Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend is a little different for us this year. We’re on day four of our Covid isolation. No dragging the chairs out of the basement for the long-awaited first trip to the outdoor pool. No picnic for friends and family. My husband will not leave early tomorrow morning for a parade and solemn cemetery performance with his drum corps. Instead, there were frantic phone calls and emails yesterday to plan parade logistics, since several leaders of the corps are also Covid positive.

It’s not so bad, really. Thanks to the miracle of vaccines, our symptoms are mild, almost non-existent. The downside is that it’s so easy to shrug off a sneeze or two or a slightly hoarse voice. We were business as usual until those two lines showed up on the test I took almost as an after-thought on Thursday morning. And then there’s the guilt—contacting the hairstylist and the choir director and the other people we may have unknowingly infected. My friends in the medical profession tell me Covid’s like wildfire right now, partly because people just don’t realize they have it, assuming it’s allergies or a minor cold.

But we’re comfortable at home where there are always chores to do, and Giant Direct brought me exactly what I ordered at the exact time promised. We sit on our porch and enjoy the birds in the backyard and the antics of our dogs in hot pursuit of squirrels and chipmunks and marvel at the gigantic snapping turtle that has taken up residence on a bed of grass clippings behind our shed. We have been forced to slow down and stop the madness, at least briefly, and yes, even for us retired folks, there is still plenty of madness.

I think about the Memorial Days I experienced growing up. Small town parades were a Big Deal. The grown-ups wore little red poppies sold by the veterans’ organizations, and we stood along the sidewalks to honor those who had fought in two World Wars, Korea, and Viet Nam. We could finally wear our flip-flops again, and the snowball man and Mr. Softee returned, clanging their bells in the summer evening twilight. Decoration Day meant the re-opening of my grandparents’ “verandah”–the covered porch where we spent many an evening eating produce from my grandfather’s garden and watching the lightning bugs dance or reading books on rainy afternoons.

But this year Memorial Day takes on an even deeper meaning after the horror and tragedy of this past week. This morning we streamed the service from the National Cathedral which became our virtual church home during the pandemic. The Dean of the Cathedral, Randy Hollerith, preached, and as always, connected scripture to the reality in which we live. As he listed the statistics from recent mass shootings, a child began to cry somewhere out in the congregation. This was serious wailing, not just a disgruntled sniffle or two. His or her sobs reverberated throughout the massive vault of the cathedral, as piercing as the solemn notes of taps sounding over a silent cemetery on Memorial Day. And all I could think of were the tears and screams of those nineteen children and their devastated families. That child cried for all of us.

View from the Pew

I was really looking forward to Easter this year. After sitting in front of our TV two years ago, watching services streamed from post-apocalyptic empty sanctuaries to nervously stepping back into masked and temperature-checked in-person worship last Easter, I was ready for a pull-out-all -the-stops celebration.

But for the first time in as long as I can remember (last two years not withstanding), I did not sing in an Easter choir. Earlier this week, I noticed some cold symptoms—sore throat, a little congestion. I immediately took a home Covid test which was negative and so for the most part, went about my business including a choir rehearsal and two Holy Week services. But yesterday, whatever virus had taken up residence migrated south into my vocal cords. My voice was reduced to a whisper and singing anything above middle C was impossible. I was relegated to the pews.

But despite my disappointment at not being able to sing in a truly glorious Easter celebration, I will say there is something to be gleaned from sitting back and allowing worship to happen without anxiously paging through my folder for the next anthem or hymn. It was a chance to be still and really listen for the voice of God which came through loud and clear in the rector’s sermon. It was almost like God was saying to me, “Ok, just stop multi-tasking for an hour or two and pay attention.” And it was a chance to people-watch. Currently my husband and I are dividing our time between two different churches, which, odd as it sounds, is working well for us. This morning I was at the church where we are relative newcomers so I could observe in anonymity.

At the first service, an elderly woman sat in the pew adjacent to mine. She was stooped and frail and yet, when the procession came up the aisle, she not only sang Christ the Lord is Risen Today, with gusto, she kept time by swinging her right arm as if she was conducting the brass choir. She was the picture of joy. (Although later she was less than joyful when told she could no longer intinct her wafer in the communion wine. The Episcopal Church is still trying to sort itself out when it comes to receiving communion.)   

I watched people re-connect with family members and friends they don’t often see. I watched the brass choir sing the hymns and service music when they weren’t playing. They weren’t just there as paid musicians but were engaged in the worship experience. At the beginning of the second service, a woman in front of me turned around to watch for the beginning of the procession with as much anticipation as if she were looking for a bride to come up the aisle. I saw the expressions on people’s faces as they took communion—gratitude, humility, smiles, even a few tears. I watched teenagers proudly carry the processional cross, entwined with Easter lilies and later one of those same teens brought the tray for pew communions. Seeing them gave me hope that the church may yet last for another generation or two, despite the media’s dire predictions of the imminent demise of organized religion.

Yes, I missed the singing, but I realized this morning that sometimes I’m missing the point. The opportunity  to be an observer instead of a participant allowed some much-needed space for other things in my mind and my spirit, and I’m grateful for that.

Happy Easter.

Valentine Memories

I’ve always been sort of ambivalent about Valentine’s Day. I can remember the childhood excitement of classroom Valentine parties when we sat at our desks opening silly paper cards in tiny envelopes and  eating sugary treats. (Do schools even do that anymore?) I also remember when I was about twelve, getting a “real” Valentine from a boy in my neighborhood who had asked me to moonlight skate with him at the last skating party. When he called the local radio station to dedicate the song “Windy” to me, I thought we’d end up getting married. Hearing “Who’s walking down the streets of the city, smiling at everybody she meets” made me feel slim and beautiful with swinging hair even though I was kind of dorky and chunky, and my hair definitely did not swing.

Years later, the middle of February brought the death of my mother which forever cast a shadow on Valentine’s Day. Even now, when I take a Christmas wreath to the cemetery where both my parents are buried, I can still feel the bitter cold of that winter day in 1980. I can see all of us in our funeral-dress-up shoes carefully picking our way across the ice patches and hard-packed snow to reach my mother’s gravesite where we huddled together under the canopy, watching her casket being lowered into the frozen ground.

When I was teaching, Valentine’s Day marked a milepost in the seemingly endless slog toward spring concerts and the oh-so-distant end of the school year. I remember chaperoning nervous adolescents at their first dance and smiling at  those few brave souls who broke loose from the security of their friends and wandered out onto the dance floor, gingerly touching each other’s shoulders or waists, as they swayed back and forth to a slow dance.

And then there was the Valentine’s night in 1996 when I found a bouquet of red roses at my front door.  I had been on a date or two with a man I met through—no surprise here–choral singing. We had been to dinner, and on another occasion, I met him in the lobby of a theater for a concert. We both enjoyed the time we spent together, but we were tentative, careful. He was a lifelong bachelor, and I had been divorced after a thirteen-year marriage. That night I had come home after a rehearsal and was getting ready for bed. I remember the two Scottie dogs I had at the time fussing and barking until I finally went downstairs and looked out the front door. There was a beautiful bouquet of red roses with a card attached that said something clever and prophetic. (I just asked him if he remembered what he wrote on the card but that was 26 years ago.) I picked up the bouquet, closed the door, and sat right down on the floor and burst into tears. It was so unexpected and so kind and at that point in my life, I was not anticipating receiving flowers from someone who was falling in love with me.

I was twelve again and felt slim and beautiful with swinging hair.  

Christmas Eve 2021

It’s been another long, and at times, terrible year, so tonight may feel like a far cry from the Christmas Eves you grew up with. We’re not living in a Hallmark movie or Jacquie Lawson e-card. If you go to church tonight or for that matter, anywhere in public, I hope you wear a mask. Like me, you may feel so weary and disheartened from Covid and all that comes with it. You may be stuck in an airport and frustrated because you can’t get home to see family members. There may be an empty chair at your table and an empty place in your heart. You might be an essential worker—a healthcare professional or an Amazon driver or a clerk at the convenience store for whom Christmas Eve is just another shift.

But through all this mess we’ve created, we somehow manage to light our trees and light our candles. We cook the meals and call our friends and figure out a way to  make it work, no matter what. We hold those we love close, even if it’s through a virtual hug or facetime visit. We reach out to those who need us, we sing through our masks, we keep loving and hoping and giving because that’s what Christmas means.

Because, like the powerful text from Leslie Leyland Fields that my husband and I were privileged to sing last weekend, the stable still astonishes.

Merry Christmas.