By David Anderson
No, this is not a joke. One of them was me.
It was this past February 14th, Valentine’s Day, and we were going to celebrate. Only the celebration was a birthday-party-turned-memorial-service. The gal for whom there was to have been balloons and cake and cards – Valentine’s Day was her birthday as well as her retirement day – wasn’t there. She’d died suddenly a few weeks before.
So the crew with whom she’d worked and laughed and swore and joked for the last 40 years, gathered – dishwashers, floor managers, owners, table servers, pull-tab dispensers, story-tellers, beer drinkers, pool players, office persons and cooks.
She was all of those – well, maybe not the owner although that’s debatable – the gal whose memory we had all come together to recall.
Folks from the neighborhood were there as well – those who’d seriously laughed at her antics, to the point of falling off the bar stool; and from whom she’d taken their money as they paid for their drink or dinner; and those just cheered to be in a place where – as the Gossip Corner closing line forever reads in the monthly publication put out by this community watering hole – “the cooks are good looking, the waitresses are strong and all the customers are above average.”
I was one of those, an infrequent customer. Not sure where I fall – maybe off – on the average-scale.
My job, by request, was to read the cards – Happy Birthday cards transformed into sadness cards. The owner of the restaurant and bar believed some of the staff – early morning, evening and grave-yard, they were all there for the most part – likely would not be able to read what they wrote.
She was right.
“Easily the most loved and sweetest person” among the “kids” as they were called, all “were shattered to the very bottom of their Valentine hearts,” the owner wrote in her newsletter.
“There wasn’t a crossword puzzle that could stump her nor a word game she couldn’t sort out in seconds flat. She loved her Bud Lite after work and the troops most of all. She made favorites of many groups – one in particular was known as ‘The Brat Pack.’ When they whined, they all got pacifiers and bibs. She was always full of giggles and could be counted on to carry us thru difficult days.”
This last Valentine’s Day, her birthday, her retirement day, was one of those – a difficult day.
What made it passable were those who entered the bar.
A floor-manager handed me her card. Wanted me to read it. Didn’t think she could. As she gave it to me and turned away, already she was wiping away tears.
I’ve been there.
As a pastor and then a chaplain with two police departments, I’m a reluctant officiant at memorial services. I’ve never liked goodbyes, especially when they’re so permanent. From stillborns to 90-year-olds, it doesn’t matter. They’re always hard. When you knock on a door in the dead of night and you’re wearing the jacket that reads “Chaplain” and the door opens, they know. They know.
Most difficult by far was the mother and her two little children, a boy and a girl, who attended our church for the first and last time one Sunday. They all three perished that same week in a fire. When the children approached their mom that dreadful night she was already gone and the two little ones stayed by her bedside. When the foyer doors opened in the church the day of the memorial service and it was my time to enter, there up front – where I was supposed to stand and say something – was a white casket and on either side a pink and a blue one.
Like the gal who just handed me her card, I cried.
“So often,” the establishment’s owner wrote to me, “our community people pass and no one has a clue what to do or a dime to bury them with. I was so happy that this family had that pulled together.”
She was referring of course to “the proper chapel, burial and all” that had taken place earlier.
But she could just as well have been referring to what happened that day in the bar when “this family – her work family – pulled together.”