Wednesday, January 8, 2014

On Planning Your Own Funeral


In the summer of my eleventh year we were living at 2504 "C" Street, Selma, California, in the middle of the grand and fertile San Joaquin Valley.  As with every neighborhood back then, a kid could wander around and pluck grapes from vines falling over a back fence, or a climb a tree and sit up there on a convenient branch and snack on cumquats or apricots or apples or sun ripened sweet peaches.  Our organic "farmers market" back then was no farther than a step or two away.  None of the neighbors minded; if it was left on the tree the fruit would soon ripen and fall rotten from the tree if not eaten.

So we kids waged war with the sparrows for the fruit and a good sling shot would do wonders to protect our favorite fruit trees.

One exception to "open season" on the fruit was an old man who lived down the back alley from us.  The old man was scary; he was known as a miser, collecting all manner of things and cluttering his house with junk, things he would never need nor use.  Our parents cautioned us to just stay away from the guy.  But kids are always drawn to the verboten, and since the old miser had some scrawny trees that bore scrawny and undersized fruit that hung over the back fence we were often drawn to that forbidden fruit.  Because the fellow never watered or fertilized the trees, the fruit was hardly worth bothering with.  Yet, still, we would creep stealthily up to that back fence and pluck an orange or a sick little apple from those low hanging branches.  When the old guy spotted us plucking his fruit he would rush out the back door yelling and screaming to stay away from his fruit.  

Later, the old man died.  I remember watching those who busied themselves cleaning out the hoarding mess in his house in the days that followed.  Someone kept a burn barrel aflame all day, burning tons of his worthless trash while others trucked more of it from the front of the house.  Because the fellow lived so near, and because he was so strange, we all scoured the obituaries to see if we could learn more about this fellow who lived alone and lived such a miserly life.  We never found an obituary and, as far as we know, no one attended his funeral.

And then there was my sister, who all her life, could not stop giving away everything she owned or valued.  Anyone who has read my blog knows the poverty our family knew while growing up.  My sister was part of that extreme poverty.  And, while my brother and I achieved a measure of material success, my sister never did.  She married a hard-working blue collar fella who worked hard at manual labor and whose paycheck would never afford them luxuries.  They lived out in the country, in the middle of a grape vineyard, in an old trailer.

But while wealth eluded her, God blessed her with a childhood innocence that never deserted her in her short 50 year life.  Marcie's formal education stopped in 6th grade when the school counsellor brought her home from school one day and told my mom that Marcie had progressed as far as she would ever go in the classroom and recommended she be kept at home.  Back in those days "the system" gave up on special needs children and that was Marcie's fate.  Now to be clear, Marcie was never mentally retarded; she read voraciously and never lost the capacity to learn.  It was just that, emotionally, Marcie would never mature beyond the innocent child stage.  (Ironically, Marcie's skills in reading and writing would have trumped today's illiterate high school graduate!) 

So, Marcie's fate (and blessing) would be a life of seeing only the good in people.  She never developed the cynical caution that we "normal" adults learn to cultivate.  And so hundreds of people in my home town would find themselves being stopped in the grocery store and hugged and had their children fawned over.  Though Marcie married happily, she never had kids of her own but i could name you a hundred folks in my extended family (including mine) who will tell you no one could kiss and hug children and make them feel special, the way my sister could.  And if they were "luggable" my sister would have one or another of her baby nieces or nephews or cousins perched safely in her arms.

Since my sister never knew a stranger it was not hard to "meet" people; everyone in her church knew her, the hundreds who encountered her in a store or restaurant or public park knew her as well.  When my sister became ill an army of nurses became her sisters, her love so overpowering that the most reserved of folks could not resist it.

My sister could never manage a family budget so it was left to her husband to do that.  And he had to be careful not to give her more than a couple of bucks because, before her day was out, my sister would meet someone who would need her two or three dollars and her purse would be empty. If someone dared to express a desire to sample her turkey chili my sister would show up at their door with a pot of chili and a bouquet of flowers.  If she still had a dollar and came across a sentimental card that expressed her feelings better than she could herself she would buy that card and send it to a loved one…just because…  And she kept a log of a hundred family birthdays..then she would drive her husband crazy about the telephone bills as my sister phoned each and everyone of them on their birthday..and this at a time when phone calls were expensive!

I guess Marcie was sent to earth as an angel, perhaps to remind us all that love is more valuable than anything material.  And she did her job so well; she had lightened and warmed enough hearts so that God decided it was time to bring her home.  And so he did, after too brief a time for us.

And so, we have the profiles of two of God's creatures; a miser who gathered everything unto himself, who refused to give away even the poor fruit of his crop…who would die alone, his death neither mourned or noted.

And then you have an angel named Marcie who would spend her whole life giving away anything of value, the most important being unconditional love to anyone who dared accept it.  Her funeral was "rock star" quality as family and friends and church people came…as nurses drove two hundred miles to attend, as poems written especially for her were read, glorifying the most giving of angels.


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