When I was young, funerals were somber occasions which affected me only sporadically. I guess that was a normal thing, for young folks don't lose too many friends if nature runs her normal course.
But I remember experiencing one singularly heartbreaking funeral as a teenager growing up in Greensboro.
A local banker had taken his family to view a race at the Yellow River Drag Strip here in Newton County, and had his young son sitting up on the dad's shoulders in order to see better. One of the cars wrecked, and debris flying into the crowd decapitated the little boy. I was called upon to sing in the choir at the child's funeral, and I'll never forget the struggle to get through "When They Ring Those Golden Bells" with virtually the whole town in attendance. There was nary a dry eye to be found.
Just a few years later, when I was 17, we buried Daddy. The thing I remember most about that day was exiting our tiny Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Greensboro and finding virtually the whole town outside, lining the walkway to the cars.
Greensboro's population hovered around 2,000 back in those days, you see. Everybody knew everybody at least by sight, if not by name. And everybody also knew who every kid belonged to, which was why most of us who got into mischief were in trouble with our folks long before we got home.
I reckon I was still in shock the day we buried Daddy because I hadn't been crying at all; I reckon I was just numb. But the moment we exited the little church and saw all those town folk, I got a catch in my throat and tears just cascaded down my face. It hit me that those folks cared about us, even if they didn't know us intimately. My daddy had died, and our larger town family had turned out to let us know they cared about him, and about us.
Over the next 30 years or so, though, I didn't lose many folks, and funerals spread out to the point where they were truly rare occasions. I lost an uncle and an aunt on my mother's side, and an uncle on my dad's side. And in the 1970s I helped bury a high school quarterback I'd coached who had contracted meningitis at college, which was a tough thing indeed.
Especially heartbreaking for me was the extraordinary chain of separate events over in Monticello in the latter years of the 20th century, which claimed the lives of no less than four of my middle school football players whom I'd taught and coached in the early 1990s in the Jasper County schools.
But in the here and now, as an older guy, I find funerals occurring with way too much regularity. Just last week I was startled to realize that I've been to as many funerals, and visited the graves of as many folks whose services I could not attend for various reasons, as I've been to in all the previous years of my life, combined.
It was in January of this year that I journeyed to tiny Tamaqua, Penn., to visit the grave site of a wonderful man whose life I detailed in a column dedicated to him. He was Tom Frantz, a planter of trees, neighbor and friend to Dwight Eisenhower, an honor guard at The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington, who had befriended me and two of my children as we visited the Gettysburg National Battlefield back in 1995.
Later this year I flew to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to celebrate the life of Fred Jamroz with his family. I'd met Fred on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in the summer of 1989, studying 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar entitled "Faith, Reason, and the Meaning of Life."
A teacher in Michigan's parochial schools for decades, Fred Jamroz coached football and taught life. And although one of his teams made it to the state playoffs, held in Pontiac's Silverdome, home of the NFL's Detroit Lions, Fred Jamroz's legacy lives on in the thousands of lives he influenced with his wit and wisdom.
Locally, in just 2007, we've said good-bye to many, many folks. Those of us who have lived here for a while know some of the giants who left this year: folks like Moody Summers, Dan Greer, Ben Banks and, just last week, Kaye Adams Phillips. And while these are just a few of the loved and lost, I had a little epiphany last week that I wanted to share with you.
Kaye Adams Phillips, you see, was a neighbor of mine who lived just down the street. Several years ago she'd endured a liver transplant, and survived through the vital years making it possible for her and her devoted husband, Bubba, to get their children raised and out on their own. Kaye ran in the race and gallantly fought the good fight, but last week gave up her ravaged body and went on home.
Standing in the back of the packed First Baptist Church at the funeral service, as I looked over the crowd, the revelation came to me. I was standing next to one of the greatest middle school athletes I ever had the honor to coach; Wesley "Mo" Atha played for me at Indian Creek Middle in our 1997 championship inaugural season. Mo's dad, Marshall, served as a pallbearer. There were other folks in attendance that I hadn't seen in a while, folks like A. J. Spillers and his lovely wife, Anne.
And suddenly it dawned on me that another thing about funerals, which I should have learnt way back in 1968 when we buried Daddy, was that we gather with folks whom we know on sight, if not by name, and we're drawn together because we all know each other and are kindred spirits with each other, and we all make up a huge and unspoken and hugely important part of each other's lives.
Yet we never get to tell each other that we matter.
At funerals we see folks who matter. They're our dentist, or the receptionist at our doctor's office, or our mechanic, or the all-important lady who bakes the cinnamon buns at our school cafeteria, or the clerk at the package store we frequent, or our real estate agent, or our assistant pastor.
These are the folks who make up the larger community in which we live. They're an important part of our lives. They've shaped a part of us that would otherwise be empty. We don't always know their names, their birthday, their spouse's maiden name, how many children they have, where they live, or if they pull for Georgia or Tech. But they're a vital part of who we are, what our town is, and they comprise the universe within which we move and live and exist.
And yet, we never see them except at weddings or funerals. And rarely, if ever, do we take the time and make the effort to tell them that we appreciate them, and that we recognize the impact they've had on shaping our lives.
So I wanted to share this with you, friend, knowing that many of you may already be aware of this, but also knowing that maybe some of you haven't really thought about it. And I want to urge all of us to take a moment and think, really think, about the folks we see every day but don't really know.
Finally, after thinking on these things, I'd urge you to take some time - precious as it is - and go see those folks. Go to your grocery store and find that produce manager, or go to your tire store when you don't need tires and see the guy behind the counter, or go to the fire station and seek out any fireman, and shake his or her hand. And when you're shaking it, look 'em in the eye and summon up that courage and tell 'em that they matter to you, that they've made a positive difference in your life.
Because one day, long ago, I learnt a truth whilst growing up in a small town in Georgia: we're not alone here, and we all matter to each other. And we need to tell each other that we matter, before they sing these words for all of us:
Theres a land beyond the river that we call the sweet forever.
And we only reach that shore by faith, you see.
Yes, I want to see my Jesus.
Shake his hand and have him greet us.
When they ring those golden bells for you and me.
Don't you hear the bells a-ringin'?
Can't you hear the angels singin'?
Its a glory ! Hallelujah ! Jubilee!
In the far off, great forever just beyond the shining river -
When they ring those golden bells for you and me !
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.