Yesterday was my grandfather's funeral. We gathered in the church where he and my grandmother were charter members. As plans and preparations for the day were made, the pastor had asked if I would lead the prayer for the service. "Share whatever words you would like beforehand," he said. And so I did. This is what I shared--
I joined the Winters family a few months before I turned eight. My mother married Joe on Easter. That began a series of traditions for us where we spent holidays gathered in my grandparents' home, each experience filled with cousins and food and merciless teasing my by grandfather. I remember that I always had to sit at the kids' table. I hated it. Really I just wanted to sit with the grown-ups. Joe would say it's probably because I was eight going on thirty. Perhaps it was because I felt left out of what was most important. (At the funeral yesterday my cousin told me I really didn't miss anything there; it wasn't any fun. She spent her time wishing she could just go be one of the kids.)
On Monday night there was a special time set aside for the family to be with Grandpa's body before the visitation. What touched me most about that time is that there was no kids' table. It was just one big circle of us, gathered together to tell stories, share memories, wrapping our grief and goodbyes in the familiar remembrances that had the power to make us laugh even on such an occasion. Sons, wives, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren stood shoulder to shoulder, all participants in the laughter, all getting to put our two-cents worth in.
I loved hearing Joe and his brothers tell their stories, three boys growing up together, mischief makers filled with a wildfire impossible to quench. I said a silent prayer of thanks for Grandma, thinking once again of my own wild crew of three. The inward encouragement sounded once more: "If she can survive raising three boys, I can too."
Those three mischief makers are now grown; they have children and grandchildren of their own. But for a moment they reached back into the past and pulled up memories of what it was like to have Grandpa as a Dad. They told us stories of how he valued honesty above all else, instilling it in them by whatever means was required. They shared how he taught them what it meant to work hard, to apply themselves to a task, to finish a job. They invited us into their world of boyhood and what it was like to grow up with brothers. And they closed with a story of Grandpa's time in the Air Corps, when a plane he was supposed to be on was destroyed before reaching its destination. Right before boarding an officer took his place in line, forcing him to take the next schedule flight. Only later did he learn that all were lost. If he had not been last in line, he would have been too.
We looked around the circle then. My aunt said what we all were thinking. If Grandpa had gotten on that plane, none of us would have been sharing stories in that room. The only brother who was alive at the time was Ron, who was just two. My aunt said, "Ron, your mother would have taken you to Everett, Washington." He would have grown up in a different place altogether, and the two younger brothers would not have been born.
If there had not been a Grandpa Winters, there never would have been a Joseph Gilbert Winters. And Joe is the one who has made the word "father" holy and sacred in my life. I couldn't imagine my life without him. He is as good a man as I have ever met. So good that I married someone so much like him, with all the qualities Joe has that I admire most.
Sometimes the circle we stand in is made by love we receive. And I realize also that sometimes the circle is made by the love we give. Love is what always completes the circle. I think back to that eight year old girl and I realize that even if we don't start out where we want, through God's love and mercy (if we let it do its work in us) we can end up where we belong.
My cousin Ben said it best as he shared how his life was transformed by God's grace in an amazing way just weeks before. In the middle of a difficult time, words his daddy shared with him often came to mind: "It'll all come out in the wash." Those are words Uncle Jimmy first heard numerous times from Grandma. They are words I can hear now, etched in my childhood, rolling out in Joe's deep baritone. Ben says in that moment of clarity he realized "the wash" has nothing to do with laundry and everything to do with baptism. It's God's grace and mercy and love that completes what we never can.
Since that night standing shoulder to shoulder my prayer has been the simple refrain of a Johnny Cash song--"May the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord by and by. There's a better home awaiting in the sky Lord in the sky." May the circle of God's love continue to hold each one of us. And I am struck by the realization that for the circle to continue, each one of us has to take up our place in the loving, living our lives in such a way that those who come behind will have a legacy to hold onto. I am thankful for the circle I stand in now, the one begun so long ago by a sometimes cantankerous, deeply loyal, work your fingers to the bone, mercilessly teasing Willie Winters. It is a good circle to stand in. And I thank God I do not stand alone.
Goodbye Grandpa. I love you. I will see you when I get there too.