The little town where Mama grew up was so small that, whenever there was a funeral, any child who wanted could leave school to attend. The church bell would ring and teachers would announce, "If you are attending the funeral today, you may leave now." Mama, whose career goal at age 10 or 12, was to be a "funeral home lady," never missed an opportunity to show respect, express condolences and observe the tricks of the trade.
On one particular day she happened to have garnered an aisle seat at the little country church where the deceased was being remembered. At the close of the sermon, the minister invited the congregation to come forward and take one last look at the dearly departed. One of Mama's classmates was coming back down the aisle and caught Mama's eye. Mama smiled.
The next day at school everyone was talking about the fact that, God help us all, Frances Anderson smiles at funerals.
It was hard not to remember that story earlier this week as I sat in a small country church, beside two of my girlfriends and along with many others, to remember the life of another friend's mother. She was one of those women that women of my generation know we will never be. She had a strength and a resilience that manifested itself in quiet devotion to her family and her church. Her response to any accolade was, "I've just been so blessed." It would have been easy to turn her into a caricature.
Except for one thing. You see, she reared two very human children, one of whom was a daughter who ended up, through a series of not-so-unusual circumstances, becoming a friend of mine. And then my friends and her friends started overlapping until they became our friends and on this particular June morning there we all were — most of us sitting in the pews, but one of us standing in the pulpit.
Deborah is a gifted minister and — with a close relationship of over 30 years upon which to draw — the portrait she painted of my friend's mother was respectful and realistic. She shared stories that highlighted the talents of cooking and sewing. She emphasized faith and generosity. She mentioned the profound effect on her own life that had been made.
Then, right in the middle of an absolutely lovely eulogy, she glanced over where I and the other two were sitting, and spoke a single sentence that elicited a most unfunereal response: we laughed. Out loud. Surrounded by church members in dark suits and sensible shoes. Sitting on the second row right behind the pallbearers. Lord, help us.
Later, standing outside under the noon sun, sand from the churchyard cemetery scooting its way into our high-heeled sandals, we all talked about it. Deborah had been totally nonplused by the outburst. She shared with us that she'd suspected there might be such a reaction and that the looks on our faces had confirmed she'd done the right thing by including the slightly-comic relief. That was a comfort.
And, to tell the truth, I suspect that the laughter itself was something of a comfort, a gentle reminder in the midst of unbearable sadness that the heart can still recognize and yield to humor. A call from whatever lies beyond this life to acknowledge the grief and endure the sorrow with grace. A souvenir for the pockets of those lining the creaky wooden pews, a talisman to clutch in the days to come when absence threatens to overpower sweet memory.
We sang "A Mighty Fortress" at the funeral, all four verses. The third verse goes, "The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him." And if that one little word is said with a smile or, better yet, while laughing, well, as far as I'm concerned, that's all the better. I am, after all, my mother's daughter.