Monday, November 17, 2008

My Aunt's Last Words

My aunt Ruth died earlier this month after a long battle with cancer. Her memorial service was Saturday and much of the clan gathered to worship and to honor and remember a life lived incredibly well and faithfully.
My uncle shared with us that on election night, as he and my cousin Jo sat in John and Ruth's living room watching the returns, my aunt lay sleeping in the next room. They knew that her death was coming, and John and Jo thought, in fact, that she had slipped into a coma.
But when the newscasters announced that Virginia had, indeed, gone for Obama, John and Jo heard a "whoopee" from the next room. They went in to check on Ruth, and she smiled at them and said, "my vote counted."
A little bit later, as my cousin was talking with her mom, Ruth said, "see what we can accomplish if we all work together." Then she slipped off to sleep and never regained consciousness.
I don't know if Ruth looked at the Obama campaign as a final step on the journey of her life, but I do know that she and my uncle John worked for a more just society throughout their lives. John is a retired Presbyterian pastor whose ministry was primarily in camping. He and Ruth literally wrote the book on Christian camping, and the center that they founded outside of Richmond in 1957 was, from its beginning, a place that welcomed everyone. Begun when Virginia was still practicing "massive resistance" to school desegregation, Camp Hanover was established as an integrated ministry that was intended always to witness to what the psalmist observed: how good and beautiful it is when kindred live together in unity.
That unity came at a cost in those days. While I never spoke with John and Ruth about the opposition, I know my own father wound up on the Klan's enemies list in Alabama during those same years for holding integrated youth gatherings in his work with the YMCA.
Along with thousands of others whose names will not be written large in the history of the United States, they are part of the long work of bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.
One of Obama's campaign posters said, "Rosa sat, so Martin could stand, so Obama could run, so our children can fly." I like to think that Ruth and John camped along the way so that thousands of young people might understand better what that sitting, standing, running and flying is all about.
In addition to camping, my aunt was an accomplished artist. At her memorial service, at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church near their home in Richmond, a banner that Ruth had constructed graced the sanctuary.
In her reflection, the Rev. Carla Pratt Keyes, the current pastor, told the story behind the banner. It was a story that Robert Fulghum tells about a conversation with philosopher Alexander Papaderos. In response to Fulghum's question, "what is the meaning of life?", Papaderos answered,
"When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.
"I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine -- in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.
"I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child's game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light -- truth, understanding, knowledge -- is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.
"I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world -- into the black places in the hearts of men -- and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life."
Ruth heard that story and produced a piece of art that suggests mirror fragments falling from the Holy Spirit into outstretched hands of every size and color. Like all good art, the piece resists reduction to any single explanation or to words, but as I reflected on my aunt's final words and the testimony of her art, I thought about being one small part of the many who are holding small mirrors these days, trying to catch the light and reflect it into the darkest places of our world.
So I'm holding a part of my own family in the light these days, and hoping that together we are shining a light of hope into the world as the nation tries to emerge from a long dark season.

1 comment:

RobMonroe said...

Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story, David. I can only imagine overhearing "whoopie!" from the other room at such a moment.