Friday, April 10, 2009

Birthdays and Funerals

Happy birthday to me, Happy birthday to me. May the next one be brighter! Happy birthday to me!

I took my mother to a funeral yesterday. Another of her high school classmates died earlier in the month. She had celebrated her 97th birthday in March. Mother will be 95 in May. Only two now survive from Kamehameha Schools Class of 1931.

I was surprised that the service was to be at St. Andrew's Cathedral, the largest Episcopal church in the state. Think of the services you've seen televised from the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Presidential funerals, “Christmas from the National Cathedral”. Lots of granite or sandstone or marble. In Hawaii, lots of coral. I am terrible at estimating capacity of a space, but I'd guess that St. Andrew's can seat about 600 people. Seating and parking at St. Andrew's are two different kettles of fish. Parking, at a premium on a slow day, was nearly impossible. We were very, very lucky. The church was comfortably full.

The service began promptly at 10:30, preceded by visitation which began at 9:00 a.m. Note that this was NOT a viewing. Hawaiians need time to hug, talk story, to just be together in community. The immediate past bishop celebrated, assisted by 3 priests and a deacon. This woman must have been v-e-r-y active in her church.

As a child, Frances had attended St. Andrew's Priory, where my grandmother was raised and where my mother attended for several years. Yes, the Priory shares grounds with the Cathedral. At the Priory Frances was encouraged to speak Hawaiian, to celebrate her Hawaiian heritage. But circumstances changed, and Frances transferred to Kamehameha Schools. Today students at Kamehameha are steeped in Hawaiian culture, values, traditions, and history. In the 1920's that was not the case. Frances, said her family, hated Kamehameha because she was not allowed to speak Hawaiian or celebrate being Hawaiian. Remember the stories of Indian (read Native American) schools in the US where children were taken to be re-made into little white children? Where American zealots tried to strip them of their own culture and impose a foreign system of language, values and cultural patterns? That’s what Kamehameha was like when my mother and Frances attended.

The speakers included a granddaughter, a son, the lay leader of her church, a son-in-law, and her priest. They spoke far, far too long, but had wonderful stories to tell.
• How Frances, the new substitute teacher, arrived at school. In dismay, the students looked at each other. How could they treat this substitute as they treated all other substitutes? She lived in their community. She knew their families. She was a leader in their church. She knew their names!
• Frances, who wanted an Episcopal church in her own rural community, so like her father before her, started one.
• Frances, who was always ready for a party.
• Frances, who remembered each of her 4 children, 12 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and 7 great-great-granchildren with a small gift at every holiday
• “How many men can say” asked her son-in-law, “that their mother-in-law was both confidant and drinking buddy?”

The same son-in-law told a beautiful story about Frances’ passing. “It was like a ship,” he said, “leaving the harbor and sailing off toward the distant horizon. Those left behind watch her leave, wave good-bye, sing songs of farewell, shed tears of sorrow. The figure gets smaller and smaller, until finally it disappears altogether. She is gone.”

“On another shore are those who wait with anticipation. They glimpse the figure, just a tiny spot on the horizon. ‘She is coming, she is coming!’ they call. They wave greetings, they sing, they weep tears of joy. Finally, the ship arrives. ‘She is here!’ they cry. Frances walks into the arms of her beloved husband, Bill.”

Many of the hymns were sung in Hawaiian. Frances’ genealogy was given in Hawaiian. So were some of the prayers. It was a joy to be part of a substantial congregation that sings out, sings in harmony, in any language. It was especially lovely to hear familiar hymns and prayers in Hawaiian.

Eventually we reached the offertory, normally a half-hour into an hour-long service. It was already noon. Mother had sat too long. She had paid her respects. We left.

Give thanks for Frances and for women like her who lead with love and example and action. Look for shining moments to share with others. Don’t forget to pray!

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