Sunday, October 23, 2011

We've Come A Long Way Baby

Today I went to a memorial service for someone I met only once. Herman was the cranky, 96-year-old husband of a high school classmate, who now sings in the same barbershop choir as I do. I couldn't imagine marrying someone almost thirty years older than I. But she always claimed he looked and acted twenty years younger than he was, so I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Although the man I met a couple of years ago was a dead ringer [pun alert] for Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. And just as charming. 
          The service was held in a suburb of Chicago, best known for its captains of industry and the extent of its restrictive covenants back in the day. Time was, if you weren't lily white and could trace your ancestors back to the Mayflower, the D.A.R., or the Colonial Dames of America, buying a house in this little enclave of Republican snobs was not an option. I remember when my family was house-hunting in the fifties and our real estate agent made the mistake of showing us a home in this area, assuring us that the village was restricted. That was code for, "We don't sell to members of racial minorities, or worse, Jews." My mother said, "But a lot of our friends are Jewish." She didn't bother to mention my father's Jewish mother. And the woman replied, "Oh, they are allowed to visit." Damn nice of them.
          I expected that a memorial service at the 150-year-old nondenominational White Anglo Saxon Protestant church in the middle of this town would be a mix of thee and thou readings from the old and new testaments, a bunch of stodgy hymns, and organ music last heard in the 18th century. Not to mention a boring eulogy by a dottering old pastor, recounting each and every one of the deceased's ninety-six years. I was braced for a long afternoon. 
          Imagine my surprise when the readings included a poem by Robert Frost and a well-acted excerpt from John Mortimer's British TV show, Rumpole of the Bailey. And in place of the usual Amazing Grace or Abide with Me, one of the hymns was an original composition written by the deceased's daughter for the occasion. She also astonished everyone with a beautiful, operatic rendition of Ave Maria, the only piece of classical "church" music during the service. It was her grandmother's favorite song, and the one she was practicing at home when her father passed away.  
          In a town most notable as a hotbed of conservative activism -- an oxymoron if there ever was one -- I would hardly expect to find the leader of the local church to be a woman. But there she was, in the pulpit, acknowledging that Herman wasn't really a religious man, in the sense that he went to church on Sundays, but he embraced the ten commandments and lived a moral life with integrity. So those of you expecting the usual religious stuff can relax. We're going to take the road less traveled today. The rules will be relaxed to include some secular favorites instead of the usual biblical ones. 
          Another surprise was the candor of the tributes. One of Herman's sons told some amusing stories about his stubborn, quick-tempered, workaholic dad, who retired after thirty years from his job to immediately launch his own worldwide consulting firm. Apparently Herman finally stopped working at ninety-two only because he'd outlived all his clients. 
          Never one to sit around, Herman was always busy doing something, rebuilding the engine of his unsafe-at-any-speed Corvair, re-habbing his antique Criss Craft, doing all the maintenance at the family's resort in Michigan, or tinkering around their ski condo in Colorado. Sometimes he had his family helping with these operations at midnight, in zero degree weather. He was one tough old bird. 
          His son ended his tribute to his father with a poignant, moving summary of their relationship, "He wasn't the best dad there ever was. But he was my dad. And I loved him."  
         The biggest surprise of all happened early. It began when I arrived at the church. I got a program and stood with others in the back, waiting, because we were told it was too early to be seated. Not until the band started. The band? In this church? For a memorial service? In a town that embraced Barry Goldwater like a brother in 1964? Maybe they were just kidding, calling the fancy string quartets that usually play at this type of venue "the band." A little Protestant humor. 
          About fifteen minutes prior to the start of everything, sure enough, the "band" arrived. Five guys walked out and stood just in front of the pews. There wasn't a cello in the bunch. No violins. No violas. Instead -- a cornet player, clarinet player, trombone player, tuba player, and a five-string banjo player took the stage, as it were. 
          Apparently the deceased was quite an accomplished woodwind player -- clarinet and sax -- performing with bands in the Catskills as a young man. Until the lure of mechanical engineering and a long career in the more lucrative steel industry beckoned.    
          When he died, he made it clear he wanted a Dixieland band to play at his funeral. And here they were, replacing the expected organ prelude with the classic New Orleans sounds of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." 
          For the next hour we were transported back to Louisiana several times. With one side trip for a glorious piano and clarinet rendition of Take Five, Paul Desmond's brilliant 5/4 jazz composition made famous by the Dave Brubeck Quintet.  
          I had my flip cam with me, but I didn't feel comfortable taking video during the service. Especially since I hadn't asked permission ahead of time. However, that didn't stop me from finally turning it on to capture the vibrant sound of the Dixieland music that filled the church. Unfortunately the video portion is locked onto the membership card in the back of the pew in front of me. But if you make to the end [four minutes or so] I let the camera take a quick peek and you'll see the band. Here's the YouTube LINK.
          When the group finished playing their first number, everybody clapped, as we continued to do after all their numbers throughout the service. At that point, the pastor turned to everyone and announced, "I want them to play at MY funeral!" 
          Me too. 

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