Sunday, August 15, 2010

Southern Roots Run Deep

The photo is from the National Cemetery in Vicksburg, but it calls to mind my weekend sojourn into family.

I just got back from a quick turn-around trip (7 hours behind the wheel on both Friday and Saturday -- one forgets how very long Mississippi is!) to northern Mississippi for a family funeral. There are so few left from my father's split-age generation that I daren't miss any opportunity to see my cousins who live in far-off places.

Rush, the younger son of my grandmother's twin sister, passed away in March, and since his immediate family is scattered all across the globe -- literally -- they decided to wait until mid-summer to hold the commitment and memorial service in a quaint Episcopalian country church founded by Rush's grandfather in the 1800s. Each of his three daughters did a reading of scripture during the service, one son-in-law played hauntingly beautiful Irish pipes that echoed around the nave, and Rush's foster son from Togo served as pallbearer for the cherrywood box of ashes that Rush's wife had carried with her aboard the plane from their home in D.C., fearing all the time that TSA would give her enough trouble that she would be forced to cause a scene.

(Having lived with Rush in countless countries during his career in the Diplomatic Corps -- on at least three continents, in both hemispheres -- Joanna is gracious, but also very world-wise, and I wouldn't want to get crossways with her about something that touches her heart. Fortunately for them, the TSA chose this occasion to act with restraint and respect.)

At the cemetery, all of Rush's grandchildren bade him farewell with a single rosebud, barely opened, to symbolize his new journey taken without them.

After the ceremony, as is typical, everyone had to search out the headstones of departed loved ones and share memories of good times long ago. One of the daughters -- the one who lives in the Netherlands, I believe -- seemed a bit uncomfortable, and wondered aloud whether it would seem inappropriate for her to take a few photographs of the gravesite and headstones. I overheard her and assured her that, not only was it appropriate, it was practically expected, seeing as how she was in the south, and that's simply what we do.

And that opened a floodgate.

Several family members, in multi-national and geographically diverse accents, expressed astonishment about some of our southern traditions, such as "bootlegging" into "dry counties," like the one in which the gathering took place. (In which our family, being ever prepared, had engaged to take care of that small impediment!) The cousin who grew up in Arkansas but settled in Minneapolis chuckled every time he went outdoors from the air conditioning and got a first-hand reminder of the humidity when his sunglasses fogged up. Listening to them recount their observations, I just had to smile.

My favorite of those observations had to do with deeply-ingrained southern "manners;" the practice of treating mourners, even those we don't know, with respect and dignity.

For all their sophistication and exposure to many cultures, they were genuinely amazed that, as the funeral procession slowly made its way from the church to the cemetery, cars going the opposite direction not only slowed, but pulled over and stopped in respect until the last car passed. Another cousin, who grew up in Arkansas but made his home in Boston, just laughed and noted that, "back east," the other cars would pass the funeral procession and maybe honk a few times just for good measure.

It made me proud for them to acknowledge and appreciate this very important facet of just who "the southerner" is.

Perhaps that's why Rush and Joanna chose to return to his southern roots to join those of southern dust. Southern roots and a southern send-off make for a dignified first step into the next adventure.

And a pleasant memory for those left behind.


  1. going the opposite direction not only slowed, but pulled over and stopped in respect until the last car passed.

    That's a tradition that is observed in many places in these United States, including here in New Mexico. I think it's one of our finest traditions, as well.

    Godspeed to Rush and my condolences to the family, Moogie.

  2. Thanks, Buck. It does a soul good to re-connect with family. It was an oddly re-juvenating experience to meet so many of the next generation previously known but through letters and photos.

    And to show off our manners. And barbecue! We had some perfectly smoked barbecue!

  3. Good piece, Moogie! That certainly is familiar. Glad you made it home safe.