I went to a funeral in South Carolina. If you read last week’s blog, you’ll know why. My cousin Tiny and her husband, Duke (who passed away), were married over fifty years, I said. But it was sixty-two years they were married. A lifetime. It was that funeral.
It seems as if I am constantly writing about death. But that’s not exactly true. What I am writing about is life. My daughter Michaela and I were in a little town in South Carolina for only one full day and a night. But that was long enough to feel the tenor of the place and the people, to listen to the memories, the anecdotes, the little pieces of a man’s passage on the earth that were all about life – his life, Tiny’s life, and the life of a tribe I continue to discover. One of the most moving speakers at the funeral was a man whose life Duke, the football coach at Morris College, changed. The speaker was a poor boy who came to Morris, hoping against hope to play football. When he arrived, he had no shoes and he had no jacket. Duke provided both, and a full scholarship. As he stood before us in the small Presbyterian church, we saw a man who was the color of black coffee, tall, trim, and dignified by opportunity. He wore a bow tie in honor of his coach, who always wore one. He held a Ph.D. and before he retired, he had taught at the same little college as his mentor, Duke. He, too, had coached football. He spoke in quiet, measured terms. But his voice broke a little here and there as he remembered how his coach prodded, pushed, encouraged, demanded his absolute, total dedication. To football? No. To education. To life.
Morris College is an historically black college, one of those bright spots of hope in what was, for so many, a hopeless land. Through its doors walked members of my family. It was the path to a better life, a path that led sometimes to the migration of brave hopefuls out of the South, a migration that included my mother and father. That was how I came to be born in Philadelphia. When I go back to South Carolina, I know that I am tracing my roots. The life of my family.
At the luncheon that followed the funeral, a man I didn’t recognize came over to me, took my hand, and said, “Come, let me introduce you to your cousin. She’s on the Moore side.” And he led me to a woman – his mother – whom I’d never seen before, but whose face I would know anywhere. It was a Moore face. We hugged and held hands and talked about my grandmother, Helen Moore, whose name I bear. My grandmother was an Irish woman who married a dark Native American man. They had seven children. One was my father. Yes, my family is one of those hybrids – what they’d call a “mixed” family. On both sides. German, Irish, African, Native American, and Syrian – it’s all in our DNA. If I didn’t know better, I’d think somebody fabricated our family stories. And there are many. It’s a book in my heart waiting to be written.
But here we all were, Tiny cradled and safe in the middle of us, talking about family. About life. I never once heard the word death mentioned. We told and heard stories – some funny, some that took me back to my childhood, some so nostalgic I could feel my ancestors there among us, nodding in agreement and approval. All of our cousins, it seemed, knew my daughter Michaela and wanted to meet her. They see her on CNN, and they’re her devoted fan club. How lovely it was to see them smiling with her, having a photo-op with her. To the young ones, I was Michaela’s mother.
You see, our trip wasn’t about death at all. It was about life. The people who reared me, who loved me, were full of it. They abided. They persevered. They believed they had something to live for – a purpose. Mostly, it was us, their children. They gave us all they had, gladly and without reservation. We were – we are – a strong, strange tribe. We range in color from black, to red, to white, and everything in between. And we were all there in that room, in that luncheon, loving one another, seeking each other out, striving to tell the stories that connected us.
I write about death because it happens. But life is so much more important. Unlike death, which is temporary, life continues. It continues in spirit, and it continues in children, in the ones that still walk the earth that look like and sound like the ones who have left. I am so grateful for that, and for my family. I know that I went to a funeral, but I also stepped out of a world filled with news of anger and fear into one that was filled with life and love. Yes, my cousin Tiny will grieve and her life will never be the same. But she will not be alone. Yes, there is a void that is left by the ones who leave us. But then, there are the ones who are left that bear their eyes, and their mouths, their turns of phrase. Their laughs. And the ones in spirit walk beside us and listen to us speaking of them. They know that death is only a bridge, and that life is all there is.
Edward Butler and Helen Moore Butler, with six of their seven children. The boy to the right of Helen is my father. The girl in front of her is Tiny’s mother.
Read The Messenger: The Improbable Story of a Grieving Mother and a Spirit Guide by Helen Delaney. It is available at www.Amazon.com.