several meetings a year, how I felt a little like I was intruding on a time of intimacy and private expressions. I should say, too, that not only had I not been to a funeral in Alaska, but also I have only been to one other funeral as an adult, since my great grandmother died when I was young. I was a bit surprised as how vulnerable and raw it felt, these people so grieved, right here in front of me, not the formal Catholic kind of funeral I knew from my family upbringing.

Stepping into the large room, I gasped at the display of flowers. There were several helpers, nice young women in their 20s and 30s, most with long, wild, curly hair tucked or loosely drawn back, dressed in clean, soft denim bibb overalls or floral dresses. They ferried offerings of flowers into the room, lining the center aisle of chairs up and down with Ball jars of flowers, on the sides, on the food tables, up near the podium, gobs and gobs of wild bouquets. The effect was breathtaking. It was a natural meadow full of color and blossoms! It looked as though people were floating among the knee-high flowers in a field. This memorial took place the last week of June, when the revolving door of the Alaska wildflower cycles were in high swing: holding out in order to be present, there were bluebells and roses, usually the first of our wildflowers in June. Wild purple geraniums were tall and feathery with dandelions, which can reach 24 inches tall here, too. Buckets held daisies and wild flags (purple iris). The first of the season’s lilacs gave that heady scent to the room, too.

I went to drop off my dish of pasta salad on the food tables. Helen took it from me, a white-haired grandmother in her 70s, four-foot-six and all energy. I asked if she came early to help and she said, “Oh, yeah, I’m always here,” meaning she’s always helping at one event or another, which is absolutely true. I felt a pang of shame that I just brought my dumb ol’ pasta salad in a Tupperware. There were beautiful displays of carefully cut vegetables in hand-thrown pottery bowls, painted with local flower patterns, one platter of exquisitely shaped and frosted bumble bee sugar cookies (? It must have been favorite of the deceased woman? or simply cheerful?), tables full of delicious organic-ky type dips and homemade concoctions, as well as several types of salmon, jerky, canned, poached, and squaw candy. It was touching, how much love had gone into just this one aspect of the memorial.

By this time, I was too late to get a seat. I stood by Meg, who I know a little, as people lined the walls and crowded in the back. Officiating the service was Rev. Howard Bess. I’ve known of him a bit in the community but hadn’t ever heard him speak. He is active in social justice and is known to be a very kind and fair man, now in his 70s. He led the way as seven speakers came up to eulogize this young woman. The first was Palmer Mayor John Combs, who shared that he didn’t really know her that well, except from her job as a barrista making coffee at our beloved local coffee spot, across the street from the Depot. He solemnly proclaimed that she knew exactly how he liked his coffee and noted that she always remembered things about his life to ask him about, political and personal. Next, a man very involved in Palmer goings on and the arts community, asked for a show of hands of who knew this young woman from the coffee shop. Nearly three quarters raised their hands. I think we were all surprised—I think we all figured we were the only one there that didn’t know her that well, but one after another, speakers mentioned that they might not have known her deeply, but that she had a magic about her that really connected with them and that she seemed so special—and they meant that in the most genuine way. It wasn’t just for a lack of anything else nice to say about her. What seemed to really stand out about her was that she connected with so many people in a meaningful way in just the length of time it took to hand over a cup of coffee, in many cases. Friends shared humorous, sad, difficult, loving and real stories about this young woman. The humanity of it was heart-filling and heart-breaking at the same time.

The Matanuska Thunder Pluckers, a local bluegrass group and friends of the deceased, had opened the service, then two young women came up to play guitar and sing a haunting, riveting blue grass gospel song. The yellow husky who’d been wandering around during the speakers, getting petted by row after row of attendees, sat down in the aisle and just cried and cried, howling along with the song. I’d say about half the crowd started laughing and bawling at the same time right then.

Rev. Bess came forward to give the benediction. He talked about how we’d used the word peace during several speeches, during the songs. Its Hebrew translation is often shalom, he said, but there is more to shalom than just peace. He said that also included in shalom is the sense that something is how it’s supposed to be. He mentioned how good it was to see everyone come together like this, to share this time to remember her life, how its supposed to be when we grieve and lose a part of our family. He said he and his wife often turn to each other in those perfect little moments and say shalom, knowing they are marking that things right then are how they are supposed to be. He got a twinkle in his eye and said if things are good between you and your wife, you should be saying shalom in bed quite a lot too! We all laughed—hubba hubba, Rev. Bess!

I thought Rev. Bess captured beautifully the essence of what this was: how life should be, how we should be towards one another. It’s a privilege for me to live here in Palmer and get to see how we humans are meant to act with each other. There were moments of that when I lived a city life in the Lower 48, sometimes with friends, now and then among strangers, but I didn’t really see it modeled as a lifestyle, I have to say. Business was cut-throat, as an employee we all had to look out for our own needs, we had to drive defensively, not many of us in my circle were raised in families that treated each other very well, couples I knew scraped and clawed to carve out space for their relationship and for themselves as individuals, it was so much more of a struggle on an emotional level. Some say the hardships of Alaska, even in our 21st century living, bring people closer together and encourage us to depend on each other more. The long winters, the darkness, someone in need, hardly any governmental safety nets, how there’s always some big job that is better done by several people working together, it all means we need to be there for each other more. Culturally, too, I don’t think we feel the time scarcity that affects so many city dwellers in running to keep up with their corporate jobs. There’s something about this place that encourages us to be with one another.

Here, I have to say, it’s a blessing and a luxury to feel the support and love coming at me as I wait to turn out onto a road and someone gestures to let me in, as church members call to see how I’m doing, as acquaintances remember small parts about my life and enquire as to how that’s going, as people I work with in various capacities pop a card in the mail or send an e-mail to say that they appreciate what I do and that I make this a better place to live. Sometimes I think, are these people for real? Over the past few years, I’ve slowly come to see that yes, this is Real. This is how we humans can relate to each other and take care of one another. This is how we’re intended to be.

I’m glad that I came to the service and could encounter this gal I didn’t know before, shown in a photo with a funky hat, fuzzy braids over her shoulders, and a huge beaming smile, through these people in this place. Her life had been too short, but this moment of togetherness was a shalom moment, how it was supposed to be.
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