March 2, 1909 -- July 3, 2010
March 2, 1909 -- July 3, 2010
That's two out of three. Two out of the three individuals who have been most important to me, as well as to my brother and sister - they are gone now. Two out of three people who I have loved most in this world - they are gone now.
The wonderful and most precious Emma Foote died last night. She was 101.
As I have said and written many times before, Emma Foote was quite possibly... no... she was most definitely one of the finest people I have met during my time on this Earth. As I just pecked out that last line, I found myself struggling with the tense. "Was?" To think of Emma in the past that way, as someone who is no longer with us? I have not processed that thought fully yet. That is going to take some time.
It is, of course, a juvenile thought, but the fact is I often found myself thinking that Emma would never, ever die. When she was 80, we'd joke with her about reaching 85. Then, when 85 rolled around, we started looking ahead to that next five-year marker. And when we were slicing into that 90th birthday cake, from Gus & Paul's, most likely - my Lord - that's when the real fun kicked in. That's when thoughts about "the number" kept popping up.
Well, Emma certainly made it to "the number" and then, guess what. She kept right on trucking. Emma just kept on doing what she'd been doing for that first 100 years. She lived. She lived simply. She live wisely and with great humility. She lived a good, God-loving, Christian life until her body just could not live any more.
This entry feels choppy only because, honestly, I'm finding it challenging to write the words tonight. Part of me isn't really dealing with the fact that Emma has passed away. Of course, Emma's death is coming right on the heels of losing my father as well so, you know how that goes.
I hope this doesn't sound cold but it's not as though I'm in any kind of acute pain thinking about Emma right now. It's interesting but, over the years, I have wondered at times if there there some kind of correlation between (i) a person's feelings about death (in this case, Emma's feelings) and (ii) our level of grief when that person passes away. Emma had no fear of her own death, I am sure of that. And so I always figured when the day came that she died, I wouldn't feel as badly about it, just knowing how she felt about it. Does that make sense? A part of me has always felt as though Emma knew something I didn't know, that she had some kind of inside information about the whole ordeal. Whenever I would visit with her as she'd sit there in her rocker, watching her "stories" (soap operas) Emma was always there to pat my hand and say, "Don't worry. When it's time to go home to Jesus, it's just time to go. And we go to a much better place." And so I listened to those kinds of words all these years and now, tonight, it feels good to recall moments like those. Moments when Emma spoke calmly and clearly about such things. I know Emma truly believed what she was saying. And that knowledge now allows me to smile, close my eyes and sleep soundly tonight.
"Teaching by behavior, not by lecture" is a line I have often used when describing Emma. It is, in fact, the very first line in the introduction for Emma's entry in the book. Emma lived a simple, quiet life each and every day of that good life. We've all heard the term "unconditional love" and it is something for which many of us strive in our lives. But who among us are really able to love in that way? Well, I have some news for you. Unless I've been missing something all these years, Emma practiced the art of loving better than most folks I have encountered on this journey. I think about how she lived, how she interacted with her world - the word "calm" always seems to pop into my head.
Here is something she once expressed to me, it must have been about four or five years ago:
'The Lord's been good to me, yes he has. I've had everything. I've had work to do all my life and I’ve had plenty of food to eat and good places to stay and work.
So I’d tell folks to just be good people, you know. And go to church, serve God, and pray every day, that's all you can do to be good. Just serve God and thank him every day you get out of bed for this day. Just keep your hand in God's hand; that's what I pray every day.
Every day seems like a Sunday to me, honey-child; it’s been that way for me."
Emma was my first interview for the book and there were many times I sat with her at her apartment, the tripod in back of me, the camcorder rolling. At first she wasn't sure about the whole recording process; she was shy about it, I could tell. I remember how she would talk with me and, every once in awhile, she'd peer to the side and look at the little red light. But then, once the stories started to spill out of her, Emma would relax, sit back in the chair and smile. I must have ten tapes of her telling us those tales of the deep South, about her home in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. She would tell us about life on the farm, picking cotton in the fields, how she and her sisters would head over to her Daddy's store for a treat after a long day in the hot sun.
One particular moment that comes to mind - Emma once relayed a story about going to a movie show in New Albany (Mississippi) and what it was like to have to walk up four flights of stairs to sit in a separate section, far away from the white audience.
"I went one time," she said. "One time," she added as her right hand chopped down on the rocker's arm rest. "That was enough for me. The others? They'd go and always beg me to go with them but... no, not me. I wasn't going to deal with that kind of thing," she shook her head from side to side as her eyes closed. "No sirree."
I remember when Emma told me stories like that. And when she talked, the strength and wisdom oozed from her. I'll look at those tapes one day. Not for awhile though. I haven't looked at my Dad's interviews either. I suppose a moment will arise when I will want to spend some time doing that. That moment has not come yet.
So tomorrow I'll wake up and head back to Springfield, Massachusetts to meet up with my brother. I was in Springfield a couple of times over the past few months, the last time being just about two weeks ago. That's when I said goodbye to Emma for the last time. I had said goodbye hundreds of times before that, and as each year started to float by, especially after we hit the 90's, (Emma's 90's) those last hugs and kisses seemed to take on a different meaning. As I would lean in for a last minute kiss, I would always make sure to pause, just for a second or so, and really take in the feel of those buttery soft cheeks. And I would always tell Emma I'd be back to visit soon. "I'll be lookin' for you," she'd always say, punctuating the end of that line with her patented Emma laugh. I used to refer to that chuckle as her "Deputy Dawg" laugh because that's exactly the way it always sounded to me. No one laughed like Emma. And the nice thing is, I can hear it now as I write this - the most beautiful sound in the world. It's comforting to me that I will always hear that laugh and see that smile - that special, warm smile.
No one lived like Emma, at least no one I have ever met. And it is that "life" I will remember. Grieve? Sure I will. I will grieve because I know I will never be able to sit and talk with her the way I had always done it over my 52 years. But I think when a person lives to 101 and accomplishes it the way Emma accomplished it, the word "celebrate" seems more appropriate. Yes, celebration. I like that.
For me to now attempt to list memories here - there is no point to that exercise. The memories will come; they'll come later, tomorrow. They'll come for the rest of my life. I'm sure I'll be jotting down notes and smiling about my times with Emma as I fly home later today. Being in the clouds adds a nice touch to moments like these so I'll make sure I have a pen and blank piece of paper handy as I stare out the plane window. As my sister said the other day, when each of us was born, the first faces we saw were my mom's, dad's and Emma's. Emma has been there the whole time. Not as a replacement for my parents, mind you. But rather as the ultimate compliment; my de facto grandmother. I have never, for one moment, taken for granted the blessings conferred upon me and my family and, Emma, most definitely, was a supreme blessing.
Every time I beat an egg, make a piece of french toast, or fold a towel. Every time I do a simple task which reminds me of something Emma taught me as a child, I will think of this sweet, good and loving woman.
And I will smile. And I will feel calmness.
Rest in peace, Emma Foote.
The finest person I have ever known.