death

Resting places

A hilltop graveyard on a winter day.
Recently my family traveled to Pennsylvania to inter my father’s ashes where nearly all my ancestors have been buried.  His headstone, heaped with flowers, lies just a short distance from where his grandfather, who died at a relatively young age in a mining accident, leaving a widow and nine children, was interred nearly a century ago. More

A prayer in Chicago

Turbulent dusk, © 2016 Celia Her CityBind up the wounds of all who suffer from gun violence, those left alone & grieving, those who risk their lives as they rush to our aid, & those who have died this week in Chicago, including Arshell (19), Abner (23), Anthony (21), Ladrell (24), Alfonso (31), Antoine (31), Yanong (27), Louis (30), Johnathan (17), Johnny (27), David (22), Winston (50), Dontae (30), Stephan (22), Jamie (22), Cortez (25), Demarco (32), Julius (18), Andre (23), Anthony (44), Erik (27), John (28), Cory (28), Denzell (24), Ireal (22), Michael (61), William (25), and Lee (43).  Give us power to rise above our fear that nothing can be done and grant us the conviction to be advocates for change.

A prayer for mercy, in a Chicago church.

 

Cold-weather Chicago

Cold weather Chicago (35 East Wacker), © 2014 Celia Her City
It would have been such a lovely photograph had my camera not malfunctioned.

I was walking south toward the State Street Bridge after lunching with a friend at the Nordstrom Café.  It was cold and windy and had just begun snowing, but I stubbornly ignored the conditions and took a few photographs with my trusty Canon, because I so seldom find myself walking this way.  Plus, the weak grey light made the old grey skyscrapers look all the more showy.

In the viewfinder, the images looked normal, so it was distressing to get home and find that I had been abusing my camera and that each digital image was split between two different settings.

Nonetheless, I thought that, when processed as a black and white image, this one of the Jewelers Building at 35 East Wacker was still worth saving.  If nothing else, it’s a memento of a moment and a day.

Crossing the bridge was a sad reminder of the two young people who died in the river’s icy waters just a few days ago.  Yes, there is some hysteria about the weather, but there are also real hazards in cold-weather Chicago.

Remembering Charlotte

AICtreeThis is the year that Charlotte died.  Strange that in the end I should find her death so significant, so haunting, because, in fact, I hardly knew her.  Yes, over the years I had spoken with her on the phone a number of times and read the cards she sent to the house, but I had never met her in the flesh.  Charlotte was for me never more than a voice, a spirit, a hand-writing, vestiges embedded in memory, in the history of our home.

Charlotte was important to my husband, and hence to me, a crucial link in what can aptly be called a tale of two cities.  She was a de facto ambassador, an exceptional figure persistently shuttling back and forth to us, calling to us, and testifying to us, across a racial divide.

Her long personal connection with my husband, maintained variously through a complex blend of friendship and spiritual and financial generosity, stretched back several decades, connecting our white, affluent, north-side household to the realities of African-American life on Chicago’s tougher south side.

A matriarch as well as an experienced housekeeper and nanny, Charlotte came to work in Bob’s household when his only child (now twenty-something) was a small boy.  Charlotte was, in that long period, a powerful daily presence, providing practical care, encouragement, and spiritual inspiration to a family that, while materially fortunate, was ultimately riven by its own complex difficulties.  Regardless of the day’s proclivities, or those of history, Charlotte was invariably a full embodiment of Christian belief, frankly and enthusiastically spreading the gospel of God’s love.

She was long retired and gone from the scene by the time my husband and I met and married.  But Bob’s appreciation of Charlotte, now elderly, and the needs of her family, was enduring.  He sent her a fixed sum monthly to ease her retirement, a ritual occasioning their monthly exchange of notes and calls.  Charlotte always sent cards with a religious theme, her copious thanks scribbled in notes full of enthusiasm and affirmation, seasoned with scraps of apt Biblical quotation.

Besides several adult children, some of whom lived with her, Charlotte’s family included a woman a decade younger than herself named Muriel, a once-homeless friend whom Charlotte had adopted.  Bob sent food to Charlotte’s family every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Almost always it reached them, though the massive package of food was once stolen from their porch.

When Charlotte was ill, her daughter Felicia, an ordained minister who led a small church, would call with the news.  One day Felicia called to say her mother had fallen and broken her hip.  It proved to be an injury that would not heal.  Charlotte, suffering from some sort of infection, spent many months in a rehab facility; after that, she never returned home for very long.

The last time I spoke with her, she sounded composed, still fervently faithful but frail, filled with a hope that, no matter what came, God’s joy would come, too.  In the end, her heart gave out, a death sudden-seeming to those of us accustomed to thinking of her as only ill, perhaps even recovering.

Her affectionate soul, transcending the differences of a benighted urban society, is gone, leaving us only with abstractions, and the recollection of an unmatched example of confidence and faith.

They lived with their dead

A reminder of one lost (funerary sculpture on the grounds of Chesterwood, Stockbridge MA), © 2013 Celia Her City

Several historic homes we visited in New England offered reminders of the omnipresence of death in earlier times.

In one house, a large marble bust of a young man stood in the corner of the living room, the likeness of a son, age 19, who had gone upstairs after dinner and died.  The same family had lost a 26-year-old daughter to colitis, sitting up with her in her bedroom in the final weeks of her life.

Loss and the possibility of loss dogged the everyday, making people perhaps more comfortable with death than we.  On the grounds of the home of the sculptor Daniel Chester French, I encountered this funerary sculpture of a boy, with an arched path leading up to a bench for meditation nearby.  I can imagine the husband and wife sitting on this bench, recalling their dead child, and pondering God’s nature and human love.

A bench for contemplating the quick and the dead, © 2013 Celia Her City

Each summer contemporary sculpture is installed in the park, and this summer a modern sculpture resembling a pregnant woman has been placed in between the bench and the boy.

Quaker meditation

Quaker meditation by Isaac Pennington, 1828

Taped up on one of our kitchen cabinets is a postcard I once received from the Friends organization, acknowledging a memorial contribution I had made.

I look at it because it quells my contentious spirit.  Like everyone else, I sometimes find it difficult to let go of my point of view.  But it’s good to let go, because then I can connect with other people more fully, go through the days more peaceably.

I look at the children’s faces: at the shyness, fear, and uncertainty they express, along with a simple innocence and beauty.  The viewer looks into their faces, at their strange garb, their powerless hands.  And they look back at us, neither party at all sure of the situation.

As for the words, I like them because they are not an injunction.  They are a simple assertion about the nature of life, about what life should be about, about our human duty.  And that purpose—to love and help one another while withholding judgment—is expressed in just a few, clear, calm lines.

Looking at the Quaker meditation in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing comforts me.  How different this world would be if we tried to live in the manner Isaac Penington suggests.  The murderous rage pulsing through everyday life calls us to renew our quest for peace in our hearts and in the world.

May the souls of those killed in Boston by an unknown assailant rest in peace.

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