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Honoring With Words

As I was writing a part of my mother-in-law’s eulogy (it was a collaborative memorial service), I was once again struck by how often we writers get opportunities to practice our craft. Most of the time our efforts are scheduled on our calendar, done by choice, and laser focused on our fictional work-in-progress. But then life calls for something else on its timeline, not ours — in my case a quickly banged-out remembrance, and without time for revision. Still, no matter the circumstances, we draw on what we know and do our best, and so grow a bit in the process — both as a writer, and as a person who writes.
In that spirit, here’s what I read aloud on April 8 in honor of Geraldine Stella Mattingly Holsclaw:
We’ve been enjoying stories about Jerry. I’m sure she would approve. She understood that stories help us make sense of the world, help us understand the experience of others, even if that experience is very different from our own. She loved stories of all kinds, regardless of what form they came in:
Movies — those that were entertaining, of course, but she never shied away from those that asked hard questions, or presented unflinching images of life’s hardships.
Plays — one of her last big excursions was to take her family to New York City to revel in Broadway at its finest.
She particularly loved books, and within that realm of storytelling preferred novels 10-to-1. It’s not that she didn’t appreciate nonfiction — she did. But rather than facts she was much more interested in the human emotional truth conveyed through fiction. Go visit her and the conversation would eventually turn to “what are your reading?” and then “I just finished with this one.” She’d hold up a novel from her pile, and so an informal discussion of literature, and life, would begin.
Movies, plays, books — she loved them all. But more than anything, she loved stories told in the oldest form — orally. Before online streaming; before DVDs and cassettes, before e-books, television, multiplex cinemas, radio shows; before Shakespeare, Gutenberg; before the parchment scroll, even before hieroglyphics were chiseled in stone and paintings were done by torchlight on cave walls; before any of that — we sat face-to-face and told stories to one another using nothing but our voices. This was Jerry’s favorite form.
For millennia the oral storytelling happened around campfires, but in Jerry’s world it happened most often over a meal at her kitchen or dining room table; or in the family room, the gas logs blazing, her sitting in that favorite armchair; or — most often in my memory — on the back porch of 1169 Indian Mound Road in Lexington on a warm summer evening. Fireflies would be winking by the hedge. A full moon would be on the rise. The scent of lilac and BBQ would be hanging in the humid air. Sitting under the slow-moving ceiling fan, Jerry would ask how your day went. And if you said, “fine,” she’d ask for more. She wanted a story.
Ask her what she did that day, and she’d reciprocate, with a story, of course. In terms of plot, her stories typically weren’t much. For example: she went to Kroger, the Post Office, and then back home. No one’s going to write an epic novel or produce a movie or play about that. But what Jerry’s narrative might lack in grand events, it more than made up for in heart.
Because heart was what mattered to her — and it was most deeply expressed in relationships:
She didn’t just go to Kroger and buy veggies and fruit; she also had a lively conversation with the produce guy about how to tell when a cantaloupe is ripe, and with the check-out clerk about whether thunderstorms are fun, or not.
She didn’t just mail a package at the post office; she also had a cheerful chat with the postal worker about zip codes, geography, family connections, and the dying art of letter writing.
(Oh yeah, letter writing. If she didn’t have you there on her back porch in person, she’d write you and tell you a story, often with lots of exclamation marks and underlined words for emphasis. What you got was in cursive, but you could hear her voice in it as plain as day.)
But if you were lucky enough to be hearing Jerry’s story of her trip to Kroger and the Post Office in person, on her deck, you’d also get the part about leaving the Post Office, and the man she saw on the corner talking to his dog as if it were human, and when she pulled into the driveway, there were the Shanks mowing her lawn — so, of course, she had to have a conversation with them, too.
This story of running a couple of errands would be told by Jerry — as were all of her stories — in great detail, and often with a twinkle in her eye, and a mischievous smile playing at the corners of her mouth. And with that trademark Jerry lilt, and laugh, and way with words. Her motto seemed to be: Why just tell it, when you can tell it with down-home Kentucky flair?
But the bottom line was that — beneath the humor and distinct voice — her stories alway centered on her interaction with others, and her love and respect for them.
Author Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird: “[T]here is something to be said for painting portraits of the people we have loved, for trying to express those moments that seem so inexpressibly beautiful, the ones that change us and deepen us.” Jerry did that. She was a master at it. And even if we aren’t as good at storytelling as she was, we can do it, too, and so carry on her legacy. Stories are a way to celebrate those who are no longer with us, to keep them alive in our hearts. Remember Jerry through the stories you heard about her today. Add them to all the others you’ve accumulated in your memory over the years. Then celebrate her life through the stories we tell about her tomorrow.
And the day after.
And the day after.
She’ll love it, just as she loved you.