Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Donna Reed Legacy

The tears trickled out, the laughter came and it was a beautiful memorial service for father-in-law Ted Shultz. It was held at the Ann Arbor Club on a beautiful sunny day in a lovely non-denominational room tastefully decorated with Ted’s quilt hanging on a screen, his large smiling photo in the window, a few tastefully placed flowers and the warmth of some 140 people who turned up to pay their respects. They entered the room via a receiving line, stopping to look at the three collages of photos we arranged the night before while I played Bach on the piano.

Even a Memorial Service these days begins with the cell phone announcement and then the Chaplain said some poignant words about the full arc of a live well-lived to a ripe old age (86) and hence, “this service as celebration. At the same time, we would have wished for a few more years and that brings a loss and sadness, a feeling of empty space never to be filled again in quite the same way.” Well-spoken—all truth comes in pairs and I continued the theme, saying a few words about death as both departure and homecoming and how song was needed for both. The welcoming angels needed help from us down here to join in their chorus and we who are left behind also need to sing to bring ourselves some comfort. Giving people permission to leave behind whatever insecurities their music teachers implanted in them, I invited them to sing heartily and with full voice and heart—and as we launched into “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” they did.

Next came some well-chosen scriptures from the Old and New Testament and Buddhist writings chosen by my mother-in-law, Pam. I was particularly taken by the reading of 1 Corinthians, 13. Poetic, profound and if even half the people who profess to be Christians lived up to a fraction of its message, our world would be transformed. “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” There was a lot of love in that room for Ted and Pam and we were just getting warmed up.

Next came a short talk by the Chaplain, a little story about each person writing a list of everyone who had mattered to them in their life, who had buoyed them up and sent them  forward, who had garnered their faith, increased their hope and surrounded them with their love. You take that list to the gates of heaven and the gatekeeper reminds you that you must leave everything behind. You protest, he takes the list, reads it and smiles: “You don’t need this anymore. They’re all here to greet you.” Whether or not it’s true is beside the point. It’s a lovely image and since we don’t know ahead of time, why not imagine the best?

The highlight of the ceremony was the family remembrances. My wife Karen and her brothers and two of her childhood neighbors painted the picture of the idyllic American childhood they experienced in the town of Plymouth, Michigan. Neighbors who all knew each other gathered for evening martinis and Saturday barbecues, had snowball or crab-apple fights with the kids. Dads went to work at Ford and came home with a paycheck and the news of the day shared around the dinner table, served up by the reliable Moms who mostly stayed home with the kids (though Karen’s Mom eventually went back to school, got a degree and taught Special Education). Summer was trips to nearby lakes or far-away mountains for hiking and fishing, Saturday mornings were accompanied by show tune soundtracks on the record players. There were baseball games, piano lessons, walking to and from school with teachers that both kids and parents respected. It was Donna (and Alex) Reed, Ward and June Cleaver, Ozzie and Harriet in the flesh! And with Ted’s children and those neighborhood kids now in their 50’s and 60’s, you could feel how much it all still meant to them as they re-lived it in their memories.

It’s tempting, of course, to romanticize it all and wax nostalgic, to skip over the fact that during part of that time, the Detroit riots were raging just 30 minutes down the road, the folks who couldn’t buy houses in Plymouth and live out that American dream expressing their rage. It’s easy to forget what prices men paid to conform to the 50’s male, what feelings were buried under cocktails never to be spoken out loud, easy to leave out of the picture how many “happy housewives” felt like prisoners in their homes. And while we remember a certain feeling of solidity and security and optimism, everyone buoyed up by the promise of the technological future with its marvelous labor-saving devices, let us not forget the “duck ‘n’ cover” exercises. (Karen tells a hilarious story of how distraught she was because she was told that families had to share their Fallout shelters and she would have to be with a boy she didn’t like. She was much more worried about that than nuclear attack!)

But the point here is not to try to recapture what was a particular mythology from a particular time—both impossible and undesirable— but to remember the solid values that are the same for any community, whether it be a few blocks in Harlem, a Midwest farming town or a West African village. Know your neighbors. Eat meals together and talk. Get out in the woods. Sit on the stoop and talk to passer-bys. Sing and dance together. Let the children play—and sometimes play with them.

Back to Ted Shultz. What struck me about the talks from family and friends where all the quirks of character that set Ted apart from his neighbor. His inexplicable habit of burning incense while listening to show tunes. his particular style of casting when fly-fishing, a spontaneous dance he did once at a party, the way he greeted his grandchildren with a little sound and poking gesture. While the world is doing its best to mold us into predictable and replicable obedient citizens, what really matters at the end of the day are the ways in which we stand out. People sitting in that room who didn’t know Ted well felt like they did by the end of the service and people who knew him felt the fuller pain of the loss of his unique way of being in this world. That’s what made the service so beautiful and right.

We finished an hour later with a few choruses of Amazing Grace. I suggested that people put their hands on the back of their neighbors while they sing, to feel the vibration of their voices. This is what I used to do with my Dad in his last days, just put my hand there while he talked to savor the tingling in my fingers that his voice made. I suggested that while we are all still here, let us savor that living vibration and use our voices to set the world vibrating, each in our own way. After some soulful singing, the Chaplain gave the Benediction and I started my medley of show tunes on the piano with “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” while the room broke into appreciative murmurs, heartfelt hugs—and of course, the tinkle of silverware as the food came out. Two hours later, the crowd had dwindled down to a single circle of family, extended family and close friends. The stories just kept flowing and the laughter and the occasional tear.

It was a fine way to say goodbye. We’ll miss you, Ted.

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