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Wednesday, 24 May 2017 15:12

This must be the place: Going home and saying goodbye

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The roaring of the plane engine shook me awake.

Coasting into the skies over Newark, New Jersey, the flight was headed to Knoxville, then it was another hour-and-a-half car ride back to Waynesville. It had been a long week, and an even longer year, as I sipped my screwdriver and got lost in my thoughts.

I hadn’t planned on being back in my native Upstate New York until Christmas. But, with the passing of my Aunt Bev, I found myself standing and facing my family in a Lake Placid church, giving her eulogy, something she requested in her will being her godson and all. 

It was a little more than a year ago when my Uncle Scott passed away. It was probably the last time most of the family on my dad’s side had seen each other. But, that’s what happens when you get older. You see the people you love die, with someone always left behind to grieve. But, I aim to not grieve. I want to remember the joy brought into my life by people who are no longer with us. That’s the true sense of honoring their memory, by never forgetting how they touched your heart. 

And what I learned from those along the way was one simple fact — that getting older is a gift.

For the better part of my existence, I was kind of hesitant to believe that. What’s so great about new and ever-increasing wrinkles, aching joints, bad eyesight and having your mobility slow down to a snail’s pace? But, within those months and years peeling away on the kitchen calendar, you’re lucky — and I stress that word “lucky” — to be able to see the ones you love grow up and fulfill their destinies. 

And being aware of what matters most is a big reason —perhaps the biggest — in why I feel so lucky to have been raised in my family. You see, coming up in an older clan, you are interacting with people who remember what life used to be like. This isn’t a knock on their age. Rather, it’s a testament to a family who came from a simple post-World War II blue-collar existence, and worked to the bare bone to make something of themselves — the “American Dream” in action — to provide for their families, put food on the table and their kids through college, a new car in the driveway or a new coat of paint on an old house they felt was intrinsically more valuable in character alone than what the price tag may have stated. 

And when it came to character, none hit the mark as close to the bull’s eye as my Aunt Bev. She was just shy of 80 years old when she left us. She wasn’t just some lady who sat next to you at a family reunion or was just some lady who left a little lipstick on your cheek when she kissed you hello and goodbye at Christmas. 

She was a beloved daughter, sister and aunt. She was a mesmerizing nightclub singer and a jet-setting lover of travel. She was a longtime teacher, a high school play director and a staunch advocate for nonprofits. She was a passionate dog lover, which was reflected with her love of her basset hound “Gomer.” She was the first of her family to graduate from college and a justified educator who fought for teacher’s rights. She was a selfless person who helped those who might not have been able to help themselves in the throes of addiction. And, especially, she was a true believer that a woman could be independent and successful on their own merits. 

She was enthralled with the color purple, which is also my birthstone — amethyst. She loved big hats, outrageous jewelry and nice clothes. An elegant dame, she would dress to “the nines,” even if it was a casual affair. Though she never had any children of her own, her nieces and nephews sincerely regarded her as a motherly figure as seen by her kindness, compassion and generosity. She would head for the racetrack, always coming up big when she put down a bet on a jockey whose uniform color or horse number she felt strongly about. She liked a stiff drink, something I admired in someone with a devil-may-care attitude. In her presence, with beverage held high, she’d spark the biggest smile and heartiest laughter following another successful round of golf on the Harmony course in Port Kent, New York. 

But, most of all, Beverly Sprague was “real.” There was no smoke and mirrors when it came to who she was, how she felt, and how she felt about you or me. If she loved you, you knew it. If she didn’t, which was rare, you must have really messed up. But, even then, even in the face of youthful shenanigans or adult transgressions, she’d always find you in the fog of time, through the grapevine of gossip versus reality, never once giving up on you and what good you were capable of someday doing. 

You were family, and that’s what mattered most to her. 

Aunt Bev fought hard till the end, just like any of us would, if we knew that’s what it took to see just one more sunrise, one more sunset, only to do it over again the next day.

It’s like my friend, songwriter Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, sings, “‘To love is to feel pain’ there ain’t no way around it. The very nature of love is to grieve when it’s over. The secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits. Better roll’em now before something else goes wrong. No, it’s a wonderful world. If you can put aside the sadness. And hang on to every ounce of beauty upon you. Better take the time to know it. If you feel anything at all ... Remember it ain’t too late to take a deep breath. And throw yourself into it with everything you got. It’s great to be alive…”

 

Hot picks

1 The “Rockin’ Block Party” will kickoff summer from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, May 27, on Main Street in downtown Waynesville.

2 Concerts on the Creek (Sylva) will host The Robertson Boys (bluegrass/Americana) at 7 p.m. Friday, May 26.

3 A stage production of the literary classic “The Great Gatsby” will be held at 7:30 p.m. May 26-27 and June 2-3, 8-10, and also at 2 p.m. May 28 and June 4, 11 at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre.

4 Smoky Mountain Community Theater (Bryson City) will host The Pressley Girls (traditional/ mountain) at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 27.

5 Southern Porch (Canton) will host Mike Farrington & Post Hole Diggers (Americana) at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 25.

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