While northern Minnesota is straining for a flash of white, ready to send a shot into the woods, I’m driving east and south into rolling farm country around Afton where glimpses of the St. Croix River shine through the trees. The woods in this longest of falls have lost most of their color and a haze hangs over the trees. It’s as if we dream deep into something ancient and immoveable, some living being that settles into rest.
At eleven this morning, we will congregate, my lovely daughter and I, with long-time friends of the family to sing Frank into the ground. He was the father of my daughter’s first lasting love, a tall supple man with a ’50s crew cut and a slow smile. I saw him only twice. Were it not for her continuing affection for his son and her diffidence in appearing among this family whom she has not seen for a long time, I would not be accompanying her. But I am happy to leave my city routine behind, to drive into another landscape, and step out of the car beside a small cemetery adorned with enormous spruce and slender cedars twined together over graves.
It is a modern church, but it has simplicity and the warmth of wood beams. Since we know so few and feel a bit awkward, we slide into a pew to the side and somewhat back. A woman is playing hymns at a piano, familiar in their overall effect, the best part of Protestantism I often think, these songs with their hint of folk melodies and quirky inner verses. Suddenly tears prick my eyes, and my daughter puts her arm around me. I am weeping with an inexpressible sadness that lies most days far below the surface, sadness that swoops far south to my parents’ last years in South Carolina, where fifteen years apart, they also went into the ground.
I didn’t see my mother buried, but both my daughter and I remember my father’s funeral, when my mother was still feisty and resistant to any effort on our part to contribute what she had not vetted. It almost makes me smile, how she went at my daughter’s and sister’s desire to sing at the funeral, her fury mixed with whatever anguish and struggle she’d suffered but would never express.
Who knows what family torment has gone into the making of this slowly unfolding celebration of Frank’s life.
Two things stand out: the first is the exquisite eulogy offered by the son who is now my daughter’s dear friend. It’s years since I have spent time with this son, who is now at least forty-five. Like his father, his demeanor has always been extremely quiet. Thus I have had no reason to expect the story-telling eloquence, the quiet humor and clear, abiding affection of his tribute. As he speaks, I sense that since I saw him last–was it ten years ago?–he has matured enormously. During his father’s slow decline, he acted as his mother’s right-hand, negotiating the shift to various care centers, and now with restrained grace giving him to us before he is truly gone. I sense that as he honors his father, he is also ushering himself into greater freedom and the possibility of accomplishment beyond what has been possible before. This was certainly true of me, I tell my daughter later. I flowered after my father’s death, as if freed to present myself to the world as I wished, not hampered by his many fears and prohibitions.
The other thing I notice and dislike deeply in the ensuing service are the Bible readings. Though there is nothing inherently offensive about them, they are rendered in a modern translation. The beloved King James version has been put aside. “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” becomes something like “though I walk through a dark valley.” And “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,” becomes something like “you feed me even in difficult times.” No, no, no, my heart and mind object. No! You are tampering not only with memories that go far back into childhood, but you have robbed of memorable music some of the most beautifully rendered passages of the Bible.
As my daughter and I drive away after the service, she comments about the liturgical elements in the funeral, “They have such iconic power, yet at the same time they felt null and void.” I agree, then I add that the glorious language of the King James Version resonates across time and space, linking us in the English-speaking world to virtually the earliest Protestant English versions of the Bible. No modern translation can do this. Its language is too contemporary; it might just as well have been lifted from the pages of the newspaper. Frank, whose steadfastness will endure among those who knew him, deserved better. As do we who came to celebrate his life.