Monday, September 10, 2012

A Celebration of Life

I have officially reached the age where many, many important people of my youth are passing away. I’m not talking icons like Morgan Freeman, Phyllis Diller and Davy Jones; I’m talking about the people that were physically, for one reason or another, a part of my heart. (And I’m not talking about the fact that yes as a child one year for Halloween I went trick or treating as Phyllis Diller either.)

The first was my Aunt Irene. That one was the hardest. My mother’s oldest sister and one of the three women in my life I always considered a mother. She helped shaped my being in so many ways, and in so many ways we were very much alike. I didn’t realize that until I moved in with her the last few years of her life. I inherited my sense of order from her. It took a while, but we finally came to terms with things. Whichever one of us got to it first did it their way. Then the next one of us would pick up behind and do it the right way.

In the past few years, especially since coming back to Tennessee, others have begun to pass away. My wonderful, colorful Great Aunts Dessie and Ida, both feisty Southern Belles who raised their families, tended their gardens, knew how to load and fire a shotgun and were in no way afraid to use it, lived long vivid lives and died less than a year apart. Aunt Ida passed away in the last year. It was especially hard on my Mother, as Ida was the last of her aunts and uncles to pass away, leaving her and her remaining 6 siblings as the senior generation of the Forge Creek Simcox family.

Shortly after coming back to Mountain City, my dear friend Lois Austin passed away suddenly. She was my “Theatre Mama”. She was the woman who ‘Mother Henned’ so many of us who drifted in and out of Theatre Bristol in the 80’s. She was the one who always had a hot meal and a couch whether you needed it or not. She was the one who no matter how bad I felt always knew the right word or even gesture that would make me pull myself up, dust myself off and start all over again.

This evening I attended the funeral of another great lady of my lifetime, Mrs. Carrie Taylor. This was a simple, quiet, tiny, tiny woman who radiated love and warmth with every breath for every day of her life. She turned 101 on August 10 and passed away on September 9.

I meet Carrie Taylor when we moved here from Cecil County, Maryland in 1972. She was my Sunday School teacher at Hammons Chapel, the little church my grandparents attended and we followed suit for the first four or five years that we lived here. Now I probably knew Carrie and her husband before 1972, as this is a small town and everyone is either related to, married/dated or combinations thereof everyone else. It was ’72 that she came into my conscious being.

I can’t say that I learned a lot about the Bible or religion in her class. I think as a teenager you let things like that go in one ear and out the other not actually processing any information of that realm until it’s so late you wish you had paid more attention. I can say that she was the first non-relative of my recollection that seemed to actually be there. I remember every time I was sick, she called. It was a rare occasion that she didn’t pop up at just the right time with a hand squeeze and a smile. She attended my Graduation from High School, hugged me with tears flowing freely down her cheeks and told me she was so proud of me.

She was a quiet Mountain woman, who lived through such hard times with a smile on her face and a bigger one in her heart. I think the minister at the service put it best when he said that Carrie Taylor was one of the few people in the world who enjoyed thankfully what she had and was content to not want or need more. My dear friends; I believe THAT is a life not only worth celebrating in modern society, but one that maybe we should all emulate more.

The last time I talked with Carrie was at my parent’s 50th Anniversary party. She was a little feeble and using a walker, but her smile still lit up the room when she saw me. She cut right through the crowd, headed straight to me and began to talk, not ask questions, not meander about herself or how much I’d grown but had an actual conversation with me as if we had just chatted on the phone that morning.

She didn’t stay too long, she apologized that she wore out so easily, but before she left she stepped back to get a good look at me and remarked on the gray suit that I was wearing. She reached out, cupped my cheek in her hand and told me I was the handsomest man she had ever laid eyes on and wiped tear away before disappearing out the door.

I remarked to my Mother tonight on the way home that it is such a shame that a funeral seems to be the place to run across old friends. I saw Ruth Ann Hammons, one of my first crushes, and met her daughter whom ironically is now the same age as Ruth Ann was when I first fell in puppy love with her (and just as beautiful I have to add). I saw Randy Farmer for the first time in 25 years. Randy, and Ruth Ann’s brother David, were my best buddies when I first moved to Johnson County. I saw Larry Hammons and countless others I hadn’t seen since graduating high school or so long ago I didn’t recognize them until a name was mentioned.

One person that I saw was a girl named Susan, whose last name I cannot recall, who was actually the biggest part of my favorite “Carrie Taylor story”. I shared it with my Mom shortly after arriving at the Chapel and then afterward shared it with Susan when I was waiting for Mom to catch up with those people that you love but only seem to see at funerals.

One Christmas, in Carrie’s Sunday School Class, we exchanged names and Susan got mine. One at a time we all opened our little gifts. I remember Susan was blushing as I opened it and Carrie was sitting right beside me. Carrie, I think, always tried to encourage Susan and me to be “a couple”. I don’t think either of us ever thought twice about it, but managed to be polite when Carrie tried matchmaking.

Anyway, I unwrapped this little box to reveal a beautiful piece of jewelry. It was a gold plated ‘rod’ crossed over itself with two gold balls on each end, reminiscent in shape of the cancer, veteran and AIDS ribbons everyone seems to have on their lapel or bumper these days. No one had ever me anything so beautiful and I told Susan so.

As the next person opened their gift, Carrie leaned over to me and whispered, “What is it?” I had to admit it I didn’t know, but it certainly was beautiful. After worship service Carrie came running up to me and asked to see my gift again. We took it out of the box and she studied it carefully. Finally she handed it back and said “It’s a tie tack. It has to be a tie tack. Susan said once that you always wear a tie to church but never wear a tie pin, so it has to be to hold your tie to your shirt.”

I agreed and the next Sunday wore it, covering it discreetly with my jacket because it made the tie lay funny. Of course, Carrie came to me after services and said “Did you wear it?” I nodded my head, unbuttoned my jacket and showed her the thing hanging desperately onto my tie. She said I should make sure Susan sees that I’m wearing it and I promised that next week I would wear it again and leave my jacket open so Susan could see how much it was appreciated.

Well that week, my cousins Debbie and Diane came to visit. Since it was just after that time of year and we were teenagers so we gleefully talked about what we had been given for Christmas now that we were too ‘mature’ to receive toys. I proudly pulled out the little white box, with the beautiful gold tie pin, the first piece of jewelry I had ever been given and showed it to my cousins…who both promptly busted out laughing.

Of course, I was crushed and told them so, which made them laugh harder. Finally Diane grabbed the tie pin from the box, unscrewed one of the gold balls on the end and said, “It’s a key chain.”

The next Sunday, after church Carrie Taylor came to me and said she was surprised I wasn’t wearing Susan’s gift. I pulled it out of my pocket, now with my keys dangling from it. Carrie took the key chain from me, looked at it closely and handed it back. She smiled brightly and said “Now that does make more sense” and went on her merry way.

I carried that key chain until it literally fell apart. One of the little gold balls, very tarnished but still as shiny and beautiful in my heart as the day it was given me, is in a little hand carved wooden box I bought on my first trip to Africa where I keep little bits of memories I can hold in my hand that warm my soul every time I think of them.

While there was nothing extra ordinary about Carrie Taylor’s life; she didn’t move mountains, she didn’t conquer vast domains and she didn’t set the world on fire. I dare say, though, I can’t think of a moved mountain, a civilized domain, or a smoking ember that hasn’t been touched by someone that she didn’t love. I cannot believe there was anyone she didn’t make smile, and the chapel after the service was filled with laughter and joy as people swapped their favorite Carrie stories.

I stood there, in a gray suit, and proudly wiped several tears from my eyes as I listened and shared. Carrie lived each day in joy and faith, thankful for each day and what was presented in it. One only had to watch her for a few hours to see that her life was the perfect example of what far too many claim to be, a Christian. She had nothing bad to say or think about any one, and she lived her life simply because she believed that complexity was what her faith in God was for.

The tears I shed were not of pain, although there is another empty place in my heart now that her life in no longer of this Earth, but tears of joy as I now know of a life, a small vibrant not to be forgotten life that is truly worth celebrating.

And the chicken dances on…