Thursday, April 23, 2009

Funeral for a farmer

The family emergency I've referred to here as my reason for not posting more often lately was the last days and subsequent death of my father. He grew up on a wheat farm in western Kansas in the 1920s and lived through the ravages of the Great Depression smack dab in the middle of the Dust Bowl. (All the photos I have from his childhood look like they could have been shot by Dorothea Lange.) I've often credited him with instilling in me a lifelong disdain for waste and introducing me to composting back in the 1970s, when it wasn't nearly as hip and trendy as it is today, certainly not in the smallish Louisiana city where I grew up. He's also a big reason for my current interest in gardening; lord knows it gave us a lot more to talk about in our weekly phone conversations for the last few years. Even before I dove headlong into plant geekery, I was a dedicated composter for at least a dozen years, entirely in his honor.

There's a lot I'd like to say about him here, but I haven't really had the energy for it just yet. (My mother's death about 13 years ago was really traumatic, but I honestly wasn't expecting my dad's passing to take the toll it seems to be taking on me. Granted, the play I was part of at exactly the same time his health was declining was another major factor in my current lethargy.) For now I will simply relate the end of his story: when it came time to prepare a memorial service for him, I thought it would be fitting to incorporate some of the plants he'd grown in his backyard--nothing fancy, just plentiful alocasia, kalanchoe, ferns, and other tropicals that are confined to houseplant status up north. My niece's husband waded through a post-rain swamp to gather cuttings (little did I know he had nurserymen in his own family, but more on that in a later installment) and other family members assembled them in vases and other containers we found among his things. We displayed these at the funeral home, and the next day at his church.

The funeral home offered us one of those memorial cards that are a staple of Catholic funerals--not so much with Lutherans, at least not when I grew up--and rather than go with their default text, I offered to provide something more appropriate. Dad was a lifelong churchgoer, so I felt obliged to go biblical, especially after my concept for a mini-bio detailing the various stages of his life ("farmer / son / father / gardener / etc") just wasn't working. I scoured the (Bible-less) library in the guest room of my friends' home where we spent the week and found a couple of books by the German theologian and political prisoner of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which in turn steered me to a nice image from Isaiah 61: "For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations."

We also had plenty of input in the church service, so I made a request for the Protestant hymn "In the Garden." It's not a regular part of the Lutheran repertoire (and the pastor warned us that the congregation would be less likely to sing songs they didn't grow up with), but it worked. I'm assuming you know the song; I've got several versions on vinyl that I like more than this recording by Johnny Cash (in that stripped-down Rick Rubin phase of his), but this one does convey the unvarnished poetry of the lyrics just fine:

I loved the fact that the pastor devoted a portion of his sermon to Dad's garden--"As everyone knew who ever visited his house, Charles could grow anything," he said early on, after noting the enormous commitment it took for a young man on a farm to take on a wife with four children from a previous marriage. (There was also a spot-on joke about Dad's refusal to turn the damn air conditioner on, in the middle of a typical 100-degree, 100-percent-humidity August afternoon.) It was the kind of eulogy I'd be thrilled to be the subject of, full of personal references reflecting the two men's history together, rather than some generic boilerplate. My father was a pretty eccentric guy, when you get right down to it, and I'd like to think we celebrated his uniqueness with a pair of events as idiosyncratic and down to earth (in more ways than one) as his life had been.


Anonymous said...

So sorry for your loss, but it is a beautiful way to memorialize him with his plants. Be strong. xoxo janna aka mc vendetta

Ron said...

Thanks for the kind words, Janna! And believe me, I'm continuing to memorialize him with those plants, as I hope to explain in a future post.

Kate said...

Hi Ron, My condolences to you at a time when (and I know) that you feel, well, ungrounded. Your Father sounds like he was a wonderfully gifted and resourceful man. Enjoy your memories of him. Peace. Kate P.

EAL said...

The service sounds very nice; so rare that the minister is able to give a personal eulogy. It will surely help you get through the difficulty of this loss.

Amy Greenan said...

Thinking of you, Ron. This was a lovely tribute to your dad.