On thoughtfulness and reunions

My friend told me a lovely story today.  Over the weekend she received a letter from a stranger, and the opening line read, “I hope this is not intrusive.”  The letter was from a person working with the state hospital; the hospital has hundreds of containers of people’s cremated remains, and they are attempting to return them to the family of the deceased.

My friend learned that the hospital had her great-grandmother’s remains; would she like them?  She said yes, and plans to take them to the cemetery where her mother and grandmother are buried.  She will go with her daughter and granddaughter to the graveside, and there will gather six generations of strong, beautiful women.

As my friend told me this story, I got a little teary.  Maybe it was the thoughtfulness of the gesture.  I think that’s part of it, but part of it too is this strange thing I have about reunions, even beyond the grave.  (Or at the grave, in this case.)

Now I don’t believe that those cremated remains or any decaying body of flesh and bone have any power in them.  There is no life there; they are going back to the dust from whence they came.  The souls that inhabited those bodies have gone on, I believe, and while the soul makes its home in skin and sinew, it is not confined there.  The souls of my friend’s mother and grandmother and great-grandmother have gone on.

And yet.  And yet there is a poignancy to reuniting these ashes with those of a daughter and granddaughter.  I have no idea what happens when we die.  Maybe this faith thing has been one big crap shoot and when it’s over, it’s over.  Or maybe we fall asleep for a while, and wake up when Gabriel blows that horn.  Or maybe we die and boom we go to heaven and the reunion is instantaneous.

If we die and sleep for an eon, imagine the waking up.  Imagine my friend’s great-grandmother waking up, and those ashes and pulverized bones coming together again, kneaded back into vibrant form; imagine her waking up and seeing her daughter and granddaughter with her.

Wouldn’t that be something.

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And now we are women

We were so young then. Our parents would laugh at that, of course, from their vantage point; to them, we are still young, will always be young, or at least younger than they are.

Just to say that is to acknowledge that we know each other’s parents, a luxury not found among friends made in later adulthood, when we don’t have friends to the house for the weekend, when the parents aren’t there for graduations and weddings because those have all past and are now the things that belong to our children and not to us. It is lovely to reconnect with old friends, the friends who knew you when. It’s not so much a feast of nostalgia as much as it is an unexpected delight to discover an old friend in her adult years, to see her shaped by career and marriage and parenthood and aging parents and disappointment and hardship, knowing that the laughs we once shared have been sustaining, at least a little, even as the reconnection hints at laughs yet to come.

My friends are amazing women. They have grown into their beauty: the natural gray highlights, the eye creases that make smiles more real, the knowledge now of what to do with eyebrows and moustaches and lipstick. Our bodies that grew babies are different, but we’re still the types we were: the amazon; the chubby one who has such a pretty face; the long-legged beauty; the chesty one who fretted over their size but secretly loved them.

Personalities are being distilled; we’re not as concentrated as our parents are becoming, but still we are more us than we were in our late teens and early twenties. We looked forward to conquering the world, or at least our little corner of it. One would become a Broadway star, another, a PR tycoon, another, a world-traveling lawyer.

And we did some of that but never as much as we dreamed of. Instead, we discovered the elegance of compromise, and learned for ourselves, with regret and relief, that we can’t have it all, and maybe we never really did want it all. We gave up a little here so that we could have a little there; our choices became more nuanced and sometimes we let go of who we were in order to reach out to who we would be. But that moment between the letting go and the new holding was terrifying, so we had our moments of lostness, too.

We were girls of such privilege and potential. We were beloved and lightly scarred, scarred by the mere rejections and the slightly broken hearts and the friendships that were (we realized in retrospect) a bit forced. Some of the friendships survived and deepened and some faded into a shrugged memory. Some will get picked up where they left off only to dive into the deep end where new things are treasured. A laconic attitude is now appreciated as gentleness and deliberateness. A desire to please has morphed into a sharp perception and unflagging honesty. But a good laugh is still a good laugh, and a delight in each other is still just that: delight.

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Family Reunion

Family Reunion

ranch oneMy extended family – parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, first cousins once removed, first cousins twice removed – owns property together.  It’s land that my grandparents bought over seventy years ago, land that they have passed down to their children which they, in turn, are passing down to their children.  It’s home to me, in a way; it’s the place we went to every summer, whether my address was in California or New Jersey or Texas.

Because we own this property together, we have an annual meeting to talk about the management of the place.  Some years the annual meeting goes well, and some years there is contention, as happens when more than one person is involved in making a decision.  But always after the meeting, we gather for a potluck lunch.  Some of the family stays around for a few days afterwards; others go back home, promising to see us the next year.  Because we own this property together, we know each other. We’re spread out from New Jersey to Wisconsin to West Virgiania to Washington but I know my cousins; I know the names of their spouses and kids.  My kid will know her second cousins and her great aunts and uncles.

My grandparents left us a treasure.  Sure, the land would be worth something if we ever sold it, but it’s a different kind of treasure. I know my family; I know their joys and quirks.  I have shared their heartaches, and so often they make me laugh out loud.  That’s priceless.

This last week I’ve been at a different kind of family reunion.  The General Assembly (national gathering) of the denomination in which I minister (the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) has met, as we do ever other year.  We are not bound because of a piece of property.  Rather, we are bound by faith.  We are each other’s beloved because we are all God’s beloved and we know this because of Jesus.  We get together to talk about our mission and ministry and our rules.  Sometimes the meeting goes well; usually there is contention.  Actually, always there is contention.  But that’s okay, because we talk about things that we feel passionate about, things we believe deeply about, things that have called us together and things that threaten to tear us apart.

I’ve had such a sense of reunion this week, seeing old friends from so many times of my life.  My internship buddy.  A guy I dated in seminary.  A woman who moderated the presbytery when I was examined for ordination.  Seminary mentors and classmates.  Former members of my pastor’s group (all of whom absolutely shone this week.)  Friends who challenge me to act beyond the role society has proscribed for me.  Friends who inspire me to love Jesus more.  Friends who irk me into speaking up.  Friends who took a taxi with me because my hip hurt too much.  Friends who laughed at my bad jokes.  Friends who walk the walk of faith and ministry and Presbyteriana with me.

We are family, in the best and worst sense of that word.  We are bound by love, but thank God it’s not our love doing the binding but God’s love.  And we fight the way families fight.  Sometimes we fight and make up.  Sometimes we let ourselves get rent apart.  I know for some the metaphor of family describing church doesn’t work because their own families are so messed up and a source of deep pain. I know there are some in the Presbyterian family that feel that way, especially after some of the decisions made this week about marriage equality and Israel/Palestine relations.  I think about that with my own family experience, and I hope they will be willing to come back to the table after the meeting, and I’ll be as gracious as I can be if they choose to find another table.

But I’m feeling so grateful at this moment.  I am so grateful to remember the cloud of witnesses, friends who weren’t at this Assembly because they are with God, earthly witnesses with whom I broke bread and raised a glass.  I’ll be at the next reunion, too, and so the goodbyes didn’t really seem like goodbyes as much as see-you-soons.

 

Tomorrow night I get to have dinner with my family, my husband and child, for the first time in ten days.  I can’t wait for that family reunion – it’s been too long without them.  Sometimes you have to be apart to appreciate the good of being together.  May that be true for Presbyterians in the next two years.

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