Thomas Merton wrote, “The things that we love tell us what we are.” I’ve seen this idea inspire beautiful remembrances twice recently, both times when family members gave eulogies consisting entirely of what the recently departed person loved.
One funeral was for a woman who raised her own children as well as two of her great-grandchildren. Her great-granddaughter stood in front of a crowded church and listed what her granny loved. Here’s part of that list.
- Sweet tea without ice cubes in her insulated Browns cup.
- Fancy hats for church.
- Calling babies “Boo Boo.”
- Family photos she organized in shoeboxes. These were stacked in the front hall closet so they could be saved if there was a fire.
- Her friend Rita and her friend Marlene and her friend Louanne and everyone at her senior luncheon, her Bible study, and her card club.
- Holding her hand up like a traffic cop when she didn’t want to hear another word.
- Saying “give Gran a little sugar” when she wanted a hug and “that’s all you got?” when the hug didn’t meet her standards.
- Telling people what buildings and businesses used to be on different streets “back in my day” whether the listener wanted to know or not.
- Window boxes, because they made a house look happy.
- Turning troubles over to God.
- Waving to whoever walked down her street and asking the names of kids she didn’t know so she could greet them by name next time they walked by.
- Her family, every single person, every single day.
I never had the honor of meeting my friend’s grandmother, but felt I’d gotten a better glimpse of her than any platitudes could have revealed, simply through what she loved.
The same week I read a remarkable book, The Wet Engine by Brian Doyle (thanks to a recommendation by my wise friend Kim Langley). In wonder-stretched words, Doyle writes about the human heart as something functional, yet transcendent. The whole book is marvelous, but having just attended a funeral, his passage about a eulogy he’d given for an 80-year-old friend lingered in my mind.
At the funeral I said a prayer in Gaelic, so that the language of his parents would wash over his body one last time, and then I held up my hands and talked about the way his huge strong bony gaunt gentle hands had cradled a football and hammered his brothers and tickled his sister and cupped his mother’s face and clapped his father on the shoulder and wielded a shovel and pumped saws through firs and cedars and skimmed over the supple sweet skin of his wife and cupped his children and worked concrete and stone and wood and plaster and paint and were plunged in sand and sliced through the ocean and cleaned and washed and folded and dried and cooked and prayed, and weren’t his hands the story of the man? Weren’t his hands always shaping the song of his heart?
Both eulogies remind me of Annie Dillard’s wise words, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Although the world around us is constantly awe-inspiring, many of us learn from our earliest days to look at ourselves with judgment, to measure ourselves by where we’ve fallen short.
Maybe meaning is far more simple. Maybe it lies in what we do and what we love. Maybe we can let those two things be the same thing.