I must have said it ten times as a reference point for people who looked familiar but forlorn as we came together to bury my aunt in Oxford, Mississippi.
My father’s been dead for fifteen years, and my mother is out of touch now due to dementia, but these folks—blood kin and otherwise—gathered at the funeral home on Highway 6 still link me to my heritage. They are my people.
Oxford is where my parents met in elementary school, attended University High, and were graduated from Ole Miss. It’s where my family went throughout my childhood to visit grandparents and aunts and uncles. Cousins. It’s where I had my first panic attack in my early twenties, realizing I didn’t belong in law school and that I was about to undo years of dreams–other people’s dreams–by dropping out. It’s where we buried Daddy. And it’s where I married the love of my life at age 41, in the same church where my parents said their vows in 1948. Lafayette County will always have hold of me.
St Peter’s Cemetery embraces more family members than I care to remember. But remember I did, tiptoeing over ancestors as I made my way to the Wilson monument on the hill to escort another loved one across the threshold.
“We’ve saved a plot for you,” my mother said to me once when we visited the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of a Wilson or a Lyles. I was single then, and my “bless your heart” parents thought it would always be so, that I would end up next to them in death, close by, just as I had been for most of my life. Too close, perhaps. It did not seem the time or place to tell her I plan to be cremated, married or spinster, my remains cast to the wind hopefully in North Carolina, where I feel more at home than I ever did in my hometown.
“Thank you,” I said.
My father is there, both his parents, my mother’s parents, too, second cousins twice removed, a couple of relatives I have no clue about (why don’t I remember Roxie Malinda?), and a precious child who died soon after birth. They’re all accounted for, surrounded by friends known to several generations of my family. I recognize names like Clark and Howell and Ivy from years of recollections offered up during holiday dinners and family reunions.
When I was younger—I’m 53 now—I thought I knew enough of my family’s lore. But on that day, as we said another goodbye, I realized I do not know enough.
We buried my father’s body fourteen years ago this week. His spirit remains. I feel him in my heart, daily. And I sense him other times, too, like when I’m reading late into the night or eating smoked salmon, two preferences we shared. I miss him still, but not like those awful, slow, days of early grieving. Now I can think of him without bursting into tears, or wonder what he might say to me without breaking down. So on these final days of September, I remember him not so much with sadness, but ever-increasing gratitude.
Something in me, something big, wanted to speak at Daddy’s funeral. Maybe it’s because I knew he liked a personal approach, contrasted with a funeral we attended together in which the preacher made scant mention of the deceased. Maybe it’s because I thought I had something to say. Maybe it’s because it was the last thing I could do for him. Maybe I still needed his approval.
I started writing in my journal almost immediately after my sister called to tell me Daddy was in the hospital. Writing down my thoughts is what I do. The night after he died, I stayed up late, searching the Internet for a poem I had heard “somewhere,” which I thought might be perfect for the eulogy. I did not find the poem, so I simply started writing about what I knew: my love for my father.
“Are you sure you can do this?” my mother asked when she saw me hovered over the computer keyboard, crying. “You don’t have to do this. Your father would understand.”
“Yes,” I responded, between sobs. “I want to do it.” And even though I cried through each practice run in the living room, I was able to deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral without shedding a tear. Only at the bitter end, when I looked down at his coffin and said the final words did I choke.
After the soloist sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and one of the preachers read some Scripture, it was my turn. Here is my Eulogy for Earl.
“As a writer, I imagined myself weaving an eloquent, insightful, and evocative eulogy for my father, making reference to ‘crossing the bar’ and ‘not going gentle’ and such. As a daughter, though, it was tough.
“Then someone said this to me: ‘That Earl was a class act.’ Bingo, I thought. For even if I had had a month to prepare remarks for today, I could not have found the words to do my father justice, this brilliant and precious man who tended me for 39 years.
“If we could find the proper phrasing, my mother would speak of a husband who provided her with a ‘blessed union of souls,’ of a soulmate who said, ‘Just give me fifty years with you, Martha,’ and got fifty-two. I think Earl’s brother, Bob, would try to articulate how much Earl meant to him growing up, as they lost their father at a young age.
“My sister Ginny would thank Earl for tolerance during her Grateful Dead period, a time we’re all still trying to forget—and for inspiring her to be a caring person first and a productive lawyer second, which she and her husband, Harbour, will strive to continue being in Earl’s memory. Sister Ann would surely mention the friendship between Daddy and her husband, Henry, and the guidance Earl bestowed on his precious grandchildren, Wilson, Lyles, and Martha Grace.
“As for me, I can told you of a person who taught us the importance of standing our ground while finding our way; a man who surmised that orange was not my best color; an intellect who respected the art of soliciting varied opinions; a connoisseur who could choose dry white wines under twelve dollars. A pilgrim who exemplified the true meaning of the word ‘compassion.’
“Just last week a friend sent me this poem, which her son read at her father’s funeral: ‘When I come to the end of the day, and the sun has set for me, I want no rites in a gloom-filled room, why cry for a soul set free? Miss me a little, but not too long, and not with your head bowed low. Remember the love we once shared, miss me but let me go. For this was a journey we all must take, and each must go alone. It’s all part of the Master’s plan, a step on the road to home. When you are lonely and sick at heart, go to the friends we know, and bury your sorrows in doing good deeds, miss me but let me go.’
“Earl had several requests for his funeral: he knew the preacher, he knew the songs and the soloist, and for some reason he requested, and I quote him here: ‘sufficient wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ I’m not sure what ‘gnashing’ means, really, but I’ve always been the obedient type, so I can assure you that the wailing has commenced.
“One friend and peer said this about Earl upon hearing of his death: ‘Earl Wilson’s life cast a long shadow. He personified visionary leadership combined with concern for his fellow man in everything he undertook. I was blessed to have known him as a colleague, as a mentor, and as a friend.’
“You think you were blessed, I thought. We got to be his girls.
“My family was comforted beyond measure today by your presence. Since the second this happened to us, we have been relying on the kindness of friends and the steadfastness of our God. And for those of us who are Christians, this cannot be viewed as a tragedy. My father was an amazing man who lived an extraordinary life.
“In other words, ‘That Earl was a class act.’
Copyright Hamblett House LLC. Photo of Amy Lyles Wilson by Martha Grace Gray Photography.