When we think of memorial services, we usually focus on grief and loss. But I was reminded tonight, while attending a service for the mother of a longtime friend, that these events can also be sources of surprising beauty.
My friend Amy and I were classmates at Orange Hunt Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia. I had always been drawn to her wit and warmth, traits that never seemed to change even when we transitioned to high school. The two of us lost touch not long after we graduated from good ol’ Lake Braddock Secondary School, but we reconnected years ago on Facebook. She had gotten married, moved to Durham and had kids (probably not in that order), yet she still projected the very same Amy-ness as ever, complete with that glorious wit and warmth. One of the things I appreciate most about Facebook is the way it lets me feel as if I see people like her often, despite how infrequently we get together in real life.
When Amy shared the news of her mom’s illness on Facebook, I followed the developments closely. Everything happened far too quickly after that, and I suspect the end came even before the family had a chance to process the diagnosis.
Amy’s mom had stayed in Northern Virginia and I soon saw on Facebook that a memorial service would be held for her at a Lutheran church in Springfield where I’d gone to preschool. When I arrived this evening, I looked for Amy in the foyer but didn’t find her so I sat by myself in a pew. Just before the service started, I was joined by another friend from the early years, Jennifer. She and I had been in touch on Facebook too, but nothing prepared me for the simple joy of seeing her again in person. We bridged the distance of 25 years in seconds when, after singing four verses of “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” she and I both closed our hymnals, only to discover that the song had four more verses and that no verse would be left unsung. Our hands flew to our mouths as we stifled laughter. Had we paper on hand, we might have reverted to passing notes.
That motif continued as Jennifer and I were leaving the service and making our way to the fellowship hall. We immediately ran into our friend Freya, whose face had always been a welcome sight at Orange Hunt and Lake Braddock, and was especially so tonight. The three of us began to chat as easily if we still had adjacent lockers. We somehow landed on the topic of our elementary school music class, which meant it was just a matter of time before we burst into song.
Jennifer remembered every word to our sixth grade class song. It featured lyrics like “’cause we are big sixth graders-yeah!–cream of the crop! Top of the mountain, nothing’s gonna stop us!” Little did we know that those same sixth graders would soon become bottom-of-the-heap seventh graders trying their best not to get stuffed in lockers.
I was the only one who remembered a gem called “Melt, butter.” The song’s entire lyrics as I recall consisted of the words “melt” and “butter,” arranged in different combinations. As kids we sang it while doing our best imitations of butter slowly but inevitably yielding to the power of heat, eventually ending up sprawled out on the floor. I decided to leave out the interpretive dance part as I was singing it for my friends at the church tonight.
All three of us remembered every single word to the Fifty States Song, which sprang out of us automatically. The version of the song we learned included a rap that starts in New Hampshire and ends in Ohio. I can only imagine what the pastor thought as he watched three forty-somethings belt out the fifty states in alphabetical order, interrupted by a brief rap break. Jennifer and Freya handled the rap, by the way, because laughter had incapacitated me by then. I was on the verge of regaining my composure by the time they got to Utah, and I very well might have recovered had Jennifer not bust out her best jazz hands, which she proceeded to wave from Utah to Wyoming.
We were still smiling and laughing when we got to the fellowship hall and saw Amy, who immediately enveloped us in a group hug. A few minutes later, a friend of the family said a few words about Amy’s mom, which I appreciated because my memories of her were few.
As I listened to him describe her sense of humor, her faith, and the depth of her desire to help people in need, it was the audio version of a truly lovely mother-daughter portrait. Sad, yes, but also a beautiful thing to behold.