This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. No matter where we live or in what circumstances, and no matter what life throws at us or how determinedly we walk our own path, it takes a while to determine which kinds of destinations at which we arrive are something that was optional, something we might or might not have come to, or whether it has turned out to be somehow inevitable. Relationships, for instance, for the most part are optional. We can end up in them or out of them mostly as a matter of choice.
Death, on the other hand, is, so far as we know for sure, the end of the road, at least on this plane. Or as a long-ago classmate once said as I expressed some fear at her driving, said. “Oh, what do you care? You’ll never get out of this world alive anyway.” I do not remember being comforted by her rhetorical response. I am not comforted now by having had to say farewell recently to two who were thought of for a good long while as pillars of my close community. And they were. One, the Rev. Linda Smith, was a minister. The other, Paul Clark, a social worker - occupations that go hand in hand - and both were known as very good listeners. I doubt they thought of themselves as pillars. But certainly, served as the glue to hold things together. I was not especially close to either, and so don’t know if they knew one another. I know a few small details - how they died, and when, and where. But almost nothing about how they lived, or what they thought, any of the intimate details of their lives. I do know, however, that virtually everyone in this close community in which I live knew them, and have been grieved at their passing. Nothing I say could add or detract from that. But it has made me think of what holds a community together, and the roles they served.
Every community has people in it who participate fully. Some few take on extra, lend support, and offer perspective. Others just seem to come and go, and still others there are who live on the perimeter, sometimes not even acknowledging their membership. Some, mostly the young, are inspired to leave under their own power and head bravely off to seek new vistas, new friends, their own individual paths. Others misbehave or simply misunderstand and see no way but to relocate and start anew. Whether or not we wish them well, they will choose, and we hope they choose wisely, and reach their destinations, whatever those may be. We know this. We remember them. And they too remain a part of our community, whether or not they know it. We hope they’ve acquired the tools to make it.
But when, like a pillar, someone who has been a community’s strength falls, it shakes the integrity of a community and everyone who is a part of it. Like a giant, weathered oak that has stood for centuries only to fall suddenly in a storm, we grieve its passing, but more than that, it changes our world, and our borders seem less secure. If that oak can fall, we think, are we any of us safe. If that pillar on whom we have come to rely can so readily disappear, what then is our own durability? Where now do we turn for wisdom when our own peril is felt? When a pillar falls, we grieve its passing, but we also fear for our future.
And, let us admit, if we have some years behind us, we also fear that someone may mistake us for such a pillar, and we know we are nowhere near ready for the job. I remember vividly my thoughts at the passing of the last family member of my parents’ generation. First was the realization that there was no one left to ask about the past, no longer anyone who remembers those years. Then I realized there was hardly anyone at all who remembers me as a child, or who I was, or where I came from. And then, worst of all, the knowledge that now, I am the older generation, one of those few keepers of our family’s stories, the one who would be asked about our past and those who peopled it. And I was woefully ill-equipped, unprepared, a pitiful receptacle for my family’s history.
Fortunately, at that point I came to my senses, kindly asked my little ego to step aside, and began to see again my real place in things, as well as theirs. Pillars we are not. But we are all of us vital, as a critical thread in the fabric of our community and the world, doing our part, living our best, and eventually becoming threadbare. Like the weathering of an oak, or the quilters of my grandparents’ generation, who used it up, wore it out, made it do or did without, they gathered up those threadbare cloths and either made them into new rag rugs or used them to line a new quilt, sewing warmth and memories within, invisible to all but the maker, still doing their part to sustain another generation.
As another of those old ones who will, I’m sure, one day pass into memory before I’d choose to, It’s just my turn to suggest amid our grief that so long as we remember them, those who pass are never that far away, perhaps as close as just the other side of a door we too will enter one day, to become a part of that ever increasing community that still remembers and loves us, who watches over our days, shakes their heads at our choices, and patiently waits, just the other side of these Ozarks hills, for us someday, to come home.