November 10th, 2019
“People are like stained – glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
“Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are”
from “Wake Me Up When September Ends” – Green Day
My father died a year ago today. I still don’t miss him.
Yeah, I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. I’m not angry with him anymore, but I don’t miss him. Actually, he isn’t entirely absent from my life. I can still hear his voice in my head. I still hear him bitching about something or other. All I want him to do is leave me alone. We’ll meet again soon enough. In the meantime, I just want him to keep his distance.
I remember my dad’s funeral. It was remarkably soulless. I went through the motions, and I think that some of the other people there did the same thing. Nobody said anything about my father, except for the priest, and the priest hardly knew the man. I didn’t even want to be at the funeral. Karin convinced me to go there for my own good, even if I didn’t want to be there for my father. I guess I would feel bad now if I had not gone to the service. However, I went there out of a sense of duty, not necessarily out of love. Well, maybe there was a little bit of love. I don’t know.
Karin and I went to a funeral yesterday. It was held at the Victory Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee. The church looks like a warehouse from the outside. It is on the corner of Teutonia and Center on the north side of Milwaukee. The neighborhood is a little rough. There is a lot of poverty there, and the population is almost entirely Afro-American. We attended the funeral of a woman, Latanya, who we really never knew. We were actually there to support a woman that we do know. The woman we know is Merry Jo.
Merry Jo is the widow of Earnel Nash. Ernie died in August of 2017. Blood cancer. Karin and I were friends with Ernie and Merry Jo. I had worked with Ernie for probably twenty years. He thought I was an asshole, and that’s probably true. Somehow, we got to really know each other, and we were close during his last years. Since Ernie’s death, Karin and I have stayed in contact with Merry Jo. That has been a blessing for us.
Let’s pause for a moment here. You have to understand how racist and segregated Milwaukee is. It’s bad. There aren’t many white people who are willing go up to Capitol and 18th Street, where Merry and Ernie lived, and there aren’t many blacks who will come down to Oak Creek, where we live. But we all did those things. Merry Jo and Ernie came to our house, and we went to theirs. We ate together, and laughed together, and eventually grieved together.
Merry Jo called me on Tuesday evening. She has a soft, musical voice, one that is always soothing. She told me,
“Frank, I just want to let you know that our daughter passed on.”
I was stunned by that. “I’m sorry”, I replied.
She went on, “Well, I just wanted to tell you, because you’re family.”
That cut to the bone.
Merry Jo continued, “The funeral, it’s going to be on Saturday at noon. The viewing will start at 10:30. You gonna come?”
So, what was I going to say? What could I say?
The fact was that I had an electrician coming to the house at noon on Saturday. I told her,
“I might not be there for the funeral, but I am going to the east side to see my rabbi on Thursday morning. Can I stop at your house when I’m done talking with him?”
Merry Jo said it was okay.
That’s what I did. I first went to talk to the rabbi at Lake Park Synagogue. I’m a Catholic, but I still have a rabbi, in case I need a second opinion on a spiritual matter. I’ve been part of the synagogue for ten years now, so they accept me as I am.
It always feels strange driving to Merry’s house. Sometimes folks give me a second look when I park on 18th Street. I guess that they might think I am one of those damn probation officers. Why else would some old white guy be stopping in their neighborhood?
Maggie answered the door at Merry’s house. Merry wasn’t there. I talked for a while with Maggie and Ora, two older black ladies. Well, they are my age. We are all on the same page. Ora asked me about my kids. I mentioned that somebody I dearly love is in prison. She didn’t even blink at that. We talked about the prison in Taycheedah. Ora knew all about that place. So did I. We had something in common. Merry was didn’t come home while I was at her house. She was busy arranging things for her girl’s funeral. So I left after I told the ladies that I would see them on Saturday.
Karin and I didn’t see Merry Jo until the funeral on Saturday. We were there for over an hour before we saw her. Karin and I viewed the deceased, and then we sat in a pew.
Okay, let’s talk for a moment about race.
The church was packed with people for the funeral. All the pews were full, and there were a number of individuals standing in the back. There might have been two hundred black people in attendance. There were maybe a dozen white folks. Does that matter? I don’t know. All I know is that I was like a grain of salt in a pepper shaker. Nobody said or did anything to disrespect me or my wife. Karin and I were welcomed there, and we are grateful for that. We just felt out of place. That was our reality.
The deceased, Latanya, had died at the age of forty-four. She had left behind two adult daughters, and a five-year-old girl. The central section of pews was completely filled with Latanya’s extended family. There were her daughters, her brother, her mom, her uncles, aunts, cousins, and others on the family periphery. There were lots of people gathered there. That impressed me, because I remember there were so few people at my father’s funeral. Granted, he was a very old man when he died, so not many of his contemporaries were still around. However, he had alienated so many people in his life that he had almost nobody left at the end.
Most of my experience with funerals is from within the Catholic Church. We have ritual, and that helps to keep things moving. True ritual touches the human heart. The Baptists have ritual too. The pastor kept the service flowing, even when people wanted to sing hymns solo. The people in this church own these funerals. They know how to tug at the heart strings. They know how to call on God. This service was like Ernie’s funeral; it was totally real. It was strong and it was righteous.
Merry Jo looked tired, and a bit dazed, during the service. She sat in front with her grand-daughters, and she occasionally reached over to them to hold their hands. I could see the love within that family, and it made my heart hurt. These people cared about each other deeply. It showed.
One of the elders gave a sermon. It was about Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. The man spoke like an old school preacher. He was completely authentic. He got himself wound up, and he wound up the congregation. There were numerous “Amens!” from the crowd, and some women held up their hands in praise. I don’t know if I agreed with the man’s theology, but I was in love with his spirit. When he spoke, I believed.
Karin and I were only able to find and greet Merry Jo once we got outside the church. She was surrounded by people, and we kind of pushed our way in to her.
Both Karin and I hugged her. We told her how much we loved her.
That was a good funeral.