Glory Forever and a White Handkerchief
She looked far off over the heads of the mourners at some far away point—perhaps at the mural of the bread and loaves on the back wall of the sanctuary, or perhaps into the ether of her glory years as a soprano section leader of the Grace Presbyterian Church of yesteryear. Although the music lay in front of her, it was clear that she would not need it because she removed her reading glasses in a swift, elegant motion as she began to draw her first breath. The first sound of the “Our” seemed to spin from nothing into a trembling thread of silver floating out into the sanctuary. I realized I had been holding my breath and I let it out. She continued with the same single spinning note into “Father” and I settled back into the pew a bit, but not entirely. The next phrase would be even more telling; giving us the first glimpse of her upper range. “Which art in Heaven”. She sang with her eyes closed now with an effortless reverence on her face. “Hallowed be Thy Name”.
I was enthralled now. This little elderly woman sang with both maturity and youth; her voice continuing to grow and warm as she maneuvered gracefully through the ancient prayer. And as the song began to mount with the climactic impetus of “And lead us not into temptation,” I knew she had reached the point of no return. The organ swelled. My tear ducts began to open. “For thiiiiiiiinine is the kiiiingdommmmm and the poweerrr and the GLORRYYYYYYYY…” This was it she was going to hit it! She had all the energy and breath and power! But in that moment, something caught my eye. Across the aisle, a man of substantial weight pressed his legs together and bowed his great head. He knew something!
The ag-ed soprano’s eyes opened wide, and with all the confidence—perhaps even belligerence—sang “ForEEEEEEEEE–” or rather squawked or screamed or something. It was not a note exactly. Was it flat? Was it sharp? Who could say? It was just loud and the wobble was at least a full perfect fifth in variation. “EEEEEEEEEEEEEE–” I cringed and I knew. I knew in that moment why the regulars in the church had shifted in their seats as she had first approached the pulpit. She had done this before—TO THEM. She had lulled them, seduced them into a deep, but false sense of security only to assault them with this “EEEEEEEEEEEEEE” noise before. And she had known it. She certainly must have known this was going to happen and she did not care. “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”
The “ver” of forever followed a massive gasp of air and thudded back down hard “VVVEERRRRRRR”. Then with consummate drama and dignity she stopped. She closed her eyes once more. The organ diminished and she formed her final long-held word, “Amen”, holding onto the “A” with such beauty until it was almost no sound at all and then down to the “men.”
The grand gentleman across the aisle slumped and wiped sweat from his brow with the wrinkly handkerchief he must have been clutching throughout the song, but something else caught my eye–something not easily noticed. In the pew behind him sitting alone, a woman neither large or small, stylish or frumpy, pretty or ugly–perhaps the most forgettable woman I’d ever seen–was inconspicuously dabbing tears from her pale cheeks with a very tidy handkerchief; a white Lillian Rose Women’s Cotton Hankie to be precise–elegant, understated. She was the picture of a caring, but not too close to the deceased mourning–perfect posture, gracious, focused, not blubbering but yet emotionally present. I pulled out one of my own hankies–six-pack $4.99 at Target. Wow. How obnoxious is she?
As the singer was leaving the pulpit, the minister paused to grasp her arm gently and say a quiet word or two and the lady smiled warmly with only a hint of smugness.
“They say you can judge a teacher not by their accomplishments but by their students’,” the minister began. “If that is true, then Gloria Johnson was an extraordinary teacher. If you took a moment to read her obituary you will see that. She was surrounded by brilliance, but never the star. She was, you could say, a star maker.”
Something began to stir in me at this title: star maker. I thought of the accomplishments listed on the back of the bulletin; bestselling authors, an acclaimed opera singer, dean of the law school—stars in their respective fields.
The pastor artfully wove the many stories she must have collected from the family into a magnificent tapestry of kindness, inspiration, and a life lived for others. I gave my hanky a gentle squeeze to assure myself it was there when I would soon need it. After she had spoken, she announced that Mrs. Johnson’s eldest son, Eldridge, would say a few words.
I was correct in my assessment that the man who led the family procession in such a stately manner had been the eldest son. He was smartly dressed in a well-tailored suit and waistcoat. He was a good foot shorter than the pastor and required the small step that had been hidden inside the bottom of the pulpit. With an air of dignity, he stepped onto it and adjusted the microphone. For a solid fifteen seconds he stood quietly, surveying the mourners. I had rarely seen a son or daughter eulogize a parent without great emotional difficulty, but he was in supreme command at the moment.
Then he spoke with a clear, light tenor voice–the voice of an angel. “If Gloria Johnson was your teacher, please stand up.”
I turned to watch as men and women began to rise, some bolting up with stirring pride, some young(ish) like me, others setting down their bulletins or purses or Bibles to rise on aging knees until some fifty or more people were standing and before I knew it, I was standing with them and so was the woman with the Lillian Rose hanky.
Eldridge allowed enough time and silence for a wonderful drama and then said, “And how many of you were touched in some meaningful way by her presence in your life?”
Like a classroom of students seeking to answer a question from a favorite teacher, every single arm of those who were standing and soon those who had not stood were raising their arms and so was I and so was Lillian Rose. Overcome by the moment, tears lined my eyes until they began to roll down my cheeks.
Then, without another word, Eldridge Johnson stepped down from the pulpit with poise, returned to his seat next to a sister perhaps and began to shake with silent tears.
I glanced at Lillian Rose, who was silently weeping, and quite unexpectedly, she turned and her eyes met mine. She smiled and gave me a small nod. I quickly averted my eyes. Did she know something?