Sue was the first person I saw when I walked in the door of the United Church of Christ. She started to introduce us in the same fashion she’d been introducing us all weekend: “You remember Warren? This is his daughter Kathy.” We never met anyone who didn’t remember my grandfather Warren, and didn’t smile at his name. I miss my grandpa. It was nice being with his little brother Bob all weekend; it was nice hearing that same sly sense of humor.
I found Uncle Bob sitting in his pew along with my cousin Mike and his wife Erin. My baby cousin Sarah was in the pew in front of us, wiggling around and grabbing the pencils and bookmarks out of their designated spots. According to the program it was Communion Sunday. They only do communion once a month, and Erin said in all the years they’ve been coming up to visit from Oklahoma this is the first time she’s been there for communion.
There was an opening song and some prayers, followed by what was called the “Children’s Moment.” The kids came up from Sunday School to perform for the church, singing along to a song off a CD. “Singing” is a bit of an exaggeration, since most of them seemed to be concentrating only on the clapping and hand motions.
Then kids then sat in the front row and the organist brought out a small whiteboard, saying, “I’ve got a long word for you today.” She turned it around to reveal the word ‘memorabilia’ on it. She told them what the word meant, then brought over a small bag. “I’ve got some memorabilia with me right here.” She pulled out a music box and talked about how a family member had brought it back from Switzerland during the war.
Next she pulled out a piece of dark blue cloth, unfolding it to reveal one of the special #RaineyStrong t-shirts everyone had been wearing the day of the funeral. I felt myself sucking in a bit of extra air at the sight of the shirt, and heard Erin doing the same next to me.
“What does this remind us of?” The organist asked.
“The Raineys!” shouted one of the kids immediately.
“Exactly,” she said, “The Rainey family.”She told the children the shirts would help us to always remember them. Then she pointed up to the altar where the bread and wine was already prepared. “What we’re doing today is a kind of memorabilia too. It reminds us of Jesus. Do you know what he said? He said ‘When you do this you’ll remember me and you’ll know that…” she lowered to a whisper, “I’m coming back.'”
One of the little boys gasped.
“That’s right,” she said. “Jesus is coming back, and the Raineys are coming back too. We’ll all see each other again some day.”
It was weird to watch. Weird because it was nice to see the kids care but also strange for my cousins to be an object lesson. Weird because I don’t believe in the kind of literal heaven where we will recognize our lost loved ones, but I like that everyone else here does. Mostly it was weird because it was beat for beat what I’d seen back in 2009. Back then it was Austin and Cody up front doing motions and forgetting to sing along. The word the organist put on the whiteboard that day was ‘Sing,’ and she talked about how we sing to praise God. It was all exactly the same. Just with one very big, very sad absence.
After church Uncle Bob, Mike and Erin, my folks, and I all went outside to the parking lot and waited for Aunt Sue to do her chatting. I went back out to the gravesite again. It seemed like there were more flowers than I’d seen the day before. A few had been knocked over in the wind. I put them back up. It was still warm but a strong wind was coming through. One of the sprays fell over again. By the third time I gave up and left it laying on its side.
Everyone headed back to Bob and Sue’s house for one last hour of talking with the family before we had to leave for the airport. I played with baby Sarah and we tried some of the jerky Mike makes in his butcher shop back in Oklahoma. I told Erin to find me on Facebook, and we hugged everyone goodbye.
On my way out I took a picture of the front porch, where I can still see Jim standing in his neon green “Race Tractors!” T-Shirt with the sleeves cut off, holding a beer and yelling to Cody that there’s still one more duck in the garden to chase around. I took a picture of the long gravel driveway, where I can still see Austin furiously riding the brand new bike Jodi and I picked out for his 11th birthday. In my mind my grandfather is still in the backyard grabbing that mother duck on his first try. Aunt Jean is driving us out to Fostoria to look at Great Grandma Nina’s tombstone, and on the way we pass by a big white farm house that means nothing to me, because my cousins won’t move in for another four years. That house was built in 1820, before my great grandfather Howard was even born. Now it’s ashes, as are Jim, Jodi, Austin, Cody, and Jessica.
If we’re lucky and the organist is right, we’ll see them all again someday.